Saturday, January 26, 2008

Christian Legal Scholarship:

David Skeel at Penn Law is one of the most notable of a small number of scholars who actively pursue Christian legal scholarship. On a personal note, he was my Business Associations professor at Temple Law, regarded as one of the best professors at the law school, and that's probably why Penn Law recruited him. I didn't know he was a traditional orthodox Christian when teaching at Temple (he may not have been while there?).

He's posted some interesting articles on SSRN, the contents of some of which hope for a Renaissance in Christian legal scholarship. Skeel details the long and interesting history of evangelicals and scholarship and comes to the conclusion, after Mark Noll, that Protestant evangelical scholarship is in need of much improvement.

I can honestly say that, even though I'm not a Christian, I've learned quite a lot from serious Christian scholars. Yes, I'm hard clowns like David Barton and William Federer who have been selling scholarly nonsense to the masses and homeschooled crowd through televangelists. If they weren't so popular in certain circles, I'd be knocking down a strawman, shooting fish in a barrel. There's also much nonsense on the secular side and the academy, on balance, is biased against religiously conservative Christians. I try to be fair to serious Christian scholars. And the high standards that such conservative evangelicals and Catholics are met with (i.e., the suspicion the secular academy directs towards Christian scholarship) will only improve the quality of their work.

Some notables in Christian scholarship include Mark Noll and George Marsden of Notre Dame; Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest; Robert Kraynak of Colgate; Gary Scott Smith, chair of the history dept. at Grove City College, and Gregg Frazer who teaches political science at The Masters College. (There are many others.) All of them are religious conservatives who quite effectively have answered secular left arguments. Yet they answer them with respectable scholarship, not myth that is more useful in riling masses to political activism than it is concerned with elevating the level of scholarly discourse.

Noll's, Hatch's, and Marsden's book The Search For Christian America well answers the secularist claim that America's Founders intended an ACLU style Separation of Church and State. Yet, it also refutes the "Christian America" claim offered by folks like Barton, Federer, Kennedy et al.

Regarding Christian legal scholarship, the late Harold Berman of Harvard was a giant in the field. Today, 10th Circuit Judge Michael McConnell has produced outstanding scholarship. Along with William Stuntz of Harvard, David Skeel continues in the tradition of notable Christian legal scholarship, ala Berman.

As a classical liberal/libertarian, I'm interested in how Christianity may complement but also be in tension with such notions as pluralism and political liberty. The notion of political liberty arose out of religious disputes in the Christian West; so there is a rich tradition of history, philosophy, and politics, in this regard to discover.

Stuntz and Skeel have a paper which discusses the relationship between Christianity and the law which stresses a valuable point, necessary for conservative Christians to accept if they want to live in anything but a theocracy: Though there will be overlap between what the Bible forbids and what the civil law forbids (i.e., the Bible says don't murder, don't steal, ditto with the civil law), because of the differing natures of believers' duties to God (which according to orthodox Christianity, no man but One can meet) and what the civil law can realistically accomplish, by necessity government must permit men to sin or break the moral law in huge areas of life.

Arguments over "legislating morality" are complex. Obviously sane societies consider murder and theft immoral and illegalize those activities. But free societies also ought not attempt to legislate complex moral systems. The point Skeel and Stuntz make is because of the impossibly high demands of Christian morality, the civil law cannot legislate Christian morality in its entirety. The classic example is the Bible says mere lust equates with adultery. Therefore legislating Christian morality would mean we'd have to prosecute Jimmy Carter after he admitted to his "adultery," that is his lusting after other women.

As this relates to America's Founding era and political liberty, before Western Christendom recognized religious liberty and separated church and state, civil governments were explicitly religious entities that attempted to legislate mans' duties to God, the result of which was theocracy, laws on the books which merited execution for among other things, blasphemy, heresy, and worshipping false gods, done under the auspices of writing the Ten Commandments into the civil law. Once the unalienable rights of conscience were recognized, men now had a right to break the first tablet of the Decalogue.

In other words, a Christian who accepts republican government that recognizes political liberty must also accept that such governments may properly enforce only parts of the moral law (i.e., don't steal, don't kill), and likewise will be forbidden from enforcing large parts of the moral law (i.e., don't worship false gods, don't commit adultery, which lust qualifies as). One key role Christian scholars in modern liberal democratic societies have is to explore the proper relationship between Christian morality and the civil law. For those interested, Stuntz's and Skeel's "modest" approach is a good place to begin.

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