Officiating of Contracts and Blessings of Covenants

The October 2012 issue of The Lutheran, the news magazine of the ELCA, contains an article, “Lutherans & Politics,” by Darrel H. Jodock, appearing on pp. 20–25. On p. 24, the article states:

In matters of public policy, the distinction between the two governances means the church is not to insist that its priorities be made into law. In a religiously pluralistic society, what the church considers right behavior for its members may or may not serve the common good.

For example, Christians bless marriages, but marriage itself is a matter of the state. When a pastor officiates, he or she does so because of state authorization. In matters of marriage, therefore, the primary question for voters should not be what the Christian view of marriage is but what serves the interests of the community as a whole.

The state has a strong interest in stable families because abuse and neglect are costly. But the question of what compelling interest the state has in reserving marriage for heterosexuals deserves careful discussion. People need to decide what is good for society and vote accordingly, but the decision should not be made on the basis only of what Christianity favors. The state needs to protect non-Christians as well as Christians.

This contains several notions that seem odd, to say the least.

  • “… what the church considers right behavior for its members may or may not serve the common good.”
  • “… Christians bless marriages, but marriage itself is a matter of the state.”

These seem to be the two most significant and problematic statements in this portion of the article. They raise a number of questions.

  • What right behaviors does the Church commend that do not serve the common good?
  • How does one square the notion that “marriage itself is a matter of the state” with the liturgical declaration that “the scriptures teach us that the bond and covenant of marriage is a gift of God in which a man and a woman are joined as one, an image of the union of Christ and the church” (Pastoral Care, p. 288)?

On the first point, it seems that if the Church commends behaviors that accord with God’s Word, they would, by their very nature, serve the common good—at least as perceived from the vantage of the kingdom of God. It is hard to see that another perspective should matter to the Church.

On the second point, the quotation does—and rightly so—distinguish officiating and blessing. The pastor’s signature on the marriage license is the act that officiates, while the pastor’s presiding over the liturgical celebration is the act that leads the Church in blessing. Pastors would not need to serve as arms of the state, officiating at the signing of contracts, in order for them to preside over blessings of covenants in worship. The two are absolutely separable and it may be argued that to separate them would serve the common good by making clear the profound and ultimate difference between the two acts and the two items, namely contracts and covenants.

It seems to me that the Church rightly blesses marriages that, as the liturgy states, are “a gift of God in which a man and a woman are joined as one.” Such blessed unions are “image[ s ] of the union of Christ and the church.” Other contractual relationships, recognized as legal contracts by the state, which do not entail “a man and a woman … joined as one,” would not be “image[ s ] of the union of Christ and the church,” and would not, then, be blessed.

Thoughts About “The End of a Kansas Tradition: Moderation”

A blog on the Web site of the New York Times reflected upon The End of a Kansas Tradition: Moderation.

It’s always hard to put one’s finger on exactly what causes bodies of people to “flock” in particular directions. Nebraska, where I live, voted for FDR in 1932 and 1936, but in 1940 it voted Republican, and has, I think, in every election save 1964 (and Omaha’s district, for Obama in 2008). Kansas looks to have followed the same pattern, turning Republican in 1940, going for Johnson in 1964, and voting Republican for the presidency in all other elections.

In some ways the two states—Kansas and Nebraska—are similar, at least at the level of national elections. Nebraska has a tradition, to be broken this November, of sending relatively centrist Democrats to the Senate (Jim Exon, Bob Kerrey, and Ben Nelson). On the other hand, Nebraska’s unicameral makes comparisons at the statehouse level a little more dicey. Both states exhibit on odd phenomenon where conservatism and “ruralism” are positively correlated, and yet the rural economies depend so heavily upon federal support of agriculture, which is surely a more liberal notion, at least classically.

