Tuesday, November 22, 2022
It's Tuesday, November 22nd, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Conservatism Without Theism Will Not Long Last: Secular Worldviews Cannot Lastingly Support Truths that Require Conserving
We are looking at the continuing question of how to define conservatism. Now that is not the most important question. The most important questions are directly theological, but the Christian worldview also understands that worldview gets translated into political philosophy, into politics, into history, and thus, I have argued for a long time that the word conservatism is one of the most important words in our political worldview vocabulary.
This goes back to the point in my life when I first knew myself to be self-consciously conservative, and that came in the 1970s when I was a middle schooler and a high schooler. And I was trying to understand the world around me and there were vast political debates going on in the 1970s. By the 1970s in the United States, there were two different political positions just as there were two different political parties. And to a greater and lesser extent, just about every politician lined up one way or the other as conservative or as liberal or as moderate in the middle.
Now what we have seen in intervening decades is that both the political trajectory and the issues have become so compressed that there really is very little of a middle left in American politics. Just take an issue like abortion or same-sex marriage, you are either for it or you are against it. Even if you have some kind of position that you consider to be somewhere in the middle, the reality is you're going to have to vote for candidate A or candidate B. You're going to have to hope for party A or party B to have the majority in Congress, and eventually you are going to be carried along by that political logic. But the most important issue as you think about the word conservative is understanding that the very essence of conservatism is to seek to conserve. To conserve what? Well in the first place, to conserve that which is necessary for a stable and flourishing political order.
That's why the word conservative applies to dimensions far beyond politics, but the most common use is in politics. We could rightly speak of theological conservatives. I sign up there too, and that means we're trying to conserve all that must be conserved doctrinally and biblically and theologically. But in the main, when you talk to Americans and you hear the terms conservative or liberal, I'm talking about the conservative side here, people are talking about a political disposition, a set of political principles, and increasingly and sometimes among most people, first and foremost, a set of political positions, positions on certain issues of consequence and often controversy. Now on Twitter yesterday, I offered something that I did not premeditate and yet it was in response to what I saw as a discussion about an article that I had published yesterday morning. And it has to do with the fact that my central argument as a Christian and as a conservative is that conservatism without Christian theological commitments will not long last.
I'll expand that to say theistic and moral order presuppositions. And so, I will suggest that where you find a very clear theistic theology that could be Orthodox Judaism or traditional Roman Catholicism or as you're looking at evangelical Christianity that understands what evangelical and Christianity as words both mean. It means that with those theological commitments comes a foundation for lasting moral commitments. And that also means it gives a foundation, it provides a basis for making a statement such as marriage is this or marriage is that, that is beyond mere political negotiation at any given time in political history and beyond emotivism or intuitionism. In other words, Christians believe that there is an actual objective definition of marriage and that to the greatest degree possible, civil marriage should correspond to biblical marriage because that is what is most conserving, most productive of the greatest human flourishing, the greatest protection of human beings, the greatest reflection of human dignity.
The statement that I released yesterday on Twitter simply said this, "If you're going to hector me about the glories of secular conservatism, save your effort. There is no true or lasting conservatism without a grounding in theism and creation order. Any other conservatism is one long losing negotiation with secular progressivism." Now, just recall when we're talking about secular progressivism, both of those words are important, but when we talk about progressivism, we are talking about the political understanding and you can have a pretty consistent progressivist worldview in this sense. It's the political affirmation that the great project of humanity is to overcome the past, rather than deceit to conserve it. Progressivism understands that the past is intolerance, it is tyranny, it is to be understood as patriarchy and depression. Basically everything associated with the past is to be overcome or at least tested by experience to see just what may and may not, should and should not be continued.
Progressivism comes with the impulse that what is in the past is basically negative, oppressive, and is to be overcome. Secular progressivism is progressivism, which isn't even accountable to any kind of theistic worldview. As a secular worldview, there is no objective reality to begin with, and thus progressivism is completely unrestrained. And that's why as you're looking at the moral revolutions all around us, secular progressivism is basically without any boundary whatsoever. It is without any limit, that's why as you're looking at LGBTQ+, perhaps the most important part of that formula is the plus sign because it explicitly implies there's a lot coming. Now at this point, turning to the conservative side of the equation, I want to argue for Christian conservatism, and both of those words to be a vital and essential importance. A conservatism that is not conditioned by Christianity and isn't based upon Christian theological and moral principles can become merely the right.
