reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “politics”

A Campaign Gone Full Bore

ZZZA few weeks back, Donald Trump had a man thrown out of a rally for complaining that it was boring. I laughed at the time; life imitates The Onion, I thought. As it turns out, the man was part of a duo of comedians. Still, I think we may look back on that moment as the beginning of the end for The Donald. His campaign has proved immune to outrage, but boredom? That’s deadly.

Trump’s shtick is getting old, even for his supporters. He knows it too, but by toning it down, he may have initiated a death spiral. A tamer Trump leaves just the emptiness of his ideas, which only gain traction when coarsely shouted at a susceptible audience. When spoken in measured tones, they’re…boring.

So where does he go when his numbers start to slip? He can go back to outrageous, but that’s already worn out. Or he can stay the gentler course and fade into irrelevance.

Trump took the playbook of a rising dictator: exploit fear, invent scapegoats, and sell it all with bombast. But this isn’t 1939. Modern media will take anything to a saturation point much faster than the newspapers, placards and radio broadcasts of three generations ago.

It’s comforting to see signs that the old tactics are failing, but still scary that so many people – including some Christians – embraced a toxic message. Let’s hope a savvier successor to The Donald doesn’t emerge, able to feed that message into the communication channels of our time.

Shedding Grace

majesty21For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

In America the beautiful, many Christians are shedding grace, but not in a good way. They are setting aside the grace of the Gospel and replacing it with a covenant of works for their nation to follow.

As Christians we don’t impose this covenant even on ourselves, nor should we. And yet some spend untold emotional, financial and political resources trying to hammer the United States into the image of Christ, all by trying to dictate the behavior of the government and the culture. It’s a Christian nation, they say, and then they try to manufacture the proof out of materials that refuse to bend.

In doing so, they like to point to our heritage, a time of greater righteousness and morality. I wonder what time they have in mind. Was it the time when Africans were abducted from their homes, bought and enslaved here, and their descendants oppressed and treated as less than human? Was it the time when Native Americans were subjected to a creeping near-genocide that still echoes across desperate, drug-infested reservations? Or was it when wealth became enthroned and the rawest form of capitalism became the de facto religion?

My point is not to hold every American responsible for all past or present sins; it’s simply to say that if we’re looking to recapture some righteous national legacy, there’s less to it than we like to believe. Past generations may have been more polite, more civil and more churchgoing. But like the superficial goodness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27), these external virtues at times were whitewash on the tombs of hypocrisy.

I once wrote here that I believe righteousness does exalt a nation, as Proverbs 14:34 declares. Still, in all history only Israel could ever say, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12) That nation, the only chosen one ever, lived under a covenant based on the law – that is, on works – and it was exalted when it did right.

We are now in the age when God’s grace is revealed to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). The grace God sheds on America is not saving grace. It’s simply His favor granted in the service of His plan, which has made this country into history’s greatest exporter of the Gospel. I’m thankful to live here, but like every other nation that ever was, the USA will fade away. No one in heaven will be wearing stars-and-stripes lapel pins.

The Bible instructs us to be good citizens and to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3); let’s do as it says, but let’s not try to make our country more than it is. There’s only been one earthly nation that could be saved. And the grace that matters for eternity isn’t shed on nations but on individual people. Christians are here to point them to it.

The Right Questions

question“Has no one condemned you?” – John 8:10

If the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you may have some questions for God right now. How could He allow this? Has He changed His mind about marriage? Is He still there?

Maybe we as Christians need to ask ourselves some questions instead. Principally, if God allowed the battle to be lost, was He ever in it? You may think, of course He was!  God always fights against those who break His commandments, doesn’t He?

God’s judgment has come and is coming. He judged sin at the cross. For those who don’t accept that judgment poured out on Jesus in our place, judgment will come at the end of time, and there will be no intermediary to absorb it. Until then, however, Jesus won’t raid the speakeasy and send the revelers scurrying into the night. He’ll enter, in our skin and on our feet, and invite them to come out into the light.

