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Why TV Conservatives Never Talk About The Ten Commandments

It’s as if you had taken an orange, sliced it in half, and only concerned yourself with one of the halves.

—Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City (1969)

Obviously Schaeffer should have said, “You have a spoiled orange, while I have a fresh orange.”

—Cornelius Van Til, “Foreword,” For a Time Such as This (1976)

The Constrained Vision

In A Conflict of Visions (1987), economist Thomas Sowell discusses two sorts of social vision and the effects each has on practical political choices. We have considered how those who hold to a liberal or unconstrained vision of human nature are likely to respond to the Ten Commandments. Now we turn to those who hold the constrained vision. Remember that the “constraint” has to do with human nature, and the questions we are asking deal with man’s capacities and limitations. What is his moral and intellectual nature?

The constrained vision is generally held by most “television conservatives,” both past and present. They are the folks we see every night, ostensibly offering the fair and balanced side. TV conservatives generally see human nature as morally flawed and intellectually limited. They assume that men make self-centered choices as a matter of course. They believe that men never know enough to forecast the end from the beginning. They believe that these moral and intellectual constraints put severe limits on human judgment. Because of this, TV conservatives are sometimes suspicious of the “wisest and best,” as John Stuart Mill called them. They are more likely to trust the judgment of society, especially as it is spread across multiple generations or even centuries, than that of an academic elite. TV conservatives usually look to the collective wisdom of the past, to the laws, the traditions, and social habits of society. They tend to conserve—to hold on to the values of the past. But TV conservatives also believe in change—slow, organic change. Sowell uses the word “evolution.”

Is the TV Conservative Vision Christian?

Certainly, many TV conservatives believe in virtue. My guess is that most believe in God. Many are professing Christians. Given all this, it is remarkably easy to mistake TV conservative thought and policy for Christian political philosophy. But it’s not that simple. We need to drill it down a bit.

Christianity presupposes a sovereign, personal Creator, one who transcends creation and yet is immanent within it. In other words, the Christian God is an inescapable God. There are no neutral zones within creation where His revelation is not operative or authoritative. He is not a vague God. He is not a hidden God, known only to private believers on private terms. When God spoke from Mt. Sinai, for example, His voice reached the ears of some three million men, women, and children. And this came after his divine wrath had leveled Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth (Ex. 5—12). The Canaanites and Philistines were trembling as the armies of Israel set out for their Promised Land (Josh. 2:9-11).

God’s self-revealing nature did not change when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The early Christians confronted the Roman Empire with the truth, “There is another King, one Jesus” (Acts 17:7). Now God calls on all mankind everywhere to repent. Jesus orders all nations to become His disciples (Acts 17:30; Matt. 28:18-20). There is still no neutral ground. We are either with Christ or against Him (Matt. 12:30).

Of Presuppositions and Oranges

Dr. Francis Schaeffer has described the difference between the Christian and non-Christian in terms of fruit: The non-Christian, who must rely only on human reason, is like the man who has half an orange. What he is has is fine as far as it goes, but it is incomplete. The Christian however, according to Schaffer, is able to understand reality in terms of both reason and divine revelation. In theory at least, he understands more than the non-Christian as he understands both the seen and the unseen. And according to Schaffer, the Christian has the whole orange.

Unfortunately, Schaffer’s orange parable misses the mark and seems a lot closer to the Nature/Grace dichotomy formulated by Thomas Aquinas, a worldview Dr. Schaeffer has strongly criticized. Dr. Cornelius Van Til however, points out that the parable should be blunter and cut to the bone. According to Van Til, the Christian has a fresh orange; the non-Christian has a rotten orange, one with some mold and smelling like something that should be tossed out.

With that in mind, here’s my take on the worldview differences between cable TV conservatives and Christianity: The Christian worldview and the TV conservative worldview are not two halves of the same thing. Christian social theory presupposes the God of the Bible and accepts His revelation and law as absolutely authoritative. The Ten Commandments are not the culmination of our ethical evolution. They are ethical absolutes spoken into our history by the Creator God. First and foremost, we are to obey them because He says so. Also, we are to obey the Ten Commandments because they most honor His image in us. Lastly, we are to obey because the commandments are in harmony with God’s good purposes for us and for the rest of His creation. Because the TV conservative ethic doesn’t presuppose these things, its agreement with the Ten Commandments must necessarily be formal and superficial. The TV conservative vision is Van Til’s rotten orange. Here’s why:

1:  No Other Gods

God’s Law says we must have no god but the God of the Bible. TV conservatives have a long history of speaking reverently about God. But they have been slow to speak the name of Jesus Christ or make any reference to the Trinity. More to the point, they have not grounded their worldview in the explicit revelation given by the Triune God in the Old and New Testaments. God is an afterthought for TV conservatives—if for many, a happy one. For the constrained, TV conservative, the true source of law lies elsewhere, and that means that its true god lies elsewhere.

