30 August 2016

No Municipal Bankruptcy in Virginia: Thoughts on Petersburg

For a couple of earlier insights into the field of municipal (Chapter 9) bankruptcy go here and here. Three articles I have written on the topic have been published (links to the articles can be found here, here, and here). Yet it remains the case that it is the individual States that must authorize their cities to seek federal bankruptcy relief.

In any event, go here to read a piece by Jeff Shapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the current dire financial straits of the City of Petersburg. Like many cities in northern Rustbelt states, the residents of Petersburg are victims of an economy that no longer values unskilled labor and an elected municipal leadership that, at best, was (and perhaps is) incompetent and at worst bordered on the corrupt. Thus,
To help pay its creditors and balance its budget, Petersburg, facing a $12 million deficit and $7 million in unpaid obligations, is imposing painful economies. Among them: layoffs, a 10 percent reduction in municipal salaries, and higher taxes,
Shapiro bemoans the fact that Virginia's General Assemble doesn't permit the Commonwealth's cities to seek to adjust their debts under federal bankruptcy law. Whatever warrant there may be for changing the law, it ain't gonna happen. (On a related note, see my comments on the legislative rebuff to my testimony on a much less contentious change to Virginia's exemption laws here.)

I am intrigued by Shapiro's other suggestion--that Petersburg dissolve itself as a city and throw itself on the larger tax rolls of, say, Prince George or Chesterfield County. Turnabout is fair play. For many years anyone of wealth has moved to the 'burbs leaving cities as depopulated and poor husks of their former selves. Gentrification is reversing that process in some cities (nearby Richmond, for example) but it's not likely to benefit Petersburg in the near future.

A receiver appointed by Virginia's courts, also mentioned by Shapiro, could address incompetence and corruption but a receiver can't force creditors to take less than what they're owed (unlike Chapter 9 bankruptcy) and thus has limited power to solve Petersburg's problems.

In short, a mess. And one's for which there's no solution ready at hand.

26 August 2016

"White Trash" Part 2

Go here to read Part 1 of my comments on Nancy Isenberg's book, "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America."

Agreeing with the author's conclusions that class has been and still is a deeply embedded part of American society invites the question of what, if anything, should be done. Post-Enlightenment scholar as she is, Isenberg clearly and passionately believes that much should be done by the federal government to break down the barriers of class to achieve greater and sustainable social equality in America. Although not a policy wonk, Isenberg hints at some ideas involving both wealth redistribution through inheritance taxes and limiting parental powers.

But what if social equality is not a worthy goal? What if class hierarchy is not only the way it is but for all practical purposes the only way society can be organized? Isenberg doesn't argue for the good of social equality but merely assumes it, as does virtually everyone in American politics, Left or Right. Left- and Right-wing means of achieving equality are different (the Left pushing for top-down structural reforms and the Right telling folks on the bottom to get their butts in gear) but whether Classical Liberal or contemporary Progressive, everyone pays at least lip service to social equality.

Traditional conservatives (as historically understood, not as the term is currently deployed) would not agree. From Aristotle to early modern times in the West, hierarchical social arrangements were not only standard fare but believed to accord with human nature and divine revelation. In "White Trash" Isenberg seems shocked that the Puritans had indentured servants and enforced sumptuary laws under which persons could be fined for dressing above their class. She would not have been surprised were she familiar with the Westminster Larger Catechism of 1647 (embodying the best of English Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian theological analysis). Check Questions and Answers 123-132 here for application of the Fifth Commandment ("Honor your father and your mother.") to social relationships among superiors, equals, and inferiors.

Were Americans today to acknowledge openly that contemporary society is class-based, as Isenberg urges, however, matters would be no better than living in denial. After all, could the elites and middle class be persuaded of their duties to those below prescribed by the catechism?
Q. 129. What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?
A. It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, and rewarding such as do well and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body; and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honour to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.
Convincing Americans corrupted by years of pursuit of wealth maximization and the sad reality of an ever-diminishing number of duty-creating relationships that they--individually and collectively--have moral duties to "white trash" is inconceivable. Hope of repristinating a bygone past by paleo-cons and folks on the Alt-Right are misplaced. History may not have a "side" but reversing the revolutionary effects of modernity isn't in the offing. But so also vain are the hopes of Progressives of good will like Nancy Isenberg.

