A Florilegium of Prudential Observations, Gathered from My Own Head, Concerning the Propriety of Theocratic Blasphemy Laws

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Over the last week or so a discussion broke out over my contention in Mere Christendom that while blasphemy laws are inescapable, and that while Christians should be laboring to see that our society upholds the first table of the law as well as the second, we should make sure that we restrain the biggest blasphemer first. That perennial blasphemer, as I argued in my book, is the state. We should topple Nebuchadnezzar’s statue first, and after we are confident that the central offender is suitably chastened, we may then move on to the pressing question of what to do about the rantings of the village atheist.

Until we know how to restrain the institution most given over to blasphemy, we are not to be entrust that institution with the power of coercion over private citizens. Prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance, he ought not to have plenipotentiary power to whack blasphemers—because the smart money is that he will whack the ones who didn’t bow down to his statue.

Make no mistake—righteous blasphemy laws would have to apply to private citizens at some point. This would mean they would have to be applied with a judicious prudence, as Stephen Wolfe would argue, and not with any kind of blinkered torquemadian zeal. But make no mistake on the follow up point also. The one enforcing the law needs to be in a position to cast the first non-hypocritical stone (John 8:3-11). This is not me waffling on the rigors of theocracy. It is one of the requirements of theocracy. The standards must be applied to the enforcers of standards first. Christians must never forget that our faith is founded on the historical fact of a misbegotten blasphemy conviction.

Christians must never forget that our faith is founded on the historical fact of a misbegotten blasphemy conviction.

Because we don’t know the character of the individual men who will be judges in two hundred years, we must have the character now to build firewalls into our constitutional framework—firewalls that get in the way of the “enforcement for thee, but not for me” mentality that takes about ten minutes to develop in a certain kind of ruler. One of the great features of our Constitution was how long it frustrated the power-mongers. Too bad it couldn’t go a bit longer.

As it happens, a lot of things were said about my take, all along the waterfront, and so I have a whole series of ripostes that I want to get off my chest. Some of it is because I think important distinctions need to be made, or clarifications offered. But other times I write in the hope that someone sees my ripostes and reposts them. Ripostes. Reposts. Get it?

Because I am responding to all sorts of different concerns and objections, coming in from different directions, it may appear to the uninitiated reader that I have no attention span whatever. I will be leaping from paragraph to paragraph like a squirrel in the city park leaps from branch to branch, right after he got into some drug dealer’s misplaced bag of meth. As you read on, just remember, these things do happen.

Scattershot Responses

As you go on, remember the squirrel illustration.

Scott Aniol, he who is numbered among the reasonable G3 critics, did me the honor of agreeing with me in public, which is not often attempted. He was agreeing with my emphasis, stated again in this post, on the need for restraining the worst blasphemer first. I am happy with this emphasis, as I continue to argue for it, just so long as it is also remembered that the son of the Israelitish woman was not wronged in any way (Lev. 24:10-16).

We live in a time when I could go out onto the streets of any major American city, and get myself arrested solely and simply on the basis of the content of what I was saying. I could probably do it within fifteen minutes. And I don’t mean the “fire in a crowded theater” stuff. I mean that I could get arrested for the crime of vocalized wrongthink. So what I am going to say throughout this post is going to touch on a challenging subject, and it does need to be discussed by reasonable thinkers and writers. Such a group would not include anyone who does not recognize that we live in a time that is hostile to the very idea of free speech. If I meet someone who recognizes that all societies have blasphemy codes, his own included, and he is interested in defending those codes, I can talk with such a man. But the people who scare me most are those who are savage in the enforcement of their codes, while at the same time claiming that their codes are entirely non-existent. “You didn’t violate any blasphemy codes. This is a democracy, and we don’t have those,” they explain, as they load me into the wagon.

