For as long as I can remember, evangelical Christians have been talking about the increasing secularization of the US American culture, and the resulting tension with Judaeo-Christian morality. Beginning with the fundamentalist-driven withdrawal from Hollywood in the 1940’s through the Moral Majority’s rise in the 1980’s, the rise of the Religious Right in the Bush-Reagan years, and into the continuing culture battles over abortion, the arts, health care, gay marriage and a thousand other issues, the tension has remained.
And at the same time, those same evangelical Christians have been holding their breath for fear that, sooner or later, secularization would gain the upper hand. Then, Christian viewpoints might be challenged, Christian values devalued, Christian teaching mocked, Christian’s rights trampled, Christians marginalized and maybe even attacked—right here in the United States of America.
That potentially fearful scenario has been the subject of articles and books, multiple “God-and Country Celebration” sermons, web sites and DVD curricula. It has been the motivator behind conservative voter guides, voter registration drives and political ads softly focused on flags, soldiers and children. Oh, and it has been remarkably effective at raising multiple millions of dollars from concerned Christians who want to take back their country and reclaim their rightful heritage so that God will bless America again.
The fear has always been an “out there” proposition. Someday. If.
Well, it seems that “out there” is “right here”, someday is today, and it has come to pass.
Exhibit 1: The 9/11 observances in New York City nect week have been officially declared secular events. In other words, there will be no prayers and no representatives of any religious group. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a committed secularist (who refuses to identify his convictions as a religion) made that decision, despite the fact that faith has been a primary means of comfort and sustenance in dealing with the tragedy for millions in New York and beyond. In an interview last week, he rewrote history by asserting that none of the previous 9/11 observances had religious content and further, insisted that this was not a political event, even though only politicians will be speaking. One man decided to remove all evidence of faith from a primary public observance of a key national event.
Exhibit 2: Three key issues have grabbed headlines for those running for the Republican presidential nomination. Those issues are not jobs, Afghanistan or deficits. They are science /creation–evolution, viewpoints on the nature of homosexuality, and the Biblical view of the relationship between husbands and wives. Major profiles of the candidates have focused heavily on their church backgrounds and statements about faith. It’s been fascinating to hear news talk shows grappling with issues that are usually discussed in Bible studies over coffee.
Exhibit 3: Closely related to the above has been some recent commentary. Bill Keller, the outgoing editor of the New York Times, wrote an article recently, insisting that candidates need to answer tough and more specific questions about the nature of their faith and how it impacts their thinking and decision-making. Religious test, anyone?
Here’s the perspective: “Candidates…belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans….” including “fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity…..which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.” In another segment of the essay, Keller equated beliefs of some churches to belief in aliens.
One expects that from the NY Times, but in “Planet of the godly” even the politically conservative Kathleen Parker insists that the crucial battle is over the question: “Who is the godliest of us all?”:
….jobs-jobs-jobs isn’t the money trinity with [this] base. Perry already hit that station with prayer rally and various dog whistles to the congregation: He’s not sure anyone knows how old Earth is, evolution is ust a “theory,” and global warming isn’t man-made.
That we are yet again debating evolutionary theory and Earth’s origins — and that candidates now have to declare where they stand on established science — should be a signal that we are slip-sliding toward governance by emotion rather than reason. But it’s important to understand what’s undergirding the debate. It has little to do with a given candidate’s policy and everything to do with whether he or she believes in God.
If we are descended of some blend of apes, then we can’t have been created in God’s image. If we establish Earth’s age at 4.5 billion years, then we contradict the biblical view that God created the world ust 6,500 years ago. And finally, if we say that climate change is partly the result of man’s actions, then God can’t be the One who punishes man’s sins with floods, droughts, earthquakes and hurricanes. If He wants the climate to change, then He will so ordain and we’ll pray more.
….large swaths of the electorate would prefer that their president keep his religion close and be respectful of knowledge that has evolved from thousands of years of human struggle against superstition and the kind of
literal-mindedness that leads straight to the dark ages.
Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, but… makes you think they are.
Don’t miss the similar perspective from both Keller and Parker. For both, established science and the accepted logic of human reason (as they define it) are the unassailed and primary authority to which all must submit at all times. Viewpoints that come from a faith perspective rooted in the Bible are “suspicious…fiction….emotion rather than reason, superstition…literal-mindedness that leads straight to the dark ages.”
Now to make sure we don’t miss the point, those who lean towards or resonate with a Biblically-defined viewpoints are mere Pavlovian robots (with code words only they hear). These people do not truly think; they merely respond to “ emotion rather than reason”. (This may indicate a fundamental lack of the basic intelligence necessary to lead our government.) Or perhaps they are secretly plotting to overthrow the government and reshape American society with wild-eyed commitment to a Christianized version of Sharia law, living as a “Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.”
Now, why all this hyperventilating hyperbole? Keller makes it very clear: “….I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon… or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country.” He recognizes that, for many candidates (and those who support them), there is a higher authority than human law, one that overarches everything on earth. Now, to affirm or deny such an authority is one aspect of the freedom of conscience guaranteed by religious liberty. It is available to everyone and can be expressed publicly. That’s First Amendment 101.
But Keller simply cannot conceive of (or seems unwilling to consider the possibilities of) a thoughtful Christian faith that can both submit to God with passion and uphold the rule of Constitutional law with integrity. The two are not antithetical. Jesus put it this way, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21)
Please do not hear this as a statement of support for (or against) any particular candidate[s]. I am merely observing the increasing and mostly negative scrutiny that people of evident Christian faith are facing in
participating in our political process.
The same sort of scrutiny does not appear to be equally applied to candidates who are Jewish, Muslim, rabidly secular, or from the ideological left—and who also have their own set of intellectual and emotional influences that effect their thinking and decision-making.
But there’s an even larger drama at play here. For years, USAmerican Christians have noted the suspicion, marginalization, intellectual dismissal, and yes, persecution that many Christians around the globe experience. We feel pity over brothers and sisters in Christ who were not fortunate (we always use the word “blessed’) enough to be born here, where we have freedom of religion and Christians are the home team.
Don’t look now, but suspicion, marginalization, intellectual dismissal and yes, persecution are coming to Christians in USAmerica. This is what we must understand: persecution, not undisturbed practice of faith, is the norm for us.
Listen to Jesus:
”If the world hates you, know that it has ated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 15:18-21)
He urges our response to hatred and persecution. It does not include
griping, whining, complaining, lobbying or lawsuits. It’s much simpler and more radical:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:11-16)
The salt is you, church. So live the gospel of Jesus, with all its flavorful
distinctiveness, bringing out tastes of life for some to savor and death for
others to spit.
The light is you, church. So live the gospel of Jesus, with all its exposing strength that reveals truth, lies and a narrow path to life for every soul to see.
The city on a hill is you, church. So live the gospel of Jesus with stubborn, persevering, sacrificial, joyful faithfulness — wherever you are, no matter the cost, no matter the insult or pain — and you will not be hidden.
Even more, the glory and beauty of your Father will be made even more evident for all to see. And that, after all, is the point.
This is our future until Jesus returns. And that future is now.
Here are links to two of the best talks / messages I have ever heard on the responsibility of the citizen Christian. Both are very clear on the Biblical perspective of the responsibilities & limitations of government, as well as the Christian’s call to maintain the priority of the gospel at all times. Very, very different communication styles, but both well worth a listen.
Mark Dever, senior pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC
From the series “You Might Be Surprised”
Matt Chandler, lead pastor, The Village Church, Dallas Tx
From the series “Ultimate Authority”
Glenn Beck’s twin weekend events – “Divine Destiny” & “Restoring Honor” have taken the evangelical / political connection to another level. The flywheel effect is in full force and the ideas or motivation from these events will take on a life, energy and consequences that none of us can foresee. More on that later.
