God’s Little Reductio on Pluralism

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Introduction

A few days ago I published a post on the French/Ahmari scuffle, in the course which I called on National Review to confess the name of Jesus. That post can be found here, and I am grateful to Andrew Sandlin for his response to my piece, which can be found here. There are some very important questions in play here. We need to wrestle this one to the ground.

Vast Swaths of Agreement:

When Andrew Sandlin rises in defense of classical liberalism as conceptually Christian, I agree with everything he says. “In this sense, it’s proper to refer to the Founding as Christian: not explicitly or officially, but conceptually and attitudinally.” So amen from me. This was an informal reality, but no less efficacious for being informal.

The issue for me is not whether that was true, or even whether it was sufficient for then, but whether it is sufficient for now. Remember that what set Ahmari off in the first place was our culture’s inability to say no to drag queen library readings for little kids. He was certainly illiberal toward that, but in my mind the question should be why aren’t we all illiberal toward that?

I also agree with Andrew about National Review. Despite the fact that it is not formally a Christian magazine, I get more analysis on multiple issues that is more consistently Christian than I get from lots of Christian magazines. Well and good. But the issue is not whether that it is good—it is whether it is good enough. We are not in Kansas anymore.

A Clarification

Andrew says in passing, with regard to my graded approval of both the American and British forms of the Westminster Confession on church/state relations, that both forms of the confession “limit religious liberty to Christians and potentially withdraw it from non-Christians.” That is not quite it.

My point is not that we need America to be a Christian country in order that Christians can have religious liberty, with others not having it. My point is that religious liberty is a Christian concept, which means that if we want religious liberty for anyone, we must ground it in something other than the lowest common denominator consensus of “all the faiths.” I do not want to say that “we are a Christian country, so you Muslims don’t get any liberty.” I want to say that because “we are a Christian country, you Muslims are going to get far more liberty than you would ever get in a Muslim country.” Some restrictions may apply, and see my test case below.

This is a clarification, but I believe that it can be derived from those premises where Andrew and I agree. If a concern for individual liberty and for religious liberty was fruit that grew on the tree of an informal Christian consensus, then do we not need to maintain that informal Christian consensus (at a minimum) in order to keep the fruit? And you cannot maintain such a consensus if you insist on diluting it.

A Misunderstanding:

Andrew says:

“As an example of the attempt to do this, Pastor Wilson writes: ‘America must have an official faith. At our Founding, it was the Christian faith.’ Well, no. The Founders emphatically avoided an official religious faith. All the states had a Christian establishment of some sort, and some preserved established churches well into the 19th century. What they wished to avoid was an established national church whose political privileges many of them had . . . come to oppose and fear.”

I have made this same point over the years, many times, but I aim it in a slightly different direction than does Andrew. The First Amendment prohibits a Church of the United States, the way there was a Church of Denmark, or a Church of England. Our Constitution established us as a federation of states, not as a nation proper. If the national bird is the eagle, and the state bird of Idaho is the mountain bluebird, this is unlikely to set off a war. But if the national establishment were Episcopalian and the state establishment of Connecticut was Congregational, the history of Europe over the previous centuries would seem to indicate that this was just asking for it. So I agree with Andrew thus far. I oppose the national establishment of any denomination of Christians. I would also be opposed to the establishment of a particular denomination at the state level—I believe that such would be a bad idea, but not an unconstitutional one. When the Constitution was ratified, nine of the thirteen states had formal relationships with particular churches. The last one did not disappear (in Connecticut) until the 1830’s—as Andrew recognizes. So it would be fully constitutional for a state to establish the PCA as their official faith. I would be against that because I believe that tax support for the PCA would be bad for the PCA. It would also be bad for Missouri because in about twenty years the Missouri presbytery is going to be dealing with conferences hosted by celibate library trannies—they yearn to read books to little children, but never actually do so. “We find that this tendency is not completely in line with human flourishing, but it does not strike at the vitals of our common faith.” Said the report, but bless me if I haven’t gotten off the point.  

But there is a difference between officially recognizing the Christian faith as the foundation of everything you are doing, on the one hand, and establishing a specific denomination as the recipient of tax largess on the other. I don’t want an official denomination of Christians. I do want the Constitution to acknowledge that Jesus rose from the dead. This is the heart and soul of my mere Christendom project.

As Andrew notes this was unofficially acknowledged at the time of the Founding, and had it not been unofficially acknowledged, there would have been none of those eight great principles that Andrew outlined. At the Constitutional Convention, 50 of the 55 men there were Trinitarian Christians. The Constitution was ratified in the “Year of our Lord, 1789.” This was, according to the common reckoning, 1789 years after Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden.

The Testing Point:

And we finally come to what I guess might be my only real disagreement with Andrew. He distinguishes between a structural pluralism and substantive pluralism. He rejects the latter, rightly, as being confused and relativistic. But he says this: “Consistent Christianity embraces one chief definition of pluralism but not the other. We must distinguish between structural pluralism and substantive pluralism.”

Now in order to go with this, a consistent theonomic Christian would have to say that “because Jesus rose from the dead, we should do what He says. And what He says to do is to adopt a structural pluralism to guide us as we order our civic affairs. Oh, and one other thing. Don’t mention my name to anyone.” It is like Jesus healing the blind men in Matthew 9, when He told them to tell no one who did this.

And so, I would raise a test case for the structural pluralists. If Christianity and Islam are on all fours together, not to mention the secular unbelievers, what should our marriage laws look like? This is really not an irrelevant question, is it? Christian teaching is soundly monogamous. The Koran says that a man can have up to four wives.

What kind of guidance does structural pluralism give on the question of polygamy once the informal protections of a widely shared Christianity are eroding? To cut to the chase, how many wives can a man have in the year 2035 C.E.? That C.E. means Christianity Erased.

So the question is a simple one. Under consistent structural pluralism, how many wives?