Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On the Idolatry of Pluralism

A professor of theology and ethics at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond --one of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's "identity theological education partners" -- has penned an Op-ed posted online at the Associated Baptist Press website about "Pluralism as Idolatry." The essay clearly reveals how ignorant many moderate Baptist scholars are about Christian Reconstructionism, Dominionism, Christian Nationalism and modern white supremecism.

Tucked away in their book-lined offices, many moderate Baptist scholars are completely oblivious to the theological and political forces that are shaping life around them. Worse than that, they lack comprehension of their own faith tradition in sufficient depth to detect distortions of that tradition by those who intend to undermine it.

Professor Newman, like many other moderate Baptists, appears prepared to jettison the traditional, but now unpopular, Baptist stance toward separation of church and state. Rather than attack it directly, she says "All this is to the good." Then she contends that, in practice, the pluralism that separating church and state permits "masks" powers that are at odds with the life of the church. Pluralism tempts Christians to "practice idolatry" by assuming that "nations and markets ultimately determine history." She concludes,
It's easy today to imagine idolatry in terms of the golden calf. But our idols are more subtle. They are those "powers" that cause us to place the church in a limited sphere, handing the public over to the state and the market. My criticism of pluralism is not a matter of wanting to rule the world but rather a call to live in such a way that acknowledges the rule of God over all.
Critique's of the idols of nationalism and capitalism are commonplace and should be heeded. What is different about Newman's critique is her analysis of "the ideology of pluralism." There are at least two problems with it.

First, underlying her critique of pluralism "as a bond of peace" is an assumption that only "faith" is properly a bond of peace.

Whose faith?

Will there be peace when persons of different faiths live in ways that expect all others in the public sphere to acknowledge the rule of their God?

Newman's ethic falls short of the most basic rule of civility -- the golden rule. It lacks regard for the liberty of consciences other than those of culture-warrior Christians. It is a recipe for a return to the holy wars and religious wars that motivated Baptists, Deists and skeptics to separate church and state and advocate liberty of conscience for all.

Second, where did Newman find the inspiration to challenge pluralism and defend the intolerance of military Chaplain Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt?

She didn't get it from Thomas Helwys or Roger Williams or John Leland. She got it from Douglas Wilson the white supremecist, Christian Reconstructionist pastor of Christ's Church in Moscow, Idaho and editor of Credenda Agenda Magazine.

Wilson is an unashamed theocrat praying for "a second Christendom" who says, "When the Confederate States of America surrendered at Appomatox, the last nation of the older order (of Christendom) fell." He insists:
These prayers will be answered, so this means that the South will rise again. This is not said with any regional jingoistic fervor. So will New England rise again. So will Scotland. So will the Netherlands. And as the gospel comes to the uttermost regions for the first time, savage tribes will attend His word. The earth is the Lord's and He will have it.
Here's a quote from Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Idaho, citing an article from an issue of Wilson's Credenda that is no longer online:
In his regular column in Wilson's Credenda Agenda (vol. 3: nos. 9, 11), Greg Dickison, member of Wilson's Christ Church and a Moscow public defender, states that "if we could have it our way," then there would be capital punishment for "kidnapping, sorcery, bestiality, adultery, homosexuality, and cursing one's parents." Dickison also quotes biblical passages (without qualification) that support slavery as "ordained and regulated by God," death for apostasy (Deut. 13.6-9), and cutting off a woman's hand for touching a strange man's genitals (Deut. 25.11,12).

Do I think Professor Newman agrees with Douglas Wilson on all of this? Not for a minute. Do I think she is a Christian Reconstructionist because she quotes from one with obvious approval? No.

I think she doesn't have a clue about the theological convictions that underlie the source that she is quoting. That's not a problem peculiar to her. It is a problem that is widespread at a number of levels among moderate Baptist scholars.


Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Here is a reading list with a little emphasis on Idaho for people who need an update on religious movements in modern America:

The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism by James Aho.

Thy Kingdom Come by Randall Balmer

Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg.

Anonymous said...

While the content of this article was something I am used to seeing, it is difficult for me to express my disappointment at its source. Everyday I feel more and more like I will be fighting a battle I cannot win for the rest of my ministry. I will be battling those who are ignorant of the atrocities the Christian church has committed in the name of God. You would think we could learn a lesson from the brave Christians who went before us and were burned, hanged, drowned, beheaded or killed in some other terrible way just because their beliefs differed, even if only a little, from the religion of the state. Until today, the last place I expected to hear something like this was from a professor at a moderate Baptist seminary.

I don't have a Ph.D, and, in fact, I am only just starting my second year in divinity school. But, in that year, I have learned more than enough to make me absolutely sure that if we see the kind of change Dr. Newman is advocating, we will quickly return to a time when religious persecution runs rampant.

She chooses to quote Augustine, who says of national unity: ?[H]ow many great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity!? How can she not see that the very same statement would apply if we try to unite the world under, as she puts it "a call to live in such a way that acknowledges the rule of God over all?" We can't even decide what that means for Baptists, much less the rest of Christianity or other faiths.

