Our Dysfunctional Family Values: On Believe Me by John Fea

img_9395.jpegThere is nothing quite so painful nor so beautiful as delving into the study of your own family.  Where there are wounds or unresolved questions, such study becomes all the more necessary yet somewhat halting and – even, at times – haunting. As Oscar Wild wrote in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea, offers fellow white American evangelicals a chance to study the harsher realities of our family legacy by illuminating the detestable parts of our past and laying bare the faults of our present.

For many of us within the church the current era of Trumpism has confirmed our worst fears and challenged our most defensive reflexes about the faith community we call home.  This has been a time of reflection and repentance, but also one of bewilderment.

In describing his first reaction on election night Fea shares his emotions, which to many of us are all too familiar. “I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry.”  Trump’s victory brought about disillusionment not really because of who lost, but rather because of who and what so many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ appeared willing to endorse, enable or empower.  As Fea notes, realizing that eight out of 10 of his fellow church goers most likely voted for Trump “seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.” (5)

For those who, like me, share these sentiments of shock and uncertainty, Believe me offers a renewed explanation for why this happened and sketches tentative suggestions for the road ahead.  He offers us a historical framework mixed with contemporary analysis through which to understand our present time, particularly by focusing on the religious leaders and prominent Trump supporters Fea terms “Court Evangelicals.” In all, the book reads as a satisfying catharsis for unresolved questions about why and how we got to this point in our family history.

Grounded in an overview of the modern dance between evangelicals and the Supreme Court, Fea describes how and why evangelicals have turned to political solutions as a means for devotional salvation, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Also acting as primer on the darker moments in religious American history, from the faults of Salem and Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the theological justifications of slavery and Jim Crow, to the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, the Scopes Trial, Operation Wet Back and many more, Fea’s book offers us a colorful family album of evangelical foibles, sins, and woes.  He explains:

“Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.  They have celebrated values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ while simultaneously building exclusive communities that do not tolerate dissent.  They have revealed their fear in the ways they have responded to the plight of the people who do not share their skin color.  White evangelical fear of newcomers – those who might challenge the power and privilege that white evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants – has been present in every era of American history.” (65)

Seen in this light, the voting habits and rhetoric of the 2016 election were a continuity of our worst impulses, an almost inevitable outcome for a people who have yet to reckon with the their own darker past.

Playing up the thesis that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump is driven most prominently by fear, Fea recounts the events leading up to the election by wryly noting, “The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame.” (33) The rhetoric, developed over almost forty years by the leadership of the Religious Right, mixed with age-old concerns about foreigners, criminals, and encroaching secularism, is not to be seen as an abrogation but rather as a continuation of the more troubling legacies within the American church.  As Fea explains: “In a sin-cursed world, we should expect anxiety-induced emotions to rise in response to social change.  But evangelicals have not always managed their fears in a healthy way.” (65)

Crucially, he identifies how the over glorification, or nostalgia, of our past has led to a confused mentality of how best to confront the concerns of the present.  While addressing the complex historical implications of the controversial campaign slogan Make America Great Again, he asks for us to question more deeply what message that fourth word conveys.  Which America, which season of American evangelicalism, do we wish to reclaim? What is meant by great AGAIN?

“It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history.  There is, of course, a lot to celebrate… At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives.”  (137-8)

Looking back to this darker past is the key to understanding a path to a brighter, more hopeful, future.  It also helps us put in perspective the widening political gap between white evangelicals and our minority brethren in the faith.  As Fea pointedly queries, “Why would any African-American want to ‘reclaim’ a history steeped in racism?” (134) Yet somehow these voices remain unheard or unheeded and the sins of our forefathers, or perhaps the sins of our own hearts, are the reality we still must confront, repent, and mourn.

What then should we do about these dysfunctional family values?  Fea ultimately concludes with a call to hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  Through further self-reflection and an embrace of values exhibited in the civil rights movement, he thinks we can find creative and faithful ways to respond to the unique (and not so unique) challenges of our times.

Moreover, Fea suggests that we should respond in such a way that is inclusive and welcoming of the entire multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of Christ, seeking after an understanding of the great promise offered by this land of the free that is relatable to all.  “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” he says, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.” (154)  Adopting a posture of humility, we should therefore see both the future of our faith and the future of our polis as one in the making, a work in progress ripe for healing and new growth.

While Believe Me is a helpful and insightful addition to the burgeoning literature seeking to explain how a thrice married, notoriously bankrupt (in more ways than one) former reality tv star ended up as President of the United States of America, I do have three critiques to offer.

