October 20, 2004

On the recent exam I asked my kids what John Winthrop would think about the U.S. Constitution. In other contexts I sometimes as What Would Jonathan Edwards Do? I was reminded of that latter question by Amy Sullivan's recent piece at The Washington Monthly.

Amy points to Ron Suskind's piece on Bush's thought process but focuses on Ayelish McGarvey's recent piece suggesting that Bush is not really a Christian at all. She does not go as far as McGarvey, but she does point out that Bush's Christianity boils down to the claim that he is a Christian, powerful words about Christianity that were probably penned by his speech writer, and policy positions that emphasize anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell and anti-homosexuality but that ignore the rest of Christian teachings.

Rather than dive into the 300-plus comments there, I want to ramble on about this at length here.

The skinny:

Some Christians think of faith and salvation as things that are created through good works. Some Christians think that salvation comes from faith alone, and that works are not necessary. Jonathan Edwards, together with most of Christian tradition, think that while salvation is a matter of faith, the test of that faith is what sort of live a person lives. Works are not cause but consequence of a true faith, and if they are lacking then the faith probably is as well.

Lets start by asking what is a "real Christian"? My theological background is heavy on 19th-century Presbyterians and so I tend to break that question down into three sub-questions or three gradations of Christian.

The first is the self-labeled Christian. This is the largest possible tent and it includes anyone who wants to place themselves in it - so Unitarians are in, so are Mormons and George W. Bush, but Jews for Jesus don't want this label so they don't count. Whether a person belongs in this group or not is a question that can only be answered by that person, and the only criteria for using this label is that a person wants it. So, by this largest of all possible tents, George W. Bush is as Christian as Thomas Jefferson.

The second is what the 19th century guys called a historic faith: publicly proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, accepting that the New Testament is scripture (by whatever definition you want to use for scripture), and attempting to follow the commandments in that book. Jews for Jesus fit in this group, so too do almost all Christian Churches and almost all self-labeled Christians. Jefferson is out, as are Unitarians, but even bigoted anti-Catholics like James Henley Thornwell agreed that the Roman Catholic Church possessed a historic faith. By this standard both Kerry and Bush are real Christians, with Kerry being more traditional in his formulations and creeds (as expected from a Catholic) and Bush being vague and fuzzy (as expected from a self-help therapeutic Christian).

The third and hardest to evaluate is what Thornwell called a real Christian, what Evangelicals call born again, and what Jonathan Edwards accepted as a full member of his church in Northampton. This would be a person with some emotional attachment to the divine, that attachment expressed through the Christian language of sin, redemption, and joy, and that attachment proved by a change in life, habits or morals. Lets call this a heart Christian, although many people have different terms for the same folks.

McGarvey and several of Sullivan's commenters argue that Bush does not have this sort of faith, that his faith is a simple therapeutic faith that he credits for moral certainty and calm, and that the only fruits of this faith are a turn away from (most) alcohol - he still drinks near-beer like O'Douls - and a turn towards exercise. But drink and exercise alone do not make a life of faith. Sullivan is less sure, but she too looks to works as the test of faith. Kerry did the same when comparing his more social gospel with Bush's vocal gospel.

And this, finally, gets me to the question in the header - What would Jonathan Edwards do? The distinction between faith and works is old. The modern Arguments about faith and works date back to the Reformation, with precursors to that debate going back to Augustine. There are three common interpretations, each of which can be abused and turned into a vicious form of hypocrisy and heresy, each of which can drive people to live noble lives marked by caring for others - love as benevolence.

The first interpretation of faith and works is that we are justified by works. That is, our salvation and our ability to overcome original sin will come because we do good works. These works, taken on hopefully and humbly, will bring us from sin into salvation. For many Baptism is a saving or cleansing ordinance - it wipes away part of original sin and lets one make moral decisions. For some Communion is a saving sacrament - each time you participate you move closer to salvation. While this is traditional Catholic doctrine, it is not limited to Catholics: Jonathan Edwards' grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, held the Puritan version of this belief. These works include deeds done for others. Medieval social services were provided by confraternities, groups of people who banded together to do good deeds and thus earn salvation. Some, including Ben Franklin the notorious skeptic, argue that it is by doing good deeds and acting like a good person that one, actually, becomes a better person.

This, I should add, is close to modern American Judaism - we are commanded to perform mitzvot - good deeds - some of these are mitzvot to God, like prayer, others are mitzvot to those around us - caring for the sick, and so on. Jews have their own extensive discussions about what is a good deed, how do we adapt the commandments written in ancient Judah to the modern world, and so on, but the underlying premise is that you do good things because God told you to.

