Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Why evangelicals need to talk to Catholics

Our friend RC2 patiently explains why the Huckabee remark quoted here is fraught with political problems.

"[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards," Huckabee said, referring to the need for a constitutional human life amendment and an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

As she notes, the thought behind the statement is defensible ("God’s standards" can, for example be conceived as the "laws of nature and nature’s God," which are accessible to all those created in God’s image). But getting there from the statement requires too much explaining. And, as she further notes, there are oodles of plain old political and potential theoretical problems with what he says:

In one sentence he’s just

*ceded the ground to those who would make the Constitution into anything they want (that’s what he’s doing after all);

*agreed with the Left that people who want to stick to the original meaning of the Constitution are elevating it to the level of a holy text;

*made the grounds of the defense of marriage and human life a matter of Revelation rather than reason and natural law;

*and arguably called for theocracy (that’s how it will play in the attack ads should he be the nominee).

If he can’t get past his Southern Baptist roots enough to walk this back to a ground that even non-evangelicals can share, he’s not up to the task of defending his political cause. Stated another way, even if he speaks "the language of Zion" as his first language, he needs to become bilingual, if he wants to be President. Otherwise, he might just be a darn good pastor, even if he only does praise services.

Update: You couldn’t ask for a better succinct statement on the subject than this.

Discussions - 22 Comments

I brought up the Huckabee quote just an hour or two ago, in your earlier thread.

And when you say "'God's standards' can, for example be conceived as the 'laws of nature and nature's God'" I wonder if you really believe what you're saying. I don't think that's how Huckabee conceived it when he said, I don't think that's how he wanted it to be interpreted, and I don't think that's how 99.99999999% of Americans, including you, would really see it. "But getting there from the statement requires too much explaining." Explaining...or sophistry.

Why do I get the feeling that some people are more committed to "the laws of nature and nature's God" than they are to the Law of God. Priorities.

I'm kind of a two cities guy myself, which makes me not a very good theocrat. And I believe that God gave us all the capacity to distinguish right from wrong on the level at which Huckabee is speaking.

The question to pose to MH is whether the divine laws in accordance with which he wishes to amend the Constitution include, say, Exodus 20: 3-4.

I don't think he ceded ground to anyone.

I do think he was pandering to what he believes is his base.

I don't know, there is a certain genuineness to statements like this that the language you would have him use, the city of man, just does not elicit anymore. Perhaps it did at one time, but there is now too much distance between the two halves of our culture. This is a role that intellectual Catholics often see themselves in, some sort of universal bridge between right leaning humanists-but-materialists, the Constitution, and modern traditional believers.

To the lament of these Catholics (which as an academic, an intellectual, and I presume a Catholic you are one) there is no modern Reinhold Niebuhr - or rather they see themselves as filling that role. The problem is of course that our culture is no longer receptive. Perhaps it's time for a sort of genuine assertiveness, of the kind that seems to be an affront to those without ears to hear...

Prof. K.,

I take your point about the language and the need to persuade. But as hard as I've been on Huck, he deserves some slack here.

Calling for a Constitutional amendment is not theocracy, but it's opposite given the huge super-majorities required to amend. Reagan was for the Life Amd. and he was no theocrat. The many states that have now passed Marriage Amds. are not theocracies either.

In fact, the Crotch-Worshipping Liberal Judges who invented and imposed both Gay Marriage and Abortion on Demand in full-throated defiance of our Constitutions are your real and actual tyranny and theocracy. Not the guy who says let's amend the Constitution by the rules instead of judicial fiat.

I do not support Huck. But RC2 has overreacted a bit. Huck is only really guilty of her third bullet-point, even if he has given lefties some rhetorical wiggle room on number two. Of course, if they ever really faced Huck, they would try to make this statement into a "theocracy" charge, despite the truth of what Noel has said.

As for being genuinely guilty on the third count, that is, of not having given a non-Revelation based reason for a marriage amendment(which, by the way, we really do need, as federalism in marriage will not work) I have my own bullet points:

--It is one speech. One statement. Does it force a hearer to conclude that this is the only reason for the admendment? Does Huckabee never give other, non-Revelation based reasonings for it?

--Conservatives, and Christians from every part of the political spectrum, should not support the "Public Reason Test." (Don't kowtow to John Rawls and Damon Linker at their very worst!) The Public Reason Test says that the citizen, candidate, or official who makes an argument on the authority of Revelation alone is a bad democratic, who violates basic democratic morality, and can thus be denounced as a theocrat, as causing Jefferson, Madison and Washington to puke in their graves, and so on. (In an extremist version of the Public Reason Test, I suppose, this might violate future enlightened separation-of-church-and-state speech codes.)