All of this would lead me to say that the “move to the right” is really the artifact of the decline of the center and the movement of both parties to what, in our country, passes for the extremes. It’s the difference between a rod and a dumbbell of equal masses. The polarity is a matter of distribution. In a nation with a small, undecided center and clusters at the poles, I’d argue that the “correct” candidates for any state are those representing the pole closer to the state’s behaviors. So, in the case of Kansas, given its performance in presidential politics, Republicans are a closer fit, just as Deb Fischer, a Republican, is a better fit to Nebraska than Bob Kerrey, Democrat, at least in 2012’s contest for the state’s open Senate seat.

As far as Secretary Sebelius goes, history will have to judge the influence of her department’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the fissure this created by its perceived (as by those who believe it has been an) infringement upon the free exercise of religion among the nation’s Catholics and others of like mind. I believe this will end up in the Supreme Court as a test of whether the government can constitutionally define what constitutes the free exercise of religion. I believe her rules are an unconstitutional overreach and stand at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church, in which she is a member.

“Wackos” is a little strong. Ferment and innovation typically come from the margins and are co-opted by the middle. This process has a tendency to grind down the burrs and rough edges. The process works the same, regardless of the pole.

Thoughts About “An Ideology without Promise”

Michael Gerson’s column, “An Ideology Without Promise,” appeared on the Web site of the Washington Post on Sept. 20, 2012.

Mr. Gerson’s attempt to help us see the need for subtlety and distinction in an age where the broad brush and the generalization are rampant is a noble one. I’d agree that clinging to ideologies does little to explain the complexity of our current circumstances. His indictment of reductionism is spot-on. What began as an acknowledgment of the Creator-endowed rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has become a frantic clinging to the society-guaranteed entitlements to something akin to “security, license, and the guarantee of painlessness.”

I believe that our culture, as embraced by both left and right, has gone a long way toward surrendering those rights because we find them a difficult and sometimes challenging responsibility to bear. Instead, we seek to minimize risk and hardship at the cost of our freedom, which as a gift from God, is always relentlessly communal and not individualistic.

Musing about “The Distress of the Privileged”

A Facebook friend suggested reading a column on The Weekly Sifting, “The Distressed of the Privileged.” This morning I set aside time to print, read, and ponder this “sifting.”

I found much to think through, but am drawn to one the “first things” in the column—privilege. I’m always on guard for conclusions slipping into lines of reasoning at the point of stating the premise. I would want to ask the author how he would define privilege and how he would distinguish it from advantage. Secondly, I would ask why he sees such a tight linkage between privilege [or advantage] and a sense of entitlement.

There are some other spots that give me reason to pause. One is where he seems to say that only certain people deserve justice. That seems to be a self-defeating or internally inconsistent notion, because if one’s concept of justice is that only some deserve justice, the critique could be that the concept is, in fact, an exercise in injustice.

I think he slips another leap in logic into his piece where he identifies an instance of “privileged distress” when “employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees.” The Catholic Church—I’ll assume this is what he means by “employer” —is not denying anyone the freedom to purchase contraception; it is simply making the argument that religious freedom is fatally compromised when the government asserts that it may decide what constitutes the free exercise of religion.

Anyway, that’s a sampling of thoughts that “The Distress of the Privileged” elicited in me this morning. It illustrates how essential is the task of clearly defining one’s presuppositions and terms, because while many of the same words are used by people who hold mutually contradictory positions, the framework of thoughts underlying those words begins with distinctly different beliefs about the nature of the world.

A Choice in the Matter

I’ve spent a bunch of time thinking about the upcoming presidential election. One of the ways I’ve approached the debate is to search for the deeper issues lurking below the pageantry, the bluster, the ads, the soundbites, and so on. The first observation is that the political spectrum in the U.S. is severely truncated, as compared to many European countries or Israel, for example, meaning that there is no viable party of the far left or right, when compared to the range of positions taken in other countries. One of the outcomes of the semi-establishment of our two parties in the official mechanisms of our country’s governments (such as the requirements for third parties to demonstrate specific levels of support to get names on ballots), is that both parties represents a diversity of causes and approaches within their boundaries. This, perhaps, is how diversity manifests itself here —in lieu of the rise of multiple viable parties. Despite the phenomenon of this two-party entrenchment, there remain some deeply distinctive approaches that divide the majority of Democrats from the majority of Republicans. Evidence of this divide includes meaning different things despite using the same words and using different words to describe concepts key to each party. This makes true conversation between the parties more difficult.

