Mar 5, 2015

Book Review: Politics - According to the Bible by Wayne Grudem

I wrote this review a few years back but I've seen the book floating about in conversations since. I post it here for posterity's sake:

Politics - According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture


"And when the Gospel changes lives, it should also result in changed neighborhoods. And changed schools. And changed businesses. And changed societies. So shouldn't "the Gospel" also result in changed governments as well? Of course it should!" (47 - italics original)

Put aside the question of why Dr. Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, puts "the Gospel" in quotations for a moment and consider this very important question: how, precisely, does "the Gospel" work the multiples changes he claims it does? Is it not by the transforming power of the Cross of Jesus Christ?

I ask this all-important question because the fundamental flaw in his massive Politics According to the Bible is as follows: the cross is not mentioned. It is as though the death and resurrection of Jesus, the central event in human history, has nothing to do with the Bible's view of politics or the individual topics he chooses to cover. The Gospel, as he sees it, is "God's good news about all of life," the whole of God's teaching and not "not just `trust Jesus and be forgiven of your sins and grow in holiness and go to heaven.'" In Grudem's Politics God's good news is not merely the death and resurrection and its life-transforming power; the Gospel is the Bible as whole.

Grudem's redefinition of the Gospel is critical for his Politics as it orients his understanding of politics and religion in the wrong direction entirely. Whereas the whole Bible leads to and from the central and climactic act in human history - the death of God and His resurrection - in a narrative manner, Grudem's Politics builds a biblical political theory devoid of narrative and empty of the cross. In other words, while the whole Bible is about the Gospel and must be read in light of the cross, in Grudem's work the whole Bible is the Gospel and the cross is not necessary for understanding the way the Christian operates in the political world. Grudem's compass, so to speak, does not point north, so his whole work sails in the wrong direction.

Dr. Grudem's politics proceeds from his "Gospel" as he leans heavily on selected Old Testament and Epistolary texts (particularly Romans 13 and Gen 9:5-6) to develop a broad framework for understanding the proper purposes of governments and the roles Christians should play vis-à-vis the government. Governments should "punish evil and encourage good," "serve the people and seek the good of the people, not the rulers," "should safeguard human liberty," and "cannot save people or fundamentally change human hearts." Christians and all "citizens should be subject to the government and obey the laws of the government (except in certain circumstances)." With a few notable exceptions, few Christians or (excepting the Biblical support) Americans would find much to disagree with in all of Part 1. On the whole his foundational truths are widely-accepted maxims about good government and good citizenry.

Where is the Christian in politics? Chapter 2 answers this question most directly: there should be "significant Christian influence on government." Citing the examples of Daniel, Jeremiah, Joseph, other OT figures, John the Baptist, and Paul as examples of individuals who influenced governments for good, Grudem adds Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 in support, writing "the mere existence of specific Bible passages that teach about government is an argument for `significant Christian influence' on government." Why else would God put such verses in the Bible? Grudem asks, then answers, "in order that people with government responsibilities could know what God himself expects from them." Plus, he says, American Christians live in a democracy and thus must be able to know "exactly how the bible applies to specific political issues." (pp 61-62)

Grudem's broken hermeneutic surfaces here. Daniel, Jeremiah, Joseph, John the Baptist, Paul - certainly these men all influenced politics significantly. But why and how did they influence politics and what did their involvement have to do with God's plan for the redemption of mankind? These people were not merely examples of God's people acting as ministers of general grace to the secular world through the government. They were certainly not examples of people who "got into" politics for the sake of influencing their governments for the good. These men were involved in Government (and even suffered at the hands of government!) for the purpose of advancing God's salvation narrative. Their involvement was given by command of God for his specific purposes with results both immediate and future, known and unknown.

Take Joseph. Cited as an example of a man who had "great influence in the decisions" of his government, Grudem does not mention how Joseph's great work was brought about by God's will as part of salvation history. Scripture focuses on Joseph's character qualities, his faithfulness, and God's faithfulness to His covenant, but nowhere does the Bible cast Joseph as the ideal politician nor does Scripture talk about Joseph's life in any normative fashion.

The same analysis could be given to any other Biblical figure who significantly influenced politics. God directs the most positive political involvement in the Old Testament. Of those who inherited the throne, the best kings were not masters of policy but pious men who implored their people to worship God. Most of those who seek political power outside of God's direct will do so out of evil intentions with evil results. Indeed, in all of Scripture one cannot find a single person who sought political influence in any form for any reason whose actions resulted in more worship for God. Instead, God chose the godly and un-godly alike to pursue his will through the powers that be, often without their own knowledge. When seeking examples of Godly self-motivated politicians, do not turn to the Bible. In the Scriptures, "significant influence" in politics only comes about by the will of God in history.