God invites us into a covenant relationship, and marriage is a sacred, earthly symbol of that covenant, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear. That may be one reason it’s hard to believe God wouldn’t stand and fight with the defenders of marriage as He established it. But when God gives a symbol to represent a deeper concept of faith, the symbol never trumps the spiritual reality.

When venomous snakes attacked God’s people as they wandered the wilderness, God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it high; all who looked to it would be saved (Numbers 21:4-9). Through this symbol God demonstrated His power and foreshadowed Christ being lifted up to save all who would look to Him. What could be more sacred than that? Fast forward several hundred years. When people persisted in worshiping the bronze serpent, the righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Am I suggesting that God wants traditional marriage destroyed? No, though in the next world, earthly marriage won’t exist; its time will be past (Mark 12:25). But sacred as marriage is in this life, there are more sacred things – such as God’s invitation into the higher relationship marriage symbolizes. We can’t extend that invitation impaled on a sword of judgment.

Speaking of symbols, it’s interesting that the rainbow, which God declared a symbol of His covenant never to flood the Earth again, has been adopted as a symbol for marriage equality. We can sit and fume about that. Or, just as God made the rainbow a symbol of judgment suspended, we can see it as a reminder to suspend our own judgment.

God’s Housecleaning

“It is wDSCN1165ritten…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” – Matthew 21:13

I recently read an article that made me wonder if I had time traveled back to the 1980s or ’90s. The surprisingly young author was calling Christians back to the social battles of the last Bush-Clinton era (are we really headed for another?). She unflinchingly used the term “culture wars,” and the article was illustrated with a young, tattooed and pierced couple respresenting the “Christian Left.”

I think many American Christians, myself include, now recognize the long detour we took to the wrong battlefield while that writer was still a child. Not that sin has become virtue; many of the things Christian leaders campaigned against 25 years ago were and are contrary to God’s laws. But to revisit one of my recurring themes, it’s not our job to save secular culture or purge it of what offends us. Our job is to call people out of that culture. No one should take my word for it, however.

What did Jesus do? He didn’t campaign against Rome’s corrupt tax-collection practices. He called tax collectors to abandon their morally hazadous profession for lives of integrity. He didn’t call for stepped-up prosecution of adulterers. He saved an adulteress from a stone-wielding mob, then privately, gently called her to repentance. And even as he spoke against divorce, He proclaimed good news to a serial, cohabitating divorcee.

Jesus was not silent toward institutional or cultural corruption. But when it came to that, notice where His wrath was directed. It wasn’t toward the Roman government and culture, which did what secular governments and cultures always do. It was toward the rot within God’s house: the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the thievery of the money changers and merchants in the temple. And lest we think He called out only the Jewish establishment, remember His words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-18:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (NIV)

The apostle Paul, too, spent little time on secular culture and institutions, except to seize opportunities to preach the Gospel to them, or to remind Christians of what they had left behind and warn them against backsliding or compromise. His first letter to the Corinthians, for example, was primarily a lengthy warning and exhortation to a morally crumbling congregation, and the second letter responded to the growing influence of troublemakers in the Corinthian assembly.

So if Christians as a body tackle any kind of collective sin, maybe like Jesus and Paul we should look within our own house. Are we being torn apart by factions, turf wars and petty feuds? Are we all about the bank balance while we turn our backs on the poor and the marginalized? Are we winking at immorality in our midst? Are struggling individuals, loved and sought by God, getting trampled in our marches against this or that cultural evil?

Some Christians may feel called to the fight against particular cancers in society. It’s certainly not my place to tell individuals what God is calling them to do. That’s between them and God. But as a body, we shouldn’t be making collective enemies of those who practice or promote what we oppose. We should be looking for Matthew, Zacchaeus, the ashamed adulteress and the woman at the well. And we should be inviting them into a clean house.

American Salad

saladI recently had my first exposure to Dr. Ben Carson, who is generating Republican presidential buzz with a growing fan base on the evangelical right. On video, he was a glib and entertaining speaker with an inspiring story, flashing the brilliance you expect of a pediatric brain surgeon. You feel smart just for listening to him. Then you hear more of what he has to say, and with all due respect to a fellow Christ follower, maybe the excitement starts to fade.