It is important to note that the massive events and buzz from last weekend are the result of a movement that has been slowly churning and gaining momentum for decades. Of course, the basic ideas merging fervent patriotism and evangelical faith have always been alive somewhere in the evangelical church. But the latest cycle emerged in 1979 with the founding of the Moral Majority. On his program, “The Old-Time Gospel Hour” Jerry Falwell began to preach messages dealing with public policy issues. The worship services often featured patriotic music or interviews and it was not unusual for a program to have commercial breaks to encourage the signing of petitions to send to Congress. Jerry sold flag pins overlaid with a cross.
As the culture shifted, coarsened and seemed to careen out of control through the 80’s, dozens of churches embraced this combination of patriotism and faith. And increasingly, that edged over into overt political involvement such as voter registration drives, support of specific candidates (usually tied to the pro-life issue) and lobbying efforts.
With the advent of the Reagan Revolution, evangelicals were both recognized and leveraged as a political power, not just in the South, but in the entire nation. The Christian Coalition developed chapters in every state, bringing together Christians who did not normally associate (even in their own communities) and fostering connections around political / social issues. Around this time, evangelical discussions began to include specific domestic economic policies and foreign policy perspectives. Evangelical “spokesmen” began appearing on the Sunday morning news shows.
It was becoming possible to be publicly identified as an evangelical by conviction and not once mention Jesus or the gospel.
It was also during these years that I had an experience at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention that made clear where this was all headed. During one of the sessions, a singing group from one of our colleges led in what was identified as a season of worship. They sang a riveting song about the cross and the power of the gospel, and were given polite applause. Without missing a beat, they moved into ‘I’m Proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood. Without a word of direction and without the colors being presented, the crowd reverently stood, en masse. I couldn’t believe my eyes. No standing for the gospel, but reflexive standing for a sappy patriotic song. I love my country, but I did not stand at that moment and felt the glares as if I had committed some heresy. (Of course, that was nothing compared to the reactions when I told my experience at my Bible Belt church a few weeks later. Honest, but a big mistake.)
Evident and unashamed passion for the nation was steadily surpassing evident and unashamed passion for the gospel.
Through the 90’s and early 2000’s the nation continued on a difficult and troubling course, both morally and spiritually. Since there were growing calls for Christians to but out of politics all together, many ministries began to make it a priority to teach on the Christian roots of our nation’s Founding Fathers and documents. That is a necessary for the preservation of heritage in the face of revisionist historians.
But an even stronger impulse of evangelicals was to respond with more political involvement, more pressure, more petitions, more lobbying, more electioneering for the “right” candidates, and more hand-wringing. The involvement was largely for the Republican Party (led by FOE – “friend of evangelicals” George W. Bush) and the hand-wringing was over the Democratic Party (demonstrated by FOB’s—“friends of Bill” Clinton.). Along with that came the rise of the unspoken assumptions that committed followers of Jesus would be conservative and Republican and that Democrats were all atheists, pagans, or liberal, backslidden Christians. (Thus totally missing the point of the nature of the gospel and saving faith)
This period also saw the emergence of a new rallying theme—“family values”. Family values scorecards were distributed in churches on Sunday mornings and candidates trumpeted their family values credentials and voting records to insure they would gain evangelical support. Family values were wed to evangelical politics and policy discussions, fostered in no small part by Dr. James Dobson’s using the reach of his Focus on the Family media empire to fund and support that direction.
Now, family values issues / politics grabbed the hearts, minds, affections, passions, priorities, energies and life-defining strength among evangelicals. No topic, including the gospel and the eternal destiny of souls among unreached peoples, generates as much heat or enthusiasm in discussion, fund-raising or action. The Bible has a word for something with that kind of power: an idol. (yes, I really said that)
Over the past decade, the rise of talk radio, blogging and social media has caused an increasing cross-pollination of movements, ideas, personalities and churches of all denominations. The primary means of determining cooperation has been a common political goal (think Proposition 8 in California), a common candidate (think McCain-Palin), a common view of an issue (economics, foreign policy, health care, immigration, etc) along with a common patriotic passion.
