Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Overcoming Clown World

America became the model liberal nation, and, after England, the exemplar of liberalism to the world.

-          Ralph Raico, describing America after the Revolutionary War

It didn’t last long, but it was true for a time.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

-          John Adams

No, this isn’t a  post about the excellence of the US Constitution, as I side much more with Lysander Spooner on this:

But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain - that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.

In fact, a moral and religious people require little of what the US Constitution, or any constitution, has to offer.  A moral and religious people would live in accord with the natural law – and, for those Christians who don’t like those words, the Ten Commandments.  In those commandments, one finds enough governance to keep the peace, enjoy property, and respect life.

So, what is this post about? It's a look at the post-liberal West.  World War One certainly was the suicide of the West, as described by Jacques Barzun. Whatever classical liberalism that existed prior to the war was murdered in the war.  For the balance of the twentieth century, the West has been living on the fumes of that previous order.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes why, in his 1983 Templeton Address:

…if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: “Men have forgotten God.” The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.

Somewhere between the reaction to September 11 and the reaction to covid, the last remaining fumes of classical liberalism all disappeared.  We now speak openly of a post-liberal time.  At the same time, we speak openly of a meaning crisis.  The roots of both are the same; the solution to both is the same.

Jonathan Leeman has written A New Christian Authoritarianism?  In this, he challenges the notions of those like Doug Wilson and others – those he labels as ““general-equity theonomist,” “Christian nationalist” “magisterial Protestant,” “Roman Catholic integralist,” or, in legal circles, “common good constitutionalist….””

Such as these point to the failure of liberalism – something many people are now speaking to, in what is certainly a post-liberal time.  Leeman summarizes this view as follows:

The middle ground of classical liberalism’s restrained approach to governmental power has proven inadequate for maintaining a moral, religious, and just society. The liberal DNA of the American Experiment, following secular Jeffersonian and Madisonian trajectories, has betrayed us.

And in this summary – setting aside if it is an accurate portrayal of those about whom Leeman is writing – one can see the flaw in the entire issue, the flaw for any who view that the failure (or solution) is primarily to be found in classical liberalism. 

Certainly, classical liberalism offered a door through which such a failure could walk; it has no means by which to defend this door.  Classical liberalism wasn’t designed to guard this door – and it was the guards of this door that allowed for the failure of the promise of classical liberalism.

And for this, go back to the quote by John Adams.  In whose hands was the responsibility of training up a moral and religious people?  Answer that question, and one will understand where the fault lies – why we are in this post-liberal society – clown world, as Wilson rightly describes it.

Further describing those like Wilson, Leeman offers:

They believe the government should possess authority over religion and establishments of religion in a manner that liberalism does not, or at least does not intend to.

Again, my intent is not to examine if Leeman’s portrayal of Wilson’s views is accurate.  At least to the extent I understand Wilson’s views (I cannot speak to the views of others identified by Leeman), there seems to be a bit of knocking down a strawman.  However, Wilson has shared that Leeman and he have exchanged on the topic, so…maybe not.  Again, I will stay out of this aspect of Leeman’s commentary.

Instead, I will point to the fault of this idea (in agreement with Leeman) – that government is somehow called to possess authority over religion.  It is certainly the model of the medieval Eastern Church; it is a model which I have reviewed via the work of John Strickland (thirty-six posts, start from the oldest if you wish to work through this) and have suggested is doomed to fail.

Leeman also points to why such a model is faulty.  It is a question of spheres: in which sphere does government have authority, and in which sphere does the Church have authority?  He sees these as two different spheres as do I.  However, the question is: which drives – or should drive – the other?

Politics is downstream of culture.  And in this, the cause of the failure of liberalism will be found.  It is the Church (broadly speaking) that has failed in its role of developing and sustaining a moral and religious people.

…they [these post-liberal Christian nationalists] believe that God intends for the governments of the nations to enforce not just the horizontally directed second table of the Ten Commandments (commandments 5 to 10), but also the vertically directed first table (commandments 1 to 4).

