My Response to Francis Beckwith about Ted Haggard

On 11/8, I posted about the Ted Haggard scandal, juxtaposing two different articles on it, and asking which article best exemplifies the attitude of Christ. I just left it out there, without comment, to see what people thought (though it was probably pretty obvious that I was not very enthusiastic about Francis Beckwith’s article).

Well, since Francis Beckwith has visited us at Vanguard Church (see that previous post) with a gracious comment, I figure it is probably time for me to give my two cents on what troubles me about his article (though I must be crazy to do so; Beckwith is an accomplished philosopher and conservative political specialist). Thanks, Francis, for taking the time to comment both here and at Friend of Kuyper; I hope this post is taken as a Christian critique in love and not with any malice.

In this post, I will be citing his original article that appeared on The American Spectator web page. I encourage you to have the original article up alongside this critique.

Here’s my main critique of Francis Beckwith’s article: He charges a group he calls the “liberal-secular chattering class” with not being able to understand hypocrisy because they have a deeply flawed understanding of the human condition. In doing so, Beckwith proves to not truly believe in natural law and common grace, and thus he cuts off his ability to reach out to liberal-secularists with an apologetic that can be fruitful.

First, what is “Natural Law?” Natural law says that since all human beings are created in the “Image of God,” they have the innate ability to receive “General Revelation” through God’s “Common Grace.” God has set in place certain “Orders for Creation” and he is active in sustaining those orders. God’s “Common Grace” preserves these orders, rebuking us when we do not keep them and leading us to the greater grace that saves. The interior witness of God’s common grace is the “Conscience,” which all humans have (this explains why all humanity has the innate ability to seek justice and to right wrongs, whether they do it righteously or not). The requirements of Common Grace are found in Natural Law, which is confirmed and illuminated by the Christian Scriptures. Many evangelicals have not embraced the historic Christian tradition of natural law.

Beckwith mentions Natural Law twice in his article while all the while denying its ability to do what it is supposed to do.

Beckwith starts out by saying,

“In the tragic case of Pastor Ted Haggard, an ever-expanding number of liberal writers and bloggers are cheerfully celebrating the fall of this man.”

I agree that it is indeed ugly when people “cheerfully celebrate” someone’s fall. But the fact remains that since they are doing so (as ugly as it is), we have evidence that they have an innate ability to spot hypocrisy.

Beckwith then goes to the ultimate source for defining hypocrisy and how to react to it, Jesus Christ:

“One does not find Jesus finding satisfaction or joy in the failure of others.”

Amen to that!

“Remember that for Jesus, hypocrisy was a vice found in the hearts of those who thought they were spiritually and morally superior to others.”

Again, I agree (as the passage from Matthew 7 so clearly teaches). But the question is this: Is not Ted Haggard the very epitome of this? In the now-famous clip from Jesus Camp, he pokes fun of those who live secret homosexual lives. And yet, he is the one who has been allegedly doing this very same thing. The words of Jesus seem very appropriate in this case: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matt 7:1-2).

I think that what really seems uncouth or not epitomizing a Christian attitude in Beckwith’s article is how he uses the fall of Ted Haggard and the liberals’ correctly calling it “hypocrisy” as an opportunity to rail against the liberals. Instead of taking the time to agree with anyone who would identify Haggard as a hypocrite, he goes after a group that he calls the “liberal-secular chattering class” (without identifying who this “class” is). Pejorative name-calling simply does not help the cause when we are trying to make a case in the public sphere. I am always frustrated when a Christian resorts to this tactic rather than trying to create an authentic public apologetic. Maybe if he identified the “liberal-secular chattering class,” I could agree with him, since they must be some very small minority that should be blasted in this way. However, I do not know very many people in secular society who rightly call Haggard a hypocrite that would not, on one level or another, embrace the idea that humanity is deeply flawed. There certainly are those outside the Christian worldview that seek solutions to this deep flaw in ways other than the grace of God (i.e., education or social reform or the like), but their very attempts at social reform is evidence that they believe, at some level, that humanity is not what it is supposed to be.

Now to my main critique of Beckwith’s article. In his rant against the “liberal-secularists,” he states that it's not clear “what a typical liberal-secularist could appeal in order to condemn hypocrisy.” And, “How does the liberal-secularist find warrant for his moral judgment that hypocrisy is wrong? I do not know.”

Well, Francis, you should know! You identified it in your article! It is called “Natural Law.” You seem to think that the secularist has to know that he understands right from wrong due to the grace of God in order for their discernment to have any credibility. But that is not the case. It does not matter what the secularist “appeals to,” it is simply the case that God gives all humans the innate ability to identify hypocrisy.

As J. Budziszewski writes (in his recent book, Evangelicals in the Public Square),

“What the Christian natural law tradition teaches us is what nonbelievers, in fragmentary fashion, already know—whether or not they know that they know it, whether or not they think they know it, and even if they would rather not know it. Viewed this way, the art of cultural apologetic is less a matter of laying foundations than of digging up and repairing them, less a matter of talking people into truths they do not yet know than of dredging up what they do know but have not acknowledged. In the words of the apostle Paul, a law is written on the heart. In fallen humans, it is far easier to suppress than we might wish, but it altogether impossible to erase” (p. 37)

It does not matter whether or not a person knows the source of their moral discernment. from the Christian perspective, it is from the common grace of God.