2:  No Graven Images

God’s Law forbids the making and worshipping of idols. Because TV conservatives are reluctant to delineate the nature of God, it has no place for images or representations of the true deity. TV conservatives have mastered the use images to appeal to a vague patriotism and nostalgia.

3:  Honor God’s Name

God’s Law tells us to use God’s name rightly. An obvious application is to oaths. To swear an oath is to call upon God, “the only Searcher of mean’s hearts,” to bear witness to the truth and to punish anyone who swears falsely (Heidelberg Catechism 102). TV conservatives for the most part, are comfortable with oaths. After all, the Federal Constitution requires that all Federal and State officers swear an oath to defend the Constitution. TV conservatives are also very comfortable with a vague, nameless God, but regularly wince at the name of Jesus Christ.

4:  Remember the Sabbath Day

God’s Law requires us to honor the Sabbath. TV conservatives vision is fine with traditions that reinforce private and civic virtue. They are less comfortable with any discussion of private religious sentiment in a public setting and positively cold about pastors acknowledging Jesus Christ as the “Lord of nations” on Sunday. Many TV conservatives cling to holiday Christianity, especially warm to the tradition of Christmas, sometimes even Easter.

5:  Honor Your Parents

The Law requires us to honor our parents. The TV conservative agrees. Again, the authority of the past carries great weight in the constrained vision. The dead ought to have a vote, and the living should respect it. We ought to listen to our father’s fathers. More narrowly, children should obey their parents, and youth should honor age. But there is no enduring theistic root for all of this, only a social and traditional one. Society needs stability so knowledge and tradition must be transmitted into the future on that basis only.

6:  Don’t Kill

God’s Law says, “Don’t kill.”  TV conservatives heartily agree. They understand, rightly, that it applies to individual actions—murder, assault, abortion, vigilantism—and not to the police officer or soldier who is acting lawfully to defend the innocent. Most TV conservatives favor the death penalty for murder—at least for particularly horrendous murder. But as Sowell describes the constrained vision, there is no eternal reference point for human life. Each life should be protected because it is good for society that men not kill one another. Human experience has taught us this, and it would be foolish for us to reject the lesson. To most TV conservatives, it is merely convenient that God values human life as well.

7:  Don’t Commit Adultery

God’s Law requires fidelity to one’s spouse. In principle, TV Conservatives accept this commandment, too. Fidelity is basic to the TV Conservative vision. So are stable marriages and families. These things are necessary for the reliable evolution of knowledge and wisdom and for its transfer into the next generation. In general, then, a husband and wife who are having a rocky time ought to work out their differences and learn to get along. It’s good for everyone, perhaps even for them. In other words, fidelity and honor are social anchors.

8:  Don’t Steal

God’s Law requires us to respect the property of others. Most TV conservatives place heavy emphasis on property rights and the duty of the civil government to protect them. But they also recognize that a man’s duty to society may override his right to retain a particular piece of property. The moral justification for property and for free enterprise generally lies in the social results of the market process. This process produces “general prosperity and freedom” (130). Sowell writes:

The crucial benefits of property rights have been conceived as social—as permitting an economic process with greater efficiency, a social process with less strife, and a political process with more diffused power and influence than that possible under centralized political control of the economy (186).

For the TV conservative, efficiency, peace, and freedom are the source and ground of property rights, not the Law of God.

9:  Don’t Bear False Witness

God’s Law demands faithful testimony, whether in or out of court. The TV conservative agrees—except, perhaps, when it’s necessary to debate liberals, argue with bureaucrats, or snow the American public with respect to the Murdoch family’s shenanigans. Social results, again. The needs of the many outweigh the integrity of the few… or the one. Honesty is a good policy most of the time.

10:  Don’t Covet

God’s Law forbids lust, greed, and envy. At this point, the God’s Law goes beyond the social and economic. It speaks directly to the heart of man. It demands radical change. But the TV conservative has no real remedy for human selfishness and egocentrism. They see human nature as a given and, in that sense, natural. Most are content to let the free market set one man’s selfishness against another’s for the greater good. They’re generally content with trade-offs. But the God’s Law demands more. A lot more.

Conclusion

God’s Law, like the Gospel, summons us to love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. God’s Law requires more than self-restraint and public virtue. It requires faith in God, loyalty to His kingdom, and charity towards our neighbor. It demands a heart of love. God’s Law demands this, but only the gospel can deliver it. And so the Law points us to Jesus Christ, something TV conservatives will never do.

Here’s the thing:

TV conservatives do a wonderful job of pointing out liberal shallowness and hypocrisy, and no one’s debating that. But TV conservatism and the Christian worldview are often very different things. It’s important that we make the distinction. Ideas have consequences.

For Further Reading:

Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York:  William Morrow and Company, 1987).
Dinesh D’Souza, Letters to a Young Conservative (New York:  Basic Books, 2002).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (N. p.:  Craig Press, 1973).
T. Robert Ingram, The World Under God’s Law, Criminal Aspects of the Welfare State (Houston, TX:  St. Thomas Press, 1962).
Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard, The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX:  The Institute for Christian Economics, 1985).
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