Did he really say America has become like Nazi Germany? And reaffirm the claim when given the chance to backpedal? And then draw some strained comparison between ISIS and America’s founding fathers? I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know I’m getting the sense of someone who is on a mission to shock people. He’ll justify it as his war on political correctness, and some of us will eat it up.

And what are we eating up? For one thing, I detect that staple of the American political menu, fear. Dr. Carson is just serving it up in an edgy plate of greens instead of the usual steakhouse wedge of iceberg. He’s not alone. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who courts the same vote as Dr. Carson, is out pushing the idea of Muslim “no-go” zones, a scare so baseless that Fox News had to back down from it four times in one day.

But my point is not to bash Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal; it’s to ask why American Christians keep responding to the politics of fear. To answer that, consider when we get afraid: when we think something important to us is at risk. Our level of fear reflects how invested we are in that thing.

We invest in certain things with gusto here in the Land of More is Better. “Too much of a good thing” is an alien concept. Americans are so busy going big, they rarely consider whether it might in fact be time to go home. Christians are not immune. Some of us even get over-invested, to the point of entitlement, in the idea of America that we see as our sacred heritage.

At the risk of my own tarring and feathering, perhaps the sense of entitlement springs from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, I’ll give you that. Only God has the right to give it or take it, by His sovereign power or through the instruments of His choosing. Any others exercising that power are merely playing God, at their own ultimate peril.

Liberty? In Christ we are free from the penalty and power of sin, free from Old Testament law, free in debatable matters of conscience, as the apostle Paul declared in Romans 14. But the Bible never promised American-style freedom. God blessed me to be born and to live under it. These very words are protected by the First Amendment, which carries the benefit of a wide-open door for the Gospel. But whenever He pleases, God can let this door be closed and another opened. To Paul, even captivity was an opportunity; in Ephesians 6:20, he declared himself an “ambassador in chains” in his Roman imprisonment. He didn’t protest politically or incite rebellion against his oppressors. He was too busy evangelizing the guards.

Pursuit of Happiness? If we belong to God, our joy is, or should be, in Him above all: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Happiness for its own sake is just a warm, fuzzy and unreliable feeling, and the Bible doesn’t promise such happiness.

Still, some American Christians seem to expect politicians, usually Republicans, to guarantee a particular vision of life and liberty, without which they won’t be happy or feel secure.

Holly Fisher found fame or infamy, depending on your viewpoint, when she tweeted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 rifle in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. She had every right to do that, and those who cheered or mocked her had every right to react. America is great that way.

As for me, I had the all-too-familiar sensation of looking at a fellow believer, and squirming a little. That picture neatly captures an unsettling feature of our culture: a peculiar American salad of Christian faith, patriotism, conservative politics and guns, dressed with a dollop of fear that everything we cherish is one generation from oblivion. We’re giving it all away, Dr. Carson warns – an appeal to fear couched as a call to courage.

But where is our true security? Some who call themselves believers seem to put the Constitution, as they understand it, in God’s place. By this vision, we’re secure as long as the framework of our government guarantees we can speak and worship freely, and as long as guns can stand between us and the bad guys and/or a government that turns on us. Which brings us back to America as Nazi Germany. The comparison is, for now, thoroughly over the top. But let’s play what-if.

Some day it may become dangerous to be an American Christian. I don’t say this to sow fear. The threat to religious freedom simply is, and it’s more than a threat to countless people of all faiths around the world. Jesus warns that the persecuted church is the norm: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The view from where He stood in John 15:19 is far from our blessed existence here in America.

So, what if oppression arises in our midst?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, government thugs came to take away Jesus’ right to speak and worship freely. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. And Jesus told Peter to stop, and healed Malchus. In that moment, I think our Lord set the tone for any believer throughout history facing the loss of civil rights, including religious ones.

