May 25, 2006

Bill Buckley reviews Jon Meacham's "American Gospel":
Meacham declines the challenge to examine some of the cliches he passes along from [Billy] Graham, as in, “In our pluralistic state we have learned to live with each other and to respect each other’s religious and political convictions.” The phenomenon being celebrated arises from indifference to religion, not from toleration of it. Graham adds: “There’s a truth reiterated throughout the teachings of the various religions, but especially in the Bible, that no man rules except by the will of God.” But that is either meaningless or wrong. There are no grounds for believing in the pietistic notion that the will of God had anything whatever to do with the advent of Hitler.

The American experience is leached of meaning by platitudinous stress on the freedom of worship. Of primary concern, surely, are the secularist engines that mock the very idea that worship is compatible with higher thought. That subject engaged this reviewer when at Yale, fifty-five years ago. And the subject of religion was once considered worth noting every week in sections of Time and Newsweek. Still, Mr. Meacham’s invaluable book serves as a lodestar for original thought on — the American gospel.
I'm currently reading Jarrett's The Relation of Church and State in the Middle Ages and am getting a keen appreciation for the difficulty. In a way, the relation of church and state reminds me of the apparent irresolvabilty of God's sovereignty and man's free will. (At least in the second case, we are assured it can be resolved.) Jarret points out how different Christianity is from either paganism or Judiasm with respect to the state:
That the difficulty is wholly Christian can be seen if it be remembered (using the words in their present day sense) that to a pagan his State was his Church, and to the Jew his Church was his State. In either view there were not two powers but one. The Jew considered God to be the head of the State; the pagan made the head of the State into a god, i.e. he deified his ruler: Caesar, Alexander, Pharaoh, seeing in him divine guardian spirit of the State. For the Christian, however, the problem was much more delicate, since he was brought up to look on both the Church and State as divinely authorized powers and to believe that the authority of both was from God.

At the beginning of the preaching of the Gospel this at once arose, due in part to an anarchical spirit amongst some of the early Christians. The New Testament, therefore, contains many passages insisting on the necessity of obedience to the civil power , and Our Lord is deliberately described as teaching and practicing obedience to the civil power....

But the problem became even more complicated when...Christians were allowed freedom of worship, and when the Emperor himself became a catechumen. The difficulty now was no longer the simple difficulty of heroic obedience to a persecuting government, but of adjusting obedience to two authorities which were both interested in the application of the moral law of Christ to life.
Buckley writes of how American law has made it impossible to assume our government is interested in the moral law at all:
With magisterial sweeps, traveling from the Founding to the beginning of the 21st century, Meacham (who is managing editor of Newsweek) disposes of the internecine absolutists, but acknowledges that there are unresolved and bitter questions brought on — most divisively — by the Supreme Court’s intervention into the City of God when it ruled, in Roe v. Wade, that abortion was a constitutional right. President Jimmy Carter would comment privately that he did not believe that Jesus would have accepted abortion (or capital punishment), but as president Carter was under obligation not to the word of Christ, but rather to the word of the Constitution. One has to believe that such reservations as his were privately held by other presidents and lawmakers who, while standing by their Christian faith, defended a Constitution that protected slavery.

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