An Appeal to Heaven

Archimedes, The Overton Window, and Evangelical Cohesion

Editor’s Note: This is a transcript of a speech delivered at the National Conservatism Conference on Tuesday, July 9th, 2024. It is printed here with the speaker’s permission.

It is truly an honor to be here, and so I would like to thank the conference organizers for their gracious invitation. It is a privilege to interact with Dr. Mohler, and so I certainly thank him as well. And, not to be tedious, I would also like to thank all of you out there, the audience, for you are the ones who are going to have to listen to this.

We live in challenging times. The neo-pagans have returned to their ancient faith in the power of chaos, and have been fomenting chaos, so that, like a leftist Pecos Bill, they might ride their tornado into a utopian tomorrow . . . unburdened by what has been.

To the point. Whatever position National Review occupies currently in the constellation of conservative institutions, it should certainly have an honored place in the history of the Cold War. Theirs was a significant contribution in the struggle against communism, for which I am truly grateful. In response to the Soviet threat—and it was a threat—the late political philosopher Frank Meyer argued for what has been called fusionism, and under the leadership of William F. Buckley, a very effective anti-communist coalition was formed, made up of the free market guys, the social conservatives, and the anti-communist hawks.

Now as it happens, I am a representative of all three of these positions and can report to you first-hand what the temperature levels need to be in order to bring about such fusion. It requires at least four hours at 350 degrees Fahrenheit in a special kind of oven, that oven being a theological one—and preferably coming in Calvinist black. Anything less than that temperature, or the wrong kind of oven, and there will be no true fusion, only confusion.

This fusionist coalition worked very effectively against the Soviets. It culminated politically in the presidency of Ronald Reagan alongside Margaret Thatcher serving as the UK prime minister, and so it was that the more doctrinaire commies were dispatched and good riddance . . . as we glibly assumed, for good. Driven out of Mirkwood, they reshaped elsewhere.  

Unfortunately, this fusionist approach turned out to be no good at all when it came to fighting the Gramscian commies. Their long march through the institutions was not even slowed down. In fact, I want to argue, one of the root assumptions of fusionism served as Miracle-Gro for these Gramscian weeds, successfully keeping the virtues and pieties of millions of American Christians privatized or, as our adversaries would put it, “sidelined, and out of the way.”

It used to be that the sexually troubled had to keep their kinks hidden away in the closet. Now it is the conservative Christian who needs to keep his virtues hidden in the recesses of the closet, and with some policing provided by conservative Christian fusionists. And so it is, in an historically Christian country, that millions of Christians are so deep in this assigned closet that they can see Narnia.

And all of this is related to our topic under discussion—which is the relationship of private faith and public secularism. As Meyer saw it, the principal value in the public square ought to be the maintenance of liberty. And as our second president John Adams observed, a constitutionally-ordered liberty presupposes a moral and a religious people. It is wholly unfit, he said, for any other.

But in the fusionist approach, while Adams’ claim was acknowledged and celebrated, the hope was that this necessary piety or faith would fill in all the private spaces—church, home, prayer closet—and would provide the energy and uplift for all the work we would then do in public, that work being the maintenance of a very generic, non-sectarian, vanilla-safe liberty. You know, like how you show up for work full of pep and energy, but without having to reveal to anybody at the office what you had for breakfast at home, which was a private-virtue energy bar.

So in this approach Christian virtue really was celebrated and acknowledged as essential, but all of this was to be located in the private sphere, with the idea that wonderful freedom-enhancing opportunities would continue to manifest in the public sphere. What this reveals is a radical misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between private and public. If I may be so bold as to mix a metaphor right in front of you, there is no way to erect a firewall between the eggs and the omelet.

That said, I would like to quote the words of someone who has been considered by many Christians to be something of a religious authority. He speaks:   

“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed . . .” (Mark 8:38).

There is no arbitrary division here between public and private, which means that for professing Christians, there is also no convenient place to hide. And for fusionism this means, as the saying goes, no matter how thin you slice it, it is still baloney.

Fusionism believes that virtue can only be an attribute of individuals. The state is responsible to protect freedom, the argument goes, but to leave the pursuit of virtue alone, delegating that to the individual level. But I do have questions.