One objection to my position was that it was a prudential take, and not a theocratic one. My response to this is that prudence is one of the great theocratic standards. “The simple inherit folly: But the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (Proverbs 14:18; Ex. 18:21). The law of God is not made out of pressure-treated four by fours or, to change the metaphor, when true believers reduce biblical law to an “insert tab A into slot B” approach, the end result is frequently a travesty of biblical justice. I do want to see biblical justice done, but I want to see the doers of justice to apply the standards to themselves first. The application of God’s law—the way of wisdom—has to be conducted in wisdom. The law of God does not come to us the way regulations from a federal agency do, where you have to deal with a rapidly-cooling and bureaucratic magma flow. The law of God is a case law system, where the principles must be grasped and then applied in new situations, as God brings us into new situations. That’s one thing.

When it comes to my political theory, I am admittedly an amalgam. This is all internally coherent, in my head anyway, and quite different from a hodge-podge. Not necessarily in order, I am a Burkean conservative, indebted to Rushdoony, an anti-secularist, a Christian classical liberal, an advocate of Protestant resistance theory (Knox, Rutherford, Beza), a Van Tillian, and a reader of Althusius. So sue me.

So as you know, I am also a cheerful and somewhat eclectic advocate of Christian nationalism. Some object to that phrase, or that way of putting it, but I far prefer it to some of the other names our adversaries usually apply to us, like Christo-fascist, or white supremacist, or meathead. So I do want to speak in favor of Christian nationalism, and I believe it would be fair to say I have done so. But I have sometimes seen guys on our side of this particular debate comport themselves on Twitter in such a way as to disqualify themselves from jury duty in any sensible biblical republic. If some of our regime evangelicals want to maintain that we aren’t ready for prime time, they do have some gaudy examples to point to. This does not make them respectable or reliable, but I do hate it when disreputable people have a point. The point here is that we definitely do need more time. The challenge is that there have been times in history when Christians found themselves governing after a cultural collapse before they were really ready to govern (e.g. Constantine, the Puritan Revolution in England). But even though they weren’t ready, just like we are not ready, they still did a lot of good. Wish us luck next time.

We are not maintaining a stable biblical republic, with responsible Christians jurists pondering the best possible applications of Ex. 22:18. Rather, we are in a cage match with a resurgent neo-pagan death cult, and we are wanting to get to that stable biblical republic, and we must do it through stiff opposition. We need to get from here to there. And this means that that we need to remember, over the course of this long war, exactly how much mileage the unbelievers have gotten out of the burning of Servetus. Let us also remember that Servetus was a bad actor, and that when he was executed, it was a brief ecumenical moment across Europe, with Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed all throwing their hats in the air. That was a mainstream event, and I hear from Christianity Today that it is important to stay with the mainstream. It was not like the Salem witch trials, which were wicked clean through, where entirely innocent people were executed. But whether Servetus deserved to die or not, it was still a tactical blunder to execute him. And so . . . “A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: But the simple pass on, and are punished” (Proverbs 22:3). So there are cowards, who refuse to acknowledge what their position actually entails. Then there are doctrinaire rigorists, who want to implement everything all at once, and if we must start somewhere, it should be with public stonings. And then there are those who refuse to step into the trap that that devil sets for us with his trusty old Servetus bait.

I certainly agree with Stephen Wolfe that “abuse does not nullify use.” Abusus non tollit usum. Every form of law, including the laws against murder and rape, can be twisted around and weaponized, and used against the innocent. When rape is defined by some (as it often is these days on college campuses) as any sexual encounter that the woman afterwards regrets, a solution to that problem is required. But that solution would not be to eliminate the laws against rape. So I am not arguing for the elimination of blasphemy laws. I am arguing that we should have them, but that they should be wise laws, constitutionally bounded, and that we should fry our fish in the right order.