Even to hope either for a rising tide to float all boats or for raising the lower class by intense governmental social intervention is misguided. The poor will be with us always. While waiting for the regeneration of all things we can, of course, work to ameliorate current conditions. Sin effects the desire for and the performance of the individual duties noted by the Westminster Divines. Sin also effects the very structures in which contemporary life is framed including the class structure we regularly ignore.

Even so, I'll let Isenberg have the final word:
White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people--both in their visibility and invisibility--is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. "They are not who we are." But they are who we and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.

25 August 2016

"White Trash" Part 1

The very title of Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America" (2016) created a stir, and appropriately so. Had she instead lead with only her subtitle, however, I am confident that many fewer would be reading it.
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Friend Miles Smith posted his comments on "White Trash" here. I am a bit less sanguine. Nonetheless, I can report without hesitation that Isenberg has performed a valuable service by telling the largely untold story of how many of the English who first came to America were from the very bottom of English society, sent to the Colonies for expediency's sake. In other words, through the first decades of the 17th century, untold thousands came to America not to make a new life for themselves nor to practice their religion free of England's established church. Rather they came as England's "offscourings," sent as indentured servants or with only the barest evidence of consent.

As such, the Colonies' initial lower class frequently died from their lack of even basic life-skills. They didn't know how to farm because over a century earlier the English land magnates had enclosed their estates, sending peasants with only copy-hold interests to fend for themselves as beggars or to seek employment in England's nascent industries or to be dragooned into military service. You can read something of of the effects of enclosures on the common law of contracts and how it was decried (long after the fact) in the Westminster Larger Catechism in my article, The Puritan Revolution and the Law of Contracts (download here or here). 

Thus begins Isenberg's account of America's permanent white underclass. Isenberg fast forwards to the post-Independence period where she contrasts the opinions of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson on what to do with this underclass. As with England's pushing its underclass to the Colonies, American leaders in the late 18th century wanted this class to go west, to the unsettled lands of the opening Northwest and Southwest Territories. Remarkable, the terms of opprobrium used with respect to this class differed little from over a century earlier. The contempt of the elites and middle classes for the shiftless and feckless underclass was pervasive and few thought that many from this group could be salvaged. They were good for little more than clearing the Natives from unsettled areas only to be evicted themselves because they didn't have good title to their newly settled lands.

With the broadening of the franchise in the early nineteenth century, Isenberg portrays how even Andrew Jackson, the hero of the common man, had little affection for the deep underclass. Both Jackson and his political enemy Henry Clay could appeal for their votes while supporting the claims of land speculators over squatters in fights over title to the land. Writers in the nineteenth century for the first time, however, sometimes portrayed those now known as crackers in a sympathetic light. Such sympathies largely disappear with the advent of the Civil War when the Southern elites co-opted (or drafted) support from the large numbers of tenant farmers by appealing, on the one hand, to their fear of Black emancipation and, on the other, to their shared contempt for Northern mudsills, and were not to return until the Great Depression.

I will fast forward to the final chapters of "White Trash" where Isenberg's touch with her accumulations of social and cultural data becomes less deft. By the middle of the 1960's, with the programs of FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, the poor white underclass had become the object of sustained federal attention. By the 1970's, a certain hillbilly chic had developed. Concurrently with the rise of tributes to good 'ole boys and NASCAR was the film Deliverance, which portrayed backwoods rednecks in an extraordinarily vile light. What accounted for cracker pride and simultaneous cultural contempt? Isenberg can't quite say but argues that a substantial white underclass remains and will remain unless addressed by massive governmental intervention.

In short (which is tough for a book of 321 pages (and 123 more pages of endnotes)), Isenberg argues that America has been and is still a society stratified by class as much as race, and that America has and continues to deny the existence of class. And, notwithstanding the vaunted American Dream, upward mobility is uncommon; what predicts childrens' success is their parents class. 

23 August 2016

A Back Road in Virginia

This past weekend I took a ride off the beaten path in southern Southampton County, Virginia. Technically, I was about halfway between Courtland (formerly named Jerusalem, the county seat of Southampton County) and Newsoms but neither is incorporated so I can say I was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I drove the entire length of this road:

