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The Case for Coercive Christianity

The Case for Coercive Christianity
There are many out there who think that the Christian way is persuasion, not coercion. They thus reject the idea of writing Christian moral teaching into law. It is time to address this concern.

As some Christians begin to assert a more muscular presence in the public sphere, working out on the fly what to call themselves —is “Christian Nationalism” the banner we want to fly, and if not this moniker, then what?— there are other Christians expressing concern not just with the idea of Christian Nationalism, but with the whole notion of Christians asserting themselves, as Christians, in the public sphere.  They tend to lean on the idea that it is important for Christians to defend the neutrality of the public sphere.  Christians need to be the biggest advocates for the freedom of religion and the like.  When you present the case to them that this idea of a neutral public space is a myth, that there is always an operative ideology, a belief system at work imposing itself, the most common argument I see being made in response is that a robust Christian politics is un-Christian.  You mustn’t write the Christian faith into law because this would be coercive.  Christianity is all about persuasion and conversion.  It is about maintaining people’s free will.  For faith to be real, to be authentic, it must be freely offered without coercion.  If you write Christian teaching and moral principles into law, so the argument goes, you would be imposing the faith onto people, denying their freedom to choose Christ, denying them an authentic faith.

This, I would argue, is a misunderstanding of the Christian faith.  It is an accommodation of the faith to liberal ideas, and more specifically, the philosophy known as “nominalism.”  It undermines an effective cooperation of church and state for a flourishing society, and hampers Christians from being able to be fully Christian in the public realm.  Not only does it misunderstand the faith theologically, but it also does not properly grasp how it is, generally speaking, that people’s minds are most frequently changed in practice.

To properly frame this both theologically and practically, we must begin at the beginning.  To start, we must understand that none of us actually makes free choices.  Having said this, we must pause for a second to note that what we are grappling with here are the deepest of mysteries.  They truly are “the hidden things.”  Part of the problem in the west is that we like our rational answers.  We like all the contradictions sorted out.  All the ducks must line up neatly.  Unfortunately they don’t.  I can state things, putting the fences of language around these concepts, but I will not be able to actually resolve the apparent conflicts and contradictions.  The truth of these teachings can be grasped, but they cannot translated into words.  This is the hard part, holding it all together within one’s self, patiently allowing yourself to get comfortable with the whole of things.

Again, none of us makes free choices.  The Apostle Paul says this: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Drawing from an amalgam of Old Testament passages he also says:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

You are born flawed.  Everything that you do is tainted.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”

It is essential Christian teaching that because of the sin of Adam we are born tainted with Adam’s sin.  Everything that we do is stained and corrupted by sin.   The only reason any action that we do might seem good to us is that we don’t know any better.  All of our actions range from less tainted to more tainted by sin and evil.  Nothing we do is purely good.  We only think of things as good because we never encounter anything that isn’t already tainted by sin and evil.

This is the point that Augustine made.  Evil is not a thing unto itself.  It is not an entity, created or eternal.  Evil is only experienced as a corruption of the good.  This is what makes it so seductive.  Even the devil himself is a corrupted angel.  This is why most evils masquerade as goods.  It is what makes them seductive and deceiving.  We embrace the enticing good that seems to be there, but it is only later, once we have given into temptation, that the true nature of the temptation is revealed.  To put it more philosophically, only that which is good has being.  Being itself is good.  Evil has no existence of its own, no being.  It only appears to have existence, but it’s existence is a corruption of that which is good.  Evil is parasitic.  Evil is a lie.  It pretends existence, but it is corruption of that which exists.  Evil is entropy.  There is a whole basket full of mysteries in that statement, but that is the Augustinian —which I believe to be most faithful to the scriptures— description of sin and evil.

The reason this is important to understand is that there is no where you can go to escape the effects of sin.  There is nothing in the universe which has not been tainted or corrupted by sin.  The philosophy of nominalism tries to tell us that all things are isolated monads, distinct and unique.  Any connections that exist between them are given to them by us as human beings.  The connections are mere concepts, abstractions of our minds.  There is no underlying metaphysical and moral structure to the universe, no fabric of creation.  This has important moral implications.  Nominalism ultimately renders natural law an impossibility, a mere illusion of the mind.  Nominalism tries to tell us that all meaning and all morality is generated by us and it is us who impose moral categories onto reality.  Nominalism also convinces us that our actions don’t affect anyone else.  It is the foundation for the notion that what I do in my own bedroom does not affect anyone else.

