Abuse & Authority: A Conversation with Susan Codone
Co-authored with Susan Codone
“When Southern Baptists established the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859, the prevailing orthodoxy of its white clergy included commitment to the legitimacy of slavery.”
-Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of SBTShttps://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/sbts/uploads/2018/12/Racism-and-the-Legacy-of-Slavery-Report-v4.pdf
The phrase ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ is doing a lot of rhetorical work here: ‘orthodoxy’ evokes the safe harbor of official sanction, while ‘prevailing’ conjures a sense of resignation to the inertia of established norms. Yet the question must be asked: as of 1859, how prevalent was the view that the institution of slavery was morally legitimate? Across the West? No. America’s N. Atlantic peers abolished slavery in the 1840s. Among Americans? No—Civil War was two years away. Among Protestants? No.
It wasn’t even the prevailing orthodoxy of Baptists living in North America: that’s why the SBC was founded. The fact is, slavery was widely regarded as morally legitimate within the SBC because the SBC was instituted for people who regarded slavery as morally legitimate. And this prevailing view rose to the status of religious orthodoxy—right belief—in the same way that wickedness typically seduces the church: moral pronouncements handed down by self-assured men in high places—men whose preoccupation with what is right according to the established order prevents them from questioning the righteousness of the established order.
Such men will answer for much on the day of reckoning, but they will not answer for you and me. In the words of C.S. Lewis, there is no judge between gods and men: we each must give our own account. The standard against which our faith and practice will be measured is truth. We’ll find no refuge in the prevailing orthodoxies of our time.
The danger of religious fundamentalism is that it blinds its adherents to this distinction between prevailing orthodoxy and objective truth. That’s why fundamentalists can see no difference between rejecting God’s Word and rejecting what they say about God’s Word. And that’s why fundamentalists in the SBC are so resistant to institutional reform: once we look beyond what’s good according to the established order and inquire into the goodness of the established order, moral authority shifts away from ambitious men and toward the truth itself.
Men at organizations like the Conservative Baptist Network, FoundersMin and the CBMW all advance orthodoxies that conform to their personal and political interests. But do their agendas conform to moral truth? The SBC’s prevailing orthodoxies have been characterized by racism, misogyny and a refusal to acknowledge the moral salience of institutions—despite overwhelming evidence that wicked men cannot simply be relied upon to refrain from doing wicked things. For example:
Centuries of injustice have produced a divergence in the lived experience of Americans from different racial backgrounds—between those who read the book of Exodus and see their ancestors among the people of Israel, and those who should see their ancestors among the Egyptians. Yet the SBC’s prevailing orthodoxy holds that differences in experience are irrelevant to our grasp of truth. Thus civil rights leaders in the ‘60s and ‘70s were dismissed by white Southern Baptists as liberals and Marxists, as are those calling for systemic justice in 2020.
According to the SBC’s prevailing orthodoxy in the 1850s, although people of African and European descent were created equally in the image of God, the latter were entitled to strip the former of their autonomy and ownership of their labor capacity. Today, according to the prevailing orthodoxy of some in the SBC, women are created equal to men; but the principal occupation for which they are so created is unpaid domestic service to their husbands and children.
According to the prevailing orthodoxy of the 1850s, the fact that rape was endemic to the institution of slavery was an indication that, at most, slave owners should be admonished to refrain from raping slaves—not that the institution of slavery was iniquitous. Unlike slavery, church autonomy is a morally neutral convention. But according to the prevailing orthodoxy of our time, church autonomy is so sacred that preserving it takes precedence over institutional oversight designed to prevent serial sexual predation.
Sexual predation is framed as an issue of individual conduct, rather than an institutional failure to hold predators and their enablers to account. Those calling for systemic reform are dismissed as leftists, Marxists and feminists, just like civil rights leaders before them. Thus the prevailing orthodoxies of our day have enabled unchecked sexual abuse within the SBC—long term, unfettered movement of sexual predators from one SBC church to the next. Prevention efforts are lackluster, while protections for predators are robust.
All of these evils, from slavery and racism to misogyny and serial predation, are variations on a theme: abuse of power, engendered by prevailing orthodoxies that render systemic injustice invisible to those whose moral horizons are tethered to individual piety.