Speaking of Stephen, he was recently asked if he differed with me anywhere. You can find that here, at the 1:12 mark. He represented me fairly and well, but I do want to add an important area of agreement. He said that because I am working from a particular kind of postmill framework, I am looking for a massive revival that will make all this possible. That is quite true. It is also true that I believe our cultural rot is so far gone that unless there is such a revival, we aren’t going to make it. But I agree with Stephen that, in the meantime, absent such revival, we are still responsible to do as much as we can, within the bounds of Christian prudence. We are not allowed to say that we are not going to do what we can because the revival hasn’t happened yet. If the best we can do is mere amelioration, then that is what we should do. You know how the left says “think globally, act locally:? Absent revival, we should think postmilly, act amilly.

I have happily called myself Kuyperian for some years now. By this, I have simply meant “all of Christ for all of life,” and that I liked his Lectures on Calvinism. But if you delve into it, you will discover that some of the leaven of neutrality crept into Kuyper’s practical approach to politics. If we may speak this way, in our eventual Christendom 2.0, it is therefore necessary for us to be more Kuyperian than Kuyper. This whole issue is addressed admirably by James Wood here.

“Because Kuyper failed to make these distinctions, he believed that Article 36 [of the Belgic] taught coercion of conscience. But, according to Hoedemaker, the Reformed had always held that there is no permissible coercion of conscience—freedom of religion is something entirely different from freedom of conscience. And here, absolute freedom of religion is impossible if one seeks to have a society.”

James Wood, aforementioned article

This is absolutely correct. I have sought to make this distinction in the past by saying that in my ideal biblical republic, centuries down the road, there would certainly be church bells, but no minarets. I probably need to develop this further another time.

In the meantime, what I am seeking to argue for is a constitutional framework and understanding that would define and therefore guide prosecutorial discretion, and protect us from zealous pecksniffian overreach. A wise prosecutor, a wise constitutionalist, is going to want to restrain the big blasphemies. This has to be done in a way as to set a pattern that discourages the little blasphemers. But if you start at the other end, with the little blasphemers, focusing on them, what you are actually doing is empowering the big ones. So don’t lose a queen to take a pawn.

Whatever we do, it needs to be because Christ is Lord, and not because we have copped the pose of a studied neutrality. Such a neutrality will creep, and it will creep into everything. This means that when you hammer out a concept of liberty of conscience, it has to be because Christ is Lord. It is not because liberty of conscience is Lord. Liberty of conscience is weak, and does not know how to defend itself. Liberty of conscience needs a shield and defender, and He must be named as the Lord Jesus. This distinction is difficult for many of us to master. Christ gives me money, for example, and I have to receive it from Him as a gift, without turning money into a little christ. Christ grants us liberty of conscience, which we should receive from Him gratefully—without turning that liberty into an attribute of an abstract and non-existent deity. In our secular era, liberty of conscience was put under the protection of the gaseous and anemic demigod of state-sponsored agnosticism, and look what happened then.

The Hebrew word mashal means “to speak a proverb.” But it also means “to rule as a king.” The best dominion training in the world is found in the book of proverbs. One of the reasons for this is that it helps a man cultivate true wisdom, and which keeps him out of the doctrinaire ditch.

The Lord has not given us a spirit of timidity (2 Tim. 1:7). We must be bold and courageous. But we must begin with courage in the right place. What I am suggesting is the Pauline approach. When the church was getting established in pagan Rome, there was no immediate thought of what civil penalties would be enacted in the name of Christ once Theodosius made the Christian faith the faith of the empire. That was still centuries out. But the early church was nevertheless preparing for that day, and they were preparing for it by excommunicating notorious sinners. Paul took the Old Testament requirement for capital punishment, and applied it to discipline cases within the church. “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Cor. 5:13). Execute adulterers? Shoot, I would think we were making progress if we just excommunicated them. Instead we give them book deals. Judgment begins with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:7), and we have centuries of work ahead of us just getting our ecclesiastical water fowl in a row. Because they got into the meth right after the squirrel did.

Christopher Dawson said the Christian church lives in the light of eternity and can afford to be patient. The heart of revolution is impatience. The heart of reformation is patience.