Statism as Toleration

Statism is tolerant of any ideas and actions that will guarantee and enhance its own authority, and undermines or dilutes institutions like the family and the church that compete with its authority.

Dear friends and supporters:

Today‘s title seems confusing, if not downright self-contradictory. Statism appears almost the opposite of toleration. The state is an agent of coercion. If you disobey the state, its agents can throw you in jail or even kill you. This isn’t toleration.

Nor is this intolerance illegitimate. According to Romans 13, the state (the civil minister) “bears the sword.” The state coercively suppresses certain specific expressions of public evil in order to protect its law-abiding citizens. We sometimes speak of state-sponsored terrorism, as in the case of Afghanistan or North Korea; but according to the Bible, the state is a terrorist, and a valid one. It’s a terror to evildoers:

For [political] rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. (Rom. 13:3, 4, emphases supplied)

Because the state enjoys this legitimate monopoly on violence, its authority must be severely limited. It’s permitted to suppress only a few evils. The vast majority of sins are not crimes, but a narrow range of sins can and must be punished by the state, coercively and if necessary even violently: murder, rape, kidnapping, assault, battery, theft, fraud, and so forth.

The state is a terrorist and, when it operates within its biblically prescribed limits, we had better be thankful it is. When a maniacal sniper is picking off women and children from a downtown rooftop, we long for the terrorism the state can inflict to halt him in his tracks.

What Is Statism?

Statism, however, is an illegitimate expression of the state. I have defined it numerous times as the notion that there is no social problem for which increased political control isn’t the best solution. Any social problem (poverty, drug addiction, uneducated youth, wealth disparities — or a viral epidemic) is really a political problem that just doesn’t know it yet. More theoretically, it is an ideology that posits the state as the basic cohesiveness of society. In the language of Robert Nisbet, the political community takes precedence over society’s kinship community, the religious community, and the ecological community, among others. The individual is first and primarily a citizen of the state, and only secondarily and derivatively a member of the family, church, business, neighborhood, and so on. The state, or politics, is the glue that holds society together.

If you want to see evidence of statism’s success in the modern West, just check out how many Internet and cable and network TV news stories relate to what’s going on in the political environs of Washington D. C. When politics dominates the 24/7 news cycle, you can be sure statism is the reigning ideology.

Statism and Toleration

It’s just here that statism necessitates toleration. A. J. Conyers observes in his insightful book The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit that the modern idea of toleration began with the rise of the nation-state in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War ending in the mid-17th century. Both the European continent as well as the British Isles were roiled with religious bloodshed, Roman Catholic versus Protestant on the continent and (mostly) high-church royalist Anglicans versus Cromwellian Puritans on the British Isles. European society exhausted with millions of deaths over religious differences (but not only religious differences) eventually decided that the best way to preserve peace was to deemphasize religion, or more specifically, to cool its intensity. An ingenious way to do this was to demand toleration: The state would no longer demand a formal religious commitment of its citizens (Roman Catholic or Protestant, for example), or, if it did, at least it would provide room for peaceful dissent: “Believe what you want, and don’t argue about it too much.” 

After religious carnage and bloodshed, such an arrangement brought great relief, but also sowed the seeds of modern statism that has produced bloodshed in the 20th century even greater than that of the first half of the 17th century. Think: Soviet Union, Red China, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, nationalist Japan, and Khmer Rouge Cambodia. 

It didn’t take long, however, for the toleration mavens to figure out that the disestablishment of religion of itself wouldn’t do the trick of cooling off religious intensity. What was needed was an alternate intensity. That alternate intensity was found in the state itself, or in politics.

(continued below)


How Much of the Already in the “Already/Not Yet” Can We Have Have Already?

“One of the most prominent errors in the history of the church is postponing massive blessings of creation and the gospel to the eternal state. If the liberal churches wish to re-situate all the blessings in the ‘already’ (since they have no actual eternal hope, and often turn to revolutionary politics for salvation), conservative churches tend to push most of the blessings off into the ‘not yet.’” 

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(continued)

Steps Toward Modern Statist Toleration

A big step in accomplishing this shift of intensity to the state was to marginalize God’s two most basic social institutions: the natural institution of the family, and the supernatural institution of the church. The state had to break the natural bonds within the family, and the supernatural bonds within the church. Conyers puts it this way:

The idea of toleration, in the modern sense, calls into question the validity and even the ethical appropriateness of attaching oneself too strongly to the kinds of loyalties and the kinds of transcendent convictions that are the very soul of the association. It targets the intractable loyalties, along with the intrinsic disciplines and moral commitments, of the family and the church and the synagogue. (emphasis in original)

The strategy of state toleration was to mitigate doctrinal differences between, for example, Roman Catholics and Protestants or, for that matter, between Presbyterians and Lutherans and Baptists, while insisting on loyalty to the political order, encompassing all.

In the family during more recent times this has meant increasingly easy divorce, recreational birth control, pervasive pornography, wives’ separate-track careerism, and so-called children’s rights — including abortion and “gender-reassignment surgery” for minors. 

In the church, this has included erosion of the sanctity of the Lord’s Day and Covid lockdowns that define the church as “nonessential.” In its own narrow domain the church is tolerated; it is not tolerated when its authority overlaps with the state’s. As Conyers declares, “the church … must either be mastered in public or quarantined to the private sphere of life.”

Intensity of devotion and commitment is transferred from the family and church to the state. How? 

The state as deity

First, the state is now the final arbiter of morality. Delimiting morality was once the province of the family and the church under divine authority, declaring, for example, when sex was appropriate. Today, what is legal is considered moral. The state decides — or delimits the range of moral choices.

