26 June 2015

Libertarianism Redux

I'm in the midst of a move so this post will be a bit more lighthearted than most.

H/T to Jordan Ballor who posted a link to a wonderful piece by Russell Kirk,  Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians. You can read the whole thing for yourself--it's only eight pages--here.

I've previously posted about the the foibles of libertarianism and why I'm not one. Sadly, I lack the rhetorical skills of Russell Kirk so I'll let him speak for himself.

While I'm not sure about the accuracy of this observation, I couldn't let it pass:
With respect to libertarian eccentricity, the dream of an absolute private freedom is one of those visions that issue from between the gates of ivory; and the disorder that they would thrust upon society is already displayed in the moral disorder of their private affairs. [Omitting delightful but scurrilous assertion about the sexual orientation of libertarians.] In politics as in private life, they demand what nature cannot afford.
More to the point: Why are out-and-out libertarians forever in want of political success?
The libertarians are rejected because they are metaphysically mad. Lunacy repels, and political lunacy especially. I do not mean they are dangerous: nay, they are repellant merely. They do not endanger our country and our civilization, because they are few, and seem likely to become fewer. [Not much of a prophet was Kirk.] ... There exists no peril that American public policies will be affected in any substantial degree by libertarian arguments; or that a candidate of the tiny Libertarian Party ever will be elected to any public office of significance: the good old causes of Bimetallism, Single Tax, or Prohibition enjoy a more hopeful prospect of success in the closing years of this [twentieth] century than do the programs of libertarianism.
A couple of thoughts. First, the metaphysical madness of libertarianism is matched by its anthropological vacuity. Without an credible account of human nature, there is no particular reason to valorize liberty. Natural rights without natural law are little more than exhortations.

Second, and somewhat more dispassionately than Kirk I hope, few living libertarians fit the ideal type sketched in his article. Most politically engaged libertarians like Randy Barnett are virtue ethicists of a sort. So too George Mason professor Todd Zywicki. The foundational resources for the virtues in a consistent libertarian system may seem few but I am thankful that libertarians, like the rest of us, are only inconsistently consistent.

25 June 2015

Props To Matt Tuininga

Likely you were pleased there was no "Convivium 2015" in the title of this post. At last, you thought, no summaries of some inside-cricket discussions of natural law, theology, and theologians. Curb your enthusiasm. I blogged about the subject of this post in connection with last year's "Convivium 2014." Read it here. Matt showed up again in a post about natural law theory that you can read here. Indeed, Matt attended Convivium 2015 but didn't present a paper.

Tuininga should be forgiven for his lack of a written piece of scholarship because the week following the Convivium he was on the floor of the annual Synod of the Christian Reformed Church where he sustained a final round of questions before receiving unanimous approval to join the faculty of Calvin Seminary as assistant professor of moral theology. You can--and actually should--watch the one+ hour session on YouTube by going here.

Not many Protestant seminaries still have a professor of moral theology. My single class in Ethics at Reformed Theological Seminary was unusual in that our professor spend over half the semester teaching  neoclassical economics and the rest on apologetics. Interesting stuff, mind you, but not the sort of a full-orbed approach to the host of contemporary ethical issues one might hope for.

I am convinced that Matt will do a great job of training generations of Calvin Seminary graduates in a Christo-centric approach to ethics. Not one that ignores the law (revealed or natural) but one that sees the ethical application of all law through the lens of the ascended Christ. And more than the application of law, ethics in Tuininga's vision is the outworking of the Christian's (and Christians collectively) new nature in union with the ascended Christ through Holy Spirit.

The Seminary and Synod could not have made a better choice.

24 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 7: The Last and the Least

I won't promise not to post anything else on this year's Convivium again sponsored by by The Davenant Trust and The Calvinist International (follow TCI's Twitter account @ReformedIrenics). It will be, however, my final post on the papers that were presented. (You can find a convenient list of all the papers here.)

Last but not least among the presentations was one by Joel Carini, currently a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Joel titled his presentation "Protestantism and Political Liberalism." It was, in short, an effort to read John Rawls's final work, Political Liberalism, through the lens of a Reformed Two-Kingdoms approach to the place of the Church and Christians in the world of contemporary late-Liberal polities. I truly wish I could say more about Joel's presentation but by late in the second afternoon of presentations, and a day and a-half of great conviviality,  I found myself less attentive than I like to admit. But never at a loss to promote myself, interested readers can find my paper, Principled Pluralism and Contract Remedies (download here) in which I spend a couple of pages considering the inadequacy of a Rawlsian justification for--of all things--awarding damages for breach of contract.