Beckwith correctly points out the inconsistencies of the secularist’s worldview, but that does not negate the fact that, theologically, we understand that if anybody understands right from wrong, it is by the common grace of God. We must remember that everyone is inconsistent in their thinking this side of glory. The Fall has had effects on the noetic abilities in all of humanity. Every one of us cannot know for certain that we are thinking correctly (in an absolute sense) about anything. But praise to God, who, in his Common Grace, breaks through the noetic affects of the Fall so that we can know some things rightly.

Beckwith writes,

“It seems, then, that the liberal-secularist's worldview is bereft of resources by which he may condemn hypocrisy as morally wrong.”

It may seem that way to Beckwith, since he does not embrace the concepts of Natural Law and Common Grace, but it does not seem that way to me.

Beckwith then wraps with saying,

“Perhaps by finding fault in Jesus' pretended followers, the liberal-secularist thinks he can mollify his nagging doubt that Jesus may have indeed been right that we live in a moral universe? Perhaps.”

Well, yes, perhaps. But just as likely an explanation is that the “liberal-secularist” has an innate ability to know a hypocrite when he sees one. He is able to identify that when a religious leader preaches against something and then is caught doing that exact same thing, he is a fraud.

If Christians cannot admit that people can spot hypocrisy or if Christians believe that nonbelievers have no basis for determining right from wrong, then we have no ability to have a cultural apologetic. Our common ground is lost. Instead of attacking the "liberal-secularists," perhaps Christians should agree with them on this count...

...and begin to build bridges through the common ground that exists so that the Christian worldview can begin to have a positive influence in society.

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Francis Beckwith said...

Thanks Bob. To label me as against natural law means I did a poor job of conveying my point in the essay. I have defended natural law in numerous publications, including my forthcoming book on abortion, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion (Cambridge University Press, 2007). In fact, some Reformed guys on the web have called me a Papist because of my Thomism!

In any event, the argument I was making in the essay is suggesting precisely what you are suggesting: the detection of hypocrisy is part of our natural moral power given to us by God. However, those that often use that power also deny the metaphysics that best accounts for it. The purpose of my essay was to point out that tension, and to show that the "liberal-secularist's" reliance on this intuition undermine's his worldview.

I do think that sometimes we Christians are too hard on our own and acquiesce too quickly to every judgment issued by secularists. That's why I was throwing the onus back on him. I do see your point that we should acknowledge failure when it occurs. But I think I did that in my essay. My point is that when the secularist points out an injustice on the part of a Christian, this does not relieve the obligation of the obligation to not revel in another's fall from grace. I think the natural law teaches that as well.

Again, thank you for taking the time to respond to my essay. I'd rather be criticized than ignored!

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Natural law?


Ce n'est pas necessaire.

The impact of the Jews on other cultures during their time in Babylonian captivity and (to a lesser extent) before then is a simpler explanation for the existence of critical points of contact for the gospel in different cultures.

I don't argue who has the best metaphysics, as the real argument is the importance of following Jesus and the proper way to communicate the identity and significance of Jesus in different contexts.

I find natural law-speak tends sometimes to make pretenses of greater universality than needs be the case in this matter.


Bob Robinson said...


I was waiting for your comment on this post (knowing your disdain for "natural law").


I'm enough of a postmodernist to not be a huge fan of the standard Thomist formulations. But a chastened acceptance of NL may be what brings us to a positive cultural apologetic.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for the reply. I appreciate it.

I guess that what ruffles my feathers with an essay like yours is that it seems to try to pick fights with perceived enemies. Instead of trying to build bridges to the "liberal-secularists," your essay seeks to burn them down.

Why not agree with the "liberal-secularist" that Haggard is a hypocrite? Why not apologize to him that we evangelicals seem to always put our feet in our mouths, especially when it comes to the way we try to change the moral climate of our culture? Why don't we find common ground (which is what our understanding of "natural law" allows) with the "liberal-secularist" on this and other issues that we can agree on, for the common good of society?

While your argument that the "liberal-secularist's" reliance on intuition may be a good one, it can very easily (and justifiably) be thrown right back into our faces. Mark Noll, in his "Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" idenitifies our reliance on intuition as one of our main foibles.

Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that before my crowd should throw stones, we had better check our own background, prejudices, warped worldview, and motivations.

Thanks again for writing here. it's an honor.

DLW said...


I am a firm believer that special revelation undergirds all productive inquiry and, as I believe that Pythagoras did import aspects of post-exilic Jewish thought melded with Greek thought, whose implications were then later worked out by Plato/Aristotle, I do not have a problem with dialoguing with them, as is evident with Thomas. I even stand with Jurgen Habermas in affirming the value of the work of Thomas for its holism, consistency and non-polemical character, from which much of later pure theology has fallen short of...