Blackhead Signpost road isn't very long and isn't named after a facial blemish. Al Brophy of the UNC Law School describes the history of the road's name this way:
In Southampton County, the scene of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion, there is a move afoot to rename “Blackhead Signpost Road.” The road takes its name from a rebel whose severed head was placed on a pole as a warning to others. One of the first historians of the rebellion, writing in 1900, said that the signpost was “ever afterwards painted black as a warning against any future outrage.”
Brophy provides some additional detail that was new to me: 
It is likely that the slave involved was Alfred, a blacksmith owned by Levi Waller, whose wife and children were murdered in the rebellion. According to a petition Waller filed with the Virginia legislature asking for compensation, Alfred was first caught by a small band of the local militia. They disabled him “by cutting the longer tendon just above the heel in each leg” and left him there by the side of the road as they went in search of other rebels. Then a group of mounted militia from Greensville County came along. They tied Alfred to a tree and shot him, because they “deemed that his immediate execution would operate as a beneficial example to the other Insurgents — many of whom were still in arms and unsubdued.” 
The official signpost describing the rebellion lead by Nat Turner is a few miles distant. 
There is, of course, much more to be said about the event that greatly frightened Southern slaveholders. You can read a more detailed account here.

A couple of points of interest. First, Nat Turner could read, and he read the Bible. The effect of excluding enslaved persons from churches, however, left him with no guidance on the application of the text which, coupled with his ecstatic visions, lead him to believe deliverance from slavery could be accomplished by killing slave owners. Second, the response of the Virginia legislature was to make illegal teaching slaves to read. Hardly a testimony to the Christian faith claimed by the elites of the commonwealth.

21 August 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins is a delightful film. Starring Meryl Streep as the eponymous Florence, Hugh Grant as her long-time companion, St. Clair Bayfield, and Simon Helberg as the improbably-named Cosmé McMoon, Florence's piano accompanist, FFJ is a story of love made manifest in deliberate disregard of reality. Florence dreamed of herself as an operatic soprano but she couldn't sing. Bayfield knew she couldn't sing but did all in his power to permit her to live in her world of dream.

With Florence's generous contributions to the arts and a large circle of gracious friends, all went well until Florence decided to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall. There she was forced to face the scorn of an audience and critics; there she was compelled to feel the shame of public humiliation; and not long thereafter Florence died. And, to top it off, generally true to the real-life Florence (here).

Meryl Streep, who has a fine voice, does a superb job of reproducing Florence's terrible singing expression. Hugh Grant does an excellent role of playing a man committed to a woman who cannot requite his love because of syphilis contracted from her first husband. Helberg as McMoon steps up his performance several notches from his role as Howard Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory.

FFJ was a peculiar story of of love and self-deception. And even though it may not be a great film, FFJ warmed our hearts. After all, who knows (or really wants to know) the deceptions we practice on ourselves and enabling love that permits us to endure the harsh reality of an unloving world?

17 August 2016

How Many Supremes Do We Need?

The makeup of the United States Supreme Court took center stage in American political life with the sudden death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Although much more nuanced in his judicial philosophy (and even more so in statutory construction) than his critics or fans generally acknowledged, Scalia's originalism was clearly a bulwark against the expansive role for themselves that others on the Court (four or five, depending on the case) fancy. President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland thus threatened to undo the precarious and shifting balance among the nine members of the Court.

Among Donald Trump's more cultured supporters, hoping to preserve the legacy of Justice Scalia may be the most oft-cited reason for voting for the Republican nominee. Others are less confident (here and here) of The Donald's reliability on the judicial nomination front. I must admit I'm dubious but for the sake of argument, let's consider another scenario: a pledge to nominate no one to fill the Court's vacancy

As reported in The Economist here, over the most recent three-quarters of a century, the Supreme Court has been doing less and less: "Seventy years ago, the justices decided 200 or more cases a year; that number declined to about 150 in the 1980s and then plummeted into the 80s and, in recent years, the 70s." Why, then, do we need nine justices?

The obvious answer is to break ties but that's hardly an overwhelming reason. After all, a 4-4 vote means that the decision of the lower court will stand but the Supremes' indecision carries no precedential value. It's not immediately clear that ties will increase systemic error. If so, probably not by much.

Given that the next justice to retire from the Court will probably be from its more activist wing, the current imbalance may persist for only a few years. If, for example, Justice Ginsberg leaves the Court, the ratio will be the same as before Justice Scalia's death: three to three with Justice Kennedy holding the swing vote. The upside is that the expense of maintaining nine justices will be reduced to paying only seven. Not much savings in an age of multi-billion dollar annual deficits but certainly enough to make permanent a few current temporary bankruptcy judgeships.

At that point whoever is president will have the opportunity to nominate two justices. In order to gain the Senate's consent, a well-advised president would nominate one originalist and one activist. Why would a president forego the opportunity to have a Supreme Court two-fer? Because to go for two of the same philosophy wouldn't gain Senate confirmation. After all, in the worst-case Republican scenario, even after November they will have enough members in the Senate tie up matters unless President Clinton nominates a balanced slate for the Supreme Court. Ditto for the Democrats if the Republicans win the presidency.

