National Conservatism and Protestant Ecclesiology


Published October 20, 2022

Theopolis

In his pungent salvo against “national conservatism,” first published at Law and Liberty and now expanded and nuanced for this Theopolis Conversation, James Rogers fires a broadside against what he sees as the movement’s political idolatry, calling Christians to repent and embrace the only authentically biblical politics: an “ecclesiocentric” politics.

In his main critique, unfortunately, Rogers fails to land a single blow, for he fights without an adversary: no serious national conservative that I am aware of is guilty of the elementary errors he attributes to them. If this were all there were to Rogers’s essay, my response would be brief indeed. However, I worry that Rogers’s own constructive proposal for an “ecclesiocentric” politics, while making many general points that any Christian should agree with, veers at points into its own form of idolatry, one every bit as dangerous as the one he imagines to discern among the national conservatives.

Addressing the Charge of Political Idolatry

Let’s begin with Rogers’s critique. Although worded in terms of a sin of commission—national conservatives are divinizing politics and “looking for a church in the state,” to quote the title of Rogers’s original piece—he is never able to offer more than negative evidence for this, and instead falls back on outlining a sin of omission. National conservatives err, it seems, because of what they don’t talk about: a specifically Christian vision of politics, and the role of the church in the nation. Instead, he complains, they content themselves with vague gestures toward the need for “public religion” and “the congregation.” This is a curious line of critique.

For one, no group in recent memory has been as explicit about the need for publicly-recognized, state-promoted religion as the national conservatives—and the movement’s leader, Yoram Hazony, has constantly stressed that, for America at least, this means Protestant Christianity. In an era when even devout religious conservatives are too afraid to ask for more than the carve-outs of “religious liberty” in an otherwise secular polity, Rogers should be lustily cheering national conservatism’s move toward a politics that publicly recognizes and promotes the church.

For another, Rogers’s read of national conservatism seems to be confined purely to its pithy “Statement of Principles”: if something is not spelled out at length in that programmatic document, then we are to assume that it constitutes no part of the national conservative vision—no matter how much the movement’s exponents may address the issue in their speeches and writings. It is as if one were to take Nicene Christianity to task for being “anti-sacramental” because the text of the Nicene Creed contains no explicit mention of the Eucharist. The simple fact is that many leading national conservatives have frequently expounded on the theological particulars on which he blames them for remaining silent.

Again, we might point out that the Statement of Principles was a political statement, and therefore, sensibly enough, focused on articulating political principles. Rogers goes so far as to complain that the statement does not present “the liberation of the Gospel.” One might almost as justly complain that an open letter from economists calling for tougher measures against inflation failed to delve into the spiritual maladies at the root of economic disorder. To be sure, politics is inescapably religious—as national conservatives have stressed more than anyone—but in a consensus document drafted by co-belligerents of different faiths, is it really reasonable to ask for an open profession that Jesus Christ is Lord? Is it not enough that Yoram Hazony, himself an Orthodox Jew, believes that in the United States of America, the principles of national conservatism should mean that our governing documents acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord?

Ultimately, Rogers worries that by failing to talk at more length about the church, national conservatives will make an idol of the nation-state by failing to realize how the church relativizes all this-worldly obligations. This is, to be sure, a real temptation worth warning against and guarding against. There have been many nationalisms through the centuries that have made this error, with Nazi Germany only the most openly demonic in its godlike pretensions. The human heart is, as John Calvin noted, a factory of idols, and one of the largest production lines in that factory is dedicated to national and political idols. But for the national conservatives I know, a key reason the nation needs the Christian religion is precisely because it makes possible a limited state; precisely because Scripture warns us to always look beyond the present age to an eschatological horizon, we may work vigorously for political reform without vesting all our hopes in it. The reason the nation must acknowledge the congregation is because the latter serves as a sign of the former’s limits, and a promise that it will one day be transcended.

So much for Rogers’s specific critique of national conservatism.

“Ecclesiocentrism” and Protestant Ecclesiology

I worry, however, that in attempting to offer an “ecclesiocentric” antidote to the perceived failures of national conservatives, Rogers himself collapses the eschatological horizon fundamental to Christian politics and makes an idol out of the institutional church.

