If America is to be overrun by the barbarian hordes, it is kindly requested that Tim Keller & Co. not open the gates
When editors at The American Spectator asked me to write a column for their exceptional magazine about the liberalization of the American church in the age of Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and what parades as social justice, I liked the idea. My mind had been ranging over that ground for some months prior and their call was confirmation that the idea was worth pursuing. But rather than an article addressing that topic in merely impersonal, philosophical terms, I suggested giving it a face: Pastor Timothy Keller.
An obvious question followed: who is that?
For the uninitiated, Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a successful confessional church in what many Christians regard as the heart of darkness. Keller is also a bestselling author who does not shrink from dipping his toes into political waters as so many ministers do. He is something of an unofficial pope to a large segment of the evangelical Christian population. His influence on this demographic is vast, and he leverages it in books, interviews, and in a robust social media presence. For our purposes, the question is this: is it a good influence?
In a series of articles and tweets this year on social justice and Christian involvement in the political process, Keller has cobbled together questionable biblical arguments on the following issues:
- Capitalism and socialism: they are, in his view, equally flawed systems. Yet curiously, he seems to endorse a socialist model of taxation to help the poor.
- Private property: Keller says, “others have a claim on [your] wealth.”
- Racism: white Americans share a “corporate guilt” for “systemic racism”—thus, he opens the door to reparations for an institutional slavery that ended more than 150 years ago.
- and, finally, the inevitable conclusion of such a thesis:
… when it comes to taking political positions, voting, determining alliances and political involvement, the Christian has liberty of conscience. Christians cannot say to other Christians ‘no Christian can vote for…’ or ‘every Christian must vote for…’ unless you can find a biblical command to that effect.
I can think of several biblical commands that informed how I voted in this presidential election. But before I address the validity of Keller’s claims, let me say that until quite recently my respect for Keller’s work was immense. He has had a highly successful ministry in what is arguably the least fertile ground for any Christian endeavor. Typically orthodox and conventional in his biblical interpretation, he is neither a huckster like Al Sharpton nor is he a heretic like Joel Osteen. Were he so, he could be easily dismissed as a charlatan. Indeed, that is what makes the above so jarring to many who are baffled by what can only be characterized as Keller’s full embrace of the so-called “social justice” movement and a kind of soft socialism.
Keller’s Biblical Methodology
When my eldest son, Michael, was a student at Yale Law School a few years ago, he says that Yale inculcated a specific progressive strategy for the deconstruction of otherwise simple moral issues like, say, abortion or the oxymoronic notion of “gay marriage.” They even had a term for it: “complexify.” In other words, obscure the issue at hand with data, highly selective science, and emotion to such a degree that your opponent no longer feels competent to adjudicate the issue.
Keller made his name as a man who preached the Christian message with simplicity and clarity to people who were often hostile to that message or had little framework for understanding it. But these days, to read Keller on issues of politics and social justice is to enter a world of smoke and mirrors where everything is “complexified”:
When someone uses biblical justice to critique the ideologies of both the political Right and Left, they are often assumed to be centrist or a moderate who is looking for the “middle way” that is neutral or just “above it all.” But Christopher Watkin argues that Christianity “diagonalizes” its alternatives. “To diagonalize a choice … is to refuse the two (or more) alternatives it offers and elaborate a position that is neither reducible nor utterly unrelated to them.” To diagonalize is not to find a mid-point in the spectrum. It is a position off the spectrum, yet one that addresses the concerns of those on the spectrum. In Romans, Paul pointed to both legalists who sought to save themselves by their righteousness (Rom 9:31) and antinomians who lived ‘freely’ as they saw fit (Rom 1:18.) Is the gospel a middle way between two alternatives? Not at all—it “diagonalizes” them. [sic]
This is an unnecessarily complicated way of saying that the Christian’s allegiance isn’t to either political party. Presumably he believes it belongs to God, though he does not say so here. That is true, but it is out of context. The Apostle Paul wasn’t addressing affiliation with political parties; he was addressing the question of eternal salvation. And no Republican I know sees the Republican platform as a substitute for the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. But many do see it—and rightly, I think—as a means of preserving the lives of the unborn; their way of life; and their personal, economic, and religious freedom and that of their posterity.
