Start planning for the post-Trump era.

When the Evangelical Church provides such support, it can seem fair  to state (of the CRC)


Well, maybe.

Yet there’s a big difference between going 80% for the President the way Evangelicals have gone, and 55%, the more common margin for religiously observant generally (including the mainline!). But the voting support may not be the real problem.

As the President exemplifies in person the man of appetite, the sort regularly denounced in Scripture, the critical stance for the church is to be less concerned with the President per se, than with how we offer critique. The so-called Realist stance corrodes our long-term credibility, where we exchange our moral credibility for political “wisdom”. This latter stance is always seductive since it also seems to be the path of power, of shrewdness. And yet,   the Gospel is not about “Realism” so much as it is about the possibility of hope, that is, with the work of the Spirit.

Last, are we (the CRC) those people who voted for this POTUS? There’s evidence that we are not, or at least not fully on board. Few actually voted for the President, but instead cast votes for the possibility of movement on the further limiting of abortion, or on the hope of a judiciary that can serve as a bulwark, etc.  This is understandable at least in terms of “the least of two bad alternatives” or “get what you can.” Understandable. But a year later we need to reckon with other data: the corruption of this administration, the violation of norms etc., pose a long-term challenge for a Christian response – it’s not just policies that we may (or may not)object to, but a cultural revitalization. Looking ahead to a post-Trump era and our neighbor’s doubts about us, we will have plenty on our plate. And until then, we will also need to speak.

Dodging the Trump bullet

Neil Carlson cites this NYT article to observe

party identification and religious identification can both reflect pro- or anti-Trump selection bias. People who used to be “independent” and “no particular religion” may now say they’re Republican evangelicals, because that brand is associated with Trump’s iconoclastic populist nativism. And vice versa. The more we repeat the “81% of evangelicals voted Trump” figure, the more we reinforce the brand and create further self-fulfilling prophecies about support and opposition.

Speaking practically, this shifting of brands means that an institution like the CRC must be especially on its toes. How does it position itself within its communities as a non-Trump entity? (Not anti-Trump, but as a counter). The Trump party is going to end soon enough and will definitely be giving Evangelicals a morning-after headache of the worst sort. The trickiness is of course, that by conviction the US wing of the church sides broadly with the Evangelicals and has a record of voting that inclines that way. But separate we must if we are to have any morning-after credibility, particularly with our vision of reaching a broader set of communities.

How do we bear witness?

Eric Verhulst is bothered by the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) of the Christian Reformed Church. And it’s not just that he takes solid, conservative opinions (which he does). Something else is at work with such an office. As he explains it,

These policy matters are quite complex and interconnected – welfare, immigration, environment, the national debt, defense, and so on. There is room for a wide range of opinion that falls within the bounds of Christianity and Reformed thought when it comes to specific policies to be advocated or enacted. In claiming to speak for the denomination, OSJ effectively cuts off that debate before it even gets started, declaring this policy Christian Reformed and that one not.

Even though I speak from the other side of a partisan divide, I broadly agree with this understanding of the complex, interconnected character of the sort of problems we face.  That said, it is difficult to see how the church (denominationally or congregationally) can easily escape wrestling with them. It’s part of being embodied, of taking up social space.

Likewise, as Verhulst also notes,  there may be a number of approaches that will fall within the boundaries of a faithful walk.

But does this preclude taking a particular stance?

The function of the OSJ is one common to all church groups. There will be some committee thinking about how to speak about and to the complex inter-connected  issues in which the church must live out her life.

It seems inevitable that we have to speak. Or more precisely, you and I will have to make decisions for ourselves, in the voting booth etc about issues like that of immigration. How will we decide? How do we integrate that back into Christian life? And where do I get that information?

The very fact that we may come to a particular issue with an existing framework, part of our particular culture, further complicates the matter. On some highly charged items, information outside of our received frame can be very hard to hear (e.g. I have this all the time with the WSJ). Additionally, we bring our own background to the table; a person from Hamilton ON may have a significantly different view of the issue from that of the person in Hamilton MI.

Finally, I have long thought that the real need in the church has been he formulation of biblical and theological frameworks for understanding the issues, rather than particular policy statements. Left and right, there is a noticeable tendency to think simplistically, to cover the issue with some easy Bible verses as if that gave the solution. Perhaps a better way would be to think of social witness as a sort of spiritual discipline — such an approach would modify the policy-advocacy framework we all can so easily fall into.

Discipleship is a matter of embodying truth in our lives, by word and action. It is framed and shaped by or participation in the life of the Church itself, so in that sense our actions are never autonomous, or for that matter, self-evident. The mystery of Grace here, as elsewhere, is that such embodying does in fact convey a whiff of the Grace that is possible. Framed by the life of the Church, such political commitments then can also be free from the univocal nature of the political, where one has to be all in for one side or another, where one is constantly being tempted  –invited– to be consumed by passion.

Room for Politics?

Jason Ellis brings up an interesting article from Michael Horton and asks

I’d appreciate any critiques of Horton’s line of thought from those who support having an OSJ. IMO: the OSJ is a distraction from the mission of the Church as Christ instituted it as understood by Augustine, Luther and Calvin as cited by Horton, especially in a tradition that emphasizes a distinction between saving and common grace, but I’m trying to be open minded:)

I see the strong two-kingdom style of Horton, but it does seem at odds with the other conservative True Reformed types. Horton’s view appears to leave politics to being politics, that there is nothing a Christian can do for or against the actions of the culture. Not quite a separationist, but certainly in line with the pietistic branch of the CRC. In that light the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) is probably best understood as an extension of Kuyperian thinking, where the Gospel life permeates our cultural living. While there may not be a single way to help the poor, there is a biblical obligation to help the poor. The manner of obedience may vary by culture and setting, but the duty of obedience remains.