It can become merely a conservative impulse, that is not a conservatism worthy of Christian consideration. The other problem with the secular conservatism is that it has to eventually enter into the same negotiations with the modern age that the liberals are advocating from the get go. If there is no objective truth, then morality from a conservative perspective, it's just a matter of maintaining as much tradition and embedded in that tradition wisdom as is possible at any given time. What we see right now is that under prevailing conditions, evidently not much wisdom is available right now. That's why I argue that some form of a secular or unbelieving, untheistic conservatism not only can turn mean, but it doesn't stay conservative because everything in terms of moral importance is just a matter of political negotiation. Eventually you just get dragged along because the currents of secular progressivism are far more powerful in our culture right now and have been, we have to admit for about a century or more.
Just a few weeks ago, I gave a major address at a conference on the future of conservatism. And the point I wanted to make then and there is the point I want to make now, and that is that if you are going to base your worldview on a secular conservatism, you may remain secular but you will not remain conservative. A conservatism without theological and theologically revealed moral commitments is an endless process of negotiation. And if you are engaged in an endless process of negotiation, then you are basically just slowing down, losing. You are losing just perhaps a little more slowly. I do not intend to associate with a conservatism that loses in principle just slowly. I may not be a part of a conservatism that wins in the political sense, but at least it is established upon clear theological principles, biblical truths, and those truths will endure even if our political prospects do not.
Now here we run into direct conflict with the use of the word conservative by many in the media and even by many involved in politics. They simply mean the right, they mean simply those who share some kind of political alignment against the left. And thus in the United States, this has often taken the form of what the late William F. Buckley Jr. called fusionism. It is a movement that pulls together libertarians, big business conservatives, Christian conservatives, theistic conservatives and others, and increasingly also because of the secularization of the age in a political sense, includes some secular conservatives. But what we see right now are internal debates among conservatives that make very clear this is not a movement that can hold together. And Christian conservatives, theistic conservatives are in the position of saying that many of these others who call themselves conservative, well, they revealed their own philosophy and the outwork of that philosophy to be anything but conservative, they're just liberals arriving a little late.
It's going to be fascinating to see how these debates continue, but you're going to see many of these debates accelerate and become exceedingly urgent, especially with the 2024 presidential election looming before us. And there are several things to watch here. We're going to be talking about them in upcoming weeks on The Briefing. For one thing, you have a major break between the Republican party and big corporations. They had basically been so hand in hand that the Republican party was called The Party a Big Business, but that is now more or less a thing of the past when you consider how many companies have gone woke, how many have given themselves over to DEI and ESG agendas, how many of them have basically ditched the principles that built their businesses for the principles they think will be relevant to a very, very secular future, and an increasingly liberal future in morality and in politics.
So, there'll be a lot for us to watch there and there are to be sure fishers on the left as well. We're going to see those particular cracks in the liberal edifice also showing, and all of this is going to turn out to be number one, of great worldview significance, and I think you'll find number two very interesting to watch.
Pluralism Is Not Enough, Same-Sex Marriage Cannot Be Affirmed: The Parable of David French
But next I want to shift gears and say, "Sometimes some of these conflicts take place fairly close to home, inside what had been identified as a conservative movement." If you were to go back just a matter of say 10 or 15 years and look at those described as Christian conservatives, they would include a great many people who have basically departed from conservative. Now, once again, there are a lot of considerations that demand our attention and we'll be looking at these in turn over the next several weeks and months as well.
But yesterday I published at World Opinion an article entitled, "The Parable of David French," and then the subtitle, "This is How Conservatism Dies and This is How Marriage is Surrendered." Now, I offered the title, "The Parable of David French," because David French, who is very well known, a columnist for major media, writer, lawyer, public intellectual, he has often spoken to and at times on behalf of evangelical Christians when it comes to issues of political importance and issues of religious liberty. But now I am arguing he has become a parable in himself. Over the last several days, he has offered two articles basically affirming what is known, and this is lamentable in terms of its name as the Respect for Marriage Act. You'll recall that at least 12 Republicans joined with all of the Democrats in the United States Senate to pass this legislation, and as we said at the time, it is not only a subversion of marriage, it is also a direct threat to religious liberty.