First, for a book that proclaims to specifically offer an understanding of the evangelical embrace of Trump or Trumpism, Fea fails to adequately define the distinct roots and branches of our family tree.  Since the 2016 election there has been an ongoing discussion, particularly among scholars of theology and church history, regarding the meaning of the label “evangelical” and the authenticity of the poll numbers which Fea readily cites as the basis of his book.  Not only did Fea choose to overlook this discussion about the contemporary use of the term, but his historic examples of “evangelicals” are quite generous in definition, including faith groups as diverse as puritans, members of mainline protestant denominations, prosperity gospel preachers, and pentecostal churches, among others.

The closest Fea comes to defining what he means by American evangelicalism is found in his categorization of the so-called “court evangelicals” who “come from three primary streams of American evangelicalism: the Christian Right, the followers of what has come to be known as the ‘prosperity gospel,’ and the Independent Network Charismatics.” (106)  While I found this to be a helpful way to group the personalities he features, I am certain some of his peers will question if these are all fair representatives of evangelicalism as a historically defined religious movement.

Even if these are all fair representatives of white evangelicalism, Fea still fails to define with greater clarity what he means by the term. (Personally, I am inclined to give him some latitude for accepting this type of self-identified “evangelicalism” as representing an important sociological grouping, if not a precise theological label.)  A significant part of reflecting on our family roots is looking into our DNA, the unique genetic ties that connect us together throughout time.  In Believe Me, Fea fails to even attempt to make these ties apparent.  He uses the term “evangelical” so broadly at times it ceases to mean much more than just a generic, interchangeable, title for the American Christian.

Second, I am afraid this book is not written in a way that makes it fully approachable to the 81% who voted for Donald Trump.  While the dedication “to the 19%” who voted for someone (or no one) else in 2016 seems quite fitting, this book offers an opportunity to bridge the political divide and invite us all onto a mutual path of familial reflection.  Unfortunately, where Fea diverges from the necessary detachment of historical inquiry, there is a touch of off-putting bias.  More than once I caught myself noting how he describes the fears of those who have embraced Trumpism as merely reacting to perceived threats, while at the same time he qualifies the prejudices of both the present and the past as definite and real.  This pattern is particularly evident in his discussion of the Obama presidency where, for example, he fairly critiques the racism behind birtherism but understates both the political and judicial threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration both at home and abroad.

While I concur that the Christian Right, among others, ginned up excessive hyperbole and fear in our recent history, I also think that Believe Me as a whole misses the mark in examining the trends in European and American culture that elicited genuine fear and anxiety among orthodox Christian believers.  As many astute observers of our age such as Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option have noted, some evangelicals (presumably including those within the 81%) are responding to shifts in belief and behavior which could lead to actual persecution over time – more than mere social change or inflexibility as Fea implies.  We certainly need to debate the best, most Christ-like way to respond to such threats, but it is folly to gloss over the actual ways these changing public policies and mores may inhibit our freedom of religion in the days to come.

Fea’s overarching thesis, that our fears should be met with hope and humility, remains timely and significant.  Yet by discrediting most of these fears as over exaggerated, or simply as part of a legacy of religious bigotry, he limits his most likely audience to those already inclined to agree with the prescient warning that fear and nostalgia can all too easily lead to ungodly racism, bigotry and exclusion.

Finally, any great examination of family history eventually needs to look fully and fairly at the entire family tree.  When newly exposed to the foibles and abuses of our elders or peers it is only natural to want to keep digging, to find all the hidden or forgotten skeletons, and to reflect upon them through grief.  This process of emotive truth-telling is an important part of healing, but it is not the entirety of the healing process.  What Believe Me starkly overlooks, a bit oddly given the intended audience, is the historical context for evangelicals who currently dissent.  Be they the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, or part of an unknown percentage who cast their votes for him but still vocally object to policies and behavior which run counter to the Christian Faith, these white evangelicals are standing in an important tradition that also reaches back before our founding.

Family histories are complex, and any readings that are all positive or all negative tend to miss the mark and fail to give complete justice to the truth of our heritage.  Where Fea fairly derides the positive revisionism of David Barton and his ilk for an all-too-simple storytelling of a mythic Christian America, reading Believe Me in insolation risks leaving us with the impression that the legacy of white evangelicalism is mostly negative: a long, sad, solitary tale of bigotry and hypocrisy.