Least, at least in the person of its presenter, was the paper by Ruben Alvarado that suffered greatly from Ruben's regrettable absence. In lieu of a presentation by someone who knew what he was talking about was a bare reading by me. I had read the paper, "Abraham Kuyper vs. Philipp Hoedemaker: Rival Models of Reformed Political Theology", beforehand and found it very insightful on an issue of ecclesiology of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper. 

Hoedemaker was Kuyper's contemporary who believed Kuyper's departure from the state church unnecessary and who strongly criticized Kuyper's conceptual separation of the church as institute from the church as organism. In Hoedemaker's opinion, Kuyper's conceptual separation both depreciated the work of the church as institute and lead to its politicization by practically prioritizing the organism concept. I won't belabor my readers except to state that I found in Alvarado's paper an answer to a question about a peculiarity of Dordt College, my undergraduate alma mater, that had been lurking in my subconscious for almost 40 years.

All in all, another great round of intellectual stimulation and personal camaraderie. Everyone should consider buying the book of papers when it's published later this year.

23 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 6: Normanization and the Benedict Option

Miles Smith (follow on Twitter @IVMiles), a visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College, certainly had the most catchy title for his paper: "The Manhood of the Southern Saxons: Normanization and Presbyterians in the Antebellum South, 1830-1865." Who knew there was such a thing as "normanization theory" in sociology? Indeed, as a technical term it's far more intriguing than the older expression "fictive kinship." In any event, normanization refers to a people who adopt a social/cultural ideal of an idealized aristocratic social structure even though they have no ties to any aristocracy.

Smith's "Southern Saxons" were antebellum Southern Presbyterians who distanced themselves from those associated with revivalism, such as Baptists and Methodists, and increasingly found their cultural allies among the upper-crust Episcopalians. In short, descendents of pre-1787 anti-slavery Roundheads joined themselves to elites Cavaliers. The cultural/political content of such an aristocratic ideal was largely negative, that is, it was anti-democratic and anti-reform.

Jumping ahead a century-plus, Smith mused about the contemporary Presbyterian "reversal." Rather than migrating to a gentrified upstream, today's southern Presbyterians find their cultural affiliates among the Baptists. Nothing wrong with Baptists, mind you, but what's the root of this Presbyterian vacillation? Why can't Presbyterians be happy as Presbyterians? Why did they look to Episcopalians early in the nineteenth century and to Baptists today for their cultural cred? No ready answers but good questions.

The much-bruited "Benedict Option" championed by Rod Dreher was the subject of an entertaining afternoon discussion moderated by Jake Meador. Lots of smoke but still no fire. In short, it's not clear that a strategic withdrawal from the current socio-cultural milieu is feasible or advisable. (If you don't know what the Benedict Option is, check Dreher's blog. Or better yet, wait for his book.)




Family Christian Stores Auction Update

A couple of days ago I posted here about the decision of the Bankruptcy Court not to approve the sale of the assets of FCS to an entity controlled by former owner, lender, and all-around √©minence grise Richard Jackson. Based on the news account to which I linked, I observed that a mid-auction communication from the CEO of  FCS, Chuck Bengochea, to Jackson torpedoed the deal.

I've now read the 48-page decision by Judge Gregg. The Bengochea-Jackson contact was only part of the rationale of the court. But with respect to Bengochea's action, the court's comments were scathing:
The testimony and auction transcript reveal that around the same time that Mr. Bengochea placed the telephone call to Mr. Jackson, Acquisition [the Jackson-controlled entity] submitted its final bid, after which it left the auction. Neither Acquisition nor any other party has provided an explanation for Acquisition’s departure. The conduct of Mr. Bengochea and the departure of Acquisition leave this court with the impression that Mr. Bengochea may have represented to Acquisition that it would be declared as the winning bidder, which it eventually was after a recess and an abrupt closing of the auction. While the court is without sufficient evidence to infer fraud on the part of Mr. Bengochea, the timing of the telephone call, the final Acquisition bid [by Jackson's entity], and the closing of the auction cannot be ignored in light of the heightened scrutiny applied to insider transactions. Mr. Bengochea was, at the very least, reckless.
Ouch.

But what, you ask, was the court's principal reason for disapproving the sale to Jackson? The answer: insider releases. For most of my readers that explains precisely nothing but in the world of bankruptcy transactions insider releases mean a great deal.