To the extent this is true of their beliefs, I side with Leeman.  Well, mostly.  Yes, it is the Church to teach the first table; it is the government’s role to enforce (most of) the second table.  But whose role is it to teach the second table – to ensure we have a moral and religious society?  Of course, this falls on the Church.

It is like the difference of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would want done to you) and the Silver Rule (don’t do unto others what you would not want done to you).  The Church is to teach the former – natural law ethic; the government punishes the latter (violations of natural rights).  But the Church must also teach the latter.

For those who haven’t followed my work on differentiating these two concepts (and many confuse the words), I summarize: natural law describes ethical behavior; natural rights are those rights, that if violated, allow for physical self-defense and / or punishment by government actors.

Natural law compels me to love my neighbor; but my neighbor has no natural right to my being so compelled to love him.  I am required by natural law to love my neighbor, but my neighbor isn’t the one who has a claim on me if I fail at this requirement.  My failure is between me and God – and it is the Church that has God’s authority in such matters.

Thomas Aquinas sums it up this way, demonstrating that not all violations of natural law are to be forbidden by human law; only those that violate another’s natural rights:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. (Emphasis added)

Leeman notes that arguments in support of natural law have grown in Christian circles in proportion to the society that has openly defied natural law – in other words, as a reaction to alphabetism. 

The topic of natural law and natural rights are confused even in this piece by Leeman.  He notes that the apostles Peter and Paul write that government is to punish the bad and reward the good.  But which “bad” is to be punished?  Does it include the first table of the Decalogue?  He writes:

[Brad] Littlejohn says the natural law comprises that subset. Yet why that assumption? What’s the basis for it? Scripture doesn’t say that’s the case.  … Furthermore, doesn’t the natural law apply to the desires and worship of our hearts?

Again, I won’t comment on if Littlejohn actually wrote this.  But the subset of bads to be punished are those that violate natural rights, not those that violate natural law.  The Good Samaritan obeyed natural law when he showed charity; had he not shown charity, he would not have been punished by the government as the injured man had no natural right in the Samaritan’s charity.

The adulterer was told to go and sin no more by Jesus; He did not command the physical punishment of stoning.  She violated natural law, but did not violate another’s natural right.

Leeman sees a point to the arguments made by these post-liberal Christians:

…from time to time, American Christians will forget about the right/wrong biblical framework for public morality and default entirely to the free/unfree liberal framework.

How often are the topics of sin and hell mentioned: in a sermon, in the public square, when discussing what tolerance and Christian love mean?

What’s the problem with that? It leads Christians to morally abdicate from the public square. They become unwilling to make any moral impositions on non-believers whatsoever. It’s as if their brains become so trained in the moral logic of liberalism, they become unable to apply any other moral logic than “freedom first.”

Which comes first: liberty, or the one religion that is the foundation for the liberty we enjoy?  Confusing the order has contributed greatly to the clown world we now live in.  And for this, those like Wilson and Leeman are trying to find a way through.


It is valuable that the dialogue is moving in this direction – recognizing that natural law plays a role, working to clarify the different jurisdictions of Church and state.  But it seems to be moving at an almost glacial pace, and much of the discussion remains confused.

Natural law vs. natural rights: even some of the most distinguished scholars on these topics get these two concepts confused.  Go back and read Aquinas; he resolved this issue a thousand years ago, and Jesus did more than a thousand years before that.

For the state: limit your actions to punishing violations of natural rights: violation against my person and property. This instead of being the greatest violator of my natural rights.

For the Church (and Christian-affiliated universities): create a moral and religious people.  Don’t shy away from teaching natural law as an ethic; don’t shy away from incorporating sin and hell when discussing the meaning of Christian love.

This is how, and the only way how, clown world can be turned before catastrophe.  Otherwise, it will certainly be turned after catastrophe.