Capitalism vs. Socialism
Elsewhere, Keller displays an extraordinary naivete about socialism and a willingness to bend the biblical text to his a priori assumptions. In an article titled, “A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,” Keller writes: “Biblical justice provides a unique understanding of the character of wealth and ownership that does not fit into either modern categories of capitalism or socialism.”
This is not so. Or, more accurately, it is only half correct: socialism finds no support in scripture while capitalism does. In a single statement—“Thou shalt not steal”—the Bible simultaneously affirms private property and demolishes any notions of socialism.
Was the Proverbs 31 woman a socialist? By no means. She was an unrepentant capitalist: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.” (Proverbs 31:18) Scripture holds her up as a model for a godly woman: industrious, thrifty, and faithful.
Advocates of socialism have often cited the story of Ananias and Sapphira found in Acts 5:1-11. They were stricken dead, they argue, for their failure to share their wealth. But that is untrue. The Apostle Peter, as if anticipating our modern debate, is at pains to acknowledge the community has no claim on their property or the proceeds gained from its sale: “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”
Nowhere does the Bible assert the community has a claim on your property. Instead, it asserts that all of your property belongs to God. In Malachi 3:8 the Lord says: “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.” Keller reformulates verses of this kind to say that we are robbing from the poor. The Lord may, in fact, designate such tithes and contributions for the poor or the priesthood, but he never asserts they have any ownership of it. The distinction is subtle, but important. To say that we have a claim on someone else’s property is Marxist and dangerous. Such a philosophy has fueled class warfare all over the world.
Is capitalism a perfect system? Certainly not. But the flaws of capitalism are the flaws of human nature. And contrary to popular belief, socialism, much more than capitalism, feeds our greedy natures because it says that what is yours should be mine, and I have a right to take it—by force, if necessary.
Higher Taxation to Help the Poor?
The Bible is clear that we are to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus is here drawing a distinction between our taxes and our tithes. But in seeing taxation as a kind of tithe, Keller confuses the roles of church and state.
Furthermore, scripture doesn’t amputate Christian charity—the word the Bible uses for benevolence, not “justice”—from the Gospel as government sponsored welfare surely does. In that paradigm, monies are given for no Christian purpose and to meet only a physical need. Many a man has given his life to Christ when, through Christian charity, he is made to see that God is his savior. The welfare state only makes Democrats.
Keller’s heart for the poor is commendable and Christian. But he goes too far in treating the rich and poor as absolute categories: powerful vs. powerless, oppressors vs. oppressed, guilty vs. innocent.
“Proverbs 31:8-9 says ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves … Defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ The Bible doesn’t say ‘speak up for the rich and powerful,’ not because they are less important as persons before God, but because they don’t need you to do this. The playing field is not level and if we don’t advocate for the poor there will not be equality.”
In assuming the “playing field” is always tilted in favor of the rich and the poor are always the oppressed, Keller’s take on these verses has much more in common with Marxism than Christianity. By contrast, the Bible does say to speak up for the rich if the situation demands it.
Exodus 23:2-3: “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.”
Leviticus 19:15: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
To this I will add that it is historically inaccurate to say that the rich don’t ever need you to speak up on their behalf. Socialist regimes have always victimized the rich. They pillage their wealth and often send them into exile, prison, or to the guillotine.
The Godlessness of Socialism
Over the course of his career, Tim Keller has been a light for the Christian faith in the pulpit. He has also written several helpful books. But like so many who experience extraordinary success in one field, it often breeds an overweening confidence that such expertise extends to other fields. In Keller’s case, this includes science and now modern history. To suggest, as he did in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, that socialism is a benign system, is to display a startling naivete.
Recently, we released this short video explaining socialism, Marxism, and their connection with the social justice movement as expressed in Black Lives Matter and the Democrat Party. To summarize, socialism has brought nothing but economic ruin, material deprivation, and spiritual desolation wherever it has been implemented. This is because socialism is, by definition, godless. To quote Dostoevsky:
Socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the Tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth, but to set up Heaven on Earth.