Every word that public evangelicals uttered in the 90s about the importance of integrity in leadership now serves as an indictment of their own unfitness to lead. But more important than the rank hypocrisy of public evangelicals is the matter of how we arrived at a place where, outside of one or two causes that cost us nothing to promote, many Christians don’t even pretend to integrate their faith with their politics. In fact, such is the disarray of the evangelical political conscience, it may be helpful to comment on what integrity means and why it matters.
As individuals, we all occupy a variety of social roles—e.g., spouse, parent, colleague, citizen, etc. I have integrity when I approach each of these social roles in a way that’s consistent with how I approach the others. When I have integrity, all the different parts of my life fit together—they are integrated—around a single coherent identity. By contrast, I lack integrity when I inhabit one social role in a way that is inconsistent with who I am (or pretend to be) in some other social role.
The opposite of integrity is disintegration—an identity that’s fragmented. My identity is fragmented when I move through the various social roles that I occupy without any real sense of the self that inhabits each role, or how those roles inform the narrative of my life.
Like an individual, a political community that lacks integrity is fragmented. As a society, we have integrity when we share a sense of concern for what each of us deserves and what we owe to each other—which is to say, a shared concern for justice. (The alternative to justice as a shared point of integration would be an ideology based in some feature identity—such as race, ethnicity or religion. But we tend to reject, e.g., white nationalism as racist, Christian nationalism as idolatrous, and so on.) A shared concern for justice furnishes us with a common goal for civic life, by reference to which it makes sense to debate and seek consensus around moral questions like what our laws ought to be and how our resources should be allocated.
By contrast, when we lack a shared horizon for deciding questions about what people deserve, our society is merely a collection of interest groups that assert their political will without regard for what we owe to each other. And herein lies the source of much white evangelical hypocrisy in the political sphere.
Decades ago, a few self-appointed spokesmen decided that God’s blessed rage for justice is best articulated by a Church that seeks to make America the sort of place where upper-middleclass Christians can await the eschaton in relative comfort. Yet we proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who insisted over and over again that our devotion to him is measured by our regard for the interests of those most vulnerable to injustice: the orphan, the immigrant and the dispossessed. So our conduct in the political arena serves as a public refutation of our witness. Unbelievers read the Bible, too; and they can see that we’re not living out the values we claim to espouse. It’s evident that we’re not truly pro-life or pro-family. The tax policies that we favor reveal what we value: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Instead of advocating for economic policies that are conducive to raising a family, we prefer policies that allow us to keep as much of our paycheck as possible.
It’s important for Christian institutions to retract racist sentiments and establish scholarship funds. But mostly in the way a painkiller is important—it silences the pain momentarily even though it does nothing to heal the underlying infirmity. Evangelicalism’s fractured identity cannot be patched up by attending to symptoms. Evangelicalism won’t have integrity while there are yet unrebuked seminary faculty who’ve made a cottage industry of opposing godly calls for justice, with speeches that are contrary to the sweep of Christian theology and transparently ignorant of Western intellectual history.
Our identity will remain fractured until we set aside our own interests in the interest of justice. And until then, who we vote for matters a lot less than the fact that we’re voting for entirely the wrong reasons.
There’s been a lot of equivocating from woke-truthers in the last few days, to the effect that: “Well, systemic injustice might be a real thing (at least historically). But CRT though.”
Rather than pick apart all their hedging, I’m just going to offer a detailed example of systemic injustice and consider it in light of Scripture.
In 1934, the U.S. Government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to oversee a mortgage insurance program that facilitated homeownership for millions of Americans. But the FHA only insured mortgages in neighborhoods that systematically excluded people of color.
So white Americans were given an opportunity to accrue equity in real estate with the help of the FHA—a program that was subsidized by all taxpayers, including those of color, who were effectively barred from owning desirable real estate. In other words, the U.S. Government systematically transferred wealth from people of color (in the form of taxpayer subsidies for the FHA mortgage program), to white Americans (in the form of home equity, mortgage interest tax deductions and so on).