Such a uniquely sordid picture could not be further from the truth.  Look to every moment of ugliness and shame in our nation’s history and there you will find evangelical dissenters, missionaries, and advocates.  While the darker parts of our past must be reckoned with, a feat Fea does quite well, we should not lose sight of the many ways throughout our own history that evangelical Christians have stood with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.  That story of compassion and sacrifice is just as if not more significant to tell, not so as to lead us into a nostalgic triumphalism but rather to inspire those who are currently distressed with the knowledge that we are not alone.  Others have stood here before us and stayed faithful to God, upheld human dignity for the downtrodden, and fearlessly spoke truth in the face of persecution, isolation, and apparent powerlessness.

I find Fea’s ultimate answer, for us to look to the civil rights movement as a model to follow in these times, quite compelling.  But I also hope we do not forget the legacy of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the urban social movements of the 19th century, among so many others.  The examples of fear and hatred in our past run deep and wide and current events suggest this legacy still lives with us, possibly within each of us, to this day.  But there are also so many examples in our history of rugged perseverance, crusaders for justice, and generous biblical hospitality.  Those saints, many of whom were white American evangelicals, offer us ready examples of what it means to live our lives with a bold, unapologetic, public witness in often dark or confusing times.

These concerns aside, Believe Me is a helpful and ultimately hopeful read worthy of further reflection.  Going into this week of national celebration, I hope we can come to see the role of our familial engagement within the public square not as an opportunity to worship the perfection of what we think our country once was, or what it might already be, but rather, using Fea’s description of the outlook found within the civil rights movement, as “a gesture to what” we hope “the United States might become.” (164)

 

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018).

I received a free advanced copy of this book to review.  Special thanks to Eerdmans for this opportunity and apologies for not publishing sooner! Reading and writing with four under five is quite the adventure. 🙂 

 

Proceed With Caution: National Division, President Trump, and Bull Run

bullrun3It is not lost on me this week that I live but a few miles from the site of the first battle of our civil war. No doubt the creek I stare at each day from my kitchen windows was once trod by both the blue and the gray; men who shared the kinship of country and yet also the enmity of war.

We like to think our current world is too refined, too developed, and too safe to see such sights again in this land. The violence that once tore this country apart and cost the lives of at least 1 million Americans is a mere memory and tale of the past.

But I can’t shake the image of those men and women of Washington society who packed up their picknicks one morning and headed out for a country carriage ride to watch what they assumed was just a mostly harmless chapter in the political debates of their age. What were they thinking that morning? What were they seeking?

An entertaining diversion? A laugh? An easy answer to the country’s problems? A sense of satisfying superiority against the other side?

One thing I know they weren’t expecting was the extent of the destruction, division, death, and chaos that followed.

There, on the very dawn of the bloodiest conflict that this nation has ever known, was just a group of refined men and women who thought they could have a little fun witnessing a skirmish of partisans and then go on with their lives unchanged. To them, on that morning, the reality of what that conflict so infamously became was foreign and unthinkable.

I believe we must be very careful in these times. Perhaps open war is still a distant or unlikely reality, but the nature of our divisions is stark and alarming. We must be on guard for the ways that we are increasingly coarsened to the callings of our common life, our common good, and our common virtue.

I see little point in trying to convince each other about our differences right now. What language can we even use with one another when we have our own sets of facts, our own headlines and news outlets, our own moralities, and our own truths?

There is no clear right in these confusing political times. At least not in the choices before us within this temporal kingdom. And if someone tells you they know for sure which side is best beware them most of all.

But what we can do in the midst of our conflict is choose empathy. What we can do is choose to see the inante dignity of all men and women, most especially within each person with whom we disagree. What we can do is choose first to listen and then, when the time is right and the message vital, we can choose to speak truth with love.

We can choose a path of caution. Caution with our protests and caution with our accolades. Caution with the battles we seek to wage and the swords we choose to draw. Caution with our words and our memes and our thoughts and our actions.

Lest one morning we wake up to laugh at twitter or duel on facebook or demonstrate in our streets only to find that our war of words has turned into something all the more darker, something all the more painful, something we can’t just take back, something we will all regret.

Originally published here on Facebook, January 19th, 2017.

Confronting the Tashlans of Our Time: Wheaton College, Miroslav Volf and the Name of Allah

There are many ways to engage and respect people of different faiths. However, in our efforts to bring forth temporal harmony and find common ground, how do we know if we have gone too far?