More on that in just a moment. But right now the point is that David French has offered an article in support of the Respect for Marriage Act, and then he offered a subsequent article about two days later explaining why he changed his mind and then quite candidly telling us that he's actually changed his mind again on this issue. Now to be honest, I did not know that back in 2004 he had written an article which basically called for the equivalent of marriage or a parallel structure for marriage for saying sex couples. That was in an article we are told published in the Lexington Kentucky Newspaper, but it was later that David French came to a good deal of evangelical attention, and it was at that time that he was arguing as an attorney on behalf of religious freedom for evangelical institutions, organizations, and churches, and also at least we thought as a defender of evangelical moral principles as well.
In the second article, David French says that he has written this as an act of personal intellectual honesty, and again, what I mean to question in this addition of The Briefing is not his intellectual honesty, it is whether he is right or wrong on this issue. I do not argue that David French is disingenuous. I argue that he is wrong and dangerously wrong at that. Now, I said he offered two pieces just in the last week. The first of them was published at The Atlantic, and in that article he argues that the Respect for Marriage Act rightly in his words, protects "Same sex marriage" and he says, "Contains religious freedom protections for religious dissenters, including explicit protections for tax exemptions." Now, his main argument in that article is that the legislation codifying same-sex marriage nationwide. Again, it is known as the Respect for Marriage Act. It rightly balances competing interests.
Those would be LGBTQ rights and religious liberty, and thus represents in his words, "How pluralism is supposed to work." He also argues that the bill just maintains because of the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court, "The legal status quo." Well, if the bill were not important, it would not be important if one came out in favor of it. But in this case, the bill is important and it is extremely important that we note that David French has come out in support of it. He makes a distinction between civil marriage and Christian marriage. We'll talk more about that in coming days as well. But he argues that civil marriage, marriage as is articulated in the law, defined in the law of a society should include same-sex marriage or at least should do so after the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision of 2015. He asserted that the bill, which he acknowledges to be imperfect, "still contains provisions that can comfort."
He put some parenthesis, "(Almost everyone)." Well, as I wrote in the article yesterday, I remain uncomforted, that's an understatement. I agree wholeheartedly with the religious freedom advocates who see the protections, and I would put that in quotation marks offered in this bill as woefully inadequate. In expansive language the bill offers promises, but they're vague promises that in turn, assert protections already in place, address arguments no one was making, or leave religious schools and organizations extremely vulnerable. Let me talk about those three issues. Number one, the bill asserts protections already in place. Basically, some of the language in the bill says we're not trying to take away religious liberty. Well sort of thank you for that. But secondly, I want to assert that the so-called religious liberty provisions in this bill address arguments no one is making. For example, no one is saying that the bill would require a Christian congregation, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, or for that matter, a traditional Catholic parish to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The fact that the bill's language says that the bill will not be used to coerce churches or congregations into performing same sex ceremonies, it is absolute window dressing because there is no circumstance under our constitutional order in which you could see the state making any such threat that hasn't even been threatened in the imagination of most people who are conversant with this issue. The third concern I have is that this bill would leave religious schools and organizations extremely vulnerable. I want to tell you why, it is because when you look at protection that says, okay, we won't force congregations to perform same sex ceremonies or you say, we will not take away tax exempt status from organizations that refuse on conviction to perform same sex ceremonies. Let me tell you who you leave vulnerable. Two classes in particular, number one, individual believers, they're just basically completely out in the cold here, regardless of their conviction.
The second issue is religious educational institutions and Christian ministries because the vulnerability there is not that tax exempt status would be denied because of a refusal to perform same sex ceremonies. I speak as President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College. This institution has never performed a wedding ceremony, that is a church responsibility. But the real threat is that because of our moral convictions and our teaching, which by the way is not just about what we teach in the classroom, but is also how we define say, admissions to the college and the seminary on the basis of our own Christian biblical convictions about sexuality, gender, and marriage. Those rights, the very right of an institution such as the one I lead to exist, those rights are threatened under the current form of this bill and not by accident. When I say not by accident, consider this statement also offered on Twitter by Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee.
He said, "I offered to support the bill if the sponsors would include my amendment to prohibit the government from removing taxes exempt status based on religious beliefs about same sex marriage." And then he says, "For or against," he continues "The sponsors adamantly refused even to consider that." He then asked the question, "Why?" I'll simply answer the Senator as he intended to be answered. It is because they do not, did not, will not offer these protections, and that's the point. David French once worked as an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, but the current ADF president has called the claim of real religious protections in this bill hogwash.
As I said in my article, I'm not sure that was meant as a technical term of law, but it's language clear enough that we can all understand hogwash.
