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Will Katerberg

The Groves of Academe

Special Pleading?

The most recent issue of Books & Culture, with an editorial, column, and essay on Christians, public life, and academe [September/October 2002], set me back in my office chair at Calvin College and inspired some thought about the project of "thinking Christianly."

Do we Christians really want to be "Sean Wilentz's worst nightmare"? In his editorial column, "Stranger in a Strange Land," John Wilson cites a New York Times op-ed in which Wilentz deplores what he describes as Justice Antonin Scalia's frustration with democracy, his identification of governments with God's divine authority, and his insistence that Christians ought properly to obey church authorities without question, perhaps even if it means violating the law.

For Wilson, Wilentz's despair is a Christian intellectual's proud statement of faith. We do not pretend to think for ourselves, like foolish secular humanists. Because we recognize that our mental "equipment is damaged and that we badly need help," we turn to God and Scripture, and perhaps to our religious communities and traditions, for the wisdom necessary to true thinking.

While I agree with John that our wisdom is not ultimately our own, his proud raising of Christian intellectual colors misses Wilentz's point. In citing the colonial American dissenter, Roger Williams, Wilentz points to the long Christian tradition of resisting the identification of any government with divine authority. Even if government is a creational structure, no particular set of institutions or laws and no particular ruler is infallible or necessarily from God. Is Wilentz's point anti-Christian, or is it a secular humanist restatement of old-fashioned, dissenting Christian wisdom? In a pluralist society such as the United States, is it appropriate to identify the powers that be as ordained of God, as Scalia wants to do? What do you do when people elect a president you don't like?

In expressing frustration with those who, out of lamentable and often silly habit, dismiss all Christians ...

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