The primary consequence of this FHA policy was, of course, segregated neighborhoods. And given that school districting proceeds on the basis of residential location, a secondary consequence of the policy was racially segregated public schools across the country. (Which is why, in the era of school desegregation, black students had to ride buses to the other side of town in order to attend schools that had previously been restricted to students from exclusively white neighborhoods.)
A tertiary effect of the FHA policy was to ensure that public schools zoned for white students received better funding than those zoned for black students: By making it easier for banks to lend to potential buyers in white neighborhoods, the FHA policy increased demand for homes in those neighborhoods, driving up property values and thus the property taxes from which public schools derive much of their funding.
Meanwhile, property values of minority homeowners were diminished by a broader zoning regime that diverted everything from bars, night clubs and factories to toxic waste facilities and other environmental hazards away from white neighborhoods. And all these effects of residential segregation conspired to facilitate a system of racially disparate policing and incarceration that has been well documented.
Racially discriminatory zoning was outlawed in 1968; and racial discrimination in mortgage lending was outlawed in 1977. But by that time, the cost of real estate was prohibitive for all but high income-earners and those whose families already had access to home equity. From 1973–80, the value of the average American home increased by 43 percent. For those who didn’t already own homes, who relinquished more and more of their lifetime income with each month’s rent, spiking real estate prices moved homeownership further from reach.
And these decades of dispossession reverberate in the lives of our brothers and sisters of color, whose parents and grandparents were robbed of the opportunity to amass and transfer what would have been their inheritance: Even now, young African Americans are ten times more likely than young white Americans to live in poor neighborhoods (66 percent compared to 6 percent). Less than 10 percent of white families have lived in poor neighborhoods for 2 or more consecutive generations, compared to half of all African American families (48 percent). The median white household has about $134K in wealth, whereas the median black household has about $11K.
Woke-truthers eagerly observe that we must live with the natural and logical consequences of our sin. They are less eager to acknowledge that people of color have long been living with the natural and logical consequences of sins committed against their fathers and grandfathers.
Marxism and CRT are irrelevant here: the fear of God is sufficient for discerning the wickedness of a system that perpetuates disparities in wealth, income and opportunity that originate in explicitly racist laws—i.e., systemic injustice. Here the woke-truthers reply that this is all very regrettable and they are, *just to be absolutely clear, lest the reader misunderstand* categorically opposed to racial discrimination in all its forms. They just think that government intervention isn’t the remedy.
So woke-truthers aren’t anti-justice—they’re just anti-big government. But this attempt at clarification makes them appear more confused than ever. These woke-truthers have spent the last decade promoting a “traditional” ideal of nuclear family with a single breadwinner and his homemaking wife. Yet this ideal was “traditional” only for a narrow subset of Americans, and only for a couple of decades in the mid-twentieth century, and the whole scheme was subsidized by *the largest government redistribution of wealth in U.S. history*, the crown jewel of which was the FHA.
So either they don’t favor small government, or they don’t mean what they say about their ideal of family, or they’ve once again allowed their enthusiasm to outrun their expertise and they simply fail to grasp the contradiction. And personal hypocrisy aside, extolling the virtues of small government and free enterprise once you’ve benefitted from a massive, government-sponsored redistribution of wealth is a bit like cheating your way through the first half of a basketball game, and then—with your unfair lead firmly in hand—insisting that the second half be a healthy competition governed by strict principles of fair play. This is the epitome of injustice; and it is precisely that air of entitlement that has invited the left’s most strident criticisms.
Self-appointed spokesmen of the white evangelical church have no one to thank but themselves for the fragmentation of our political community. Instead of calling God’s people to do justice, they have been among the most reliable patrons of injustice.
Good people, this is what the Bible is about. Absent God’s grace made manifest among us, injustice will destroy our civilization from the inside. America doesn’t need law and order. America needs citizens who will put the interest of justice above their own selfish preferences.
“But Scott,” you may say, “aren’t you just being ‘woke’?” I guess that depends on how “woke” you think God is. Here’s God, speaking through the prophet Micah (2:1–2):
“Woe to those who devise iniquity… Because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.”