This Is How Conservatism Dies: If Marriage is Not Conserved, Nothing Genuinely Conservative Can Last
Now again, the first of these articles by David French was published on November the 18th again last week, and the headline was, "Pluralism Has Life Left in it."
Yet the magazine's subtitle was "The Respect for Marriage Act and the Harmony Between Religious Liberty and LGBTQ Rights." The second article was published two days later, that would be November the 20th at the dispatch where David French is very involved. The headline in this one, "Why I Changed My Mind about Law and Marriage Again," the subhead "Walking through my flip flop flip on one of the toughest issues of our time." It was in this article that we were informed that David French had offered public support for redefining civil marriage to include provision for same-sex couples as far back as 2004. But he then says that 11 years later, he reversed that position in light of the Obergefell decision by The Supreme Court. He says he makes a clear distinction between Christian marriage, which can always and everywhere mean only a man and a woman, and civil marriage, which he sees as rightly decided by some balancing of interest in a context to pluralism.
French made direct reference to the ominous statement in the Supreme Court's hearing in the Obergefell case in which Donald Verrilli, then the Solicitor General of the United States had told the court that "Claims against religious institutions that did not affirm same-sex marriage", here were the ominous words "Will be an issue." And then French tells his readers that he "Became concerned that the movement for same-sex marriage would be ultimately ruin us for religious liberty." Now, my assertion is he was absolutely right then, but he's wrong now when he asserts that The Supreme Court sufficiently values religious liberty, so that legislation like what is known as the Respect for Marriage Act, can codify same sex marriage without threat to religious freedom. When David French first came to the attention of most American evangelicals, he was a defender of religious liberty over against the threat of the Obergefell decision in 2015.
But now we have to ask the question in an absolutely categorical way, was David French against the redefinition of civil marriage so as to include saying sex couples? The answer appears to be no. And now he makes that explicit in the year 2022 in his support for the Respect for Marriage Act. In this latest article, looking back apparently to his 2004 position, French wrote, "I wanted gay couples to enjoy marriage equivalent legal protections, but without changing the legal definition of marriage. I wanted gay couples to enjoy the legally protected right to build a life together without creating a legal super structure that ripped apart religious freedoms that are indispensable to the health of the republic and to the flourishing of countless millions of American lives." Well, it's fascinating to find that out now. Honestly, I think that David French's current argument will astound evangelical Christians.
The key issue, however, seems to be David French's basic confidence in pluralism is the great civic goal and as the central political principle, that pluralism requires careful definition and boundaries. In a recent book published just a couple of years ago, French explained, "I recognize pluralism as a permanent fact of American life and seek to foster a political culture that protects the autonomy and dignity of competing American ideological and religious communities." Well what does that mean? What dare we ask are the allowable boundaries of respectable pluralism? In answering this question, David French is particularly unclear. But if he is clear, his view would undermine any stable public morality based upon any objective moral truths. Everything is just a constant balancing of interest. Now, you may remember that some time ago, Sohrab Ahmari charged that David French's position on something like Drag Queen Story Hour came down to what he called David Frenchism.
Well, David Frenchism exploded into view with these two recent articles. I simply conclude my argument with this. One of the most perplexing marks of our time is the defection of so many would be conservatives from the cause of conserving what Russell Kurt called The Permanent Things. If marriage is not conserved, if civil marriage is not conserved as a man, woman union, then nothing genuinely conservative can last, or at least it will not last for long. Support for the Respect For Marriage Act is bad enough, the way David French frames his argument is worse.
I simply conclude with this, and I mean this most seriously. This, this kind of argument is how conservatism dies. And this, this kind of argument is how marriage is surrendered.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
While I have your attention for a moment, I want to tell you about the D3 Winter Conference for students. They'll be taking place here on the campus of Boyce College and Southern Seminary, March 10 through 11, 2023. The theme will be who is Jesus Christ and it's particularly addressed to students.
It's going to be doctrine, it's going to be apologetics. Folks, it's going to be fun. We're going to be talking about how important it is to get our understanding of Jesus Christ from scripture and to get it right. And to be able to define and defend biblical Christianity, not just as a set of doctrines, but as our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ with our fellow students and others on an academic campus. So, we're going to put together some trusted speakers to dive into the big question of the identity of Jesus Christ. So, bring your students, and here we're primarily talking about high school students, and join me on the beautiful campus of Southern Seminary and Boys College for the D3 Winter Conference, March 10 through 11. Just visit D3, that's the letter D3winter.com to learn more and to register.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.