Unsuccessful Bracketing

Throughout the course of this book Darryl says many good things, and makes many fine observations. Unfortunately, they are set in the context of this dualistic background of his, which make the result resemble a collection of diamonds, rubies, and sapphires set in a fitting of tarnished and battered sheet metal. Chapter six on “impersonal politics” is a good example of this. This chapter really only has one problem, and so I will get right to it.

He begins by discussing JFK and Al Smith running for president, and having to prove (or trying to prove) to the American people that their Catholicism would not give the pope a direct policy line to the White House.

“If Kennedy and Smith’s understanding of politics relegated religion to the private sphere, it also recognized the flip side, which is the public nature of government in democracy. Ther nature of politics required public officials to act in the national or public interest, not on the basis of their personal or private convictions” (p. 161).

This is epistemologically hopeless. All a man’s convictions about what is to be done or not done in the public sphere are his private convictions. And when an official acts in the “national or public interest,” by what standard does he make these decisions? There is no such thing as a national or public decision made by an impersonal decision-making “locus” that is outside an individual who will answer to God for the decision.

“Despite the prominence of religion throughoug the history of American politics, the national or public character of government decisions has generally been the accepted norm” (p. 161).

To which the question in reply has to be so? What is meant by “national or public character of government decisions”? Do we take all the worldviews of all Americans, throw them in a pot, melt them down, and divide by the number of citizens? To be told that a decision has a “national character,” I still want to know if it was righteous or unrighteous (and I have only one standard that will enable me to make that determination).

Darryl then brings up the very interesting idea of hyphenation.

“The idea of living a hypenated existence — one part private and religious, the other part public and political — strikes many as oxymoronic, and not just evangelical Protestants” (p. 174).

Now I am afraid I am with the evangelical Protestants who cannot make any sense out of this. And as I have shown in previous installments, this means that James Dobson is far more of a Westminsterian than Darryl is on this issue, because James Dobson is not a dualist like Darryl is here.

But I cheerfully admit to all kinds of hyphenations in my life, and every other Christian in the world deals with the same kind of thing. But we have to understand the hyphenation correctly. There are many aspects of my identity that are not essential to my standing in Christ. For example, I am a husband, an American, a conservative, a lover of the blues, a submariner, a son, and a minister. There are many fine Christians who are, to the contrary, wives, Englishmen, libertarians, jazz-lovers, aircraft carrier men, daughters, or laymen. This is why the hyphen must not set up a horizontal dualism, but rather point to a hierarchy. Whatever aspect of my identity exists in distinction from the legitimate identity of others must nevertheless be an aspect of my identity that is in submission to Christ. There is not one part of my life where Christ rules and another part where the “national character of public decisions” rule. I must only go with the national character of the decision if Jesus wants me to.

The fact that Jesus wants all His children involved in a bunch of different pursuits is a trinitarian thing, and not an example of confusion. The hierarchies are ranked differently — they are not all the same. The Lord wants about half of his children to be husbands and the other half to be wives. He wants some to love classical music and others to love music from the Delta. He wants them all to hate abortion and child porn. He wants some to love the Palouse country of Idaho and others to love the pine forests of the South. And we should do what He calls us to do.

In the quote above, where Darryl assumes that the religious part of me is private and the political part of me is public, it needs to be pointed it that it does not follow from the simple fact that we must live hyphenated lives. Yes, I am a husband, a conservative, a son, and so on. But the hierarchy simply means that I must be a Christian-husband, a Christian-conservative, and a Christian-son. And whenever the demands of the two come into conflict, I must always know which set of allegiances is required to give way.

Further, I have no more ground for saying that the religious is private and political is public than I have for saying that my Christian life is private and devotional and that my husbandly life is informed and shaped by Cosmopolitan, Penthouse, and Sex in the City. And given the mere fact of the dualistic hypenation between private and public, why can’t I just switch what Darryl has done here? Let’s make the public sphere Christian and the private life secular.

In short, simply the fact that different aspects of my identity can be described in different ways has nothing whatever to do with whether Jesus is Lord over those different ways. The only reason Darryl can get away with this is because this strict isolation of Christian faith to the reservation of the heart is something the Enlightenment has insisted upon, and it is a surrender that those who have rejected the Westminsterian tradition have made.

In other words, everything about me must be structured according to the Word of God. My life in private is governed by Scripture. My life in public is no different. It would be most unfortunate if we came to the conclusion that Christ is my Lord only when I am not being covered by the surveillance cameras.

“Which invites the question: If it is possible to keep such essential aspects of faith as prayer and almsgiving private, even within the privacy of one’s devotional life, why wouldn’t it be possible for a serious believer to keep that faith bracketed once entering the public square or the voting booth” (p. 176).

“Keep that faith bracketed.” Bracketed from what? What do you mean, bracketed? Let’s take a simple case — a referendum is on your town’s ballot on whether or not to give free condoms, sexual manuals, and KY lubricants to all eleven-year-olds. I am in the voting booth, and I have taken care to “bracket” my faith, whatever that is supposed to mean. How does that in any way help me? Does it mean the same thing as suppress?

I really think that this is an unfortunate reminder of what happens when you get in the grip of a bad idea. Jesus says not to let the right hand know what the left is doing — when you give alms, don’t be a glory hound. But this is a secret — and not the same thing as private. The act of almsgiving is public, and has public effects. When I am in the privacy of mailing an anonymous check to someone in need of it, how can that privacy be used as a model of voting for abortion funding in the privacy of the voting booth”? In one secret chamber, I do good to someone, which is no licence to do evil in another secret chamber. But if I refuse to do evil in the voting chamber (as I am confident that Darryl refuses to do), then is this not an example of unsuccessful bracketing?

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