  1. Excellent! An exquisite analysis!

    Both State and Church are made up of individuals, all of whom must be taught to recognize, not only their own natural rights, but also those of everyone else. These individuals must not only clamor to punish another's crimes, but should also be aware of their own and be willing to accept the dues imposed.

    For any society to work properly, individuals at the base level must moderate their own behavior, refusing to give in to the natural inclination to use force, fraud, or violence against another to enrich themselves or to hurt their neighbor.

    Granted that the state has the authority to punish bad behavior and the church has the authority to teach good behavior, but it is the responsibility of the individual in the pews to police himself. Since he has failed in doing so, it is not surprising that both state and church, which are comprised of many such individuals, have also failed.

    God works through institutions, to be sure, but it is individual man who builds those institutions in concert with other like-minded individuals. If there is a failure within the institutions, it is not the fault of the institution itself. Ultimately, the blame will be laid at the feet of the men and women who have created and sustained them.

    We must change ourselves, as individuals, first and foremost. This action will allow us to permeate the institution and change it for the better, like yeast which works through the whole loaf, changing a dull, drab mass into something which is a delight to eat.

    Politics is downstream from culture. Culture is downstream from the moral life of the individual. When we stand before God, we will have no one to blame except ourselves.

    1. "We must change ourselves, as individuals, first and foremost."

      Yes. And second, raise children who act with the same integrity. Do these two things, and one has done well.

  2. One of my mentors is Lysander Spooner and I am fully onboard with and endorse his concept of "No Treason".

    When I hear people decrying the current situation and then propose to correct it by going "back to the Constitution", I find it laughable. "What do you mean, go back? We have never left it."

    The fact is that, from the very beginning of the American experiment, the Constitution has been used by larcenous people to visit aggression on others. For a good example of this, learn about the Whiskey Rebellion, in which farmers of western Pennsylvania, thinking that the War for Independence had freed them from tyranny so they could now live their lives in peace, painfully learned by bitter experience that George Washington, the new King George, had only exchanged one abusive government for one more to his liking.

    The monolith known as the Constitution has been chipped away for nearly 250 years by anyone who wanted to hold power over his neighbors and enrich himself at their expense. Today, it is a deformed, strange, hideous version of the original, but it is still the Constitution. It is ironic that many Christians, who supposedly hold Jesus Christ in highest esteem, nevertheless worship the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land.

    It's no wonder we are in the current condition.

  3. I agree 99%, and to Roger's point, I too have a seemingly subtle difference of thought regarding the "authority of the church" in this role of "creat[ing] a moral and religious people". To whom was the Great Commission given: the disciples before the church was instituted. It was to them (the individuals as Roger puts it) that are given the authority of Christ to accomplish the charge (responsibility) given to them by Christ which, in turn, leads to the moral and religious people for whom and only for whom our Constitution can be effective. When we start extending that responsibility (and thus authority) to the "institution" of the church (which I do believe is legitimately charged per scripture with responsibilities and thus possessed of the commensurate authority, among them being the equipping of the saints) we see the historical excesses of the institutionalized church. I believe the family, being the first institution created by God, is also missing from this conversation. Recognizing you have in fact discussed this many time previously, I would nevertheless be interested in your thoughts specific to this post regarding the proper role of the the family and individual as "guards to the door" (a very accurate and helpful metaphor in my mind). By the way, I very much appreciate your posts. You have helped clarify much in my thinking regarding this pursuit of Liberty in society and how that properly aligns with our individual marching orders from on high as mentioned above.

    1. Thank you for the comment. As to your question regarding family, see my reply to Roger, above.

  4. Mike Maharrey of the 10 Tenth Amendment Center gave a great talk about why Spooner's quote is in fact wrong. In a nut shell, Constitutions don't enforce themselves. The failure is in enforcement. He read passages from Anti-federalists and Federalists alike that made very strong arguments.

    I also don't think the 10 Commandments are sufficient to run a society by themselves. The Decalogue is a good universal starting point but each nation, people, or community need their own particular legal system.