I guess I should consider myself lucky that I have been taught by professors such as Bill Leonard, James Dunn, and Melissa Rogers. They have taught me the history of theocracies, the importance of the separation of church and state, and the necessity for the church to learn to live and work in a pluralistic society. So, I guess I will follow Paul's advice to Timothy to "fight the good fight" even when I seem to be hopelessly outnumbered by those who seem content in their ignorance.

Roger said...

>They have taught me the history of theocracies, the importance of the separation of church and state, and the necessity for the church to learn to live and work in a pluralistic society.

For some thought-provoking points regarding theocracy (is there a NT precedent for it?), church/state separation - as it is viewed today vs. the time of the founding fathers, and the role of the church as salt and light, you can check out this page with audio clips:

The dangers of a false view of reality

Feel free to ask some of your professors those questions as well and see what they think.

clinton d. berry said...

I consider myself conservative and I disagree with the premise that Pluralism is a form of Idolatry. In fact, article 6 of the Constitution sets the framework and encourages pluralism. This is the antithesis of ONE STATE SUPREME

I consider myself a true Conservative because I am a believer in Constitutional Constructionism. To Conserve that which is essential as article 6 just that. Anyhow, when it comes to the Christian Reconstructionist...I understand that according to Dr Gary North...his father in law...EL RUSHDOONEY COULD NOT ACCEPT ARTICLE 6. even though it was as plain as the nose on his face.

Snoofy said...

The article is a bit hard to follow.

As I read it, I don't believe Professor Newman is advocating that a pluralism of individual rights should be denied. Rather, she seems to be saying that pluralism should not intimidate an individual not to advance or defend one's particular point-of-view in the public square. She also seems to be saying pluralism as a metaphysic is deficient in content. With this I would agree.

Beth Newman said...

Stripped of its abuse (I am "completely oblivious," "ignorant," and "lacking in comprehension"), its snidness (I am writing this while "tucked away in [my] book lined office"), and its guilt by association tactics (if I had quoted Kipling would it have been necessary to say that I probably don't admire the British imperialism of the 19th century), Dr. Prescott's critique of me amounts to a single point-- I am not his kind of Baptist. And there is a further implication on his part--this is dangerous.

I plead guilty to the first. I am not his kind of Baptist. I won't call him "clueless," but merely observe that there are varying accounts of Baptist history, theology and politics, and of how Helwys, Williams, Leland and others in the ?communion of saints? might be understood.

Thomas Helwys penned ?God save ye king? (1611) because he believed the king (the state) had usurped the authority of God, and had thus set itself up as an idol. To the extent that the ideology of pluralism legitimizes ultimate allegiance to the nation, then it too is a form of idolatry. This argument is not a defense of theocracy but a call for the church to be the church. The means the polis called church (in the Aristotelian sense of the word polis) ought to be more determinative for our lives as Christians than the politics of any nation-state. If this is not the case, then we are in fact doing the very thing our Baptist forebears warned against.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...


I did let my frustration with the source you quoted prompt an unduly caustic tone in my remarks. I appologize for the tone, but not the content of my critique.

As for the content of your response,
it's hard for me to comprehend how Baptists ever came to believe that the New Testament church was patterned after Aristotle's polis.

Baptists have sometimes been called "primitivists" in their ecclesiology but not often have they been called "Aristotelians."

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have a widely recognized allegiance to Aristotelian thought.

Steve Harmon said...

Dr. Prescott's contrast between Baptists and Catholics regarding their respective relationships to Aristotelian terminology and concepts may be a bit overdrawn. While no one can accuse the earliest Baptists of being Aristotelian philosophical foundationalists, some of them did in fact incorporate the language and logic of Aristotle into the classical confessions and treatises of the Baptist tradition. John Smyth was notable in this regard, even in his ecclesiology (see Richard Andrew Rankin, "The Use of Aristotelian Logic and Metaphysical Principles in the Ecclesiology of John Smyth" [Ph.D. dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1994]), and Article 8 of the 1611 confession "A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam" begins its Christological affirmations with this language: "That IESVS CHRIST, the Sonne off GOD the second Person, or subsistence in the Trinity...." Any way you slice it, "subsistence" is a theological term laden with Aristotelian metaphysical baggage and mediated to these early Baptists by the patristic and medieval theological tradition. Nevertheless, Dr. Prescott does correctly suggest that an Aristotelian philosophical foundationalism is more characteristic of the Roman Catholic tradition than it has been of the Baptist tradition; yet he incorrectly reads Beth Newman's rejoinder as a claim that early Baptists believed that the New Testament church was patterned after the Aristotelian polis. Rather, Beth employed the Aristotelian sense of the word "polis" in order to underscore the nature of the church as a community of responsible citizens, a community that for the Christian has priority to the community that is the civil polis.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Dr. Curtis Freeman sent the following comment by e-mail:


Your comments to Beth were not just unfair. They were shrill. What you have yet to concede is that there is a different understanding of Baptist heritage with regard to liberty than the libertarian one you continue to hold up as ?the? tradition. I don?t deny it?s been the popular one of Baptist liberals and moderates, even though I?m convinced it?s not well founded historically (not to mention theologically). For example, in your recent blog you state: ?Roger Williams was one of our great philosophers in the separation of church and state tradition, contrasting the garden of religious faith against the wilderness of politics and upholding the garden over the wilderness. And John Leland, who inherited in the Baptist tradition Roger Williams' ideals, was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson's and was instrumental in the passage of the First Amendment to the American Constitution.?