That’s a divine invocation of exquisite suffering on those who maintain a social order that deprives families of the intergenerational wealth afforded by real property.
And here’s what God says to the woke-truthers of Micah’s day, who think their religion will save them from the reckoning (3:5–12):
“Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who make my people stray; who chant ‘Peace’ while they chew with their teeth, but who prepare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths… Yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us’. Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of a forest.”
It’s as if God is telling us that if we don’t do justice, some vandalism might happen—not because God condones that sort of thing, but because it’s a natural and logical consequence of an unjust social order. So don’t wink at injustice and then pray for peace.
I don’t know why these woke-truthers have suddenly decided to talk about justice. If I had to guess, I’d say they finally realized that there’s no future for them in nipping at Beth Moore’s heels and shaming the working wives and mothers who pay their seminary salaries. So they looked around for a new controversy to exploit, and “social justice” is where they landed. That’s my guess. But what I know is that these men follow a troubling pattern: bombast, followed by manipulation, followed by bullying. They begin with bold assertions that are predicated, as best I can tell, on nothing more than their own uncultivated intuitions. (Invariably, these pronouncements are attended by lurid adverbial phrases, but never any suggestion of an actual argument.) When others disagree, these men attempt to manipulate Scripture or doctrine to suit their rhetorical goals. And finally, they declare that anyone who refuses to accept their account of Scripture or doctrine is a false teacher and must therefore be excluded from the group.
I can’t imagine this is the sort of conduct that should be held up to seminarians as a model for pastoral care: take a firm position on something you haven’t really studied; when people disagree, tell them the Bible says so; and if they still disagree, show them the door.
No good is served when ambitious theologians speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they haven’t studied in any disciplined way; and it is harmful when they then attempt to shoehorn their views into Scripture and present their convictions as the Word of God. If these men want to give lectures on political philosophy, I suggest they host a dinner party for likeminded friends. Or perhaps they might start a book club. These are fora in which it is appropriate for amateurs to discuss their passions. It is unbecoming of an academic to hold himself out as an expert on subjects that are far afield from his training. Beyond that, it is toxic for theologians in particular to hide extra-Biblical agendas in their presentation of Scripture.
It’s been suggested that those who promote “wokeness” or “woke theology” should be regarded as false teachers. This claim reflects a kind of theological illiteracy that needs to be exposed. I’ll start with a brief note about terminology, since it’s a source of much mischief.
Critics of “wokeness” often identify concerns about systemic injustice with Critical Race Theory (CRT). But you needn’t endorse CRT—or care anything about CRT, really—in order to be concerned about systemic justice. CRT is just one among many academic disciplines that deal with questions about systemic justice; and it is hardly the first or the most important. Roughly 2500 years before the inception of CRT, Plato discusses systemic justice in his ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’.
A millennium before Plato, God inspired Moses to establish a legal system animated by God’s hatred of institutional oppression. And God commanded his people to cherish and keep these laws in remembrance of their liberation from Egyptian oppression.
Systemic injustice is second only to idolatry among the occasions for God’s wrath in the Old Testament. And more often than not, when idolatry is at issue, the idols in question are implicated in efforts to secure wealth or power within an oppressive system.
So it’s important to understand that a commitment to systemic justice isn’t the same as fondness for CRT. And the former is a foundational moral imperative for all who fear God, whatever one thinks of the latter. Yet the wokeness truthers in conservative evangelicalism insist on conflating the two. I’m willing to assume, charitably, that this confusion derives from ignorance—of which they display much, and with remarkable boldness. But the notion that we should regard those who demand systemic justice as false teachers is more than mere error: it presents a false image of who God is and what God requires of us. And this is not to be suffered gladly.
According to Scripture, false teachers dwell in the political or religious establishment, and they misrepresent God to the people of God in order to fortify their own position of power or influence. False teachers lie about God for their own personal gain. So, in the logic of Christian theology, it doesn’t even make sense to say that those who demand systemic justice *on behalf of others* are false teachers. It’s a category mistake. Simply put, demanding justice for others isn’t what false teachers do. In fact, every single time Scripture presents God’s prophets in direct conflict with false prophets, God’s prophets are the ones demanding justice for the oppressed. Every. Single. Time.
