What’s the link between Trump ally Senator Hawley and 5th Century Christianity’s hottest dispute?

What’s the link between Trump ally Senator Hawley and 5th Century Christianity’s hottest dispute? January 29, 2021


How is Trump ally Senator Josh Hawley linked with 5th Century Christianity’s hottest dispute?


New York Times contributor Katherine Stewart doesn’t care much for conservative Christians. Consider the subtitle of her 2012 book “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.” (Actually, these non-political after-school clubs operate openly, and participation is voluntary.) Last year, she wrote the timely “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.”

Stewart’s latest Times article (see www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/opinion/josh-hawley-religion-democracy.html) decries U.S. Senator Josh Hawley’s clenched-fist backing for President Trump’s attempt to have Congress overturn the 2020 election that culminated in the U.S. Capitol riot, Trump’s second impeachment, and multitudes of criminal investigations.

The controversial 42-year-old is a Stanford and Yale Law alumnus whose rapid rise included clerking for Chief Justice Roberts and just two years as Missouri’s attorney general before winning his Senate seat. Pundits assume he’ll seek the presidency in 2024 if Trump does not or cannot run.  Hawley  tells World magazine he is part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, was formerly a staff attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and counts among Capitol Hill’s most devout figures.

Stewart makes the surprising assertion that to understand the senator’s role in the unprecedented furies of recent weeks we must look back 16 centuries to one of the hottest theological disputes in Christian history

At issue back then was Pelagianism, a version of Christianity named for its major proponent, the British-born monk Pelagius. His orthodox opponents included two of the early church’s greatest figures. St. Augustine, a hugely influential thinker, is still widely read today; his social philosophy, “The City of God,” was quoted in President Biden’s inaugural address. St. Jerome was the translator of the seminal “Vulgate” Bible in Latin.

Pelagius taught briefly in Africa and was declared a heretic by church leaders there at the Council of Carthage (present-day Tunisia). That judgment was endorsed by Pope Zosimus in A.D. 418 and reaffirmed by the universal church in 431 at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (present-day Turkey), which also condemned Pelagius’s disciple Caelestius.

In Stewart’s opinion, the senator’s hostility toward Pelagianism shows a “neo-medieval,” “starkly binary” and “nihilistic” vision that’s “incompatible with constitutional democracy. . . .Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right.” This attitude was also seen, she says, in the maxim of Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper (cited by liberal as well as conservative Christians) that “there is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.”

Further, Stewart contends, Hawley thinks that life in our “inevitably pluralistic, modern society committed to equality is inherently worthless.” Instead, “a right-minded elite of religiously pure individuals should aim to capture the levers of government, then use that power to rescue society from eternal darkness and reshape it in accord with a divinely approved view of righteousness.” Quite the indictment.

Well, then, what was that 5th Century feud all about?  Augustine attacked Pelagian thinking in works such as “De Gestis Pelagii” (417), which summarized some of Pelagius’s errors as follows.

.”Adam’s sin hurt only himself and not the human race.” (This rejected belief in “original sin”).

“There were sinless men before the coming of Christ” and “a man is able to live without sin if he likes.” (Scripture teaches that all people are sinners in need of salvation, and that only the Savior, Jesus Christ, was sinless.)

“Infants, even if they die unbaptized, have eternal life.” (This undercut the need for infant baptism.)

Unless rich people “renounce and give up all” they cannot “possess the Kingdom of God.” (Pelagius demanded rigid asceticism and self-abnegation not just for his fellow monks but each and every Christian.)

“The Law no less than the Gospel leads us to the Kingdom.” (Pelagius was a strict moralist who made salvation depend largely upon a person’s righteousness in deeds of piety and charity rather than salvation through Jesus Christ. British historian J.G. Davies put it this way:    Pelagianism disparaged God’s grace with a “belief that human nature is not corrupted. . . . Man, to Pelagius, is the captain of his soul; his salvation is his own to make, or not.”)

Now, then, what does salvation have to do with Hawley and 20th Century American culture more broadly?

Stewart’s chief resource is Senator Hawley’s 2019 commencement address at The King’s College, a specialized Christian school in New York City. [Disclosure: The Guy’s late wife taught at an earlier incarnation of this institution.] The speech got wider circulation when an adapted version was posted online by the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. (Read it for yourself at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june-web-only/age-of-pelagius-joshua-hawley.html/).

Hawley suggested that “we might refer to this era as the Age of Pelagius,” as typified by a quote from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood ruling that affirmed abortion choice: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This means, said Hawley, that “liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. . . . Family and tradition, neighborhood and church — these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice.” He said this outlook results in cultural decay and “a society defined by elitism.”

On the last point, he explained that Pelagius wrongly thought “individuals could achieve their own salvation,” whereas Christ’s salvation through death on the cross “announces the weakness and need of every person. And that means it excludes the boasting and the pride of the few.” Like Augustine, Hawley insisted “we are fragile. We are fallible. We suffer weakness and need. And we all stand in need of God’s grace.”

Quite the odd stretch from Pelagius to Trumpite Hawley to Stewart to the readers of The New York Times.

Browse Our Archives