Grudem writes that he is speaking to those Christians who are, by virtue of employment or citizenship in a democracy, part of government by default. All Americans are necessarily political because they have a vote, the argument goes, and thus they should know "exactly how the teachings of the Bible apply to various specific situations in life, and that should certainly include instructions about some policy matters in government and politics." He is asking the question: if we in government or we in a democracy are by nature in "politics," how should we then live?

Beginning in Part 2 Grudem answers this question by analyzing specific issues in politics, almost always aligning with Republican policy positions and criticizing Democratic policies. His step-by-step approach is not novel, as most of his scriptural and non-scriptural support for his positions is borrowed from prior conservative sources like Chuck Colson, the Heritage Foundation, various Catholic authors, and other evangelicals. In scope his work is ambitious and should ignite debate in several of his categories. Unfortunately as a straight read the work becomes rather pedantic and quite preachy as Grudem often spends as much space criticizing President Obama as he does presenting the biblical case for his position.

Grudem also tries to do too much when he delves into policy decisions that require a level understanding exceeding that of the average reader or even a well-read theologian like himself, as when he tries to answer the question "what is the best cure for recessions?" He delivers an absurdly short, five page answer to a question that has not been empirically answered among professional economists. It is misleading to even suggest that Scripture answers this question in any prescriptive manner and even to this moderate conservative his answer is unacceptably naïve and partisan. I doubt Dr. Grudem would welcome criticism on his Systematic Theology from economists. Decisions like the multi-billion dollar bailout are highly complex calls that cannot be made by armchair economists.

Perhaps the most egregious misuse of Scripture to support a conservative policy lies in Chapter 9 in economics. Israel had a flat tax, he argues, as "a `tithe' was exactly 10%. This system, therefore, was like a `flat tax' because everyone paid the same percentage. There was no increase in the amount that had to be given by the wealthy and no decrease for those where were poor." Thus, Grudem says, he "can see no justification in the Bible for a `progressive' tax rate." Instead, such patterns run contrary to the "explicit patterns of taxes and tithes found in the Bible." Similarly Grudem uses Old Testament scriptures to contradict an inheritance tax.

Problems with this use of Scripture to support a flat tax are almost too numerous to count. Here is a small list:
1. The total tithe paid each year was not 10%. Given the various years it was paid, some estimate that the tithe came out to 15% per year.
2. The tithe was not for the civil government but the priests and Levites. Even the tax cited by Grudem is "atonement money" used for the service of the tent of meeting. (Ex 30:11-16)
3. Provision is made in Leviticus 5 for a kind of progressive sacrifice based on what the giver could "afford." Reasonably this word "afford" would mean the amount of money that could be offered after normal expenses (such as food, clothing, and shelter) were discounted. Thus the rich gave lambs while the poor gave a small grain offering.
4. Capital was never accumulated but was instead returned to the original owner every 7 years (the year of jubilee), presumably by threat of civil force or God's punishment. Thus the wealthiest Israelites would end up losing the largest percentage of their land when they returned it to the original owner.
5. Economic opportunity was to abound in Israel such that no man should be without the ability to provide for himself and his family. God's blessing was manifested economically. Under the theocracy the poor were poor because they were lazy.

Grudem's hermeneutic of picking and choosing examples from Scripture to support his policies resembles conservative political rhetoric more than proper Biblical interpretation. If we were to take Grudem's method and apply it to other economic questions and you arrive at some interesting conclusions:
1. The tithe cannot be returned - thus, there is no justification for tax returns.
2. Jesus called on the Pharisees to tithe their whole being - conscripted government service should be the norm.
3. Slavery was never explicitly outlawed in Scripture - you would have to look elsewhere to find support for its abolition.

Part 2 suffers because Grudem's broken compass led him into murky hermeneutical waters. Grudem asks questions of duty (deontology) with respect to politics when the Bible first asks and answers questions related to character (virtue) in all circumstances of life. In other words, Grudem wants to know "which policy is correct" while the Bible first informs the Christian of the kind of person he is to be in all circumstances before even addressing questions of specific moral decisions. And when the Bible does address specific moral questions the answers must be read within their narrative contexts. Old Testament legal proscriptions and judgments cannot be read directly into non-theocratic contexts. Similarly, moral judgments rendered by New Testament authors were always given in the context of reproof - correcting the error of the church to which the letter was written - and not as direct universal laws.