It is, in other words, utopian. In the biblical worldview, the state is a temporal institution meant to serve man, an eternal being. In the socialist model, this is reversed: man, a temporal being, serves the eternal state. Human beings are merely brick and mortar for the building of the socialist utopia. This is why Stalin could, without any hint of irony, tell Lady Astor that he would stop killing people when it was no longer necessary.
Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who knew a thing or two about socialism, outlined the historical progression perfectly: “Liberalism was inevitably displaced by radicalism; radicalism had to surrender to socialism; and socialism could never resist communism.” We are at the radicalism stage teetering on the edge of the socialism stage.
Conservatively speaking, socialist regimes have killed no less than 125 million people in the twentieth century alone.
This is the most unsettling of Keller’s arguments because it undermines true justice and Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross. Yes, the notion of corporate guilt is biblical. Keller cites a number of Old Testament passages that support his thesis. But he is missing a key passage that speaks of the New Covenant in Christ.
Jeremiah 31:29-30 says: “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.”
In Galatians 6:4-5, the Apostle Paul reinforces this aspect of God’s perfect justice: “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each one will have to bear his own load.”
You will be judged for your own sins, not those of others. This is not to say that the concept of corporate sin has ceased to exist in the New Covenant. But it is always exercised by God, not man, and to apply it retroactively to national sins like slavery or Jim Crow is not only contrary to our legal traditions, it is immoral because it condemns on the basis of race. (Hitler did something like that, too.)
America fought a bloody civil war to free its slaves. It adopted constitutional amendments to give equal rights to minorities. And it enacted legislation to propel them forward. As C. L. Bryant, radio host and former NAACP leader, told me:
“[Some] want to act as if they are fighting against a racist and sexist regime, but those battles have been waged and won. There are no doors closed to women or to people of color in this generation that were once closed to my generation.”
Keller and the Presidential Election
So, where does all of this lead Pastor Keller in his thinking on the political Armageddon facing Christians? More succinctly, how would he vote? To this we get more “complexifying” tilting toward the progressive:
The Bible binds my conscience to care for the poor, but it does not tell me the best practical way to do it. Any particular strategy (high taxes and government services vs low taxes and private charity) may be good and wise…
The Bible tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.
This is, of course, just more prevarication. The contrast between the two party platforms has never been more stark. Today’s Democrat Party represents a radical pro-abortion and pro-infanticide policy; every sordid sexual agenda, even the sexualization of small children; anti-Americanism; an out-of-the-closet hatred for the Constitution, the electoral college, and the people living in so-called “red states”; lawlessness; open hostility for the Christian faith; unbridled corruption; and the godlessness of Marxism. There is nothing remotely Christian in any of these. The American Revolution, in which Christians played a vital role, was fought for much less.
But where Keller might have unpacked the straightforward biblical commandments “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill,” directives that would seems to have a strong bearing on these issues, he instead offers “diagonalizing” newspeak. In asserting that a Christian can, in good conscience, vote for either political platform, Keller draws a moral equivalence between what he calls the “relativism of Liberals and the rigid moralism of the Right.”
John Piper Weighs In on Trump
Timothy Keller is not an evangelical anomaly. In a recent blog post, popular pastor John Piper asserts Republicans aren’t morally rigid enough. Whipping out the ultimate tool in the pastor’s complexifying toolbox, he employs biblical Greek to add authority to his case against Trump and against voting at all. (Some pastors love to do this. It is their way of saying “don’t try this at home.”) He says the president is guilty of “unrepentant sexual immorality (porneia), unrepentant boastfulness (alazoneia), unrepentant vulgarity (aischrologia), [and] unrepentant factiousness (dichostasiai).”
One wonders how he knows Trump is unrepentant and precisely how he can be blamed for a factiousness. Did the president concoct a Russia collusion narrative? Did he spy on Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Did he illegally use the FBI to push false evidence? Did he do anything justifying impeachment? Did he support the looting, burning, and rioting in our streets? Did he take money from China through a family member serving as a proxy? As for his vulgarity and boastfulness, I suggest Piper get out more. Trump is fairly typical of the chest-beating, plain-speaking businessmen one finds in places like New York, New Jersey, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Piper then uses a similarly fallacious argument of moral equivalence to that of Keller, suggesting that abortion is no more sinful than Trump’s hubris:
I think Roe is an evil decision. I think Planned Parenthood is a code name for baby-killing and (historically at least) ethnic cleansing. And I think it is baffling and presumptuous to assume that pro-abortion policies kill more people than a culture-saturating, pro-self pride.