Insiders include officers and directors of a corporation but can extend beyond those with titular control of a company to reach those who, like Richard Jackson, exercise de facto control. The Jackson bid included not only a purchase of the assets of FCS but would also have required FCS not to pursue any claims against him. The unsuccessful liquidator bidders would have left the claims against Jackson--if any--in place for the additional benefit of the creditors of FCS. In the court's words,
Regardless of whether this failure is considered a mistake or more properly considered in connection with the valuation of the Debtors’ assets in relation to the purchase price, the Debtors’ failure in this regard is fatal, even if the Committee supported the terms of sale. The Debtors’ executives testified that an investigation had not been completed as to the value of the releases in the Acquisition APA or the avoidance actions proposed to be sold when the Acquisition bid was selected as the highest and best bid. ... Moreover, the Debtors were unable to articulate a basis for the granting of such releases, let alone their value, at the sale hearing. This lack of understanding is unacceptable given the insider relationship between Acquisition and the Debtors.
Oops. 

It's not back to drawing board for FCS. The court telegraphed enough of it concerns so that the next round of bidding should go smoothly. Thus, I continue to expect that Jackson will buy back Family Christian but I've been wrong before so stay tuned.

22 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 5: Cross-Atlantic Perspectives on the American Experiment

Pastor Steven Wedgeworth (who also led in morning and evening worship) presented parts of his paper "Views from 19th Century Europe: How the Separation of Church and State was Seen from Abroad." I write "parts" because his research was impressive but much editorial synthesis remains before it will be paper- (and not book-) length.

Wedgeworth began with Alexis de Tocqueville's observations concerning the heretofore unknown idea of separation of church and state. Analysis of de Tocqueville occupied the majority of the presentation. de Tocqueville's work Democracy in America is well-known and short abridgements are often included in sourcebooks for American history classes. Wedgeworth, however, has read and digested the whole book and picked up some of de Tocqueville's less-familiar themes. Two stood out. First, while Americans in the 1830s generally eschewed any discussion of political philosophy, de Tocqueville quickly identified the elements of their political theory: equality, liberty, and utility. The first two elements are traceable to the Enlightenment in general and the latter to the rise of the market economy. You can read some of my recent thoughts on the third element here.

Second, de Tocqueville observed that in America authority resides in the individual--and only the individual. Neither the civil state, the church, nor even the family exercised substantial authority over the sovereign individual. Democratization not only of the franchise but of all of life. This proto-libertarian suspicion of authority also had, de Tocqueville suggested, significant implications for the American Church(es) (or, as we would say, denominations). Because ultimate authority resided only in the individual, to thrive if not survive churches must be careful not to go beyond assent to narrow dogmas in their requirements for membership. In other words, de Tocqueville saw the early manifestation of the marketization of American Christianity. (My thoughts about that phenomenon here.)

But, I asked Wedgeworth, what of the Mormons? They required much in the way of beliefs and life that exceeded the expectations of the mushy middle of early nineteenth century Americans. According to Wedgeworth, de Tocqueville missed the followers of Joseph Smith, as he also overlooked the so-called Second Great Awakening. Rather large omissions, I think.

For what it's worth, in my opinion, then as now there is a share of the religion "market" that is eager for authority. Being a stand-alone center of authority can be hard so there are many who--in the exercise of their free choice--are satisfied to delegate that authority to an institution, especially one that generates so much utility.

Wedgeworth went on to address the views of two subsequent Europeans who came to America and reflected on later nineteenth century developments. Those who are interested will have to wait for the publication of the Convivium's proceedings.


20 June 2015

Family Christian Stores: Auction Hits a Speedbump

A couple of days ago I predicted that the bankruptcy court would approve the sale of the assets of Family Christian Stores (FCS) to an entity controlled by Richard Jackson, the previous owner of FCS and the purchaser of one of the largest claims against the business. I believed that the support of virtually all creditors for the Jackson bid, even though it seemed lower than a competing bid by a consortium of liquidators, would be adequate to get court approval.

I didn't know then what came out during the hearing to approve the sale: the current CEO of FCS, Chuck Bengochea, contacted Jackson during the five-day auction period to request that he raise his bid. Read about it here. There's nothing wrong with asked bidders for more money--that's the point of an auction. There is, however, something deeply wrong with asking only one bidder to up the ante, especially when that bidder has promised to keep you on the payroll after the sale.

So it's back to the auction block for FCS. The bankruptcy judge didn't disqualify Jackson's entity and he specifically stated that a sale for less than the maximum bid could be approved if there were sufficient contingencies that created some doubt about ultimate payment of the max. Thus, when all is said and done--for the second time--in my opinion it's still more likely than not that Jackson will walk away with FCS. One can only hope that this ongoing debacle will have taught whomever is left holding the bag how to run a business with a razor-thin margin.

(Go here, here, here, and here for a sampling of earlier posts on this Chapter 11 bankruptcy.)