If the state focuses on the issues of liberty as it should—and notice that we need to use words like ought and should here—how is that not virtuous? And if it is virtuous, we must then ask what might be my favorite question, which is by what standard?

If we are using a particular standard in praising the state for doing what it ought to do, like protecting liberty, how may we answer bright sophomores who press us on what that standard might be, and what it might be based on? Moses? Jesus? John Stuart Mill? Or do we follow the example of our current president, just putting random things out there and then taking no questions?

In short, what on earth do we mean by virtue? What is this thing that is so obvious in the lives of individuals, but which mysteriously becomes exceedingly coy as soon as a quorum of citizens assembles to decide something?

You can consider this an intervention if you like. There is no getting away from it. Towns, villages, corporations, tribes, parties, states, and nations are all moral agents. We all know this because we routinely praise and blame them in moral terms—our praise and blame are ethical. We are appealing to a standard that of necessity is a transcendent one. Whenever we do this, we are making—dare I say this?—an appeal to Heaven.

Excuse me, is that phrase okay? I hear there has been some trouble over it recently, and I am not current with your sometimes hard-to-follow East Coast customs. Perhaps, if we are supposed to keep virtue private, Samuel Alito’s wife should have flown that particular flag on the flagpole of her heart. But here is the difficulty—and I am afraid I am going to press the point because this is the essential thing—hearts don’t have flagpoles, and public spaces do. And this is an inescapable concept because public flagpoles will always have flags on them—it is not whether you will have a flag, it is which flag you will have. If we will not have the Appeal to Heaven flag, then we are going to have the Tranny flag, as can be readily seen.

If the standard we appeal to is not transcendent, overarching all nations, and gloriously out of the reach of every last parliament, court, or regulatory agency, then down here we are all of us just the lost children of men. Statecraft turns into nothing but “integration downward into the Void.” We could still have our conflicts, sure, but moral indignation would be out whenever we mobilized for war.

If states are not moral agents, then every war is nothing more than two dogs fighting over a piece of meat. Precisely because states are moral agents, it is possible to have good guys and bad guys. Bad guys can conduct unrighteous wars, break treaties, engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide, surveil all of your computer activity without a warrant and, of course, coming to the high treachery you all were no doubt anticipating I would address, make all our teens woke by means of chemtrails.

Not only are we enabled to fight the bad guys, but we are also given the opportunity for repentance—which happens when we come to the horrifying realization that we have been the bad guys.  

Of course, I cannot resist the aside that if there is no moral standard at all, then there is nothing wrong with the inconsistency of getting all whipped up into a frenzied meringue of moral indignation. Knock yourself out—but insightful observers will still know that the whole show is nothing more than an arbitrary warp spasm. If there is no God with absolute moral authority over states and their collective moral choices, then anything goes, including the worst forms of absolutism. If there is no moral standard for mankind collectively considered, then we can have no complaint against arbitrary and capricious moralities being imposed on us in arbitrary and capricious ways. If there is no God above the lunatic state, then the lunatic state is god. And if there is no God over our collective neuroses, irrationalities, caprices, and flailing moralistic crusades, then all four of them are enthroned as god. And if liberty is the only thing that we care about in public, taking that one blessing and arbitrarily making it the one thing needful for GDP reasons, then Jeremy Bentham is god.

Now it goes without saying that political authorities tend to take a dim view of this line of thinking. Refusing to render to Caesar that which has God’s image on it—remember that we all of us bear the image of God, stamped in God’s mint, meaning that we may not render ourselves to Caesar—seems to them to be tinged with extremism. Political authorities really do not like the idea of the lordship of Jesus Christ being proclaimed in the public square, but they should have thought of that concern before they crucified Him there.

We live in a time when to express such sentiments, as I have just been expressing them, is tantamount to announcing that I would like to see if we could somehow renew the hostilities of the Thirty Years War. That would be just for starters, after which we could then move on to rebooting the Spanish Inquisition. And how about some fetching red dresses for all the handmaids?

According to our updated Exodus story for secularists, Europe was wracked by religious wars and intolerant persecutions, over the course of centuries, until the arrival of Enlightenment Moses, who then led us into the promised land of secularism. Since that time, we have been gamboling under the fluffy clouds of mutual forbearance, with no one ever being persecuted for their convictions. Unless, of course, they got in the way of progress, as hundreds of millions somehow did. And so here we all are now, suffocating under their preening self-congratulatory totalitolerance—and when the entire body count of the Spanish Inquisition is more than matched by Planned Parenthood on a couple of slow afternoons. 