This timeless question emerged in recent days amidst the controversy of a Wheaton College professor’s attempt to reach out to the Muslim community by pledging to wear a hijab for the duration of Advent.  As part of her plublic comments regarding this decision she noted that she was inspired by the fact that Muslims and Christians possess a unique bond across these two faiths as “people of the book” who, in the words of Pope Francis, “worship the same God.”   She is now suspended from teaching duties pending a review of these statements and how they align with the college’s statement of faith; a decision considered prudent and necessary to many and offensive to others.

Sadly, as a former graduate student of Wheaton College, I am not surprised to hear these reports of theological confusion on the nature of Allah sprouting at the very institution founded as a bastion of  Christian orthodoxy.  Several years ago I witnessed first hand the planting and tending of these thoughts on campus, notably led one evening by the renowned theologian Miroslav Volf.  In certain ways I feel for this suspended professor, whose statements are only the most recent product of a culture of thought kindled and allowed to smolder unchecked for many years.  The following is an edited version of my thoughts during my time at Wheaton, thoughts which seem all the more prescient given current events.

_____________________________________________________

In the opening pages of C.S. Lewis’ conclusion to the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, King Tirian, the last king of Narnia, comes to believe that he sinned against Aslan, who is rumored to have returned. However, Lewis has already revealed to his readers that this so-called Aslan is false. The creature paraded to the Narnians as their lord and savior is none other than a mere donkey dressed in the skin of a lion.   Unable to do more than mimic the movement of a lion behind a smokey shroud, this false Aslan is created and controlled by a talking Ape who seeks to manipulate the creatures of Narnia into doing evil for his personal gain. Even though the new commands mouthed by the Ape seem inconsistent with the message the true Aslan proclaimed throughout all of time, King Tirian’s submission to the lion’s sovereignty initially leads him to accept these rumors as true and to bow before the farce.

While the king awaits his fate for defying the will of “Aslan”, the Ape explains to the gathered creates of Narnia that he has inked a new partnership with Calormene soldiers from the south, formerly sworn enemies of Narnia, and suggests that they are now friends and compatriots. A little lamb who could take the Ape’s words no longer then chose to speak up:

“I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash…They kill men on his alter. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”

All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed before the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet. The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.

“Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But you others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormene’s wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for You Know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan; Aslan is Tash.”

The resulting effect of his announcement upon the gathered Narnian beasts is described by Lewis as one of sadness and defeat. Through the pronounced creation of an imagined diety later named Tashlan, the Ape turns the entire meaning of the Narnians’ history and beliefs on its head. To their king, this effect did not go unnoticed nor could he let it stand unchallenged.

…as Tirian looked round on the miserable faces of the Narnians and saw how they would all believe that Aslan and Tash were one and the same, he could bear it no longer.

“Ape,” he cried with a great voice, “you lie. You lie damnably. You lie like a Calormene. You lie like an ape.”

It is from the single claim, that Aslan and Tash are one, that Tirian was able to see past the charade and reveal the very heart of the Ape’s lie.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture at Wheaton College by the well-known theologian and professor at Yale Divinity School Miroslav Volf where he introduced the central thesis of his latest book, Allah: a Christian Response.  Namely, he addressed the claim that Muslims and Christians both worship the same God, who is one.

The heart of his comments touched on the notion that, for all practical purposes, the god most Muslims have in mind when they speak of him and pray to him is the same as that of most Christians when they say and do the same. His argument, simplified, focuses on how both faiths are monotheistic and teach that God created the world, that God is good, and that God will judge the world.  Therefore, a Muslim’s understanding of Allah, while not quite equivalent to that of the Christian God, is similar enough in conception and essence to argue that we pray to and worship the same deity, albeit in different ways. His purpose for this conclusion was to provide common ground so that he could forge a new friendship between Muslims and Christians; one where we can focus on our similarities over our differences, one where we can create a peace between our faiths, one where Allah and God are one. Beginning to sound familiar?

Volf chose to “bracket out” the question of eternal salvation and/or damnation. As pure conjecture, I would guess that by deciding to “bracket out” this factor he intended to make his comments more palatable to his audience.  Or rather, in his mind he was choosing to avoid what seemed to be the more dangerous and controversial ground so that the rest of his message might be more deeply considered by those in attendance. Yet the implications for salvation deeply concerned me throughout his entire address and continue to do so today.

It is in the testimony Lewis provides for his controversial character of Emeth, the infamously saved Calormene, that I found a clear answer to Volf’s implication that his work can be considered separately from questions of eternal life. As Emeth describes to the returned Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve regarding his loss of joy and eventual turn to Aslan:

“And most of all when I found we must wait upon a monkey, and when it began to be said that Tash and Aslan were one, then the world began to be dark in my eyes. For always since I was a boy, I have served Tash, and my great desire was to know him and, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name Aslan was hateful to me.”