--I am willing to say that good strategy requires non-Revelation based reasons be given, and I do think that candidates and officials in particular should do what they can to not offend athiest or essentially non-religious citizens, but Christopher is right that this becomes so scrupulous as to become the Public Reason Test de facto, it can become a dishonest crouch of sorts. And what I particularly dislike is that this stance exposes less-educated Christian citizens to ridicule and dismissal of the sort they hardly desrve when they try to make an argument. The admonition to these citizens to find secular reasons in addition to their revelation-based ones needs to be made gently, after-the-fact, and by their friends. The arrogant assumption that these folks can be shot down in public for daring to mention Jesus or the Bible in an argument is a species of citizenship as bad than that displayed by the Bible-alone politician.

--Finally, philosophic arguments (ones I usually reject, but some I accept) can be made on a lot of social conservative issues that essentially amount to, "You can't logically hold that, unless you have a revelation based reason for doing so." I.e., "all your 'natural law' cannot stand without certain Biblical premises.

First of all, I'm not a Catholic, but a Presbyterian.

Second, I agree that calling for Human Life and Marriage amendments isn't theocratic, even if the call is made using "the language of Zion." But the one who calls for them, if he cares about worldly political success, rather than about evangelization, had better be, as I put it, bilingual. Evangelicals can't pass such amendments by themselves; they need to build coalitions, reaching out to folks who are socially and morally conservative on different grounds. And you can't become President of the United States, or even the Republican nominee, if you only speak one language.

Third, I agree that "God's law" is higher than the Constitution. How could it not be? But Huckabee's claim sloppily makes no distinction between the two cities, or, if you want to use more explicitly Protestant language, the two kingdoms. Genuine Christians are certainly called to obey God's law, but not in every case to compel others to obey it. Certainly there should be no compulsion in matters of free faith (e.g., belief in and worship of God). In other cases (e.g., theft and murder), where all reasonable people can be expected to recognize the difference between right and wrong (which doesn't mean that judgments can't be clouded by sin) compulsion is permitted. But even in these cases whether there should be compulsion is a matter of prudence.

Huckabee may understand all this, but his simplistic statement doesn't betray it.

Among other early-morning errors in the above, one I want to correct. My second-to-last-paragraph is missing an important "IF"--it should read thusly: "...I do think that candidates and officials in particular should do what they can to not offend athiest or essentially non-religious citizens, but Christopher is right that if this becomes so scrupulous as to become the Public Reason Test de facto, it can become a dishonest crouch of sorts."

I completely support the points Joe is making. I just regard them as so obivous that I tend to not dwell on them--probably not a wise tendency on my part, and it reflects my perhpas polly-annish tendency to think that most of the fears about evangelicals and politics are overblown.

I dislike the Public Reason argument as much as the next guy, and would certainly not insist that Christians speak only the language of Cambridge.

As I wrote in my post, I can work to come up with a defense of Huckabee's statement (like Mr. Scott I have no fear of evangelicals). However, individual remarks can be telling, and I suspect this particular statement reveals what Huckabee really thinks: that government is an instrument for implementing Jesus' teaching. That's a view that is corrupting not only of government, but especially of the Church, and I bridle at it precisely as a Christian striving to follow Christ's teaching.

Belay all that though. What I really think the remark reveals is that Huckabee has not thought very hard about political questions. He has policies, but not a philosophy.

RC2's statement (#12) is spot on. However, I think it is worse than many of you note. Evangelicals are not the problem, but Huck's specific brand is--Huckabee has made his campaign one that confirms what RC2 wrote. He believes the government is an instrument for implementing a certain religious teaching. He has confirmed this by explicitly running as a "Christian leader"--which somehow qualifies him for the presidency; he has also confirmed this by saying we need to "take back the nation for Christ."

While taking back the nation for Christ is a perfectly fine thing to do/say/believe when we are talking about souls, it is not the job of the Commander and Chief.

While we might be able to square his statements with the Laws of Nature and Nature's God, I wonder if Huck understands as we do? My suspicion is that his understanding of the Declaration is informed, or understood, in light of his own sectarian beliefs. And that is very troubling.

Erik, I'm sure your're right about the "take nation back for Christ" comment," and I agree with your argument about its inappropriateness, but can someone link to the original provenance of the remark? Context here will be key--as your comment points out. When I Google, all I find is second- or third-hand blog refs to the statement.

RC2, I fear you are right that Huckabee has little in the way of a core philosophy about religion and politics. And if so that's enough to disqualify him for the presidency in my book. However, your claim that his marriage amendment statement shows that he holds "that government is an instrument for implementing Jesus' teaching" is stretched. Additionally, it's not clear what you mean--in a broad sense, every citizen who's ever called for compassionate government action for the poor, or for stricter divorce laws, is "for implementing Jesus' teaching." Let's be precise about the man's failings on religion and politics, and not at all resemble the crude manner of argument so often found on the left, where the ludicrous charge of "theocracy" is voiced by so many in these sorts of debates. After all, it is Huckabee's very lack of precision, RC2, that rightly irks you.

Personally I prefer the language of "spheres of sovereignty" to either the "two cities" or "two kingdoms" terminology. But that isn't really my point. My point is that it seems some people are more concerned about being deferential to the language of the earthly kingdom than they are to Christianity. I think that defensive habit of deference or outright embrace of it is partially what has gotten us where we are now.