It’s been enlightening to plough through The Federalist Papers (a little more than two-thirds of the way, so far). James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sketched the differences between these two views in 1788. Little new has emerged since then. The debate then, as now, seems to hinge on what one sees as the fundamental unit of society. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but not horribly so, to say that one party sees rights, benefits, permissions, and so on flowing from government to the people, while the other party sees government receiving its powers from the people. One would be the Democrats, the other the Republicans. Where most of the conversations get caught is in both sides missing the point that one cannot prove the validity of one position over the other in any kind of empirical fashion. These beliefs operate as precisely that—beliefs. Because one person believes that government derives its power and authority from that which individuals delegate to it, that person then embraces the point of view that follows from that. One could—and many do—believe otherwise.

So, in many ways, the debate, such as it is, is exactly what we need to have, because the issue at the root is the issue at the root of civic faith. One side will never prove the other false, but one can or another can persuade converts to join up, shifting the balance of power. The performance of parties when in power is one tool of persuasion. This underlies the metric embedded in James Carville’s dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid.” When one looks at the economy as it performs when party X is in power, is one inclined to grant that party another term to place its hand on the tiller?

A new column appeared yesterday on the Web site of the London Telegraph. Written by a British columnist, it offers an outsider’s observation of our current debate. One might be tempted to say the writer, Janet Daley, doesn’t have a dog in the hunt, but the truth of the matter is that, given the role of the United States in global society, everyone has a dog in the hunt of this campaign. Even so, the perspective of someone who stands a little to the side of our national conversation is worth our attention. In her column (, she writes:

What is being challenged is nothing less than the most basic premise of the politics of the centre ground: that you can have free market economics and a democratic socialist welfare system at the same time. The magic formula in which the wealth produced by the market economy is redistributed by the state—from those who produce it to those whom the government believes deserve it—has gone bust. … The fantasy may be sustained for a while by the relentless production of phoney money to fund benefits and job-creation projects, until the economy is turned into a meaningless internal recycling mechanism in the style of the old Soviet Union.
Or else democratically elected governments can be replaced by puppet austerity regimes which are free to ignore the protests of the populace when they are deprived of their promised entitlements. You can, in other words, decide to debauch the currency which underwrites the market economy, or you can dispense with democracy.

This is how the perennial debate has manifested itself at the root of the divide between the parties in this election. If one buys the premise that we “… can have free market economics and a democratic socialist welfare system at the same time,” then one will find oneself much more comfortable in the Democrats’ fold. If one believes the premise is rather the converse, that we “… can have free market economics [or] a democratic socialist welfare system[, but not both] at the same time,” then one will find oneself much more comfortable in the Republicans’ fold.

One can extract programs and policies from these two premises. The Democrats propose to go “forward,” as the President’s campaign slogan phrases it, along the road of pursuing both. Republicans propose to choose free market economics on the grounds that the other premise is both untenable given the evidence provided by attempts to enact it and contrary to the roots, aspirations, and genius of American society. In short, Republicans say, “we will not debauch the currency which underwrites the market economy, nor will we dispense with democracy,” noting carefully that we’ve not yet dispensed with it, but that we are leaning towards the steps would take us to its dispensing. Rather, as Ms. Daley observed,

Contrary to what many know-nothing British observers seem to think, the message coming out of Tampa was not Tea Party extremism. It was just a reassertion of the basic values of American political culture: self-determination, individual aspiration and genuine community, as opposed to belief in the state as the fount of all social virtue.

So, can we find in our political opponents people worthy of engaging in a real debate over the root issues because the conversation is serious and involves existential questions? Can we acts as worthy heirs of our country’s founders, speaking as individuals who take the questions seriously because they mattered to Madison and Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson? Can we look at one another and say, “This is a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Let’s get it cleaned up so we have an exceptional America to hand on to our children”?

I believe we can.