Of course anyone who?s read Williams would never mistake him for a philosopher, especially not a political philosopher. What your comment assumes is that Leland gets Williams right. Williams makes allusion to the garden image several times in his complete writings. But he is not making a case for separation of church and state (which Leland is). He was not worried about the integrity of the state (certainly not democracy), but rather with the purity of the church. Specifically, he is reflecting an ongoing conversation/controversy with John Robinson and other Separatists who were contending about how far they had to separate from the whore. Robinson said that only the table (LS) needed to be ?hedged.? Williams disagreed. He said one sip from the whore?s cup corrupts the church. He contended that all the ordinances of the church should be hedged. So believers must not pray with unbelievers (ie. the initial subject of his controversy with John Cotton). Neither should believers consent to unbelievers making oaths (which magistrates did). Such acts were not uncivil. They were blasphemous. Williams took the extreme view that unbelievers not be permitted to participate in any of the ordinances of the church. The garden of the church must be hedged from the world. When he concluded that even a complete hedge wouldn?t work, Williams gave up on the Baptists and said we must wait till Jesus comes back to restore the integrity of the church and its ordinances.

How did such a separatist puritan theology ever get so misconstrued by John Leland and especially the liberal democrats of the 20th century? In 1951 Winthrop Hudson wrote an article for The Christian Century entitled ?Roger Williams, No Secularist.? In that brief piece Hudson displays what Le Roy Moore, Sacvn Bercovitch, and a host of critical scholars have since exposed?namely that the account of Roger Williams as a proto-Jeffersonian defender of liberal individualism is a myth without basis in fact. This persistent account that was incorporated into the canonical story of Baptist history (at least in North America) owes its popularity in part to the influence of Vernon Parrington?s famous 1927 essay.

I won?t belabor the point. Let me only say that I?m willing to admit you have a particular view of Williams that is widely held among your peers. Beth, I think represents a different take on the Baptist heritage that is more catholic than liberal. She might have exercised better judgment in a popular column by not quoting someone whose larger program she clearly does not agree, as she has stated. But you have failed to grasp that the Baptist tradition does not speak with a single libertarian voice, even if you construe those like Williams to agree with you about liberal democracy. This is the substance of Beth?s point.

I tried to post this comment on your blog but was not permitted. I?d be pleased if you could do so.

Thank you,


Curtis W. Freeman
Research Professor of Theology
Director of the Baptist House of Studies
Duke Divinity School
Box 90966
Durham, NC 27708-0966
(919) 660-3401 Phone
(919) 660-3473 Fax E-mail

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...


To post a comment you need to register and create a profile with blogger.

There's little doubt that some modern Baptists have a more "Catholic" view than mine. I doubt that many Baptists in the past shared this fondness for Catholic theology.

The labels you use to caricaturize thought do little to shed light on Baptist thought.

The terms secularism, libertarianism, and liberalism were not in use in either Williams' or Leland's day with the meanings they are given by modern communitarians.

I don't see much affinity in either Williams' or Lelands' thought for communitarianism.

Advocating church-state separation is not equivalent to idolizing the nation-state. It checks any pretension of the nation-state and its' agents from attempting to exercise authority over the conscience of religious minorities.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

"Advocating church-state separation is not equivalent to idolizing the nation-state." It can be either one, depending on who is advocating for it and with what dimensions. For instance, when France recently required Muslim women to remove their headscarves in the French public schools, I thought this illustrated a form of French nationalism (going all the way back before the French Revolution) which subordinates religious identity to national identity--and that is idolatrous.

But it need not be so. I don't take Beth Newman's concerns lightly, but I was shocked to read her article because it seems clear to me that theocratic or semi-theocratic threats are far more imminent at this point in U.S. history than is secularist pluralism AS AN IDOLATRY. I have frequently complained to Stanley Hauerwas (who was one of Beth's teachers and whom I think is influencing her at this point, not some Dominionist) that he is warning constantly about lesser threats in a way that makes us miss the greater current dangers.
It's like when German Christians wouldn't support the Weimar Republic because it was secular and influenced by the French Enlightenment--and so they undermined the Weimar Republic and never saw the MUCH LARGER dangers of National Socialism waiting in the wings.

While I would have phrased criticisms of Beth's article in a far more nuanced manner, I am disappointed in what she wrote. I have, however, grown used to Curtis Freeman misusing ideas from Yoder and McClendon to support an agenda with which they would strongly disagree.