To be sure, I would not make this claim dogmatically, for Rogers’s views on this point are, for me at least, not easy to pin down. Much of what he says, any good Christian (or any good Protestant at least) would agree with. Over and over, he highlights the “not yet” dimension of this church-centered politics; we should live now in light of the Age to Come, but should not pretend that we live in the Age to Come. Accordingly, there is a “subordinate integrity” to the political domain which licenses the pursuit of particular national political goods in the present age, without allowing the state to aspire to religious purity.

Thus, he spends more than a quarter of the essay making the case for a limited practical pluralism within a Christian nation: non-believers should be given grace and hospitality within civil society. But who is this aimed against? Who is arguing otherwise? Perhaps, just possibly, if Rogers were writing against the crankier Catholic integralists, he might need to insist on the need for religious toleration in a Christian state, though few even of these would disagree, but among national conservative ranks, Rogers is simply preaching to the choir here. Indeed, his insistence that civil government must not preach the Gospel rings oddly in the ears of a reader who has just heard Rogers complaining that NatCons don’t preach the Gospel in their statement of political principles. More than any other movement in recent memory, national conservatism has facilitated the revival of political Protestantism, the unique fusion of public religion and religious toleration that was the legacy of the Protestant Reformation.

Alongside Rogers’s more guarded and conventional statements, however, are several that are frankly bewildering, and that seem to ignore the eschatological horizon that he elsewhere emphasizes. For instance, in closing he grandly declares,

“Unlike the metaphorical national body, only the Church offers a real social Body. As French philosopher Jean-Louise Chretien pointed out,

Amongst collective bodies, only the body of Christ is truly personal and one under one head. So only here does the analogy to an individual body really work. Other collective bodies turn tyrannical because their bodiliness is incomplete and to a degree a lie.’”

It is difficult to tell whether “the Church” in this statement refers to the visible and historical church, or the invisible and eschatological church. The body of Christ is indeed under one head, but the identity and unity of this body are not manifest now; only the identity and unity of particular organized church bodies are—and these, mixing wheat and tares, offer only an imperfect approximation of the one body of those spiritually united to Christ. Chretien, as a Catholic, can pretend that the Church exists as a single “real social body” visible now on earth, but as Protestants, we must firmly and unequivocally part ways; for it was on this point, more than any other, that the whole Reformation turned.

As soon as one tries to put flesh on such rhetorical perorations, one finds oneself facing practical political questions that Rogers evades. If the church right now comprises a single social body more “real” than nations or national churches, must Christians in one country always refuse to go to war against Christians in another country, no matter what injustices the latter commit? If such intra-Christian wars are permitted sometimes but not ordinarily, who is tasked with making the call as to when? If we are dealing with a true universal polis here in history, can we avoid the necessity for a universal head here on earth? Rome’s conclusions follow inevitably from Rogers’s premises.

Rogers’s remarks on church government are similarly concerning. He takes issue with the idea that “civil jurisdiction is universal or encompassing over a given jurisdiction while ecclesial jurisdiction is limited.” No, he says, our Protestant confessions “identify the Church as a government separate from the civil government.” This latter quote contains a hyperlink, one that takes the reader not to a Protestant confession, but to an essay critiquing yours truly. In that essay, however, Rogers fails to engage my fundamental arguments on the issue in question: namely, that for Protestants, church government is not a form of coercive jurisdiction, but merely proclamatory. The task of the church qua church is to announce future acts of judgment, rather than enacting present acts of judgment. And since the future acts will be executed by Christ, who alone is infallible, the church’s announced judgments are provisional, binding on conscience only insofar as they faithfully expound and apply the Word. Particular churches may have quasi-political power over their members, but this exists within, not above, the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate.

By blurring boundaries that the Protestant confessions keep crystal-clear, Rogers sows the seeds of conflict between the Christian’s national citizenship and heavenly citizenship, without offering guidance on how to reconcile the two loyalties. Consider such declarations as “the Church is the Christian’s first and most important family, the Church is the Christian’s first polis, and the Church is the Christian’s first ethnos.” Does this mean that the Church constitutes a higher political loyalty that trumps particular civil obligations, as Rome argued? Or merely that the Christian must find their ultimate identity in Christ rather than in state or nation? By “first” he cannot mean temporally prior, for by his own admission, the church appears as an eschatological fulfillment, rather than a creational structure.