In the Bible, when God’s people are oppressed where they live, they continue to worship and they wait for deliverance, however God provides it. Think of the Israelite captivities, from Egypt to Babylon. That God has used America so remarkably, though it was born from a rebellion, may merely testify to His grace and His ability to bring good out of anything (Genesis 50:20). Find a passage in the Bible where God calls His people to insurrection against the government He allows to rule over them. If you can find one, please share, but I’m not aware of any in the Old Testament or the New. Yes, Jesus told his disciples – just before that confrontation in Gethsemane – to get swords (Luke 22:36). But the meaning and implications of that passage are debatable, and it’s not a proof text for the notion that Christians must arm themselves, especially in light of what followed at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.

Still, there are American Christians ready for metaphorical or even literal combat. We’ve seen the Holly Fishers, and we’ve seen the anonymous ones blustering in online comment threads about the day’s news. It isn’t always clear who is serious, but they can’t all be trolling. The ones who are serious have some hard questions to answer:

  • To defend your civil rights, given and taken by humans who rule with God’s permission (Romans 13), will you attack a fellow citizen? Or will you extend mercy?
  • For your religious rights, will you strike blows in the name of God, and raise the barrier of aggression between your adversary and the good news that you carry? Or like Paul will you simply take whatever opportunity presents itself under the powers that be?
  • For your right to bear arms, will you choose confrontation? Or will you trust God with your safety and lower your defenses, not to let the enemy in but to let grace out? Does your security so depend on a firearm, even more than on God, that you will shed blood over your right to keep it?

These very ideas may sound extreme to some, but in today’s supercharged, polarized politics, otherwise sane people seem to be wandering out to the fringes. And even if you’re not ready to take up arms against your government, consuming fear can twist your attitudes and actions. Never harbor the delusion that you’re fighting for God. You’re fighting in Him – His power, strength and wisdom, with spiritual weapons – against forces whose defeat is already sure, because God can fight perfectly well for Himself.

If we rethink how we might answer hostility from our own government in the future, we should separate that from issues of the here and now: personal security at home, or military service to repel external threats to the nation. In both of these matters, I believe a Christian may legitimately be prepared to defend family, neighbors or country against criminals or foreign invaders. I don’t believe millions of military men and women have served in vain. It is right to defend the defenseless against the lawless, as the psalmist says: “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4) But none of this equates to a divine right or mandate for a Christian to own a gun or any weapon, or to demand that right on our terms.

Remember President Obama’s famously ill-chosen remarks about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion. It was elitist and condescending. But if Obama saw Holly Fisher’s picture, I could understand him feeling a little bit vindicated. As for my reaction: If she treats her Bible as a symbol for an idea, not as a vehicle to encounter God, she’s missing its purpose. If she trusts the gun and the flag for her security, she’s forgotten where true security lies.

Holly Fisher may be celebrating the latest election results. Fine; God’s plan is moving forward, and we can always celebrate that, as well as the precious right that we have. On this I can agree with Ben Carson: Vote, and if your faith is truly a part of all you do, bring it into the voting booth. But I don’t assume that God’s plan is to advance the American Christian social or political agenda, whatever that is, or to restore America’s greatness.

Perhaps I’ve come to realize that patriotism, while not bad in itself, is best held loosely in light of my relationship with God. Like anything apart from God, my patriotism can crumble into disappointment or fear if the object of my devotion proves unworthy or impermanent. Better to be devoted to the One who will never disappoint us, leave us or forsake us. And I am less likely to regret what I do in my country’s name, if my nationalism doesn’t blur the vision of my heavenly citizenship.

Photo: pbs.org

Words Fail

Aemojibout 20 years ago, we truly escaped the mechanical limits of the printing press and acquired the ability to move more or less infinite numbers of words anywhere we wanted, as quickly as we wanted. I would be interested to know the word count of the entire Internet. It would be one of those ridiculous statistics with exponents and long strings of zeroes.

As I watched the unraveling of Ferguson, Mo., something struck me about the protesters’ raised hands. That image quickly is becoming a wordless icon in a world with a limitless capacity for verbal expression. Hands raised in surrender are the new hoodie for those who rightfully lament the tragedy surrounding so many young African-American men. It is far too soon to pick sides on what happened to Michael Brown, but the symbol already has a life of its own. It hardly matters what the facts in Ferguson turn out to be. And that’s the problem.