Second, the state circumvents these basic institutions by providing a direct authority to which individuals can appeal in order to practice radical autonomy. “Pansexuals” (champions of their own “gender fluidity”) can legally demand the pronoun by which they are addressed. Parents are accorded no veto power.

Third, the state provides the earthly security once furnished by the family and church. Nationalized healthcare obviates family responsibility for the sick and aged, and vast social safety nets undermine obligation to families and churches to care for the less fortunate or providentially impoverished under their care.

The family and church are spheres that expect nothing more than mild commitment, if commitment at all. The state, on the other hand, demands devotion — and rewards loyalty with protection, approval, and money.

The state in effect replaces not just the family and church, but becomes a de facto deity.

The state demands that individuals be exceedingly tolerant with one another over differences in the family and church, whether homosexual, heterosexual, or non-binary; whether theologically liberal or conservative or atheist; and whether abortion-committed or addiction-obsessed. These are issues and practices people just shouldn’t be fighting over. There must be toleration. 

The Intolerance of Modern Toleration

But there must be also and simultaneously be intolerance. Because absolute toleration is an impossibility in any society, statism mandates its own version of intolerance. In some cases, there’s been a 180 degree reversal from the earlier intolerance within historical Christian culture.

While Christian culture will not tolerate homosexual practice, statist culture will not tolerate opposition to homosexual practice. This is not simply a case of the federal government forbidding states and towns from criminalizing homosexuality. It also means that churches and families could face legal difficulties if they merely forbid homosexuality.

The same is true of abortion. In Christian culture, abortion is criminalized. In modern statist culture, the Supreme Court will not permit the criminalization of abortion.

You’re forbidden to forbid sin.

This is simply to say that statism is profoundly tolerant of any ideas and actions that will guarantee and enhance its own authority, and tends to undermine or dilute institutions like the family and the church that compete with its authority.

The state is tolerant of individuals and their views and choices, but not groups and their views and choices. Toleration in the modern sense is deeply anti-community. Better: it replaces all other communities with the political community. Therefore, we have now lived to experience the “the long-term consequences of the society in which individuals come to think of themselves as free from every bond except that of the state” (Conyers).

And this new statist intolerance is much more dangerous than earlier intolerance could possibly be. Since the state is an inherently coercive institution, its intolerance can be nearly absolute. In Christian culture, it was possible, though sometimes difficult, to escape a misguided intolerance of the family and church. But in today’s world, it is virtually impossible to escape the coercive intolerance of the ubiquitous state. There is no human recourse from statism.

When Christian orthodoxy no longer provides the social order, secular orthodoxy must.

Conclusion

Both intolerance and toleration are inescapable concepts. No society can exist without intolerance or toleration. The only question is who and what will, and will not, be tolerated.

In Christian culture, very few practices are coercively not tolerated. These must be defined strictly in accord with God’s law. Legislatures can’t simply make up evils, actual or perceived, that they refuse to tolerate. God’s moral law is the standard.

Within non-coercive institutions like the family and church, unrepentant sins like slander and adultery and homosexuality and heresy won’t be tolerated, but they may not be coercively suppressed; the family and church may never wield the sword. If you can’t abide biblical authority in these spheres, you can attach yourself to other families or move to other churches, harmful to your life though these decisions might be.

This means that a Christian culture is tolerant within the realm of the state of a vast majority of sins and erroneous beliefs and difference of opinion, and that culture is non-coercively intolerant of such error and evil in the family and the church.

This is an example of a genuinely tolerant society.

In our modern, secular, contra-Christian statist culture, by contrast, toleration is demanded for sin, evil, and false views in the family and church, because the state increasingly prohibits these God-sanctioned institutions from exercising their lawful, non-coercive authority.

The state is intolerant of the family and church, that is, intolerant of authority that would non-coercively oppose these evils, but wildly tolerant of those evils and, in fact, coerces the family and the church into not being intolerant of them.

The long-term strategy of Christians must be to restore the kind of culture that is tolerant in terms of the Christian faith, which grants the widest latitude towards citizens, even unbelievers, in the state, and to replace the state’s perverse tolerance and toleration.


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Personal

I got word Tuesday that noted Christian conservative thinker Angelo Codevilla has passed away. I enjoyed getting to know and spending time with him toward the end of his life, and he addressed CCL’s 2016 CCL symposium. I plan to write about his Christian-shaped sociopolitical views next week under the title “The Rot of the Ruling Class.”

I’m almost finished collecting manuscripts for Failed Church: Restoring a Vision of Ecclesial Victory. I hope we can get this title out by Christmas. Contributors include David Bahnsen, E. Calvin Beisner, Joseph Boot, Uriesou Brito, Ardel Caneday, Gary DeMar, Doug Enick, John M. Frame, George Grant, Kevin Johnson, Brian G. Mattson, Dustin Messer, P. Andrew Sandlin, Richard A. Sandlin, Levi Secord, Jeffery J. Ventrella, and Roger Wagner.

Meanwhile, know of my deep appreciation for your friendship, prayer, and support.

Yours for the reigning King,

Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership


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Saturday, December 4

Center for Cultural Leadership Annual Symposium in San Francisco

9 AM — 3 PM

Includes catered lunch in a four-star hotel on the Bay

Theme:

“Un-Virtuous EconomicsPolitical Interventionism, Woke Capitalism, and Church Pietism”

“David L. Bahnsen: “Politicized Economics in One Lesson” and “Pietized Economics in One Lesson”

Jerry Bowyer: “The Maker and the Takers”

Brian G. Mattson: “Alarmed by Cultural Marxism? Don’t Forget Real Marxism!”

P. Andrew Sandlin: “Creational Economics versus Contra-Creational Economics”

Jeffery J. Ventrella: “The Anthropology of Judicial Economics”

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