    Then you comment on an article from 9Marks. 9Marks is run by woke evangelical leaders that side with the left and give arguments for why Christians should vote Democrat, in other words against biblical morality. This article could be an exception to the rule but it is best to be careful.

    Also, Christian Nationalists don't call for the government to have authority over religion. I think Leeman is in error with this statement. I have in fact seen many CNs disagree with the point specifically. But they do go as far as having a pan-Protestant establishment for individual states, much like the states had at the founding. That puts Catholics in a tight spot, but I have also seen commentary denying that CNs want to outlaw Catholicism adjusting to a more pan-Christian establishment. They are split on government enforcement of the 1st table of the decalogue. I think it prudent to side with those who want to keep government out of enforcing religious belief. But how else to we make sure that government enforces the good without giving the government the Biblical definition of good. That isn't the government having authority over religion. It is Christians defining for government what should be punished and not. There is no way around that kind of interaction.

    But I still like the natural law/natural rights distinction and how it should be used as a guide to determine which things we use violence to punish and which we don't.


    1. "They are split on government enforcement of the 1st table of the decalogue. I think it prudent to side with those who want to keep government out of enforcing religious belief."

      I agree with you: it is prudent to side with those who want to keep government out of enforcing religious belief. But that's precisely what we have under secular governments.

      Think of it. Gay marriage, taxpayer-funded abortion, no-fault divorce, subsidized migration, enforced diversity, a "special relationship" with a Jewish state, and free and compulsory (at the same time!) anti-Christian "public" education.

      Every state is a confessional state. I don't know where anybody got the idea a secular state is a religiously neutral state.

    2. I agree that states are not neutral. There a semi-religious organizations themselves.

      I don't want the government involved in jailing or burning at the stake people who do or don't believe in pedobaptism or Calvinism vs Arminianism or Premillennialism vs Postmillenialism.

    3. RMB, to your points:

      I mentioned I was closer to Spooner, not in perfect agreement. Which comes back to the moral and religious people necessary to make the Constitution work. The one strong bit of evidence against even this: the very same founders who ratified the Constitution violated it meaningfully. I guess it is true: there are none righteous, no not one.

      Yes, the Decalogue is a starting point. To the extent the first table is faithfully followed, I can then have trust in what follows the Decalogue.

      Nine Marks - I don't know much about them beyond church recommendations when I am out of town. These have been hit or miss...

      As to your comments about CNs, and what Leeman writes about them - my sense is as you describe; I just didn't want to make statements in the post of which I was not quite sure.

  5. I don't think that it is sufficient to say that politics is downstream of culture. I think that culture is also heavily influenced by power, as in the powerful attract followers which drives culture. It is a web, not a waterfall. Academic Agent is working on this.

    1. Read 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles to see this principle on display. The obedience of the people to God was significantly affected by the religiosity of the king in power.

  6. Like all political polytheists Leeman doesn't believe that the bible provides explicit direction on how a civil government should be operated. Christ died on the cross to redeem the individual but those individuals in no way should redeem the institutions of society. The old testament case laws? Get outta here! Only confessing Christians should be permitted citizenship and the ability to govern? No way!

    Men like this are shocked. Shocked, I tell you! That people with rival confessions to theirs, upon gaining political power, seek to diminish the public influence of Christianity. However, men like this don't really mind so much. They don't like confrontation.

    Now, on the other hand, if say the church they attend was to recommend the appointment as pastor a confessing atheist they would protest that should this happen it would undermine the institution. They can see that clearly in regards to the church. They can also see it clearly if they were to counsel a young couple who were thinking about marriage in which one was a Christian and the other was and atheist that either one or the other view would ultimately prevail in their relationship. Especially as it relates to the future education and upbringing of their children. They can see that there is no neutrality. It is zero-sum.