But the biblical worldview says the opposite.  We are connected in a great web of being.  All things share in that fundamental connectedness.  Thus, if being is corrupted in one place in the universe, then being itself is corrupted.  We experience this more specifically through our human nature.  Christian teaching argues that all human beings are tied together through our shared human nature.  There is something that binds us all together.  Once one part of that human nature is corrupted through sin, the whole of our human nature is corrupted.  When one person sins and does something evil, it affects all humanity through our shared human nature.  Thus through Adam, all have sinned.  We are all born tainted and corrupted.  There is no escape from this reality, nowhere where you can go that this is not the case.  This is the misery of sin and evil.  Additionally, the sins you commit in the privacy of your bedroom corrupt, not just you, but your marriage, your family, your community, all of us.  Your bedroom sins are like a cancer upon our shared human nature.  But, conversely, through Christ, in the union of the divine and human natures in one person, because he assumed the fullness of our humanity, both our nature and our personhood, was he able to redeem humanity, as Gregory of Nazianzus so capably argued.

Why is this important to Christians to understand this as they move out of the community of believers into the wider world, not just for evangelism purposes but also to engage the political?  We must absorb the knowledge that while our faith is personal, it is not individual.  We can know and relate to God on our own, as persons.  But salvation is not individualistic.  We are not isolated monads.  No one comes to Christ on their own.  To begin with, because we are stained with sin, it is not possible for us to reach out on our own to choose God.  It is not possible for us to generate on our own the faith necessary believe in Christ.  It is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ that produces it in our hearts.  From beginning to end, it is a gift from God.  But even within the context of our lives, no one wakes up one day, having never heard of Jesus Christ, having never known another Christian, having heard nothing of the gospel, and simply just believes.  It just does not happen this way.

Neither is it a thing of intellectual persuasion.  Because of our connectedness as human beings through our shared human nature, everything we do is connected to every other person.  Proximity matters, of course.  When we are in Christ and we live the faith with integrity, this has a sanctifying effect on those around us.  Our faith spills over onto others.  When we reveal Christ in and through our lives, in converse to the way that sin corrupts, so too we have a sanctifying effect on the world around us.  We make the world around us holier.  The principles which Paul applies to husband and wife as well as to children, also applies to our businesses, to our communities.  We are meant to be a sanctifying presence in the world around us.  If you have come to a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ, I would bet that there has been some presence in your life, directly or indirectly, where the sanctifying influence of another person has brought you into the orbit of the saving work of Jesus Christ.  From there one thing leads to another.  We must see that salvation in Christ is not the kind of thing that remains contained within ourselves.  It spills over.  It draws in.  It enfolds.  It influences.  It sanctifies.

Salvation belongs to God as his gift.  We generally experience that gift as a choice we make.  This is a real choice.  But that choice is made within a web of divine action, divine grace.  Because of your sin, you are not capable of choosing God on your own.  But because of the grace and move of God, through the work of his Spirit, through the sanctifying work of other believers, you were brought to a point where you were able to acknowledge salvation in Jesus Christ.  You were able to believe.

This choice is certainly real.  We are actually held responsible by God for our choices.  They are not fake or imaginary choices.  But these choices happen within a web of divine action as well as the web of being which connects us to others, including Christians.  We have to understand that this question of the freedom of choice as it relates to God’s role in salvation only becomes a problem in part because the curtain is pulled back and we are allowed to see a part of the working of salvation from God’s perspective.  This is done for our comfort, to reassure us in moments of weakness or despair that salvation belongs to God and is his gift to us.  It is not dependent on anything we might do, lest we would despair in our weaknesses or that we would boast, even if only of the choice we made.  But from the human perspective we experience our faith journey as a moment —or perhaps a journey— of decision.  Choose you this day whom you will serve.  The meshing of that very real choice we make and God’s action in salvation is one of the greatest mysteries.  But it is important to understand that this choice we make “in Christ” is made within a web of divine and human action that has had a sanctifying effect on your life.  In many ways, that choice which you experience as a great moment of choosing, is often understood later as simply you finally acquiescing to something that began long before that moment.