Grudem's Politics According to the Bible will serve as a reference book for Biblical texts supporting conservative policies for those who already agree with Grudem but holds little value as a persuasive text. Even as a supporting document for conservatism, moreover, the book suffers as the biblical examples Grudem uses are often used out of context or in rather oblique ways. Ultimately I gained little from the many hours it took to sift through this long book.

Feb 4, 2015

Can Christians Refuse To Serve Homosexuals?

Pastor/Governor/Would-be President Mike Huckabee was ridiculed this week for a sad analogy. He was rightly skewered for comparing businesses serving gays to Jewish deli's forced to offer bacon-wrapped shrimp:

"It's like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli. We don't want to do that -- I mean, we're not going to do that. Or like asking a Muslim to serve up something that is offensive to him, or to have dogs in his backyard," he said. "We're so sensitive to make sure we don't offend certain religions, but then we act like Christians can't have the convictions that they've had for 2,000 years."

The fundamental problem with this analogy: the issue at hand is not whether or not a government can force you to offer certain products (after all, a Jewish deli would not have bacon or shellfish in the first place), but whether or not the government can determine who is allowed to buy whatever you sell. In other words, does the government have the right to tell businesses that they cannot discriminate among their customers for any reason, religious or otherwise?

Can a Jewish deli turn a Christian away? I would think not. 

This is an interesting and vexing problem because it is very layered and will hit the hardest with small businesses / sole proprietorships where the owner has a personal and emotional connection with the product being made. The matter will be made even worse when the line is blurred between art and product, when the thing bought/produced is not merely a "thing for sale" but a service/product/art combination that involves personal care and attention. Cake shops, photography studios, tailors, caterers, and others in similar small businesses who deal with weddings will be hard pressed, if they have significant religious convictions against gay marriage, to perform their jobs well, if at all.

Christian Service or Christian Speech?
Consider a deeply Christian photographer asked to photograph a Muslim wedding wherein the Quran is glorified or, worse, a Satanic ritual of some sort. "Not gonna happen," you might think, but the courts seemed to have sided against Christians in this one. Courts have ruled:

First Amendment does not exempt creative or expressive businesses from anti-discrimination laws.
 Other courts have agreed on the broader questions. A Colorado judge last year ruled against a suburban Denver baker who refused to custom-create a cake for a gay couple's wedding reception. That administrative law judge said the business owner had "no free speech right to refuse because they were only asked to bake a cake, not make a speech."

The line between "product' and "speech" is not at all clear, though, is it? Movies are a form of speech, but they are a product we pay to enjoy. Photographs are a form of speech, recognized as such for decades. This is not as clear of an issue as either side would suggest: on the one hand, you can image a worst-case scenario that is pro-"religious freedom" like a person withholding food at a restaurant from a gay couple because of their "religious convictions;" on the other hand, you can imagine a worst-case pro-"equal rights" scenario like a Christian compelled to play music for a non-Christian worship service. When does "service / product" end and "speech" begin?

The Clergy & Clerk Problem
This divide - freedom v. equality - comes to a head with the people responsible for finalizing the marriage: clergy and clerks. We are the ones blessed with hosting the ceremonies and signing the documents. With every marriage comes two parts: the civil and the ceremonial. The latter finalizes the formal. When I join a couple in marriage, I sign a Marriage License received from the County Register of Deeds. This latter part - the ceremony - can also be done by a secular magistrate.

This dual role - clergy and civil servant - is not one that I particularly enjoy, but then again I am not paid by the state. I could very well tell everyone wanting me to marry them from now I that I only do religious ceremonies and that they will also need to have a magistrate sign their documents. This is not a concern for me, at least not yet, and I do not think we will get to a position where clergy can be somehow forced to perform gay weddings.

Magistrates do not have that ability: a magistrate, being a state employee, cannot legally discriminate between gay or straight couples. Some have resigned here in NC. I imagine others are resigning in states that have allowed gay marriage. I don't think that is a bad thing - if your job responsibilities or description changes to something you do not like or cannot abide by, then you should leave your job - but it does leave open the question of whether or not a "for-profit" wedding chapel or wedding chaplain can be forced to perform that kind of ceremony. What if I owned "Ben's Chapel and Elvis Imperssario" wherein I dressed like Elvis and joined folks in marriage? Could I be forced to host same-sex marriages? What if someone wanted to rent the church building I work at right now? We do let folks rent it -- what about same-sex couples?

(Aside: The Republican State Legislature has introduced a work-around -- letting magistrates pass based on religious conviction -- but it seems silly to formally say "some laws apply to you and some don't." If you hate gay marriage, your responsibility is to speak  and lobby against it, not circumvent laws you despise.)