The more we speak in symbols and not words – in gestures, attire, emoticons, “likes” and hashtags (I don’t count those as words) – the less we truly think about or rigorously debate the things that divide us. There’s nothing wrong with symbolism, but someone once said anything that fits on a bumper sticker is too simplistic. Bumper stickers are looking like dissertations these days.

These symbols that now pass for debate become like flags for people to rally behind, and from their opposing camps they hurl abuse at each other, without ever doing the hard work of persuasion or – here’s a concept – compromise. Even when we do get down to verbal debate, it devolves into stock phrases, tired epithets and well-rehearsed talking points, often lobbed anonymously back and forth in comment threads on the news of the day.

I don’t have any brilliant answer for the death of real discussion, but I will keep trying to heed the advice of many a parent to a whining preschooler: “Use your words.” They are, especially in our day, an infinitely renewable resource – even though they sometimes seem awfully scarce.

Warming Up to Reality

pan“Cursed is the ground because of you.” – Genesis 3:17

The Great Melt of ’14 is under way in our corner of New Jersey. Mild weather and sunshine are doing the job just fine, but we can’t resist helping it along. Saturdays ring with a catharsis of chipping and chopping at winter’s icy residue.

If you think global warming is all hype, this winter must have you feeling all smug, though not snug. If you believe global warming is real, your season is coming. Every record-breaking July day will offer grim vindication.  In the polar vortex of American politics, the left likes it hot, while on the right, cold comfort” takes on new meaning.

It’s ridiculous. I’m generally conservative, but guess what, folks? The climate is changing. You can debate all you like what’s causing it – human activity, natural cycles, alien sabotage. It’s happening. The effects aren’t uniform; it may get colder in some places for a time, but on average, across the globe, things are getting hotter. The end of it all won’t be pleasant if we can’t at least avoid making it worse.

Say what you will about Al Gore, the title of his famous book was apt. Climate change is an inconvenient truth. Inconvenient for whom? Business, for one. I like free markets and private enterprise as much as the next conservative. It’s the best fit with this thing we call the Protestant work ethic, which is biblically sound when properly understood. Still, what’s good for business doesn’t bend the laws of physics. A rainy day is bad for sidewalk cafes, but you can’t stop the rain or blame it on liberals.

So, if I join the party-line denial of climate change, what does that say about me as a Christian? It could say that I sincerely disagree with the science that points to a changing, overall warming climate. It might say something else.

I like my fossil-fueled lifestyle, and the fossil-fueled, free-market economy that makes it possible. But if that leads me to deny the plain, documented truth, maybe my priorities are out of order. Maybe I’m making idols of my lifestyle and our economic system. Perhaps I’m forgetting that God left humans as stewards of the earth – and when He commanded humanity to “subdue” the earth and “rule” over it (Genesis 1:28), He meant to tame it and protect it, not leave it bloodied and oppressed.

He knew, of course, that we would make a mess of it, and we have. This physical world has been in decline since Adam fell. So why would Christians shut their eyes and plug their ears against the idea that the whole planet’s ecosystem is breaking down? Especially now, as world events point to the end of days, we need to see reality clearly.

No one knows God’s timing, and we’re still under orders from heaven to be stewards of earth, so we shouldn’t give up on it. We don’t make an idol of Mother Earth, but if human activity is damaging this planet and we feel called to speak and act in its defense, that not un-Christian. Not even if some would call it un-conservative and – horrors – bad for business.

Scattershot Thoughts

English: Side view of a Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm, semi...

“When a person has a gun, sometimes their mind clicks that this thing…will win arguments and straighten people out.” – Bill Cosby

This will be one of my more disjointed posts. Post-Newtown, so many ill-conceived and disingenuous ideas about guns are flying around, it’s hard to know where to begin. Both sides need to get a grip. I’ve already said my piece on the Second Amendment, so I won’t rehash it here. But there’s more to say.

I’ll start with the extreme anti-gun side of the debate.