Emeth does not come to love Aslan through the newly forged concept of Tashlan, nor do any of his fellow Calormenes. He thought of this union as an abominable mockery of Tash and “wondered that the true Tash did not strike down both the Monkey and the Tarkaan [his leader in the Calormene army] with fire from heaven.”

Emeth was a true believer. He was earnestly seeking eternal truth and therefore he could see the notion of Tashlan for the lie that it was because he understood that if you really believed in either Aslan or Tash you could not accept this amalgamation without fundamentally altering the character and essence of both.

Volf’s new claims regarding the nature of Allah arise from a desire, as he explained that night, to make way for respectful dialogue between faiths. He asked us at the time, “should we not want to treat others as we would also want to be treated?” In this query he is very correct, for just as Tirian heard of the notion of Tashlan and felt compelled to cry out against it, so too did Emeth. Our similarities are not found in a common God, not in the way that Volf’s work seems to direct us. Instead, our similarities are found in a mutually zealous search for, and adherence to, the Truth.

The search for the Truth is one which commands we respect the differences between us, for we understand that these differences dispute ideas that hold eternal value and therefore carry with them eternal consequences. Our beliefs are not platitudes to be molded or manipulated by the shifting winds of culture and politics. We uphold them as absolutes, shout of their truth in the wilderness, and respect those who respect the fact that we really mean what we say.

What alarmed me most about that lecture – and, truthfully, what I am deeply ashamed of for my own part – is that there was not a single person present that night, at an institution which is supposedly one of the epicenters for evangelical thought, who was willing to stand up and say, “You lie. You lie damnably.” Instead we all just sat there and simpered and smirked for our celebrity guest. Perhaps some of us silently looked on with distrust or disagreement but, like the Narnian beasts, a great many that night appeared to accept his message as truth. And why shouldn’t they? For it was coming from a renowned authority figure with a Phd who possess excellent stage presence and the ability to tell stories that will make your heart melt and your reason fly away.

I believe those of us who knew better failed that night. And this is a lesson I hope to learn from and never repeat. There is a notion out there among the educated elite that we need strive to meet cleverness with cleverness. That the only way to question or address the teachings of someone as well endowed intellectually as Volf is through his own methods and in his own language.

Being clever in apologetics isn’t always a bad idea. But there are some times when the best thing to do – the most truthful thing to do – is to simply stand up and say “You lie.” Many of us have lost sight of the value of speaking the truth with a bold simplicity. In fact, I fear we are often guilty of tearing apart some of those little lambs whose stuttering comments strike more deeply at that which is true and good than anything our fancy terms and wry comments could ever achieve.

We also forget that in cases such as this lecture any challenge issued is not fundamentally about changing the mind of someone as well prepared and clever as Miroslav Volf. Rather, it is about speaking out for the sake of the people who are listening to him and, when there are no ears to hear, speaking out for the sake of defending truth itself.

The power lies not in the messengers or in the ways they choose to articulate the message. The power lies in the living Word, in the Truth. Tirian was attacked, silenced, and imprisoned by the Ape and his Calormene companions for speaking out, but in time he was rewarded for his attempt to defend the true faith and the true Alsan.

We need speak out because there is much to loose. Tash, in the story, did turn out to be real. He was not just some idea to be manipulated but a distinct and evil creature who did not care for his followers and was destined to be vanquished by the might of Aslan’s roar.  Lewis may have chosen for Aslan to save a single Calormene with the line, “Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Yet he also continues on with Aslan directly answering the claim that he and Tash are somehow the same:

“It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kind that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and it by Tash his deed is accepted.”

Volf built upon this notion of deed of good versus evil in his lecture, particularly in drawing parallels between modern day Muslim terrorists and Christian crusaders who so mercilessly slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099 AD.  He claimed that such blood thirsty acts must certainly be examples of worshiping the same god of violence regardless of who they claimed to be perpetrating the acts for. Where Volf and Lewis clearly differ is that Lewis saw no need in the penultimate end of time to somehow enlist or defend other deities in order to forge common ground between good Calormenes and the Narnian creatures so beloved by their Creator.

It is one thing to creatively imagine that our sovereign God, in his great mercy and love, will extend salvation to those who genuinely seek after him while on this earth.  It is quite another to claim for the sake of an entire religion that their god and ours are one and the same. Such efforts, while undertaken to forge peace and understanding, will do nothing but distort the very truth of God and lead us away from eternal and lasting peace.