By my count, Trump’s “self-pride” has killed no one. Indeed, he has transformed the judiciary, and in the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court there now exists the first real chance in decades to overturn the murderous Roe v. Wade decision. As president, Trump has even kept us out of silly wars, preserving yet more human life. But for Piper, Trump’s hubris is reason enough to abstain from voting.
I am reminded of a quotation attributed (perhaps inaccurately) to George Orwell:
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Orwell or not, the sentiment is true. Like many of those who do violence on our behalf for the sake of our freedom, Trump is a rough man. That’s too much for Piper. Oddly, Piper represents a segment of the evangelical population that demands his president bear the characteristics of an elder, pastor, or high priest. This runs counter to the biblical narrative.
I am thinking of how the Lord used not merely ungodly kings, but outright pagan kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Darius to render justice on behalf of his people. In Esther chapters 4-8 we see Mordecai, a Jew, appeal to King Xerxes through his queen, Esther, to save the Jews from the plot of Haman. The king responds decisively and destroys the plotters. This story is not altogether different from the situation we face insofar as the lives of the unborn are at stake to say nothing of where the Left’s radical agenda will lead us as a nation. But in Piper’s estimation, Xerxes is no better than Haman.
There is a difference between private sin and public policy, and it would be foolish to confuse the two. Does Piper make the same demands of his barber, his mechanic, his accountant, or his surgeon? Or does he look for someone who can do the job competently?
Tim Keller and John Piper have had long, fruitful ministries. No doubt both are under a great deal of pressure to declare decisively on this election. Moreover, Keller is battling pancreatic cancer and deserves our prayers and well wishes.
That said, I believe both are egregiously wrong in this instance. Matthew 24:24 tells us the time will come when even the elect will be led astray. Such is the power of the “social justice” lie. Like Satan masquerading as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), social justice—in this case, the thin end of a socialist wedge—holds out the hope of heaven on earth. But it cannot deliver on such promises. In her book The Russian Revolution, historian Sheila Fitzpatrick superbly characterizes the socialist revolutionary spirit:
All revolutions have liberté, égalité, fraternité, and other noble slogans inscribed on their banners. All revolutionaries are enthusiasts, zealots; all are utopians, with dreams of creating a new world in which the injustice, corruption, and apathy of the old world are banished forever. They are intolerant of disagreement; incapable of compromise; mesmerized by big, distant goals; violent, suspicious, destructive. … They have the intoxicating illusion of personifying the will of the people, which means they assume the people is monolithic. They are Manicheans, dividing the world into two camps: light and darkness, the revolution and its enemies. They despise all traditions, received wisdom, icons, and superstition. They believe society can be tabula rasa on which the revolution will write. It is the nature of revolutions to end in disillusionment and disappointment.… All revolutions destroy things whose loss is soon regretted.
It is the nature of socialist revolutions to end in “disillusionment and disappointment” because, as we have already noted, they begin with the wrong premise: there is no God.
* * * * *
The forces of darkness threaten to engulf this land as they have engulfed so many before it. They cannot be allowed to succeed. But if good men and women do nothing, how can we expect a different result? Let us exercise our freedom to choose our leaders judiciously as we pray for our nation.
Larry Alex Taunton is the Executive Director of the Fixed Point Foundation and a freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, The Atlantic, CNN, Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Grace Effect, The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, and the soon-to-be-released Around the World in (More Than) 80 Days. (Available for pre-order now) You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.
Do you appreciate the content of this website?
We are a nonprofit. That means that our work is made possible and our staff is paid by your contributions. We ask you to consider supporting this important work in an ongoing basis or, if you prefer, perhaps you will drop a few bucks in our “tip jar.”
All contributions are tax-deductible