Look at the numbers.  Hear this: there are 270 million civilian-owned guns in the United States, easily exceeding the adult population. You could ban them tomorrow, but you will never, ever come remotely near to getting them all off the streets, out of dresser drawers and glove compartments and mattresses and everywhere else people stash them. No doubt millions of guns are in criminals’ hands, and the police can’t be everywhere, all the time. We must face the reality we have, not the one we wish we had. So if people want to take reasonable steps for self-defense, I’m not about to deny them that right.

It is what it is. The Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous, but you will never make it prohibit private gun ownership or confine it to hunters. Barring a political earthquake beyond your wildest imagination, this amendment isn’t going away. Deal with it.

Now, to the other end of the gun-rights spectrum.

Look at the numbers. Yes, those same numbers above. Can anyone seriously argue that there aren’t enough guns legally in circulation to arm every “good guy” who wants one? Would it really be so wrong to turn off the spigot for certain classes of weapons, and add some flow restrictors for others? And look at some other numbers. 851 unintentional gun deaths in 2011, and nearly 12,000 suicides by gun. How many suicidal people would act on the impulse without the gun-based expectation of instantaneous lights out? Meanwhile, successful uses of guns in self-defense are an elusive number. Not begrudging those people who succeeded, but on the other hand, how many petty criminals effectively draw a death sentence for burglary? Forgive me if I speak heresy, but maybe sometimes we need to let our stuff go.

Which is it? That last point leads to another. The rules of gun safety espoused by the NRA and others are pretty clear. Guns should be locked up and unloaded when not in use. So, if you’re depending on your gun when an intruder threatens, how are you going to retrieve, load and use it if it’s properly stored? Or are those safety rules window dressing to keep the NRA looking responsible? You’re going to lock up that weapon, Mr. Gunowner, right (wink, wink)?

Armed teachers in schools? I’ll just leave this here.

Bill Cosby and George Zimmerman. The next time I encounter the saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” I hope I’m reading it in print. I don’t want to damage my TV or computer. Last year when the Trayvon Martin case was monopolizing the headlines, Bill Cosby gave an interview to CNN’s Candy Crowley, and you might expect he talked about race. He talked about guns. Cosby is a wise man. He carried a gun for a time, and he described the effect it had on him. To summarize and paraphrase, in certain hands, a gun subtly becomes an answer in search of a problem. I suspect it did the night George Zimmerman met Trayvon Martin. Would he have left his car without that Kel-Tec PF-9 in his waistband? I doubt it. And a kid who was surely flawed, but didn’t deserve to die, would still be alive.

There are certainly many ways to kill people, but I don’t think most of us come home with a set of new cutlery or a new baseball bat and think that we’ve got a little edge against the bad guys. Guns are different. We need to treat them as such and face the realities of life in 21st century America: a place where some people need to be ready to defend themselves and their families, but also a place where just maybe enough is enough.

The Answer is Yes

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”–The First Amendment

Was America founded as a Christian nation or a secular state?

It’s a needlessly polarizing question, rooted in almost willful blindness on both sides of the argument. Those who dismiss any religious role in the nation’s founding build their case on the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, those who imagine God’s kingdom on American soil point to countless customs that have woven faith into both public and private life. Not to beat around the bush, I believe the answer to my opening question is yes. America was both from the beginning. Here is how I break it down.

At its founding, the United States had a sketchy national identity, less religious than we like to think it was. But the seeds had already been sown for a nation that would be bound by a Christian culture, or more broadly, Judeo-Christian values.

Arguments against this make much of the founding fathers’ ties to the Enlightenment or to deism, a more generic belief in God. The establishment clause of the First Amendment makes clear their desire for government to be neutral toward religion. But it’s a mistake to dismiss pervasive references to God — from the Declaration of Independence to inscriptions on our currency to the opening of legislatures with prayer — as quaint artifacts or obligatory flourishes.

Whatever the framers’ intent in the Constitution, the people teaching, governing and judging in the nation’s classrooms, town halls and courthouses were accustomed to seeing faith, mostly Christian, expressed in everyday life. They weren’t constitutional scholars, and the signing of a piece of paper wasn’t going to break old habits. The easy blending of religious expression with official functions illustrates the cultural force of faith in America.