I do not know whether Lewis is correct in depicting God’s salvation as inclusive of those who do good acts in the search for truth, nor is it something we will ever truly settle among us on earth as it is God’s judgment to exact. But I am confident that we are commanded to have no other God than the one who is revealed to us in holy scripture. And as much as there may be similarities between God and other deities such as Allah, there are even greater differences. When we trample over these differences to such an extent that we can no longer speak of them in meaningful terms, we risk our ability to openly proclaim the unique wonders of our God to a world who so deeply hungers for him.  Moreover, once set down this path, we may come to no longer believe in these foundational differences as needed or even as true elements of our faith.

Our words, both of love and truth, will not always be met with open arms or respect. But we are not here to be loved by this world. We are here to follow after the heart and, yes, the fate of our Lord and Savior as he was scorned and rejected and killed.

May we be little lambs who know the truth well enough to boldly question its perversions, even while being spat upon. May we be Tirians and Emeths and not falter in our ability to call out these efforts of diluting delirium for what they truly are: lies. May we so love our Creator that we find the strength and wisdom to love all his creation in ways that engage our neighbors with kindness and compassion in truth, just as he seeks after all of us with faithful abandon and selfless love.

tumblr_ljk9y3kbjn1qgjpkaI am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
Isaiah 45:5-6

_____________________________________________________

An earlier version of this post first appeared here, published in Spring 2011

Misplaced Indignation: Religious Liberty, America, and the Church

For the past several months I have looked on silent and increasingly confused as Christians of all walks have indignantly decried the perceived attacks on religious freedom in this country as outrageous, unexpected, and contrary to the very essence of the American way of life.  After soaking in statements from conferences in Washington DC, cable news punditry, and the ever verdant blogosphere alike, I cannot help but wonder at the biblical naivety expressed by these self-fashioned defenders of my faith.

In case perusing what colloquially passes for “the news” has not been high on your to-do list of late, religion in American is under attack by the Obama administration.  From the stifling of military chaplaincy to the enforced funding of birth control in the HHS mandate, religion – and particularly Christianity – is now commonly said to face unprecedented levels of persecution in this, God’s intended “Shining City on a Hill.”  Founded as a Christian nation, Obama and his immoral leftist and irreligious cronies now threaten the very intellectual foundation of our country.  We perilously stand before the obliteration of this longstanding religious fiber that once defined America – a feat that may be accomplished in as little as four years. Something must be done; and that something is to vote Republican (i.e. for Mitt Romney) in November.  So the story goes.

My above sardonic tone aside, I actually agree that many of the current concerns about restrictions on faith are valid (in substance if not always in rhetoric) and if you have yet to investigate these issues I challenge you to research them further.  What irks me, however, about the emerging breed of religious freedom advocates is the continual insistence that these “persecutions” are shocking or that it is somehow unfathomable for Christians to face challenges like this in – of all places – the United States.

It is true that America has, in the past, had the good fortune of being heavily influenced by Christian teaching and morality and that this influence bred a certain respect and reverence for religion in the public square.  Just pickup the oft cited Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville to survey one case in point.  Additionally, many of our founding principles were undeniably shaped by Christian thought, even as the weeds of competing philosophies took a rather defiant residence in our national character.

My own hesitation to use these observations as definite signs that we are – or ever were – a “Christian nation” aside, even if it was unquestionably true that America has a uniquely divine identity, would that fact be enough to warrant the current level of moral outrage expressed over attempts to curtail the free expression and practice of religion in this country?  Somehow, I doubt it.

Call me old fashioned, but when striving to understand how best to live out my faith I occasionally turn to the eternal wisdom and instruction of the Bible.  You know, that book in which George Washington makes no appearance (unless you are reading from The American Patriots Bible, in which case I think we may have greater problems to tackle than just the subject of this post).

What I find therein leads me to think that we might have the focus of our indignation all wrong.  Instead of foaming at the mouth over the the loss of our nation’s moral identity in the hands of malevolent socialists gone wild (I speak as a conservative to a presumably mostly conservative audience), maybe we should take some time to put our own house in order and confront the weaknesses and debilitating comforts of the American church.  As radical as it may sound, perhaps what we find in the holy scriptures are commands that direct us, when countering those who wish to spit on us or silence us, to approach our enemies in love and with a willingness to suffer for Christ, and not just to pontificate for Christ.  Perhaps what we hear are calls for our own repentance.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Christ repeatedly speaks to us in the Gospels of the inevitable persecution his followers will face and the ways we will be hated by the surrounding world.  And while he challenged us to stand firm in the face of such trials, I don’t recall the passage where we are commanded to spit right back at them and shamelessly mock their unjust and sinful ways.  When we face persecution, like the martyred saints of last two millennia, we do so not for the defense of a nation or a political ideal, but in defense of our faith and in solidarity with the global body of Christ.  We do so as those who can face slaughter with a peace that passes understanding, and as a people who know that their true home is not of this world.