There is extensive discussion in the Gospel about the importance of doing good deeds for the sake of others and not for the public honor of appearing to do good. That is the gaping pit in this approach to salvation - it encourages the hypocrisy of doing good deeds purely for fire insurance or notoriety, of following the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit. Every church has these people. It is always tempting to proclaim how moral or generous or kind one is.

The second interpretation of faith and works is built on St. Augustine and Martin Luther. This argues that we are saved by faith alone. Luther looked at indulgences - gifts to charity extorted from people by promises of clemency in the afterlife in exchange for cash on the barrelhead today - and concluded that salvation through works was a confidence game. Instead he argued that we are saved by faith alone, that we get that faith directly from God, and that we need to read the scripture to figure out how to talk with God and get that faith. He cut back on the instruments of mediation and instead urged a clear strong faith. It worked - it gave us the Protestant Reformation - but it also created its own crop of bad citizens.

The danger in this understanding is that you will have people who are so convinced that faith is what matters that they will ignore the needs of this world in order to rejoice in their own faith or bring that faith to others. Whether it is the "Jesus loves me, but he hates you" of the failed Puritan or the pre-millennial temptation to ignore doing good deeds in exchange for proselytizing, because the world will end soon and only those with faith will survive the transition, or the 19th century social worker who told poor, hungry, working class people that they were poor, and dirty, and ignorant, and trapped in their situation, because they had not yet accepted Jesus, and that if they got religion then they would surely rise out of this miser, the focus on faith gives us a temptation to ignore our duties to the physical needs of this world.

And here, with the third interpretation of faith and works, is where Jonathan Edwards, Mr. Protestant for the 18th century, comes into his own. Edwards helped kick off the Great Awakening, a series of emotional religious revivals that revitalized Protestantism in the Atlantic Basin, split churches into new lights and old lights, and argued that the only real religion was emotional, not historic. He was challenged on this last point and asked why people were claiming to be saved by faith alone, why they were claiming that faith without hot emotion was not really religion at all, and how he could tell this sort of faith from temptations and snares produced by the devil?

Edwards' answer was works: not works done to gain salvation, but works as the test of salvation. This is the point that Amy Sullivan was referring to way up at the top of this post, but I thought it worthwhile to do a little religious history while getting here.

As Edwards put it in his sermon cycle The Religious Affections we are saved by faith alone. We generally become aware of that faith through our emotions. But emotions can lie. So we must test that faith. The test of faith is that it leads us to do good deeds: if someone has a moment of faith and then acts as they always did, then it was a false conversion; if someone has a moment of faith and then acts with benevolence towards mankind in general, then it was probably a true conversion.

So, if we are going to ask ourselves if Bush and Kerry have a self-labeled faith, a historic faith, and a heart faith, we have to ask ourselves what are their public professions? What are their works of benevolence? To what extent did their works of benevolence change as they matured in their faith?

Both have a self-labeled faith.

Both appear to have a historic faith. Kerry, like many New Englanders, does not feel comfortable witnessing his faith in public. He does, however, regularly attend services. Bush tends to refer to his faith before TV cameras, witness to his faith before gatherings of other faithful, and avoid all organized religious services. He is a prayer-group Christian. Still, there is no one true church organization.

The big question is what is the relationship between their faith and their works? Do their works provide a passing grade as a test of their faith?

Kerry is easier to measure. He claims to have taken up public office as an act of service to others, to have taken on particular causes as part of building a better world, and his generally liberal voting record matches with his professed social gospel understanding of the demands of faith. If we use Edwards' test of benevolence towards mankind in general, Kerry passes. The exception that someone will certainly make here is abortion and stem-cell policy. But there, it seems clear to me, Kerry places the lives and welfare of the people currently living above the lives and welfare of people not yet born, and especially above those not yet viable. Consider the moral dilemma of a childbirth gone wrong. Posit that you can save either the fetus or the mother, but not both. Who do you save? Bush would save the fetus, Kerry the mother; neither is an easy choice.

Bush is trickier. He has taken up strong positions on abortion and stem-cell research, in all cases taking the point that there is no moral difference between killing a set of cells and killing a cute little babbling baby - both are fully human, and we have a strong moral and evolutionary incentive to protect the young at the expense of the old. Where he falls down is on almost everything else.