The gospel is diluted and rarely an issue in these partnerships. The issue is the thing.
Let me be clear: citizen Christians should be, and have a Biblical obligation to be, fully vested and involved in our democratic system of government. We have a right and should participate. Retreat into an isolation chamber is not a faithful option.
This past weekend’s events in Washington, DC signal something new.. and potentially troubling. In many ways, it closes the loop begun by Falwell and spins us into another sphere. The two events dealt with two sides: “Divine Destiny” (that’s the God and faith component) and “Restoring Honor” (which appealed to the patriotic side).
Even the most liberal newspapers described the tent revival and evangelistic feel to the whole event. People of faith were drawn like a magnet to this moment. Why? Russ Douthat makes an astute observation that
“the pageant effortlessly tapped into the… rich vein of identity politics….Now more than ever Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life…[this rally was] “a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians—square, earnest, patriotic and religious….[and] floated entirely on patriotism and piety. It blessed an entire way of life.”
Beck took the fiery preacher role in addressing the massive crowd which numbered somewhere north of 300,000 people. Here are the money quotes from his speech:
“Something beyond imagination is happening. America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness. Do we no longer believe in the power of the individual? Do we no longer believe in dreams?…..Recognize your place to the creator. Realize that he is our king. He is the one who guides and directs our life and protects us….Look forward. Look West. Look to the heavens. Look to God and make your choice…“
That’ sounds generic enough to grab the attention of most people of faith – even if you get confused by the juxtaposition of “power of the individual” and “he is our king”, not to mention the whole “look West” thing. Huh?
Richard Land, of the SBC Religious Liberty Commission, said Beck sounded like Billy Graham. That’s just silly, but OK. But Billy is clearly an evangelical who holds to historic, orthodox definitions of God and the gospel. Glen Beck is a Mormon. So, when he urges us to turn back to God (consciously using the language of Joshua– “choose you this day”), the question that must be asked is…
The Mormon definition of God is decidedly different from the Bible’s and from the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and non-denominational evangelicals I know.
Beck appealed to faith-leaders of all sorts: “go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, anyone who is not preaching hate and division, anyone who is not teaching to kill another man….These men and women [clergy on stage with him] don’t agree on fundamentals. They don’t agree on everything that every church teaches….What they do agree on is God is the answer.”
Again, unless you are promoting a syncretistic mish-mash, those leaders hold mutually exclusive theologies, so we ask…which God is the answer?
Then we turned to the theme of redemption:
“For too long, this country has wandered in darkness and we have wandered in darkness in periods from the beginning. We have had moments of brilliance and moments of darkness. But this country has spent far too long worried about the scars and thinking about the scars and concentrating on the scars. Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things we have accomplished and the things we can do tomorrow. We have a choice today to either let those scars crush us or redeem us.”
When you have identified what’s wrong with the world, there will soon follow a proposal for what will it take to fix it. “Redeem” is a biblically loaded word that for evangelical Christians points straight to a bloody cross and a singular Savior named Jesus who is exclusively ”the way…to the Father.” (John 14:6) Biblically, “redeem” points to our innate wickedness and inability to save ourselves, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or make a better world. We are individually dark, because sinners by nature “love darkness rather than light” (Jn.3:19) And the light is not national pride or accomplishment. The light is Jesus. (Jn. 1:4, 9:5)
This is precisely what worries me about this. The flywheel of energy from this rhetoric could spin us right off our mission. It appears that many of those enthralled by Beck’s call and who claim the name of Christ are not approaching this with gospel=focused thinking. “Redemption” could be the extension of tax cuts, border patrols, free-market economy supports, taking back the House or Jesus—whichever comes first. They are mixing a dangerous cocktail of Christian faith and political preference that makes the two virtually indistinguishable in too many minds. Listen to just two participants from last weekend:
“”Together, we and millions of our fellow citizens are calling America back to its Judeo-Christian values of faith, hard work, individual initiative, the centrality of marriage and family, hope, charity, and relying on God and civic and faith-based organizations rather than government.” (Ralph Reed who led the Christian Coalition and now leads the Faith & Freedom Coalition.)