And how do the false prophets react? First, they accuse God’s prophet of being a false teacher. Then they try to protect their own power and influence by lying about God. “Everything’s good here. God says that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.” For example, the biblical picture of false prophets bears a striking resemblance to the handful of theologians in the SBC whose dalliances with heresy have redounded to their own professional benefit.
Some proponents of ESS misrepresented the very nature of the Trinity in an effort to legitimate a niche research agenda that they were well-positioned to lead (largely because the most fertile theological minds of our era simply have no interest in advancing male headship). These men spend their days stirring up controversy, insisting that God’s people break fellowship over the secondary effects of tertiary issues that are a matter of grave importance only to men whose professional advancement depends on it. It’s clever in a strictly Machiavellian sense: find a subject that none of the really talented people in your field care about, create a journal for it, publish in your own journal, and then leverage politics and personal connections to demand that it be taken seriously. Now these men are attempting to persuade God’s people that demands for systemic justice are false teaching. “Everything’s good,” they say. “God has instructed me to assure you that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.”
I don’t know whether judgment is upon us. But if it is, it’s not for the reasons that the culture warriors warned us about: it’s because of the political conditions that the culture warriors helped create.
Don’t let false teachers tell you who the false teachers are. Look for the folks demanding justice, and join them. That’s the side you want to be on, even if you don’t agree with everything they have to say.
This is theologically illiterate: it’s not merely wrong—it’s wrong in ways that I’d expect only someone who doesn’t understand the basic logic of Christianity to be wrong.
For decades, a pronounced majority of white evangelicals have reliably supported politicians who essentially regard all vulnerable classes except the unborn with contempt (and whose policies, at that, have actually done very little to protect the unborn). Now we are forced to choose between the rights of the most vulnerable and the rights of all but the most vulnerable.
I don’t presume to know who anyone should vote for. But some Christians seem to be approaching their vote with faulty reasoning or incomplete information. In particular, Christians that we might call “single-issue” voters reason as follows. “I must do everything I can, politically, do defend the unborn. So I must vote for the party or politician that favors outlawing abortion, regardless of their other policy stances.” Let’s stipulate that we must do everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Does it follow that we must vote for the politician whose party has been promising to outlaw abortion for the last four decades?
Law and Economics
Because the courts offer the most eligible path to outlawing abortion, and because it takes years for cases to make their way to the Supreme Court, it’s plausible to suppose that abortion isn’t going to be outlawed in the next few years—not before 2030, let’s say. So, between now and 2030 (at least), regardless of which political leaders we elect and which judges they appoint, abortion will be legal in the United States. (Incidentally, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned—which is objectively unlikely to happen for jurisprudential reasons, but certainly won’t happen in the next few years—we’d revert to a pre-Roe situation where states decide the legality of abortion within their respective jurisdictions. So as far as the judiciary is concerned, the best case scenario is most likely a conservative SCOTUS that permits states to reduce access to abortion providers via regulations, e.g. admitting privileges, making abortion marginally more difficult to access but not illegal.)
Some women who contemplate an abortion in the next decade might do so for reasons of economic hardship, in situations where the decisive factor in their thinking is affordable access to basic needs like housing, healthcare, food, etc. In other words, in at least some cases, there’s a relationship between economics and abortion. So we can prevent some abortions in the next decade by implementing economic policies that promote secure access to housing, food and healthcare.
And to the extent that Christians vote against such policies, we are failing to do everything we can, politically, to protect the lives of unborn children who wouldn’t have been aborted in a more pro-life and pro-family economic climate.
Some Christians will be skeptical of this reasoning. For instance, you might think that fewer abortions will happen in the long run if judges allow states to regulate abortion clinics out of business or, eventually, overturn Roe v. Wade.
It may be true that fewer abortions will happen overall with ideologically conservative judges. But it’s important to notice that the goalpost has now shifted. We’re no longer talking about doing everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Now we’re ignoring the abortions that we could prevent over the next ten years via a holistic approach to policy aimed at protecting vulnerable people in general, including the unborn, and talking instead about the overall number of abortions. In other words, we’re thinking along purely consequentialist lines, based on the principle that we should do whatever saves the most lives. I discuss the general problem with consequentialist moral reasoning here.