I happen to believe that his policies towards gays and lesbians is as inappropriate as forbidding civil rights to people because of their handedness. Marriage is both a civil and a religious sacrament. If people want to stand up before the divine and their community and declare themselves married, then they have a religious marriage. The only details are procedural, not functional. If they want the civil consequences of that marriage - visitation rights, child custody, intergenerational transfer of property, breaks on their taxes, automatic access to the spouse's health coverage, etc. - then they have to fulfill a set of conditions imposed by the state - marriage license, not too closely related, and so on. It is possible to get many of the benefits of marriage by filing a raft of separate legal documents, but it is a hassle and it carries the stigma of being a second class citizen. Imagine, for example, that Bush wanted to give right-handed people a drivers license that let them drive any vehicle of the appropriate size class while left-handed people had to get a separate license and documentation for EVERY INDIVIDUAL CAR they want to drive. We would find that an imposition, an imposition made without any justification other than prejudice and that prejudice sanctified by selective citation of bits of scripture and some fuzzy-headed appeals to nature.

Sullivan was thinking more about environmental policy, corporate welfare policy, cuts in social services, and of course the war in Iraq. Here again it is clear that Bush's policies are generally in favor of a sort of corporate capitalism that enriches the rich while justifying its actions under rhetoric of equal opportunity and self help. His pre-emptive invasion of Iraq was rushed, and it was not justified under traditional doctrines of just war. There too Bush falls short.

My sourcing from this last point is weak - I read it on a conservative weblog somewhere - but worth making. The one place where Bush does appear to be acting out some of his works is his charitable contributions, which appear to be a substantial part of his income. And, to his credit, he does not brag about them.

Finally, how have their works changed over their years? Is there a relationship between their professions of faith and the works that serve to test that relationship?

Kerry, like most Catholics, does not claim to have had a moment of sudden salvation. Instead I get the sense that his faith has matured slowly, that his experiences in Vietnam and then afterwards in the anti-war protests helped him articulate that faith, and that he continues to work on it regularly. There is a quote in Gone Upriver about what the war reminded him about daily life. To paraphrase, every day is gift, it always is, but after experiencing that river, you are aware of the importance of that gift, every single day. He punches that last phrase, and it sticks in the ear. This is a man who thinks he was saved from peril through luck or Providence, and who now has the duty to make the most of the extra time he has been given. My favorite verse of scripture is the psalm "this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it" and I get the sense that Kerry has taken the spirit of that verse and turned it into a daily mantra. Again, he is quiet about his faith, but that is my reading.

Bush also had a slow transition from his drinking days to his current faith. It took him about four years from his first conversation with Billy Graham to his mid-40s therapeutic faith. Evangelical conversions stereotypically come quickly, but more often come as a moment of breakthrough after a long period of contemplation and crisis. His faith does appear to be more therapeutic than evangelical: faith gives him certainty and calm; faith helped him wrestle with his personal demon of drink; faith guides him as he makes moral decisions. What his faith does not appear to do, or what he does not publicly admit to at least, is provide humility. Jimmy Carter lusted in his heart. Most of us do. Carter was willing to admit it, although he did not expect to see that admission in Playboy. I don't know if Bush would admit to it, for that would appear to be a mistake or it would appear to be an opening to sin. He seems to deny the existence of any evil within, to project that evil onto outsiders or others, and then to find certainty in his wars against those outside evils. That bothers me. That is the action of Thomas Jefferson at his least attractive. That is certainly not Lincoln's faith, or even that of Adams and Hamilton.

As others have pointed out, Bush's faith seems to be fairly immature. He got to the therapeutic certainty point, and then stopped. He lives in a world where others do not contradict him even when he is wrong, and where he appears to absolutely believe whatever he is saying at the moment (except when he goes into blinking surrender-monkey mode, as he did during the first debate.)

What does this say about faith and works?

It is entirely possible that Bush himself really does believe that his coal pollution and mercury policies constitute taking good stewardship of the earth. It is entirely possible that Bush thinks that Iraq was a just war undertaken at the last possible moment. It is entirely possible that Bush thinks that the best way to improve the lives and well-being of the poor is to give tax cuts to the rich and encourage a society where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening. It is entirely possible that Bush thinks that promotion is the best reward for incompetence. It is entirely possible, in short, that Bush is both sincere in his faith and a terrible decision maker.

The alternative is that he is one of the several varieties of hypocrite and is very good at making short term decisions that reward his base at the expense of the nation and the world.

I doubt that we will figure it out in the next two weeks. Perhaps he will reveal the answer in his memoirs. Let us give him the chance to start writing them early.

Posted by Red Ted at October 20, 2004 09:56 PM | TrackBack