My big dissent is the rhetoric of "naturalness" and its so often polemical nature that is at odds with the command of overcoming evil with love. When I read CS Lewis, I find his appeals to natural law as having fallen considerably short of reversing the declining tides of Xty in England and so I abide no faith in nat'l law to do the same in the US.

ps, when you gonna post about some of my ideas? (no pressure...)


Anonymous said...

I would also add that natural law tends to devolve into complicated arguments easily and that it matters to bear in mind the pragmaticist insight of the importance of constantly keeping mind of the practical effects of arguments.

I would never argue that a metaphysical system provides the "best" account for anything, inasmuch as this tends to include as the norm for what is best a presupposition of the system.

I think we are right to be harder on our own and could care less about engaging in disputation over the best metaphysical system. That doesn't save souls and long-term that is the bottom line, with right doxy being critical inasmuch as it underlies our discernment of how best to let our lights shine before others...


Richard Stanislaw said...

I take issue with your stawman argument that "the "liberal-secularist's" reliance on this intuition undermine's his worldview." You believe that "the detection of hypocrisy is part of our natural moral power given to us by God." Correct me if I mistaken, but you seem to mean this in a Thomastic Natural Law sort of way. Thomas of course relied heavy upon Cicero and Aristotle to make the argument that humanity's capasity to Reason is God-given and therefore we have access to the "Natural Law."

Liberals in fact place great confidence in the capacity of human reason and rationality to solve human problems. A liberal can take reason, rationality, logic as axiomatic and therefore criticize hypocrisy as intellectually dishonest or a failure to live according to how one says one lives. Liberals do not need the "Natural Law" to reasonably argue that society is better served when people communicate honestly.

"Intuition" about the "Natural Law" is not required to come to a reasonable conclusion that hypocrisy is dishonest or that a liberal society should encourage honest open civil discourse that does not corrupt human relationships with lies. Mill makes this argument from a thoroughly liberal worldview. Habermasian ethics could be another example.

Liberals need not attribute Reason to God in order to criticize hypocrisy. But in the Haggard case it is something more than mere hypocrisy that emboldens political liberals. The unfortunate case of Ted Haggard is the story of a mean-spirited snakeoil salesman who pandered to people's fear of the Other to undermine our society and community in order to enrich himself. Politically it is at least the (fortunate) silencing of a particularly obnoxious voice. Thousands of people looked to Haggard for inspiration/direction and I feel a small measure of hope that his big fall will lead some to reconsider their Haggard-inspired positions.

Francis Beckwith said...

You are right that liberal-secularists need not reason to God to criticize hypocrisy, just as I may eat a meal prepared by cooks whose existence I doubt.

What I am saying is that the correctness of the judgment that hypocrisy is wrong depends on a cluster of beliefs--including the notion that human beings have a certain end or good--that a worldview that denies teleology cannot account.

I'm not sure why St. Thomas' learning from Aristotle or Cicero counts against the veracity of the natural law, if that is what you are arguing. If I learned mathematics from Mrs. Newman, which I did in 5th grade, that does not count against the veracity of mathematics.

Liberal-secularism has been the enemy of the good, the true, and the beautiful long before I drew attention to its existence in my American Spectator piece. It's mistaken view of humanity and the order and nature of things has resulted in untold miseries in the 20th century. Granted, its practioners do make correct moral judgments on occasion--about religious wars and so forth--but such judgments do not spring from its philosophical commitments to materialism, moral anti-realism (or moral relativism), and a purposeless creation.

I am delighted that liberal-secularists get things right once and a while. But as a Christian I have an obligation to bring to their attention the fact that their philosophical commitments lead them to views inconsistent with their correct intuitions. If I remained mute in the presence of an opportunity to offer correction that leads to truth, I am not living as a Christian should. As St. Paul wrote: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. “ (II Corinthians 10:3-5 (NIV))

Richard Stanislaw said...

One need not subscribe to the idea of human telos (yours in particular or the existence of telos per se) to conclude that hypocrisy is not advantageous to one's desired society or interpersonal relationships.

The problem with imposing any one telos comes out clearly in your post. Your assertion that "Liberal-secularism has been the enemy of the good, the true" is only correct if one accepts your particularized interpretation of telos. Many believers in telos have come to opposite conclusion and just as ferociously argued that conservatives are the greatest threat to the good true & beautiful. Whether made from your perspective or from a liberal perspective, the argument is the same: You are Wrong because you do not believe what I believe to be True.

You are correct that your bugaboo "liberal-secularists" are the enemy of your idea of good true & beautiful. But so what? Anyone can make a hostile tautological argument, but it certainly does make teleological arguments about liberals as the enemy valid if one does accept your axioms.

You are correct that liberals saying they do not accept your axioms is irrelevant to the truth of your axioms. But is it equally true that your claim that your axioms are axiomatic for everyone does not make it so.

Which brings me to the political issue for building a pluralistic liberal society (that is the United States). It is counterproductive to our life together in society to have arbitrary charges against one another that some of us are enemies of the good, true & beautiful and that even if we stumble upon one of your good/beautiful/truths it is for naught.

I wish it were not so, but you are making a powerful embodied argument that religion is the enemy of the American democracy.