Understanding this enables us to properly frame our political action as Christians.  As we have noted already, when you as a Christian go out into the world and you are, as the Apostle Paul says, working out your faith with fear and trembling, and you are revealing who you are “in Christ,” this will have a sanctifying effect on your family, your neighborhood and in your workplace.  You, as an employer, are sanctifying your employees.  This is a weighty responsibility.  It is not necessarily through persuasion and conversion, although this may be a part of it.  It is through mere proximity, through the great web and chain of being, that our Christlikeness spills over, pours out and enfolds the reality around us into the Kingdom of God.  It affects how we treat people, our clients, customers and employees.  It affects the way we do things, the culture of the business, the rules and policies we follow.  Our business is subordinate to the Kingship of Christ.  He is Lord of all that we strive to do in and through the business.  We make widgets.  We are not doing missions.  But by making widgets under the Kingship of Christ and to the glory of God, our widget making will have a sanctifying effect on the world.  This significantly raises the bar on what we are doing.  Its not about merely making as much money as possible.  This is all meant to be subordinated to Christ.

As we engage the society around us, become involved in the community and its politics, we also do this under the Lordship of Christ.  Just as we know that running our business in a Christlike fashion is the better way, so too we know that public policy subordinated to Christ is the best way to manage a society.  But what if not everyone is a believer?  What if we as Christians are a minority in society?  Does our belief change?  Do Christian ways of governance and law cease to be the best way to run a society just because we are in the minority?  Of course not.  We are conscious that our presence in society has a sanctifying action, more so if we are able to set policy, including the moral standards of our society.

This is where people balk.  But is this not coercive?  Yes, it is.  But here is the thing.  The other people in society who are not Christian also have belief systems and they are imposing their beliefs onto us, just as we wish to impose our beliefs onto them.  If we are in the minority, advocating for our ways in the public realm might involve some risk of sanction.  It might be wise not to risk that sanction, to remain quiet.  But we should know that if we are quiescent, others will be imposing their beliefs and the moral frame that flows out of these beliefs.  That public void will be filled and it is never neutral.  Someone is always imposing their beliefs.  Again we balk.  People argue that we should persuade them to freely enact the laws and policies that we believe are better.

But this is not how really how persuasion works, at least not at the scale of a mass society.  Even at the level of community, standards are not maintained through persuasion.  They are imposed through subtle social cues and reinforcement.  But at both the community level as well as the larger scale of mass society, the direction is not a move from that of rational intellectual persuasion to that of action.  It generally works the other way around.  This is what happens through parenting as we raise children.  Long before children understand why they are doing something, they are made to behave, act and even think in certain ways long before they have appropriated those ways for themselves and the wisdom of it becomes apparent to them.  It is the same for things like teaching or coaching.

In mass society it is a similar process.  The propagandist understands this.  Even here, many Christians balk.  We are Christians.  We don’t do propaganda.  One of the realities of society at the scale of cities, states, nations, as well as businesses which run at economies of scale is that constant propaganda is required to maintain society, businesses and institutions at scale.  We think of propaganda primarily as “brainwashing.”  But it really isn’t this at all, although it does change how we think down to the deepest levels.  What the propagandist really wants from us is not so much our minds first of all, but rather our actions.  The propagandist wants us to serve.  He wants us committing a small act that we will then need to justify.  Even if that small act is feeling what they want us to feel or desiring what they want us to desire.  It begins with these small acts for which the propagandist then provides us with the reasoning.  Now, there is a hitch here.  Generally propaganda works best when it works in line with the dominant cultural myths of society.  In the west and especially in America, we have the belief that we can have happiness and prosperity without cost to us at all, that all of societies problems can be fixed easily and without effort.

Even though Christian morality is centered on virtue and requires effort and discipline and imposes limits upon us, cutting against the general thrust of the underlying cultural mythos, the principles of influencing mass society are the same.  You begin with action and once the actions have been inculcated into the patterns of people’s lives, their thinking will align with their actions.  The comparison is that of children.  We are a nation of moral children who simply have been allowed to indulge our every desire, our every feeling.  We are society of spoiled brats.  I know it sounds condescending, but this is how Christians understand the process of moral and spiritual formation.  You begin as children and are raised up to become adults who can be trusted to conduct and regulate their own affairs.  But this is coercive, you argue.  Yes, it is.  It has to be.