    But when the topic gets to civil government why the scales make their way back to their eye's and in their best non-confrontational way they declare that, wait for it...there is neutrality after all! It just hasn't been pursued effectively yet in the civil government realm! Leeman says regarding Christian civil government participation:

    "...use whatever political stewardship you have (whether voting, lobbying, paying taxes, or acting as a cupbearer to the king) to work for a government that administers the justice requisite for protecting human life, secures the conditions necessary for fulfilling the dominion mandate, and provides a platform for God’s people to declare God’s perfect judgment and salvation."

    God's perfect judgement! Declare it! Don't implement it you heathens! It isn't perfect enough for the basis of civil government judgements. For that we must seek the perfect judgement of autonomous man who we trust will be a strong ally in pursuing the dominion mandate for our God! He promised to be fair!

    1. I have grown more an more in line with this view. I keep in mind, we are living in Christ's Kingdom today, right here, right now, and have been for two thousand years.

    2. I have become convinced over the last several years that the NAP is insufficient for liberty, or even a cohesive, peaceful society. Now I'm trying to dive into this newer (to me) area of how Christian governance and society could/should work. There is a lot out there and its hard to know where to start.

      Those of you in the libertarian world for many years may recognize C Jay Engel's name. He started the austro-libertarian magazine, later renamed to Bastion. He started moving in a more conservative direction, and I was learning a great deal from his writing, but then he stepped back for awhile. he's now back, and just wrote a piece that touches on his current views of these things. I thought it was interesting because he seems to be going in the opposite direction as what you are describing. More classical 2 kingdoms vs theonomy. Here is a snippet:

      "I do not understand the function of the Bible in the same way that the theonomists do as it relates to temporal society. I do not think all political action needs to be exegetically sourced or defended any more than all business action needs to be exegetically sourced or defended. Unlike the theonomists, I don’t demand of political theory and the exercise of statecraft that it be constantly derived from the Bible alone. I believe flexibility and the constant awareness of real world political threats are key components of political activity. This means that I do not operate on the method that seeks to introduce themes from Mosaic civil law into modern society except inasmuch as the situation may call for it; it is a legitimate and authority-bearing (because it is infallible) source of guidance, and it is part of our heritage.

      "This was John Calvin’s view [...]"


      I'd be very interested the hear thoughts on this, and other sources recommended to explore around these issues.


    3. I will not comment on Engel's piece directly.

      It seems to me that there must be some target at which we aim, politically. Further, it seems to me that there must be some target at which we aim, morally.

      These targets cannot be at odds. They must be complimentary; they must serve each other.

      What this means in terms of how the two targets relate, how one target takes priority over the other, etc., seems to me the topic of this entire discussion (as framed by Engel, Wilson, Christian Nationalists, etc.). All offer something better than how today's woke left has successfully defined and integrated the two targets.

      Therefore I find it premature, even destructive, to make too big a stink about how Christianity and politics should mix...precisely. I just wouldn't mind any move in that direction.

    4. Engel and other CNs emphasize the particularity aspect of nations and laws. They deny the universal as that is a liberal value. However, like with everything else there are universal political values (objective) and there are particular times, cultures, customs, and nations (subjective) which require unique laws or solutions to their specific problems/weaknesses. This is where natural law once again comes into play. Natural law is the universal/objective truth that every legal/political system must contain. But how that natural law is expressed in the nation is particular to that nation. Think about your family and all the families in your neighborhood. There are things you all hold in common and there are unique ways those common things are lived out.


    5. RMB, this is why I keep referring people to Aquinas's four types of law. So many try to re-invent this wheel instead of just trying to build on - or explain why they disagree with - Aquinas.

  7. BM and RMB, thanks for your thoughts.

    RMB, I tend to agree with what you said in your latest comment. In your previous one that I was originally replying to, I thought you may have been emphasizing a more theonomic approach, which seems to emphasize not only the universality of the natural law, but the universality of the Mosaic law (which someone like Engel would describe as being particular to Israel of that time).

    I'm far from being decided on, or even having a tentative opinion on which approach would be best, and I think Bionic's approach/advise is good: any move in that direction is better than what we currently live under.