The proper relationship between Church and State is first and foremost a theological question. Once the theological question is answered, then Christians should go about trying to apply the theology to their present earthly situation. The earthly situation does not dictate the theology. If, for example, the Bible said "thou shalt endeavor to impose a theocracy" then that is what Christians would be supposed to do even if they lived in a secular society.

Personally I don't think the Bible really addresses the proper relationship between Church and State. (This is why there is so much debate.) I think this is intentional, allowing Christians a greater ability to live by the old saying "when in Rome." Because the proper relationship is not dictated by the Bible then there is room for philosophical/political debate AND consideration of the historical context of the particular place and time.

Historically, Catholics have actually had a better grasp on the Church/State issue than have Baptistic Protestants. Separation of Church and State is a rather simplistic formulation, IMO. RC2 seems to be giving us the First Things/Americanism version of Catholic understanding.


Read RC2's original post. She says it's possible to defend the thought behind Huckabee's statement and that it can (and will) be twisted by his opponents. He needs to be more careful, and to make distinctions about the applicability of God's law that he isn't making.

As for the provenance of the "take back America" comment, I think it comes from a speech he gave in the late 90s, as Governor, to a Southern Baptist Convention audience. Context is indeed key. Coming from the mouth of a preacher or evangelist, it's unobjectionable, assuming (as it would be right to assume) that only non-coercive means were contemplated. Coming from the head of a state government, it's a little more problematical. Taking back America for Christ isn't the job of government. An evangelical elected official can worship, support religious liberty, support faith-based charities (I recall Newt Gingrich carrying a hammer for Habitat for Humanity), make arguments (in whichever manner he or she wants) for laws that are constitutional and consistent with his or her understanding of God's will, and, as GWB has said on more than one occasion, let his (or her) light shine. But of course it isn't government's job to take back America for Christ, of for Buddha, or for Allah.


You are very right context matters. The ONE (there are others that I need to find) instance where he has talked about it is below (see link).

Note that the discussion of taking back the nation for Christ comes somewhat in the context of why he left pastoring for politics. He seems to blend politics and his "personal calling" a bit too much, and it seems to me that he believes government is a tool in that calling.

Further, the fact that the nation needs to be taken back for Christ implies it was once Christ's. What that means to Huck is a good question.

I am interested in your thoughts on this.

Good link on Kuyper. I figured you would recognize the "spheres of sovereignty" terminology.

For RC2, who is Catholic, I believe. Why is your statement in #12 not an illustration of the problem of Americanism that Pope Leo XIII condemned? (Not necessarily any particular thing, but the general spirit.) Why is First Things style Catholicism not one big shining example of such?

Mr. Phillips, I'm afraid I honestly don't follow you.

Thanks, Erik...after reading the fascinating link you provided, I am quite inclined to your judgment that "He seems to blend politics and his personal calling[i.e., his calling as a pastor, as a Baptist leader, even a Christian author] a bit too much." And something does smell fishy in that "too much." Something that goes way back with Huckabee. I guess I'd articulate it this way: if you've ever been in a more typical black church or a more pentecostal styled white church, you know that there are certain riffs, phrases, and expressions that are as familiar to the congregation as the first bars of "Amazing Grace" or "Old Ship of Zion." "Take back America for Christ" is close to being one of those phrases for many evangelicals, as are related riffs about America turning away from God. Now, the more explicit mentions of America always bothered me as a Christian...always smacked of idolatry and cranky conservative agendas...but I've said my share of white-person evangelical Presbyterian Amens (sort of profound more emotional evangelical company perhaps accompanied by a slightly audible "mmm...hmm" or "yeess")to less explicit statements along these lines. These stock phrases are part of the overall music of certain kinds of Protestant preaching, and as such, they signify a kind of shared conviction that isn't terribly specific. Modern society, and yes, our nation, needs God. Has strayed. Such shared convictions can imply certain policy positions, or a general need for social conservatism, but they certainly don't primarily suggest these things. They primarily suggest the need for Jesus, and a shared conviction that without Him, the world becomes, is becoming, a dark place. To take back America for Christ implies grand political outcomes, and the need for concern about day-to-day politics, but it means EVANGELISM first and foremost.

So the fact that Huckabee said these sorts of things when a pastor doesn't bother me very much as a voter, even though I would have squirmed a bit as a member of his church. But what Erik's link really drives home is that as he was going into politics, he had a conviction that there was some kind of seamless path from church leader to political leader. That's where the lack of philosophy regarding religion and politics RC2 mentions was and is so key.

Sorry to ramble--way past bedtime.

Mr. Phillips, the latter: don't see how my suggesting Gov. Huckabee doesn't have a political philosophy constitutes Americanism.

The problem is the political philosophy you would like him to have.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL:

Warning: include(/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2008/01/why-evangelicals-need-to-talk-to-catholics.php on line 995

Warning: include(): Failed opening '/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/opt/sp/php7.2/lib/php') in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2008/01/why-evangelicals-need-to-talk-to-catholics.php on line 995