In Matthew 24 Christ says that in the end days, as we await his return, we “will be hated by all nations because of me.”  Mind you, he does not say that we will be hated by most nations, especially those in the 10/40 window, but never in God’s favored land yet to be founded and named after an Italian cartographer (or a British merchant, depending on your preferred historical cup of tea).

The severity of persecutions faced by our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe far outweighs the inconvenience posed by our present legal battles in America.  Yet many of our beleaguered spiritual siblings manage to bear their crosses with a greater grace (and much less surprise) than anything we have collectively mustered in recent months. If facing the consequences of refusing to pay for someone else’s birth control is too much for us to handle without sputtering about the “injustice” of it all, how could we ever hope to stay strong and pious if we were to encounter threats of imprisonment or death?

I find little in the Word to assure me that America will ever be free – in both the civic and private realms – from a widespread hatred of righteousness.  This does not mean I believe those who speak out against restrictions on the practice our faith are wrong or misguided, so long as they carry out their advocacy in a Christ-like manner that honors, not besmirches, him and the testimony of his bride.  We cannot forget that the tone of our rhetoric is never to be set by the opposition, as much as the legacy of the Andrew Breitbart’s of this world may suggest otherwise.  Last time I checked, anger was not a fruit of the spirit.

Acknowledging that persecution is a fact of life for all Christians does not necessitate a passive response.  What it means is that we should never be shocked – or indignant – when we encounter the hatred of the world, especially when we find it in our country, our states, and our neighborhoods.

There is strength yet to be discovered in prayer-filled patience, quiet persistence, and the power of a still small voice.

The popular insistence within evangelical circles that the United States is a Christian country has rendered the ministry of the American church soft.  We have become lazy in our evangelism, dull in our catechism, self-indulgent in our theology, callous in our cultural critique, and fractious in our devotional unity.  But why bother fixing the problems of the Christian church when you can just fix the problems of the “Christian” nation instead?  Political involvement is a facet of life Christians should take seriously, but never as a replacement for the work of the church, and never with a belief that one party or one politician can somehow remedy the problems that Christ himself refused to address or combat.

If our country has morally declined in recent decades to clear the way for seemingly unprecedented attacks on our faith, perhaps the real blame lies, well, with us.  Perhaps our problem (or at least the key source of our latest bout of cultural and political decrepitude, the fallen nature of man aside) is not with those pesky feminists, multiculturalists, socialists, leftists, rightists, abortionists, sexists, atheists, fascists, racists, and every other kind of -ist or -ism that may come to mind after all.  Perhaps the real problem facing America is a tepid church – a Laodecian church – that only gets hot to defend its little kingdom and only gets cold when it has to look the other way for the sake of social or political pragmatism.

If there were ever a cause for righteous indignation, a church with so many resources at its disposal and so little societal fruit just might be it.

Hummers, Terrorism, and Societal Sin

I wrote the following short essay for a class on National Security Affairs in a slightly modified form. It is a response to a very specific prompt regarding a possible connection between American Hummer owners and Saudi supported terrorism.

Some American champions for environmental and energy security posit a chain of logic that begins with Hummers and ends with terrorism. The basic argument goes as follows: Hummers, and other large fuel inefficient vehicles, require abnormally high amounts of gasoline to function. The refueling rate disproportionally increases US demand for petroleum, which reinforces US need for foreign oil. Inevitably, this sustained demand for petroleum imports secures continued American dealings with the Saudi oil market, which in turn increases Saudi wealth that is, at long last, used to finance terrorism.

Although vastly over simplified, there are a few claims in their argument that sound valid – if not compelling – and warrants further consideration.  To investigate the charged connection of Hummer owners to terrorism it must first be established whether the Saudi government, as the beneficiary of Saudi oil profits, financially supports terrorist acts or organizations.  Only then can we delve further into the potential guilt of an average gas guzzling American driver in aiding and abetting the very plague they so vociferously seek to vanquish.

