Wednesday, October 12, 2005

It All Started with Vladimir Putin

I must be getting old. Whenever some controversy comes up, the first thing I want to say is, "I remember when . . ." and give some anecdote. Of course in the Lutheran layman's blog world, I am actually almost a geezer, so I can be excused, I hope. But even when I know it's something other bloggers have been around to experience it, I still want to say, "I remember when . . ."

What I want to remember this time is President Bush meeting Vladimir Putin and famously saying he looked into his heart and found a good man there. And for that reason we should trust him.

Since then the record has been at best mixed. Vladimir Putin has been fairly amenable to American foreign policy under President Bush. Domestically, he has effectively eliminated the open society of Boris Yeltsin, whatever its faults, and created a fine model of democratic forms and authoritarian substance. And he has continued to intimidate countries in the "near abroad."

If we had a similar sort of record on a Supreme Court nominee, would we be impressed?

You know where this is going: Harriet Miers. I am going to stipulate now that the record indicates that Harriet Miers is temperamentally and cultural conservative, yes, but not ideologically or doctrinally in any way a strict constructionist. A micro-manager and indecisive, my money is on her being another O'Connor, always starting off with conservative instincts, but at least half the time, and on all the big issues, going with the liberal consensus rather than risk being "extremist" and "divisive." (If you wonder where I get this stuff, well just go here and here, and scroll down.)

But even if that's true, there might be a silver lining in the long run.

Harriet Miers is, as everyone now knows, an "evangelical," that is a pietist, revivalist, low church, or non-denominational Christian, what have you. The media battle for and against her has been painted as polarized into ordinary joes (for) vs. elitists (against), evangelicals (for) vs. Catholics and seculars (against).

Maybe the issue is looking into hearts (something the president does a lot) vs. looking at the record and the facts. Many have suggested that the President really does know she's a conservative, as she is his good friend (for example here). I'm not so sure people really do know even their friends all that well. Maybe it's because many of my friends and colleagues are liberal, but I doubt that if I put my friends into high office, they would create policies I believe in. I think Bush may well have had the kind of reasoning described, but I am getting convinced that he has mistaken Harriet Miers' politico-legal thinking. He has mistaken her personal admiration for him, a battle-tested conservative (more or less), for real, battle-tested conservative convictions. The two are not the same, unfortunately.

One big point of confessional Lutheranism is that doctrine matters. That you can't trust a "good heart" because the heart is indeed desperately wicked -- who can know it? That fine distinctions need to be made by our heads if we want to hold on to the things our hearts know are important. That a good Christian and a good magistrate aren't the same thing. That sin and error remain in a believer and aren't obliterated by being "born again" or "spirit filled," even if God does not count our sins against us. That the ancient tradition of Christendom needs to be worked through, not just ignored or mocked. That it's not just what you do, it's why you do it, that counts. That anti-elitist "just folks" aren't inherently any betterthan the "elites" -- because all have sinned and fallen short of theglory of God, not just the people with more degrees and a higherincome than me.

In response to criticism, the Harriet Miers nomination and its defenders have adopted the stance of anti-confessional, anti-intellectual, populist, activist, deeds not creeds, WWJD revivalist evangelicalism. She'll do the right thing, even if she doesn't have a lot of fancy pants theory and theology behind it.

Well, if she does the right thing: great, it will be worth it, and I'll be happy to see her and her Christian tradition have its moment in the sun.

But if she does the wrong thing: maybe some of the adherents of anti-confessional, activist, deeds not creeds evangelicalism will wonder why it is that their viewpoint cannot seem to produce people who when it really counts can stand the heat of the intellectual kitchen. People do wonder that after all; why if so many Americans are "born-again" it makes no difference, what happened to Christianity Today and Billy Graham and so on. And so if what us annoying doctrinal types worry about with Harriet Miers comes to pass, the silver lining is this: some deeds not creeds evangelicals might reconsider their adherence to that style of evangelicalism.