Basic Moral Principles
As for the specific principle that we should always do whatever saves the most lives (unborn or otherwise), consider the following. Imagine you’re a surgeon responsible for five patients who need a vital organ transplant—heart, kidney, liver, lung and lung, respectively. As it happens, all five patients have the same blood type and they’re all roughly the same height and weight. If you knew for certain that you could save all five of your patients by harvesting the vital organs of a single healthy person, should you do it? Of course not. You wouldn’t butcher one person to save five others; so it must be false that you should always do whatever you can to save the most lives.
Thus you’d need a different principle to justify voting for policies that occasion more economic hardship—leading to preventable abortions in the short term—purely for the sake of (possibly) reducing the overall number of abortions in the long term.
So even if your objective is to do the most you possibly can, politically, to protect the unborn, the choice isn’t as straightforward as a lot of Christians make it out to be.
As I said at the outset, I don’t presume to know how other Christians ought to vote. It’s complicated and messy. As believers, protecting the vulnerable should be our highest political objective, and there are none more vulnerable than the unborn.
This dilemma is both of our own making and totally unsurprising. It is of our own making because it is a product of the religious right’s fragmented conception of justice. And it is unsurprising because God doesn’t generally allow his people to select which sacred obligations to honor and which to casually ignore—particularly when we attempt to honor those that cost nothing and ignore those that threaten our material security and social standing.
So, my fellow pro-lifer, I respect and share your pro-life position; but if you’re not the least bit conflicted about which political party best represents your values, it’s possible that you’re not pro-life enough. Whichever way you decide to vote, I hope you won’t be swayed by the celebrity culture warriors who led white American evangelicals to the gilded political prison in which we now find ourselves—in which we are forced to choose between the party that promises to protect all but the most vulnerable and the party that promises to protect only the most vulnerable.
I don’t know what to say about this November. But I know that we should be wary of anyone with the audacity to tell us that it’s obvious how Christians should vote. The path out of our current political wasteland is paved with integrity—which is to say, a pro-life position that is integrated around justice for all, born and unborn alike.
What if America is just like all the other empires? What if America’s power and wealth aren’t a mark of divine favor, but merely a byproduct of empire-building?
And what if, by mistaking the fruits of empire for God’s blessing, Christian nationalists have gotten confused about what sorts of things God favors—confused about the features of our civilization that believers should make an effort to cultivate and amplify into the future?
For example, what if it’s just a very, very bad thing that our government systematically slaughtered and dispossessed indigenous peoples and desecrated their sacred places? What if that’s just all there is to it: no manifest destiny, nothing redeeming about it—just really bad?
And what if it’s just very, very bad that a lot of America’s early wealth issued from labor that was straightforwardly stolen from people who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. What if that’s just evil, full stop?
Read the Exodus account and ask yourself where you fit into the narrative. If you’re a white American evangelical, you’re not among the Israelites—plainly, you’re with the Egyptians. And why think the American empire is any different from that of Egypt, or Babylon, or Rome?
I don’t understand what Christian nationalists are up to, theologically speaking. I just can’t imagine the early Church concerning itself with Rome’s GDP or reputation on the world stage. The greatness of the Roman Empire was perfectly irrelevant to Christ and his followers.
Of course, as an American, I might concern myself with the American economy, national security, etc. But my concern for such things will be tempered by my Christian faith; it certainly won’t be a consequence of my faith.
The notion that Christianity stands in a special relationship to America makes about as much sense as the idea that Jesus took on flesh to make Rome great again—which is to say, it makes no sense at all: it misunderstands what Christianity is about.
So when, as Christians, we see our nation pursue policies that threaten the well-being of orphans and immigrants in our midst, we really don’t have any business asking whether these policies are good for America. That’s not our concern.
Our concern should be for the ones oppressed, regardless of whether that concern is consistent with ephemeral notions of what makes America great.