While it is commonly held that Saudi funding of Wahhabist terrorism is a problematic roadblock to our counter-terrorist operations, it is difficult to prove that there is a direct relationship between the Saudi government (i.e. the Saudi oil market) and the subsequent funding of terrorist organizations by Saudi nationals.  As a rentier state, the wealth of the nation is managed through government control of their petroleum resources and the profits are then distributed among the citizenry.  The recipients with the largest share of these funds are the numerous members of the Saudi royal family, several of whom are known financial supporters of terrorist activity.  What cannot be proved outright, given the diffused – and somewhat confused – power structure of the Saudi government, is whether there are any official state ties to this illicit use of funds.

That said, is well established that the Saudi government directly funds Wahhabi schools and mosques around the world, several of which are known ideological training grounds for religious motivated terrorism.  In both cases the money generated by oil exports flows into the coffers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is channeled, either by high ranking citizens or through the financing of learning centers, to support terrorist organizations world wide.  Concluding, therefore, that Saudi government does – if only through demonstrably indirect means – use their wealth to support Wahhabist terrorism, we now return to the culpability of the average American motorist in enabling their behavior.

It is certainly true that without the pressing American need for petroleum Saudi Arabia and her people would, at least in the short term, have significantly fewer financial resources to apply to terrorist affiliated activity.  Also, there is a genuine hypocrisy in the loud protestations made by Americans against the financing of terrorism or the deplored reliance on foreign oil while they continue to drive large gas guzzling trucks and SUVs like the Hummer.  Yet a complete US rejection of Saudi oil, while posing a devastating blow to their market, would not cripple the industry.  The world is full of emerging economies eager to supply petroleum to a new class of drivers, most of whom would not give a second thought to the indirect support of terrorism these purchases will enable.  Still, this brutal geopolitical reality does not outright excuse the part of the American consumer in propping up Saudi success while knowing full well that the money they spend on imported gasoline furthers the cause of our self-described enemies.

At this juncture it is crucial note there exists an implicit claim in the opening argument that not all cars are created equal in the way of supporting terrorism via the Saudi oil market.  This premise begs the question: are some car consumers more virtuous or patriotic than others?  The ever so qualified answer is both yes and no.  Certain vehicles, like Hummers, are clearly higher consumers of gasoline per mile driven, but there are also more complex factors to consider when calculating the total impact of a single driver on the global petroleum industry.  For example, someone may own a Hummer as a luxury vehicle but seldom drive it do to the high cost of refueling or personal lifestyle habits.  Meanwhile, a conscientious Prius owner supposedly trying to do their patriotic duty to lessen our oil dependence, could drive hundreds of miles a week in long commutes and actually use more gas per month than their Hummer owning neighbor.  To be fair, it is far better for the commuter to drive a Prius than a Hummer, but the underlying reality is that ownership of large vehicles does not automatically equate to above average gas consumption.  The problem is not so much the size or efficiency a particular vehicle as it is our entire vehicular driven culture and industry.

It should be acknowledged that the issue of oil dependence and the resulting support of terrorism is a problem of systemic injustice.  We can rebel against or opt out of certain societal ills but others are so ingrained in the cultural mores of a particular era that they must be endured even as the upright work for eventual change.  Sometimes you have to take part in the system in order to change the system.  This does not justify the wrongs associated with a broken or unjust institution, but it may lessen the individual culpability of the people who, by necessity, comply with the broken social patterns of their day.  An element of God’s grace is forgiveness for the ways we are entangled in the societal sins of our specific place and time, as no civilization or era has ever been free from forms of systematic injustice.  However, if we see these problems within our society and choose to ignore them, stay silent, or deny the evil as evil, then a very direct wrong has been committed.

Our fault will lie not necessarily with driving gas-powered vehicles, but in willfully reveling in these luxuries while ignoring the darker consequences of our cultural indulgences.  Americans of conscience ought to buy fuel efficient vehicles not only because of the relief it will lend to their checkbooks but because of the benefits it will have to greater issues like decreasing our petroleum consumption and lowering our carbon footprint (personal views on anthropogenic global warming aside, ways to decrease airborne pollutants should appeal to all).  Efforts to diplomatically tackle direct or indirect financing of terrorism can be advocated though our political system, including concerted efforts to popularize policies like suspending foreign aid to Saudi Arabia.  Additionally, Americans ought to challenge the underlying causes of the gas driven society, perhaps through city planning that is more amenable to walking or widespread private investments in the innovation of new energy technology.

Is it morally wrong or unpatriotic to drive a gas-powered car? I don’t believe so.  However, it may be morally repugnant to see the harmful effects of America’s gas guzzling culture and choose to do nothing to change it for the better.