For Horton, the Church stands apart from culture, and fulfills its own mandate. Here’s how he puts it:

Through its administration of Gospel preaching, baptism, the Supper, prayer, and discipline, the church is God’s new society inserted into the heart of the secular city as a witness to Christ and the age to come when He will be all in all.

As I tend toward the neo-Anabaptist side of things, with its skepticism about social  construction of Christian engagement (aka Constantinianism), and so prefer seeing issues in terms of principalities and powers, I have a mixed reaction. On one hand, I do applaud his distancing from the conventional Christian Right politics, nonetheless, I would ask Horton whether Horton has effectively abandonned having any word for the culture. How can we engage in a critique from his viewpoint? As a practical matter, I think Horton’s view ends up with a very moralistic reading of society, so that we get programs slapped with Bible verses.

Ecclesiastical entities such as  OSJ arise basically a result of the church’s presence in society. It is especially a result (ironically, from Horton’s side) of the Augustinian emphasis on fall. The heritage of Augustine in the West is that atonement and salvation are seen juridicially, as a matter of justice. If the core issue is that of reconciliation, then the political becomes almost inescapable.

In short, there’s more that God’s people can say to this world.

Conservatives and the Environment

Do conservatives have something positive to say about the environment and climate change, or are they only to be so much sand in the gears?

Let’s face it, the framing of this issue is almost entirely on the other side (and to be clear, often with real justification). These issues came up at the  annual  gathering (Synod) of the Christian Reformed Church as it took up a report on “Creation Stewardship.”  The heart of the document was its focus on climate change and how the church should respond.  This has also been the subject of discussion on multiple boards, including CRC-Voices, where Dan Hendrickson wrote

One clear way to reduce damage to the environment:  Support a slow, gradual decline in population.

Given the reluctance of conservatives, nonetheless on this issue, I think the “conservative” voice may be of use in two ways:

First, reduction of population takes place with reduction of family size. It’s not simply birth control, or worse, forced abortions or other one-child policies. One of the observed facts is that family size decreases with development and education. Clean water and attention to women’s rights can make a world of difference. This matches with some conservatives who want to emphasize free market principles in development. so promotion of economic growth may actually be a means to this end, and here the conservatives can bring a lot of interesting tools to the table (at least at the micro-economic level — their sometime love with the uber-wealthy… eh).

Second, the best conservatives have suggested that the focus on small tasks really won’t cut it, nor will the large scale utopian ones either. Instead, they suggest that if we want to help the poor there are more direct paths in front of us. And cheaper, too, for that matter. This is the path most often associated with Bjorn Lomborg. This ameliorative path has some drawbacks (it can, after all end up with a majoring in minors, porcelain v Styrofoam), but it does point us to what can be done now.

I think that there is plenty in the CRC tool chest that can help with both of these efforts. The mistake is to think that Climate Change comes with a set of policy proposals; it clearly does not. Rather it comes with the dual approach of discipline as to how we handle our environmental responsibilities, and prudent and practical help to those in need.

Dodged Bullet

Sometimes the best committee is the one that doesn’t meet at all. That was the case at the CRC Synod when they turned down a recommendation

That synod appoint a study committee to explore and define “confession” in the CRCNA context as it applies to the standards of unity of the CRCNA and report to Synod 2015.

There was an understandable rationale for this. For the past three years the denomination has wrestled with the question of what sort of status it should accord the Belhar Confession, and in the process of that discussion it became quite clear that the sticking point was the notion of “confession.” More importantly, it was also clear that laity and members alike were unsure as to the weight they wanted to give to the notion of confession. So who can blame them for maybe picking it up again.

However, some things are better left undone.

By picking up the notion of defining the confession the church begins to sanction a movement away from using confessions. After all the process of definition would mean that in some sense the confession is subject to Synod, that it is legislated rather than constitutional.

At a deeper level, a confession arises from a common mind, a common p ractice. That’s why there could come a day when Belhar attains that role. but without a common mind already in place, any study committee action would only be a lessening of the force of Confession.

No one intends this consequence, yet history is littered with meetings to consider something akin to revision only to find that they have launched a revolution. Unintended consequences abound.  And that was a bullet worth dodging.

Belhar’s open doors

The decision by the NAACP to endorse same sex marriage rights sanctions the understanding of gay rights as a civil rights. This whole cloth approach to human rights makes the segregation of the Belhar Confession from gay issues more difficult.

The link first came to light in the actions of Allen Boesak at the general synod of the Uniting Reformed Church of South America. In response to that, the Christian Reformed Church has explicitly rejected this link., that gay rights do not exist as a civil right in the same way concerns about race or socio-economic status might.

In wake of the NAACP’s action, this denominational stance loses a fair measure of credibility. That in turn means the vote next month at Synod will not simply be one on the Belhar document itself, but on gay rights generally. A rejection that now seems more likely, nonetheless does not stop the issue. seeping in as it does, like the tide at King Canute’s feet. The church may say no today, but the questions remain, lapping at the door.