Or, an even better-advised president would do nothing and leave the Court with seven members and make the hangers-on earn their keep.

12 August 2016

James Madison on Religion and Religious Exemptions

You can download a relatively brief piece by Andy Olree titled A Madisonian Vision of Religious Liberty here. Quoting the abstract,
James Madison thought and wrote a great deal about issues of religious liberty. Some of his stances are well-known, while others ought to be better known. His theory of religious liberty resists easy categorization by the partisans in our current debates over church and state. While Madison himself claimed to stand for “total separation” of religion and government, his stances differed in important ways from those of many of today’s “strict separationists.” At the same time, he firmly rejected state attempts to support religious truths and practices — even broad “Judeo-Christian” ones — as well as state attempts to acknowledge the privileged place of religion in our history and culture. This invited essay, written for the 2015 Faulkner Law Review Symposium on “The Meaning of Religious Liberty in the Anglo-American Tradition,” summarizes and documents Madison’s understanding of religious liberty, with specific reference to concepts such as religious toleration, natural rights of conscience, religious exemptions in law, and establishments of religion. Along the way, the essay draws attention to points of agreement and disagreement between Madison and John Locke.
Olree's essay alerted me to the exceptional extent of Madison's reflection of the subject of religious liberty. Firmly ensconced in the Enlightenment tradition of natural rights, Madison was almost--but not quite--the poster child for a radical Two Kingdoms approach to the separation of Church and State (here and here). Madison was, of course, was willing to acknowledge freedom of religion; it is, after all, equally explicit in the First Amendment. He further supported some limited religious exemptions from laws of general application.

Olree spends considerable space refuting the position Phillip Munoz took in his 2009 book to the effect that any reference to religion in the law, even to exempt from the law's reach a practice that would pose no threat of harm to others, violates Madison's own anti-establishment principles. Drawing on Madison's writings and signatures on private bills rebating duties imposed on societies importing Bibles during the War of 1812, Olree efforts easily succeed.

Olree does not spend as much time defending Madison's anti-establishment position. He believes Madison was applying Locke's principle of toleration more faithfully than Locke himself, which is probably the case. Of course, whether Madison was correct in this--from an Establishmentarian perspective--is a question not much bruited in the legal academy today.

In summary, Olree's essay is a solid piece of historical scholarship that helps its readers understand what the framer of the First Amendment thought its religion clauses meant, what they didn't mean, and how its twin principles of religious non-establishment and religious freedom should be applied.

09 August 2016

"The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity"

I got a copy of Keith C. Sewell's book, "The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions" (Wipf & Stock 2016) at the recommendation of a friend. I had hoped it would be something of an update of Mark Noll's 1994 classic, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." 

Knowing that Sewell had taught for years at Dordt College, my undergraduate alma mater, I suspected his book would have something of a so-called "Reformational" bent, i.e., it would deploy a simplified version of Herman Dooyeweerd's philosophy as the angle through which to view its subject. Yet I thought that given Sewell's work as an academic historian on the roots of World War I and on historiography, I could expect something equally insightful on this more popular topic. I was disappointed.

Perhaps my first inkling of the inadequacy of Sewell's book should have been the absence of interaction with Noll's book. While "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" appears in Sewell's extensive bibliography, neither of the text's references to Noll took up the incisive groundwork Noll laid two decades ago.

The second deficiency in Sewell's account is his uncritical belief that the work of Herman Dooyeweerd somehow represents a break (and turn for the very much better) in the relationship between Dooyeweerd's philosophical speculations and all previous Christian thought. In other words, before Dooyeweerd all was synthesis (= bad) (Platonic. Aristotelian, Enlightenment, you name it) but with the 20th-century Dutchman all became biblically-directed and thus good. Sewell would have benefited from considering the privately published dissertation of R.D. Henderson, "Illuminating Law: The Construction of Herman Dooyeweerd's Philosophy" in which Henderson establishes to my satisfaction that Dooyeweerd's philosophy finds its origins and structure in a particular strand of neo-Kantianism. A synthesis tu quoque, if you will.

Finally, Sewell's book is full of conclusions for which he apparently feels little need of demonstration. Sewell's opinions, taken largely from Dooyeweerd and his epigonies, must be accepted ipse dixit. His off-handed dismissals of nearly 2000 years of Western Christian reflections on the enduring questions of the structures of human life and thinking about life in a fallen world amazed me.