This is a complicated issue filled with tension between belief and obligation. I am obliged as a business owner not to discriminated. I believe a thing is wrong. How does this tension get resolved? In some cases, it might mean dissociating myself emotionally from what I do. In others, it might mean leaving my employment.


My Take 

1. Bacon-wrapped shrimp are delicious. This needs to be stated. But they need to be crispy.

2. I would propose a few tests to determine whether or not a business/service/person should fall under anti-discrimination rules regarding LGBTQ (or any other minority group):

a. The economic test: is the activity, product, or service primarily designed to make money? If yes, then I would argue we cannot discriminate in how we deliver these goods or services most of the time. A photographer-for-hire is different categorically than a photographer who takes pictures of his/her own free will and sells them in a gallery. The latter is not on contract to produce a product. The former is beholden to the customer. The latter can choose where to go and whom to photograph. The former will one day sadly be replaced (like all of us) by drones.
Interesting question with this test: What if you are asked to draw something vulgar on a cake? What if you consider "happy wedding Adam and Jerry" to be vulgar? Would there be some test there?

b. The participatory test: does this activity involve my direct participation in something I oppose on religious grounds? If so, I would give a great deal more scrutiny to this activity than I would otherwise. It is one thing to be at a gay wedding as a caterer who disagrees with gay marriage. It would be another to demand that the caterer participate, sing the songs, and light the unity candle.
Interesting question with this test: To what extent is a photographer involved in a wedding as a planner/coordinator/observant/helper?

c. The is-this-my-job test: is this activity part of your job description or responsibilities? If you are not the boss, I do not think you can reasonably expect to keep your job if you do not do the job assigned to you. If the state says "hey, magistrate, you have to marry gay people now," and the magistrate is all "naw, I don't want to," I think the magistrate would be wise to step down. So, too, with someone who works at a bakery making a cake for a same-sex wedding. You can't say "naw, because I'm Christian." Do your job or quit if you think it violates your religious convictions.
(Note, this is different that if someone says "hey, I know this is NOT your job, but could you just stop and do a Muslims prayer with me?" That would be a wholly different form of discrimination -- against YOU.)
Interesting question with this test: Would you face civil punishment for quitting your job rather than doing it in a way that crosses your religious convictions? (What if that photographer just said "naw, I'm not a photographer anymore"?)

d. The is this a religious act test. This one is the easiest, I think: does the thing you are called upon to do qualify as a religious act itself? Is this a baptism, a communion, a bat mitzvah, a whatever your people and holy book call religious and demand as part of religious life? If so, you should rightly be able to chose who does or does not participate and do the thing at hand. A Muslim will never preach from my pulpit. I will never speak in a Temple. An atheist ought to be excluded from teaching Sunday School. A homosexual person can be excluded from leading in religious life if the people of that religion say so.
Interesting question with this test: What qualifies as religious acts? Who defines and enforces this?

3. What would I do if I were a baker and I was asked to make a cake for a same-sex marriage? I would bake the best cake I've ever made and deliver it with a good book on marriage and/or Jesus. I would thank the people for their business and look forward to the opportunity to love and help them in the future.

4. What would I do if I were a photographer and I was asked to take pictures as a same-sex wedding? This is the harder question, and I can see why the Supreme Court did not take the issue up yet: there are so many laws swirling at the state and national levels - so many open questions - that settling this sort of thing for good will be very hard. I would say, based on the tests above, that I would likely go and do wedding, viewing it as an opportunity for ministry to these people. I would express my views on same-sex marriage, however, and indicate to the couple that I would not necessarily remain silent on the issue if asked by people in attendance. I would think that maintaining integrity is necessary for me, even if it is displeasurable to the customer. I would do the same if asked to photograph a Muslims, Hindu, or Jewish wedding, too: I would do my job, but I would not pretend that I am a Muslim, Hindu, or Jew, or even a little sympathetic toward their faith traditions.

I wouldn't wear a "ur goin' to hell" shirt, now - don't read into this - but I would state my disapproval of the thing itself and let the customer decide if they want someone who doesn't approve of their marriage taking the pictures. Seems fair.

5. Would I ever do a same-sex marriage? No. I would not. Nor would I do a Muslim or Hindu wedding. Were I forced to do any of the three, I would gladly abscond my civil duties and keep myself only in the realm of the religious.


Interesting Note

Shrimp are transsexual

All seven harvested species belong to the family Pandalidae, and share similar biology and life history. Shrimp of this family have a unique reproductive cycle, maturing first as males, then changing sex in later years to reproduce as females.
Also, shrimp are not particularly religious, either.