19 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 4: Two Perspectives on the War for Independence

On the second day of the Convivium Stephen Wolfe, a graduate student at LSU and Andrew Fulford, who is pursuing his Ph.D. at McGill University, presented papers with contrasting takes on the worldviews of pro-independence Jonathan Witherspoon and Loyalist thought generally. (You can catch up on my earlier posts about the Convivium if you'd like by going here, here, and here.)

Wolf's paper, "Witherspoon's Enlightenment in Light of the Reformed Tradition" focused on Witherspoon's separation of natural and special revelation. He was an Old Side Presbyterian when it came to theology and suspicions of "revival" but followed his erstwhile secularizing Scottish Moderates when it came to moral theory. And it was Witherspoon's moral theory that had an enormous impact on Americans generally and--perhaps, no one knows for sure--his prize Princeton pupil, James Madison.

Two-Kingdoms fans will likely find nothing objectionable in Witherspoon's dichotomization of theology and morality. After all, earlier writers including most in the Reformed tradition had held that morality could be derived from natural law. However, they regularly articulated an explicit connection between the God who was the foundation of both special and general (natural) revelation, an important element that Witherspoon neglected. Indeed, Witherspoon's blithe acceptance of the deliverances of reason--and reason likewise without an explicit foundation in biblical anthropology--set up nineteenth century Presbyterians for problems when unaided reason took a decidedly unbiblical turn.

Fulford, the friendly Canadian (and Queen's subject) that he is, then presented his paper, "The Legacy of Protestant Thought in Loyalism." Loyalists were most definitely not Tories. They, like their pro-Independence neighbors, were committed to the British Constitutionalism described by Dr. Glenn Moots. In other words, they were Whigs.

Yet if Loyalists were committed to constitutionalism, why were they not fighting for independence? Fulford finds the answer to that question in social status. In other words, while Loyalists may have chafed under authoritarian direct British rule, they feared rule by fellow Americans even more. Loyalists tended to be found among the weaker, marginalized elements of Colonial society and were concerned that their status would fall further without the stabilizing effects of rule from London.

All in all, two fine examples of the theme of Convivium 2015: "The Trans-Atlantic Legacy of Protestant Political Thought."

17 June 2015

Convivium 2015 Part 3: Niels Hemmingsen and Early Protestant Natural Law Thinking

A bit less familiar a subject but Eric Hutchinson's paper on Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600) "Divine Law, Naturally: Lex Naturae and the Decalogue" demonstrated how early Protestants were not the voluntarists their critics sometimes allege. Hutchinson is a professor of Classics at Hillsdale College and Hemmingsen was a Danish Lutheran theologian and close friend of Philip Melancthon. He made no sharp distinction between God's nature and will. One can find support for Hemmingsen's "catholic" natural law thinking by comparing him to Aquinas with whom he shared most conclusions and even the reasons for those conclusions. Like his contemporaries, Hemmingsen argued that the Decalogue was a synecdoche of the natural law. Indeed, Hemmingsen argued that the four cardinal virtues were also grounded in the natural law.

That the first several generation of Reformers were thoroughly at home in the Western Christian natural law tradition should be a commonplace by now. Those who are interested in my take on the issue might find my article, God's Bridle: John Calvin's Application of Natural Law (download here) of interest.

New to me, however, was Hutchinson's explanation that it was only in the later Middle Ages that Christian theologians began to use the Ten Commandments as the framework for moral and ethical analysis. Only as part of the society-wide reform movement after the Papal Revolution of the eleventh century did the Church conclude that the original Big 10 would work well pedagogically to train Western Europe's population in basic Christian morality.

16 June 2015

Convivium 2015: Christian America Part 2

In Part 1 of my summary of the paper "God and Constitutionalism" by Dr. Glenn Moots (here), I listed the three elements he identified as constituting the American nation in the decades before independence: (i) the rule of law, (ii) liberty secured by the rule of law, and (iii) the social structures/institution necessary to preserve (i) and (ii). Moots also noted that each of these elements was deeply rooted in the history of Western Christendom extending back to the middle of the eleventh century. Notwithstanding their catholic origin, in the eighteenth century Englishmen and colonists alike considered those in communion with the bishop of Rome to be their sworn enemies. Indeed, the common epitaph for virtually any political opponent was Papist.

The three elements noted above fall under the rubric of constitutionalism. Medieval political structures were constitutional but failed to have an effective means of enforcement short of revolution. Kings were bound to uphold the rule of law and protect their subjects' liberties but there wasn't much anyone could do about a king who failed on either or both counts.

