I am not a Calvinist, but I think one of the appeals of Reformed theology is that it is ready at any moment to look at the world as it exists and say that God not only permits what is happening, but is actively causing it for His ends. As I am not a Calvinist (though I consider them brethren and have great respect for many of them), I can come close to affirming this view but stop slightly before the finish line. I believe God is not actively causing human behavior, but instead that He is using what our world does, each of us of our own free will, for ultimately good ends. Only God could have both sovereignty over the the past, present, and future and do so with billions of sinful creatures freely choosing how to behave. Omniscience and omnipotence are always bigger than we think.
I grant this disclaimer only so that I am not misunderstood when I say that I think God is doing some incredible things this year, and I think we can be optimistic.
One of my many failings is a lack of joy when I think of how dark things are. This, I suspect, is from spending too little time considering the greatness of God.
With optimism in mind, here are a few lessons I’ve learned or had reaffirmed this year.
Government is Given by God for Us
The New Testament contains more than a few profoundly misunderstood passages, including this one:
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.Romans 13 vv 3-4
I’m in the middle of reading several Christian thinkers on Romans 13 and the right response of Christians to government and am far from an expert, but two things are important to remember.
First, the government God gives over us is not whoever makes the boldest claim of authority or whoever has the biggest army or whoever we wish ruled over us. It is instead whoever has the legitimate claim to authority. In the United States, we grant that authority by means of constitutional mechanisms, because we are a nation of laws. In light of this, the American revolution was not a rebellion against legitimate government, but illegitimate government. It was a conservative revolution to return to the rule of law. This reality in play now as well.
Many states have violated the rule of law via health department mandates. These mandates are not constitutional, making the health departments illegitimate authorities. The governors making health departments issue these mandates are likewise outside of the rule of law and make themselves illegitimate. Christians are not called to serve illegitimate authority, and so we can, in accord with conscience, disobey these orders.
Second, the sort of government we get from God is “for our good”. But what does that mean? It can’t mean that government always makes us more productive or always gives us what we want, because those things aren’t always good. Good government makes it easy for people to be good, in a moral and religious sense. We clearly don’t have that sort of government, so how can it be for our good? I have a guess.
Sometimes, God brings about tyrant kings like Abimelech to bring us to repentance. These kings are still raised up by God through various means, and still for the good of those they rule over, but not in the terms we probably think. I suspect we have the totalitarian-craving government we do in order to drive us to repentance and discipline Christians into obedience. We’ve gotten very, very worldly. What did we think was going to happen?
The Cult of the State
Ed Feser wrote a timely piece for The American Mind called “Scientism: America’s State Religion”. You should read it, as he’s a better thinker and writer than I am, but come back if you want to humor me.
In the United States – and throughout most of the first world, I’d argue – the rise in technological advancement has given people the false idea that scientists are the front lines of “progress”, a term that is really only clearly defined in technology. This has led to people treating scientists as they might have treated priests in older times. And it has led to a sort of religious faith in whatever the state-approved priests have to say. This can be seen in a variety of ways, but I don’t think it tells the whole story. I think there’s something even worse going on.
The most common example of treating experts like a priestly caste that I have seen is when people reject any criticism of what “the experts” have to say without even considering it. They respond with mockery instead. “Where did you get your medical degree”. When presented with dissenting experts (!), these same people suggest that such experts would be endorsed by the government if they were worth listening to. Did you see the hierarchy? It is the government (including bureaucracies like the health department) that grant authority to hand-picked experts, and only then do the experts become secular priests.
To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, the government’s criteria for picking which experts to endorse is not exactly the purely scientific thing many think it is. We have governments choosing experts based on which experts grant legitimacy to what the government has already chosen to do. If your governor destroyed small businesses out of panic, you can be sure as hell that your governor will select “experts” who will endorse lockdowns.
The cult of the state (and the priesthood of scientists) is a false religion that even many Christians have embraced. This year was a reckoning.
The Church is Weak
Some 70% of Americans are Christians, if you believe surveys. If this were really the case, there would be no abortion, socialism would be abolished by constitutional amendment, and 2020 would have been another normal year of sending millions of missionaries into the world to preach the Gospel. We all know better.
The American church is not a Christian church. Everyone worships something, but the American church doesn’t worship the God of Christianity but instead a sort of passive set of deities who operate through karmic forces. “Therapeutic Moral Deism” is the term I see most often, and I think it’s mostly accurate, but it misses the fact that there are multiple “deities”. Our secular humanism is really polytheism.
That’s all well enough understood by American Christians. But what I think is not is that in the relatively small percentage of actual believers in Christ, the church is still weak. Historically weak.
American Christian men are, as a whole, out of shape, functionally illiterate, spiritually soft, effeminate, indecisive, and totally out of their depth. And this year made it clear as day. I don’t have particularly good comments for American Christian women, as a whole, either, who I think are largely rebellious, gossipers, and prone to treat emotion as spirituality (though men do this, too), among other things. But my focus is on men here because, for one, I’m a man and have failed in these ways too, and because men are needed to bring us out of this moral morass.
The real Christian church has failed this year to even protest unconstitutional mandates. Many churches have closed for good (in more than one way), but I’m speaking of the ones that know better. Christians should lead the way against oppressive tyranny and toward restored limited government, because Christians are to bring the whole world into the Kingdom of God. That’s our mandate. We aren’t called to be hedonistic monks hiding in our suburban monasteries waiting for someone else to do the hard stuff. Thankfully, this has not been every church.
This year, we got to see just how weak the American church really is. Remember that these are lessons, not prescriptions.
Reason for Optimism
My last post dealt with why conservatives always lose and offered some things I think would benefit conservatives and Christians from now on. This post is about a few of the things I think are clear from 2020 that we can’t forget as we try to make something better of the future. We can’t forget that God may very well be using our government to bring us to repentance. We can’t forget that this oppressive government obtained this role because it is worshipped by much of the country. And we can’t forget that the solution is a strong church, and we don’t have a strong church.
We can be optimistic because God is our King and God works all things for His glory and for the good of those who love Him. That goodness doesn’t always manifest itself in this life, but then Christianity is not totally about this life. We can be optimistic because revivals never happen until things get bad, and things are bad and getting worse. We can be optimistic because there’s no courage without a fight, and the urgency of the fight became real for millions of formerly comfortable people. We can be optimistic because this year tore off the masks we had worn in our comfortable abundance so we can all see each other’s faces for the first time.
It probably won’t be easy for the next several years, but it will be good. Soli deo gloria.