by Rev. Bart Martin
“When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.”
– Jacques Barzun
When a young state senator from Illinois ascended the platform to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, many considered him a rising star in the Democratic Party. But even his zaniest fans could not have anticipated that, in four short years, Barack Obama would have made the leap from state senator to United States Senator, and from United States Senator to the President of the United States.
What does Barack Obama’s rise to power mean? For one thing, it means that the “absurd” has become “normal”: when a large proportion of younger “evangelicals” vote for a man who will help perpetuate the war against the unborn, decadence has obviously set it. For another thing, it means that modern conservatism—the conservatism of William Buckley and Russell Kirk, of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—is dead. As a matter of fact, it has been dead for a number of years: Election Day 2008 simply provided us the coroner’s report.
For we who consider ourselves “conservative,” it will do us no good to pine away for the glory of days gone by. We can’t re-live the Barry Goldwater campaign; we can’t call Ronald Reagan back from the dead—nor would we want to if we could.
What we Christians in America need to do is to rediscover what our vocation is: we are salt and light; we are strangers and sojourners; we are a nation of priests. This does not mean, as the pietistic Christian might take it to mean, that we are to withdraw from the public square, and simply build our own little Christian ghettoes while clutching our Bibles and waiting for the end of the world. No: the Scriptures call on the people of God to take dominion by being salt and light, to take dominion by being strangers and sojourners, to take dominion by acting as priests on behalf of the world. We are not called to withdraw; rather, we are called to engage the world, ruling as God’s co-regents.
But we have forgotten what it means to rule. We have confused the biblical mandate to “rule” and “take dominion” with the hackneyed imperative to “win the next election.” So what should Christians do in the world of President Barak Obama? How can we better prepare ourselves to be the vice-regents that God wants us to be? I would suggest three things:
1. Pray like a Saint Augustine
2. Know the times like an Edmund Burke
3. Love the law of God like a King Josiah
First, pray like a Saint Augustine. When there is an obvious need for a new reformation in the church, many Christians instinctively suggest that we need to go back and brush up on our theology. Absolutely, we must do so.
But whose theology should we turn to? The great Saint Augustine of Hippo should be topping our list. Augustine’s theology, as Peter Leithart put it, “is as big as reality, or bigger.” Augustine’s theology is the perfect antidote to both ivory-tower bookishness and pietistic sentimentalism. Augustine wrote his theology in the white heat of battle and controversy: with barbarians storming the gates of Rome, Donatists infiltrating the Church, and Pelagians attempting to resuscitate a humanistic parody of the Gospel. Not a single paragraph of his theology is divorced from the real, tangible concerns of Christian living; not a single sentence is detached from his concern to build a Christian civilization. Every page of his theology addresses the flesh-and-blood realities that real Christians face in real life.
Moreover, Augustine’s theology is a prayed theology. What does this mean? It means that everything Augustine wrote was suffused with the real presence of God in the world. This is most evident in Augustine’s Confessions, the entirety of which is written in prayer form. But even Augustine’s other writings, which employ a different genre, are all bathed in prayer. Augustine realized, like few theologians since have realized, that true theology will always result in a deeper fellowship between God and man. If our theology fails to get us on our knees, if it fails to get us in closer fellowship with our Creator and Savior, and if it fails to equip us to take dominion in the name of King Jesus, then it is no theology at all, but simply a Gnostic pietism veiled in theological vocabulary.
Augustine laid a foundation for the Christendom which followed; when we learn to pray as Augustine prayed, we too might see a new Christendom in our day.
Second, know the times like an Edmund Burke. Burke was the great Member of Parliament in the late eighteenth century who witnessed many tumultuous changes in England and Europe: the American War for Independence, Britain’s unsteady relations with India, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic War which followed. He was a modern man of Issachar (1 Chron. 12:32). What set him apart from other capable men his age was his commitment to “permanent things” in an age of revolution. As Russell Kirk says of Burke,
He foresaw in the Age of Reason a scheme of innovation which was designed to turn society inside out, and he exposed this new menace to permanence with a passion of loathing that exceeded all his invectives against Tories and nabobs. For the great practical spokesman of the Whigs knew more of the wants of mankind than did all the galaxy of French economists and men of letters.
You would not know it by talking to “conservatives” today, but Edmund Burke is the intellectual father of modern conservatism. All Christians who wish to see a return of genuine, robust conservatism would do well to re-acquaint themselves with this master. Burke can teach us how to see through the illusions of propaganda; Burke can teach us how to expose the shallowness of sound-bite dialogue and bumper-sticker slogans that displace rigorous thought.
Most importantly, Burke can teach us how to fight today’s battles, not the battles of yesteryear. As Burke said in his magisterial Reflections on the Revolution in France,
Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice.… It is thus with all those, who attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under colour of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.
Satan is a master of disguises. If we desire to understand the times and expose the works of darkness in their current forms, we need to have our minds properly trained. Edmund Burke remains the best tutor in this regard.
Third, love the law of God like a King Josiah. Our day is both similar and dissimilar to the early days of Josiah’s reign. It is similar in that, like Josiah’s early days, there is virtually no memory of God’s law in our land; it is dissimilar in that, unlike Josiah’s early days, there are millions upon millions of copies of God’s law scattered all over our land. Josiah, when the Book of the Law was found, heard it and immediately tore his clothes; we, on the other hand, have in our possession the same Law, but rarely bother to read it and never consider allowing it to tear our hearts.
The Law of God is perfect, modern Christians have said, but it’s not very useful. Modern Christians have treated the Law of God like that old professor emeritus that some universities keep around campus: you wouldn’t think about sacking him, but you’re also not going to take him very seriously. Likewise, no modern Christian would dream of suggesting that Deuteronomy, for instance, should be ripped out of their Bibles, yet their ignorance of Deuteronomy is palpable.
It is high time that we once again be able to sing with sincerity what David, Josiah, and our Lord Jesus Christ sang: I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart (Ps. 40:8). We have a mandate to disciple the nations; but if our own lives, our own families, and our own churches are not conformed to the Law of God, we have nothing to offer the world.
Elections are important; politics is one of the many areas that must be brought into submission to Jesus Christ. But before we think about how we are going to influence the next election, we have work cut out for us. Let Saint Augustine and Edmund Burke and King Josiah guide us as we navigate ourselves through the many challenges of the Barack Obama presidency.
Endnotes: Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003), 47 Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001), 16. Kirk, 23. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: Penguin, 2004), 248–249
About the author: Rev. Bart Martin, B.S., U. S. Military Academy, M.Div., Reformed Episcopal Seminary, is an Ordained Deacon in Reformed Episcopal Church, Chaplain and Instructor of Theology at New Covenant Schools in Lynchburg, VA, and Minister-in-Charge of New Covenant Reformed Episcopal Church. He has a wife, Kristie, and four children, and is lamenting yet another Philadelphia Eagles NFC Championship debacle.
Article posted January 22, 2009