The Reformation and the aftermath of the English Civil War created in seventeenth-century England new sub-revolutionary means of redressing the rights of subjects. These means included trial by jury (where jurors were impartial rather than witnesses), the rudiments of rules of evidence which allowed for the first time parties to testify in civil matters, and, most important, Parliamentary supremacy culminating in the English Bill of Rights.

(For more on the law of the century before and the some of the legal effects of Puritanism and the English Civil War, download my article The Puritan Revolution and the Law of Contracts here. It may be the only article published in a law review that considers questions from the Westminster Larger Catechism.)

The latter was of signal importance in Puritan New England, the one place in the Colonies that had sought to establish a biblical Christian commonwealth, not an extension of Protestant England. With Parliamentary supremacy came the revocation of the original royal charters. Most interesting, however, was the sudden change of heart by the Mathers. Deprived of the opportunity to continue the experiment of creating a biblical commonwealth (an experiment that wasn't going very well anyway), Increase and Cotton Mather switched gears and made a virtue of necessity. It was no longer a godly society but a British constitutional one that was at the telos of political life.

Thus even for Puritan New England--as it had always been in the rest of the colonies--it was British constitutionalism that made the American experiment unique. While British constitutionalism was politically and religiously (but only broadly) Protestant, it was not biblical in the narrow understanding that pervades much contemporary "Christian America" thought.

Family Christian Stores: Still Waiting

Last week I posted here about the results of the auction of the assets of Family Christian Stores, which has been operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for some months. (That link leads to many others on this case.)

As I predicted, the debtor itself, Family Christian Stores (FCS) and its senior lender (both of which are affiliated with Richard Jackson) and its consignment vendors claim that the bid by yet another Jackson-affiliated entity was the best. The liquidator-bidders, the face of amount of whose bid was $6 million more than Jackson's, beg to differ.

The decision of FCS to accept Jackson's bid is subject to bankruptcy court approval and a hearing on whose is bigger took place last week. The court has taken the matter under advisement. Read a short account from Reuters here

What Reuters also reports is the equivalent of an attack on honor: in addition to objecting to acceptance of Jackson's bid, the losing liquidator-bidders have moved for the appointment of a trustee. Trustees are rarely appointed in Chapter 11 cases and then only when the debtor is guilty of gross misconduct. Years ago the sorts of assertions that accompany a motion for a trustee would have culminated in a duel.

The losing bidders will certainly lose this motion. I'm confident of this prediction because one more--very important--constituency supports the sale of FCS to the Jackson entity: the creditors' committee. The creditors' committee is charged with promoting the interests of all unsecured creditors. With its support, the decision of FCS to sell itself to its former owner and largest creditor will almost certainly be blessed by the bankruptcy court. And with that, the motion for a trustee will fall by the wayside.

15 June 2015

Convivium 2015: Christian America Part 1

This year's Convivium Irencicum, sponsored by The Davenant Trust and closely allied with the The Calvinist International, was another success. You can read my pre-Convivium post here, which contains links to my accounts of the 2014 event. A list of the papers presented is here.

Keynote speaker Dr. Glenn Moots of Northwood University (and author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology) spoke on "God and Constitutionalism" by first addressing the notion of "Christian America." Sociologically, 71% of Americans continue to report as Christian in religion. That statistic does not, however, seem a satisfactory definition. Speaking historically in a politically popular way, the David Bartons of the United States cherry-pick snippets from the Founding era to demonstrate that American was a Christian nation but is no longer. From a more serious historical point of view, however, long before the Founding there was a a distinct notion of what it meant to be a Christian nation but that notion--Christendom with an established church (even with toleration for other Christian sects)--doesn't garner much traction even among today's most fervid devotees of Christian America.

Drilling down on eighteenth century America, Moots demonstrated that in fact there was a consensus among the colonial Americans of English extraction on what constituted their Protestant nation: (i) the rule of law, (ii) liberty secured by the rule of law, and (iii) the social structures/institutions necessary to secure the first two elements. The collective opposite of these three was the exercise of arbitrary power, which in turn was regularly summed up with some rhetorical flourish as "Papist" or "Jesuitical." Not exactly what most conservative evangelicals mean today by Christian America.

What is a bit odd about such a distinctively Protestant self-understanding of their nation is the reality that all three elements found their historical roots in the Papal Revolution of the eleventh century. Yet for the American colonists, their English cousins, and indeed the citizens of the newly independent United States, it was these elements, drawn from the history of English constitutionalism, that defined a Christian nation.

What caused the colonists to think in such sectarian terms? In other words, how had the Reformation and the following century and a-half changed the self-understanding of English Protestants? More on this next time.