It is certainly the case that the history of American Evangelicalism, as Noll has demonstrated, has  left contemporary Evangelicals with little grist for the intellectual mill. And it is entirely possible that strands from Reformational thought might prove helpful for contemporary Evangelicals but I have little hope that this book will do much to serve that end.

07 August 2016

"Freud's Last Session"

We made the trek to Virginia Beach on Saturday where we had tickets to see a sold-out performance of "Freud's Last Session," a Tidewater Stage production. Tidewater Stage is a professional theater group that uses the facilities of Regent University for its productions. It also allows some Regent University faculty and students make a few bucks in the summer.

"Freud's Last Session" depicts a fictional visit by C.S. Lewis to the offices of Sigmund Freud in London on September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and ten days before Freud committed suicide to end his suffering from oral cancer. The dialog was taken from each man's prolific writings and takes the form of an extended argument over the existence of God, the (un)reality of moral absolutes, the meaning(lessness) of human suffering, and the place parents played in each man's ultimate development.

Occasional radio reports about the declaration of war and Freud's painful struggles with cancer punctuate the dialog. Although there's is little action on-stage, both characters develop over the 85-minute session.

Actors John Forkner (C.S. Lewis) and Chris Hanna (Freud) did outstanding jobs. Hanna was especially powerful as an old and dying Freud come to life in his bemused contempt for Lewis's thoughtful Christianity and rage against any God who would have cursed him with a life of personal losses and now with great physical suffering.

The staging of the play was exceptional. Based on photographs of Freud's office in Vienna, the scenic and properties designers did an outstanding job of recreating Freud's surroundings. Not only us but may others have greatly appreciated this production of "Freud's Last Session." At least 250 were on the waiting list, which would have made it challenging to get tickets for the final performance even had I posted this in time.

In any event, a great job by all involved

05 August 2016

Origins of Human Rights

Thomas Kidd posted an interested review here of a chapter in "Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1, Historical Perspectives (Law and Christianity)" (CUP 2016). Kidd remarked on the chapter by Kyle Harper that addressed Christian contributions in late antiquity to what today would be known as human rights.

This sounds very interesting. I wrote on secular and Christian justifications for the modern notion of human rights in Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download here). Although I wasn't focusing on the history of human rights so much as what accounts for them, I looked into the notion of rights inherent in the Hebrew Scriptures and as developed by Christians in the early modern period. (For some of my blog posts on the history and justification for human rights try here, here, and here.)

I've asked my library to order "Christianity and Freedom." If Harper is right, the distinctively Christian contribution of human rights has deeper roots than I appreciated.

04 August 2016

The Naturalistic Fallacy Revisited, Again

In his chapter titled The Two Faces of Morality in "Evolution and Morality" (2010), Robin Bradley Kar wrestles with the issue of whether a universe of pure matter can give rise to immaterial notions of morality. I made use of some of Kar's other work in my piece Looking for Bedrock (download here) that addressed competing foundations for human rights.

Kar begins with a commonplace: "When we sincerely judge an action to be wrong ... we usually consider that purposed fact to give us a special, moral reason for action, which has a practical authority that is in some sense independent of our antecedent desire, inclinations, and interests." In short, whatever actually it may be, morality is understood as a "trump" with respect to what we otherwise want. (For more on rights as "trumps" see my post on Nicholas Wolterstorff's "Justice: Rights and Wrongs" here.)

If "right and wrong," unlike desires, inclinations, and interests, are supra-personal trumps, then they must be (or at least they seem to be) objective in some sense of ontological realism. At this point Kar puts "objectivity" in scare quotes because, after all, in a universe composed of matter in motion there cannot be an immaterial "thing" like morality. So how could a notion of immaterial morality have come about? On the one hand,
We know that evolutionary dynamics are inherently selfish and competitive, and a breezy understanding of evolutionary theory might therefore lead one to assume that the correct evolutionary explanation of our capacities for moral judgment must be debunking.
In other words, pure naturalism entails there is no such "thing" as morality.

On the other hand, at least for Kar,
With regard to human motivation ... we know that natural selection has favored the production of social dominance hierarchies in many social animals ... These patterns of behavior plausibly involve perceptions of authority that are distinct from the attitudes that go into purely goal-oriented behavior ... Because we are ourselves social creatures ... it is certainly possible that our moral psychologies would operate by getting us to perceive certain rules as having authority. 
In yet other words, the notion of morality is itself a product of evolution. A feature, not a bug, as it were. Okay. But is Kar's understanding of the evolution of the notion of morality true? Which thus invites the question: What does it mean for something to be "true" in a naturalistic universe?