As we noted earlier, sin is entropic.  It works by corrupting what is, by breaking barriers, crossing lines and transgressing limits.  If you are paying attention, this is also much of the language used among those of the political left.  Even more so, it is the language of the west in general.  Pushing the limits, breaking the barriers of knowledge, discovery and the like in the quest for glory.  Lest we get tangled up in too wide a discussion here, I will leave this with you to mediate upon.  But it is important to acknowledge that this language is a part of us culturally and that it also overlaps the language which describes that of the essence of sin and evil.

The process of redemption involves restoring that which was once corrupt to a pristine, uncorrupted state.  It also involves the effort of resisting this entropic process.  Resisting the pull of corruption.  The easy path.  Just letting things go, allowing them to rust or corrode.  It takes effort to maintain order and goodness, to resist the entropic pull.  It requires vigilance, constant watchfulness.  Whether that effort comes from within or from without, someone must apply the effort of discipline.  For those of us who are saved, we know that this effort comes not from ourselves but from the Spirit of Christ living within us, spilling out from us into society around us.

What this means in practice is that just like we would in our businesses, we institute policies, laws, that align with resisting the entropic pull of evil.  We maintain standards of conduct.  But what of freedom?  People are already not free if they live apart from Christ.  Freedom is living “in Christ.”  As Paul himself says, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17).  What we offer them is a taste of the life that flows out of living immersed in the Spirit of the Lord.  We provide the energy, through the power of the Spirit, the discipline, the wisdom that they lack.  We impose standards of conduct and behavior that they cannot.  This is a sanctifying effort of allowing our faith to spill out over society, enfolding it under the auspices of the rule of God in Christ.

If Christians are in a position to lead society, they lead first of all through example.  But they also lead by setting the incentives of society to align with Christian teaching.  We will not force people to become Christians, but we will incentivize them to act like Christians.  Doing so will bring rewards.  They might not be the rewards of today’s liberal order, but they will be tangible rewards.  Status will be associated with these virtues.  And like all propaganda, once people start acting in line with this, they will adjust their thinking to reflect the actions they are taking.  Will this all be authentic?  Won’t some people fake it?  Won’t this produce a lot of hypocrisy?  Yes, of course it will.  But it will also draw a lot of people into the orbit of faith who will embrace this genuinely.  And even so, even if people are faking it, the general quality of life will improve.  We are not making the argument that you must become Christian in truth, but rather that if you act like Christians and behave like Christians your lives will be better, more whole, richer, fuller.  Overall you will flourish.

But is this not coercive?  Yes, it is.  But we must understand that for society to be a society, someone must impose standards.  Either it is done locally at the level of community, using culture and social approbation to maintain order —whether you share the dominant religious commitments of the local culture or not— or that social control is implemented through the use of force at the state level.  But someone must maintain order or society falls apart.  Whether it is instituted and enforced formally through law and policing or this is done informally through culture, or some combination of both, know that someone is always imposing and enforcing a morality.  If not, a society will dissolve into nothingness.

In a world where sin and evil does still exist, it is the role of the “king” to maintain order and oppose the wicked.  We have talked elsewhere about the burden of rule in a sinful world, but for our purposes here it is enough to note that archetypally the role of the king, the good king, is that to reward those who do right and to punish those who do wrong.

“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:3-4

Why should this archetypal role be forbidden to the Christian, especially if we are in the majority?  Even in the minority, there is much good that upright Christian rulers can do for society by maintaining a high standard of conduct for themselves and their people.  The king, the rulers, take on that role of “father” in society, raising up their people into a high standard of conduct and behavior.  This means imposing standards, of dress, of language, of behavior.  It means forbidding some things which are destructive enough that they should never be tolerated in a society.  It means leading by example and incentivizing that which is right.  Each society has its organizing principles.  The Greeks strove for excellence, the Romans for order, and in the West it has been glory or perhaps freedom.  The focus of Christian culture has always been that of righteousness.  The Christian argues that establishing a right relationship with God is the heart of a flourishing society.  It is the role of the Christian to model this.  Part of this modeling is the instantiation of righteousness into the structure and fabric of the whole of society.

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