“I believe it’s hopeless unless we get back to our roots. And that means our faith, and it means, reorganize our time. We have been so busy earning a living and raising our children that we have let different small groups overpower our opinions. And we’re here to … reclaim what’s wonderful about this country.” (Sue Maliszewski of Phoenix, New York)
Faith, hard work, individual initiative, the centrality of marriage and family, hope, charity, relying on civic and faith-based organizations rather than government, our roots, reorganizing our time reclaiming what is wonderful about our country, the good things in America, the things we have accomplished, the things we can do. All wonderful things.
But brothers and sisters, none of those things are the gospel. They may be political and social philosophy, even reflect some Biblical values, but they are not the gospel. And for Christians, the gospel of Jesus Christ is our only message and our primary means of fostering change.
God’s solution for a messed-up world and messed-up government is individuals being transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, one at a time. The good news is that wicked sinners can encounter the mercy of a perfect Savior who, by His death on the cross takes their death penalty and deflects the righteous wrath of holy God, and by His resurrection from the dead, gives them His life that shapes godly living now and insures life forever. “The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16) It is a reconciling power that restores all things –people, families, institutions, etc.– to God’s perfect design. (Rom. 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:17-20, Col. 1:19-25)
God’s priority is the display of His glory, which He will not share with any others (Is.42:8) and the advance of His Kingdom alone (look here for more on that)— an agenda which He will not allow to be coopted by any movement or nation. The advance of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom and a conservative political movement in the United States are simply not identical. There may be overlap on moral principle, but they are not the same and to act as if they are is to cheapen and dilute the gospel itself.
I am really not asking Christians to avoid involvement with Beck and his movement. There will likely be some good to come from it—and not just in the next election cycle.
I am simply begging those who claim the name of Christ to know the gospel of Jesus Christ better than you know tax policies, the implications of national health care, immigration laws or the judicial intentions of the founding fathers. But don’t just know it. Be able to talk about the gospel with more positive passion than your negative emotions about our current administration or positive emotions about our great country. Be able to communicate Jesus’ gospel with crystal clarity. And above all, live out that gospel in everything, at every moment.
The gospel is our only message, because Jesus is all we have to offer anybody.
If that truth would grab our hearts and gain flywheel momentum in our communities, we could see a movement that would one day result in a crowd around Jesus’ throne that would dwarf the crowd around the reflecting pool last Saturday. That won’t just be excitement for a day; it will be our forever delight.
John Clarke and Bryan Dowe are Australian political satirists. This is their take on the BP explanation for the oil spill. It’s probably closer to reality than we’d like to admit!
I haven’t commented on the inauguration this week for a couple of reasons. First political / social commentary is done more and better by others. Then, every movement and word of this week has been examined ad nauseum since last weekend. But I want to point out two large themes that I think will be played out with impact on our culture in the weeks and months to come.
The first is the abortion issue. President Obama has made significant pledges to abortion supporters who supported his candidacy. He has pledged to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would reverse / over-rule most limitations on abortion enacted at the state level such as parental notification for minors and the ban on the horror of partial-birth abortion. Today, he signed executive orders releasing federal funds for abortion counseling and providers in nations that receive federal aid and lifted restrictions on research with human embryos. So, as of right now, you tax dollars are funding aspects of the pro-choice agenda.
To his credit, President Obama has also talked about wanting to find common ground. Nothing he has said or done yet indicates he is willing to step a toe into the pro-life yard, but we’ll see.
With all that and the momentous events of the past week in mind, watch this remarkable piece. Then pray that our President will consider godly wisdom and values in his actions.