Kar finds himself in a bit of a pickle but believes he can sidestep naturalism's epistemic conundrum:
Let us assume that part of the correct evolutionary explanation of our capacities for cognitive judgment [which includes moral judgment] is that they conduced to the reproductive success of their bearers, within their environment of evolutionary adaptation, by disposing them to form true beliefs about the world.
In other words, true beliefs "work" by increasing reproductive success. (How's this for a pickup line: "Hey baby, I've got more true beliefs than any other loser at this bar. Let's go to my place and see if we can have some reproductive success.")

But even this concession to "truth" makes Kar nervous:
This explanation makes reference to truth, and some may worry that this reference is problematic (especially insofar as it is meant to play a role in a purely naturalistic explanation) because it is unclear whether truth is itself a natural property.
So Kar quickly reiterates his belief that it's all about reproductive success, not some real notion of metaphysical truth. And by "truth" he doesn't mean "perfect biconditional symmetries concerning the belief that p if an only if p."  Truth, even in Kar's limited sense, means only that "the reproductive advantages of this particular trait can depend upon its capacity to approximate" truth. But how would we know if such a cognitive belief p approximates truth unless there is some "true truth"-- a real p--to which to compare our cognitive p?

To say the least, I find Kar's efforts, valiant as they are, unpersuasive. And if you don't feel inclined to agree with my evaluation, go here to read a short and concise interview with Alvin Plantinga where he debunks a variety of arguments for a-theism including the disconnect between the putative truth of naturalism and the inability of naturalism to account for truth.

Which brings us back to morality. If philosophical naturalists can't account for truth, they certainly can't account for moral realism. Why should we care about right and wrong if our notions of right and wrong are no more than collectively effective means for reproductive success among social creatures? Who is to say that my individual reproductive success isn't more important that our collective success? And even if human evolution has succeeded because of embedded notions of right and wrong, why should I give a damn?

(Don't believe me or Plantinga? Then check out atheist philosopher Joel Marks here who has reluctantly come to the conclusion that naturalism entails a-morality.)

01 August 2016

"Baptists in America: A History"

I finally finished reading one of Jeremy's Christmas gifts, "Baptists in America" by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins. It took a while. While an important subject, at least the first half of the book was tedious. Perhaps due to the lack of extensive Baptist writings in the eighteenth century, the first two chapters, "Colonial Outlaws" and "The Great Awakening" were little more than enhanced chronologies. Even the next several chapters, beginning with "Baptists and Disestablishment", left with me lots of information about Baptists with incomplete knowledge of who they were and what made them tick. In other words, even with the wealth of details of Baptist history, I was left wondering about the bigger picture. Even so, I was glad to know something about the history of Landmark Baptists and the Anti-missionary Baptists as well as the battles over free will, the place of confessions, and the changing relationship between Black and White Baptists in the South as America inched toward the Civil War.

I felt a change in tone once "Baptists in America" reached the twentieth century in chapter 9. Here at last the personalities of the leading characters and an inside perspective of their battles became clear and the book held my interest. At this point I learned a great deal about the contemporary diversity among Baptists, which helped dispel the notion that Baptists, even White Baptists, can be uniformly identified with the Religious Right.

By the end, the authors struggled to answer the question "what makes a Baptist a Baptist?" Their book proved that "Baptists have been unified on very little throughout their history." Quoting Mark Noll they admitted that "Baptists offer attitudes and dispositions but not much in the way of distinctive theological, intellectual, or academic position." Indeed, they go on to say, "One might add, not much in the way of social or cultural positions either."

So what are Baptists in America? The book concludes with three identifying features. First, and hardly surprising, believer's baptism. There is no sign of God's covenant with anyone who has not professed a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Second, "the independence of the local congregation." With respect to this feature, however, the authors feel compelled to add a qualifier: "to one degree or another." Finally, and most deflationary, "there needs to be a third marker that makes Baptists unique, and that is simply the willingness to call oneself a Baptist."

"Baptists in America" is a decent book, one that certainly meets the need for an overview of the topic and can serve as a resource for those who want to press further. Indeed, I hope others use "Baptists in America" as a foundation and take up the challenge to give us a more nuanced treatment of their history.