I have been using the word secularism, and so it has come time to make distinctions again. There is a historic use of secular which can be appropriate and helpful. In this sense, no reasonable Christian should have trouble with keeping the public square secular, but we keep bumping up against the need for definitions. What do we mean by secular? May we use the word in its more traditional sense, as opposed to godless secularism, that legacy of the Warren Court?

Secularism need not be understood as godlessness. I call this mere Christendom, or Christian nationalism, but you could even call it Christian secularism if you wanted to. In the medieval world, there were the regular clergy in the monasteries, and the secular clergy out in the parishes, dealing with ordinary folks and their day-to-day concerns. So there can be such a thing as Christian secularism, a secularism that does not need to be a pinched and narrow ecclesiocracy at all, as in Iran. No one needs rule by the weird beards. So secular in this sense means non-ecclesiastical, not godless.  

But what we call secularism today is a pathological ideology that has banished the permanent things from public discourse in the name of neutrality—their notion of neutrality, of course. We must be neutral about everything except, of course, the hegemonic authority of their approved forms of diseased godlessness. Such secularism cannot cohere as a realm at all but rather becomes a disintegrating heap of self-willed antinomianism. And if you still require evidence that this is going on in our culture today, then let me be the first to congratulate you on your safe return from Mars.

I have sometimes entertained myself with daydreams about a festive press conference with someone named something like Senator Silas T. Snoutworthy, a Republican from some Bible belt state. It had been discovered during the campaign that he grown up a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, and had been interrogated about this by inquisitorial reporters, probably Dominicans. But Silas knew the drill, just as you do, and so he had replied deftly. “My faith, which is a very precious and private thing to me, will not have any influence over my votes or behavior if I am privileged to represent the good people of my state.” Six months later he was pulled over for a DUI. He was driving a red convertible with a couple of blonde hookers as passengers, and with $10,000 worth of crack cocaine in the trunk. This is the kind of thing that official Washington usually takes right in stride, but everything was thrown into disarray at the press conference on the following day. Snoutworthy was absolutely unapologetic. “My faith,” he reiterated, “is a very precious and private thing to me, but I promised the people of my state that it would have absolutely no impact on my behavior while in Washington. And I am a man who keeps my promises.”

To which some of our secularist opponents will mutter, “You know what we mean.” And to which I reply, “Actually, no. This is the central problem. We have no idea what you mean.” You want an ethical world without ethical foundations. You want decent citizens without any way to define decency. You want to build the most moral society ever on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. You are fundamentalists with no fundament.

When I talk this way, they accuse us of wanting to impose morality. But all laws are imposed morality, with the only question being which morality? All laws impose morality, and nothing but morality. But which one? The charge is false if by it they mean we think that good legislation can bring about heart regeneration—for of course it cannot. But it is possible (and necessary) to legislate morally, which is quite a different thing, and which requires a standard. Our difficulties in getting this point across may have something to do with an observation once made by Upton Sinclair. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

When they first began moving the Overton window concerning these terms, they had sense enough to do it incrementally, an inch here and an inch there. And conservatives, hogtied by fusionism, went along with this, with the more conservative members grumbling about it. But then . . . the crazy accelerated.  

When conservatives refer to the movement of the Overton window now, they are usually talking about the rapid changes of the last five to ten years. You can now be charged with the hate crime of having a position on marriage identical to the one articulated by Obama in his run for the presidency, and by Hillary in her run for it. That is quite a rapid movement—and extremism is just moderation that doesn’t move with the times.

But the window has also moved slowly over the course of 75 years on this vexed issue of the meaning of secularism. There was a Supreme Court decision back in 1892, exquisitely named Holy Trinity v. the United States of America, in which Chief Justice Brewer wrote a majority opinion that determined that America was in fact a Christian nation and had been since the Founding. Unlike some today, Brewer knew that Earl Warren was not one of the Founders, because Warren had just been born the previous year in 1891. Brewer wrote cogently about the God of the Christian faith as our God, and not some generic off brand deity. But from then to now we have seen a massive change.