Christ has no use for the cultural nostalgia of white American churchgoers: he doesn’t much care for the films of John Wayne. Christ simply doesn’t care whether America is great, or ever was or will be again.
Imagine you’re in a movie theater somewhere in Nebraska.
In the middle of the movie, your phone rings. You answer your phone and proceed to have a conversation at full volume. After about a minute, the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Dude, we’re in a movie theater.”
You could respond in any number of ways. You might say, “No, we’re in Nebraska.” But this response isn’t appropriate. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would offer this as a serious retort. For one thing, it’s possible to be both in a movie theater and in Nebraska (as you in fact are). So it’s not much of a rebuttal. For another, your fellow movie-goer has stated something obvious to you-namely that you are in a movie theater-because your conduct is that of a person who doesn’t recognize this fact or simply doesn’t care.
We state the obvious when someone’s actions are inconsistent with their having recognized the truth in question. “Dude, we’re in a movie theater” means “Dude, we’re in a movie theater: you should act like it.” Philosophers of language call this ‘conversational implicature’, which is just a fancy term for basic subtexts that competent language users naturally infer under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, when someone points out the obvious to us, we infer that we are doing something that suggests we are unaware of the obvious fact that has just been brought to our attention.
When we say, “Black lives matter,” there’s some conversational implicature at work. We live in a society that routinely functions in ways inconsistent with our having recognized that, among all lives, the lives of Black people matter. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we mean, “Black lives matter,” and you should act like it. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we are saying that institutions in our society do not function in a way that is consistent with the recognition that Black lives, specifically, matter:
When Eric Garner is suffocated to death in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it. When Freddie Gray dies of injuries sustained in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Trayvon Martin is gunned down while walking through a neighborhood and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Elijah McClain dies after being choked by police officers and injected with ketamine, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down in broad daylight, on video, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Breonna Taylor is shot 5 times in her own apartment by the police and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When George Floyd suffocates to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
So when, as a competent language user, you respond by saying “all lives matter,” one of two things must be the case. Either you’re not fully aware of how our public institutions treat Black citizens; or you are aware, and you’re okay with it–in which case, you are a racist.
I am dismayed by the number of evangelicals who publicly endorse a consequentialist approach to political participation—especially among pastors and those charged with supervising the theological training of pastors.
Consequentialism is vexed by the human inability to foreknow the consequences of our actions. For example, suppose that Christians were to adopt a consequentialist approach to voting. Over a period of about 40 years, let’s say, strictly as a means of achieving some policy objective, we might overlook or perhaps even encourage all manner of evil in voting for politicians who promise that if we’ll only give them more power, they’ll give us what we want.
For all we know, once they finally have that power—once Christians have helped them take control of the House, the Senate, the White House, and appoint a majority of SCOTUS—these politicians will do exactly nothing to advance the promised policy objective.
Where would we be then? Our identity fragmented, our witness in shambles, dwelling in an unjust society with iniquitous laws that we willingly embraced. All in service to a policy objective that these politicians never had any intention of delivering. (And why would they deliver? Then we’d have no reason to vote for them. By hypothesis, the only enticement they have is promising to deliver the one policy that we care most about.)
Ultimately, we can’t know whether our actions will bring about the remote consequences that we intend, and it is foolish to suggest otherwise. Far too many evangelicals are engaging in exactly this kind of foolishness, to the moral and intellectual impoverishment of our witness.
Consequentialism’s only guarantee is that its logic will require us to sacrifice our integrity on the altar of aspiration. Scripture commends integrity rather than utilitarian calculus—‘Thou shalt not lie’ rather than ‘Thou shalt lie only as a means to thine ends’.
Here are books I would recommend to those interested in questions at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, political economy, recent U.S. history, theology, evangelicalism, law and American politics.
Justice and the Social Order by Emil Brunner
Sovereign Virtue by Ronald Dworkin
The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald
Eclipse of Reason by Max Horkheimer
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse
Redeeming America by Michael Lienesch
The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick
Radical Markets by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
The Problems of Jurisprudence by Richard Posner
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010) by Michael J. Sandel
Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry
God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right by Daniel K. Williams
Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills
Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills
Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher J. H. Wright