Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Tolkien Was Right

 From Mere Orthodoxy:

Some time after his death, an editor was going through the papers and books in J. R. R. Tolkien’s library when he came across an old copy of C. S. Lewis’s pamphlet “Christian Behavior,” which would later be re-published as one section in Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. Folded inside the book was a letter Tolkien had written but apparently never sent to his long-time friend and fellow Oxford don. In it, Tolkien took issue with Lewis’s treatment of divorce in the pamphlet.

Briefly, Lewis argued for the creation of two separate marriage institutions within the United Kingdom. The former, church marriage, would be handled by the Church of England and defined by Christian conception of marriage while the latter, civil marriage, would be overseen by the state and would be governed by the moral norms in favor with British society. Through this, Lewis thought, British Christians could preserve Christian ideas of marriage, including the prohibition against divorce, while honoring civil laws that were far more permissive regarding divorce.

Tolkien objected strongly to the idea and wrote an aggressive letter to his friend saying so. “No item of Christian morality,” Tolkien said, “is valid only for Christians.”

In other words, Christian morality is human morality because Christianity is a true account of reality, including the human person. You can’t create bifurcations between a kind of privatized religious morality and the real public morality that governs our common life together. Tolkien continued,

The foundation is that (Christian morality) is the correct way of “running the human machine.” Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting extra mileage out of a few selected machines.

The horror of the Christians with whom you disagree (the great majority of all practicing Christians) at legal divorce is in the ultimate analysis precisely that: horror at seeing good machines ruined by misuse…. Toleration of divorce — if a Christian does tolerate it — is toleration of a human abuse, which it requires special local and temporary circumstances to justify (as does the toleration of usury) — if indeed either divorce or genuine usury should be tolerated at all, as a matter of expedient policy.

To be sure, sins and crimes are separate things. There are any number of sins that oughtn’t be made illegal and punishable by the government. But Tolkien here is not arguing for sectarianism or theocracy.

He is merely insisting that we flirt with disaster when we presuppose that the moral law and our nation’s civil laws have (basically) nothing to do with one another. If you can change civil laws in ways that make them explicitly contrary to God’s moral law, Tolkien thinks, you’re headed for trouble.

If this debate sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that: It closely mirrors the debate that has happened in recent weeks between David French, Carl Trueman, and Al Mohler regarding the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA).

In short, French sounds strikingly like Andrew Sullivan these days, supporting a conservatism defined far more by its Burkean deference to custom and to a gradualist political method than by specific, positively stated moral content.

Trueman, meanwhile, thinks French is indicative of a shift in conservative Protestantism which he attributes to “evangelical elites,” and Mohler thinks French is a cautionary tale for political conservatives. All of them, I think, are focusing their attention on the wrong problems. Before getting to that, let’s deal directly with the Respect for Marriage Act. Then we can consider the more interesting questions lingering around the edges of this debate.

Essentially, the way we should approach the RFMA is this: There is a good prudential case for supporting it. If the choice put before us is the RFMA or the Equality Act, the RFMA is obviously preferable as it at least pretends to care about religious liberty and has some language included in it that may genuinely provide protection to religious conservatives. In the possible event that the contemporary SOGI regime is here to stay, we should take what protections we can get now. This is my friend Matt Anderson’s prudential argument for supporting it and I think it is a compelling case. (Tim Schultz has written a similar argument.)

There is also a good prudential case against it: The religious liberty language is extremely weak — Mark Joseph Stern makes this point in a recent piece — and the bill gives up an enormous amount from a social conservative perspective in exchange for very little. That, of course, has been the social conservative style for time untold.

As long as we’re reasoning on the grounds of what is prudentially best in this moment for our particular nation, I think a number of possible approaches are admissible and none should be cause for division or for Christian discord.

Where the problem arises, I think, is that most of the argument so far isn’t really about prudential political reasoning amidst challenging circumstance, but is instead a debate hopelessly constrained and conditioned by the culture war, such that the interesting questions get backgrounded while boring disputes largely propelled by personality are foregrounded. (Read more.)


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