Putting First Things First

Indeed, at the heart of Rogers’s argument is an equivocation between “first” and “last” that we must disentangle if we are to find a clear path forward for the Christian trying to faithfully affirm temporal structures without finding his rest in them.

Rogers complains that national conservatives make “worldly institutions like the nation-state or traditional family” to be “fundamental.” Against this, he insists that “the Church is the Christian’s first and fundamental family.” When explaining what he means by this, however, he toggles to language of “ultimate”: the civil government’s actions should not be taken as “real and ultimate” and the family must find “its ultimate aspirations, its telos…realized and reflected only in the Church.” But first things are not the same as last things, for our God is a God of history. God established the human race with certain “fundamental” structures built into it from the beginning, as the first natural forms in which humanity carried out its calling as image-bearers and dominion-taking. The family and the polis are among these. To call these “fundamental” is simply to affirm natural law and biblical history.

Now, to be sure, our end is not our beginning; our end is greater and higher than our beginning. From the particularity of the family and nation, well-suited to our finitude in the present age, God fashions a universal family and nation which will be made manifest at the last day—and at that last day, family and nation will both pass away as obsolete, along with many other features of our current human condition. But while Rogers is right to say that the church discloses the final telos or end of these creational communities, he is wrong to suggest that this means the church has already displaced such natural structures as “fundamental”—that is, as the foundations upon which civilization and the church itself are built.

Moreover, while I appreciate Rogers’s use of Aristotelian teleology, his equivocation between natural and supernatural lays the groundwork for serious ethical confusion. For instance, consider his claim that “the true nature of marriage is revealed only in the eschaton.” In one sense this is true, but does this mean that since sexual reproduction is left behind in the eschaton, sex is not part of the “true nature of marriage” here and now? And if so, does that mean that, if we are looking for ethical norms to guide our marriage, true Christian marriage is celibate? So some Christians have argued at various times, precisely because they failed to distinguish between the persisting natural ends of the institution and its future supernatural fulfillment. Indeed, this very confusion is on vivid display in woke Christianity’s current embrace of Paul’s dictum that “there is no male nor female in Christ Jesus” to insist on the erasure of sexual difference.

All of this applies mutatis mutandis, as Rogers himself insists, to politics. Yes, the political community will find its ultimate telos in the abnegation of its provisional telos, much as parenting does. But just because the final end of parenting is the independence of the child, it does not follow that we respect “the true nature” of parenting by giving our 10-year-old the keys to the car. Nor should we allow ourselves to think that because the kings of this earth will one day lay their scepters at Jesus’s feet, they should therefore here and now refuse to exercise dominion over their particular domains. And, just as the child should love, honor, and obey his parents now for the sake of Christ, so the Christian citizen should love, honor, and obey his nation and its rulers for the sake of Christ.

Does this mean making an idol of the family, or of the nation? Does it mean putting the demands of earthly loyalties or the commands of earthly authorities above the clear demands and commands of Christ? Absolutely not. Rogers is certainly right to stress the conflict of loyalties that will always be a part of faithful Christian citizenship, and right to warn against the temptation to make a God of Caesar. However, our Protestant forefathers invested great effort in developing a theological, ethical, and political framework that would enable the believer to navigate these treacherous paths with confidence and care. This framework included a prominent but appropriately-limited place for the nation and the national church. In my view, Protestants would be rash to trade this rich birthright for an undercooked mess of “ecclesiocentric” pottage.

Bradford Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh) is the President of the Davenant Institute and Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His scholarship ranges widely over the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology, with a particular focus on the thought of Richard Hooker. He is the author of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty (Eerdmans, 2017), and The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (Davenant, 2017), among other works. More recently, he has written extensively on politics and political theory for publications such as WORLD Magazine, The American Conservative, American Reformer, Modern Age, American Affairs, and National Affairs.


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