I make this next observation because, as I take it, I am addressing a conference filled with conservative activists. The Overton window must be moved back in the other direction, and it must be moved on this foundational issue of godless secularism. The confused uproar over Christian nationalism among Christians demonstrates just how necessary this is. So here is a bit of tactical advice. The Overton window cannot be moved from inside the window. The place to stand that Archimedes would select for the task has to be somewhere outside the window. Moving the window from inside would be like standing in a bucket to carry yourself upstairs. But here is the catch—functioning outside the window requires a willingness to live in what one Puritan once called the high mountain air of public calumny. Take it from someone who knows a bit about this.

I would like to finish by proposing something that would be hard for conservatives to differ with, but which all the cool kids would still think outrageous, and this affects the conservatives who still care about what the cool kids think. Thankfully that number appears to be diminishing. This is not a proposal that requires huge funding, or getting bills passed, or coalitions built—nothing like that. It is more like what happened when the US embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Somebody just did it. Or like a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” moment.  

Some of you are in position to urge this very simple thing, and I would ask you to do so.

Political theoreticians can sometimes get pretty heady, and I so would like to make a concrete proposal that would really mess with this very contrived division between private faith and public virtue. In Acts 12:21-23, Herod Agrippa I, in the flush of a political triumph, received some overheated adulation from a crowd, and he did not give glory to God, which is why that story ended somewhat abruptly.

We are in the middle of an overheated political situation ourselves, and so if Donald Trump is sworn in as our president again, it will be one of the most remarkable political comeback stories ever. If such a thing were to happen, my appeal to Donald Trump would be this. On Inauguration Day, as you love God, as you love your country, and as you love your own soul, give explicit glory to the God of Heaven, and do it in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Douglas Wilson

Douglas Wilson

One thought on “An Appeal to Heaven

  1. Wilson’s article is another demonstration of the achilles heel of the conservative view of history. For example, our fine and moral founders of the nation created a nation that was founded on white supremacy as much if not more than on Christianity. Its white supremacy could easily be found in The Constitution but is even more evident in the 1790 and 1795 laws that determined who could become a naturalized citizen of the US. Apparently only free white people could become American citizens until the end of the Civil War. And after a brief respite came Jim Crow. And as it turned out, women could not become full citizens of the US until 1920 or later and Native Americans could not become citizens until 1924. And somehow, all of that moral rectitude and religiosity Madison et. al. is considered righteous compared to our sexual revolutionized nation today. Of course we could add to that the remaining vestiges of system racism in our nation.

    Or if we look at the fight against Communism, the black-white thinking of our leaders could not distinguish between a left-leaning democracy from Soviet Union Communism and so we supported, to various levels, the replacement of those democracies with brutal dictatorships provided that those dictatorships supported our business interests. One of those dictators was Pinochet. He was most warmly greeted and regarded by Reagan and Thatcher even though he was indicted for crimes against humanity. He passed away before he could be convicted. In fact, Iran still enjoys the fruit of the US/UK overthrow of its government in 1953. Guatemala also still lives with the aftereffects of US efforts to overthrow their democratically elected President in 1954. Should I go on?

    And so now do we want to talk about the crimes of Christendom that included some of what was just mentioned? Yes, laws impose morals. But not all imposed morals are the same just as not all religiously arrived at political convictions are the same. It seems that our current time is the bad fruit of Christendom. After all, look at all of the violence, wars, and suffering imposed on people by those with power who were led by their Christian convictions. BTW, the European religious wars did not actually end with the Enlightenment. Each nation was claiming that God was on their side in WW I.

    It’s odd that perhaps the best example of religiously arrived at political convictions is most often ignored by my fellow religiously conservative Christians. That example was provided by Martin Luther King Jr and the SCLC. And so what is the difference between what they did from what Christian Nationalists want to achieve today?

    Christian secularism? What the Western world is facing right now is growing conflict between those favoring democracy with equality from those who support authoritarian ethnocratic movements. And some of those ethnocratic movements are being supported by those who favor oligarchy or plutocracy. And what the key ingredient in distinguishing between democracy with equality from those authoritarian movements is the presence or absence of equality. And the call for Christian Nationalism or a return to Christendom revolves around the efforts to remove equality from the policies of the government. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to coincide with how Jesus and the New Testament writers told us to interact with unbelievers in society.

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