As the country grew still more religious, such expression crossed clear legal boundaries largely unchallenged until well into the 20th century – aided, no doubt, by the political benefit to officials who put on a pious face. For most of that time, the American understanding of the divine was largely from a Christian perspective. In many parts of the country, it remains so.

So when secularists say that our national, i.e., cultural identity wasn’t Christian at the beginning – they need to look past the letter of the law to the practical reality that has prevailed for most of our history. And take care how hard they push to bottle up faith in houses of worship and private homes. Authentic faith is not lived out that way, and this isn’t France. Christians – indeed, people of many faiths – will not be silenced.

And yet: the establishment clause is clear. As a matter of law, American government is not to endorse, enforce or inhibit religious belief or practice. Widespread disregard of this principle over 200 years may have been overlooked, but that doesn’t make it constitutional. In recent decades, religious encroachment in government functions has been challenged, and Christians have taken to the barricades as if the faith itself were under attack.

It’s time for Christians to realize that what they and previous generations enjoyed all those years was a triumph of culture over law. The culture is changing. One in five Americans now identifies with no religion at all, and Protestants now represent less than half of the population. Christian influence has weakened to the point that violations of the establishment clause won’t be ignored any more. Nor, I would argue, should we want them to be.

The church loses vitality when it becomes too institutional, too much a part of the secular power structure and the cultural mainstream. It’s easy to point to the history of the Catholic church in this regard. But American evangelicalism has cobbled together its own power structure and dogma, with the government and educational system at times bending to religious pressure. This cultivated a 3,000-mile-wide, inch-deep “Christian” orthodoxy that was long on ceremony and rhetoric but short on authenticity. In the process, politics and faith became entangled in unhealthy ways.

This is not to write off America’s Christian tradition, or to say that Christian government officials shouldn’t put God at the center of how they individually perform their duties. And I am certainly thankful for freedom to worship and practice my faith. The Bible promises that righteousness exalts a nation, and at times when America has been righteous, I believe God has exalted it.

But those days may be past, and while this isn’t France, neither is it ancient Israel. The God of the New Testament isn’t about building earthly nations. Neither should that be Christians’ focus. At a minimum, chasing a Christian national identity can distract us from the need for individuals, one at a time, to hear and respond to the Gospel. At its most extreme, blended Christianity and nationalism – confronted by a changing culture – can produce the offspring of fear and anger: cult-like and white supremacist movements.

When Christians rise up in fury over the end of organized school prayer, the expulsion of nativity scenes from public property, or the stripping of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse wall, what is the goal? For the government to rescue the faith? We’ve seen culture override constitutional law, but we shouldn’t reach for earthly laws to recapture a culture that’s running from God. It doesn’t work, and we’re putting our faith in the wrong thing. We have a constitutional right to practice our beliefs, and we should defend that, but see that we don’t get bogged down trying to regain privileges that were never constitutionally ours. God, not the government, is our ultimate protector and defender.

In God* We Trust

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7 (KJV)

This election season, millions of Christian voters will again look for candidates who tick the right boxes on social and cultural issues dear to Christian hearts. They will find their candidates, vote for them, and in many cases be disappointed.

I say this as a Christian who has voted Republican more often than not, and likely will again: It’s an open secret in political circles that many Republicans play Christians like the proverbial violin. They make promises they can’t or don’t plan to keep on issues that will attract votes.

There is a whiff of fear in Christian voters’ search for a political savior, and it says more about where their trust is than about the state of our society. If you are trusting the government to bend secular values to spiritual truth, then yes, be afraid. Progress might appear to happen here and there, but the worldly tide of history is flowing the other way.

The Bible doesn’t promise Christians a government guided by their values. “In God we trust” looks great on our bills and coins, and it’s a fine sentiment as long as we believe it with no asterisks. Our trust shouldn’t depend on whether God is giving us the government we want.

God permits governments to exist, and we are to obey them unless the civil law compels us to violate God’s law: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority…” (1 Peter 2:13, NIV). But civil government belongs to the world system, and the world system opposes God’s authority – hates it, in fact. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” Jesus said (John 15:18, NIV).

What will happen if Christians “lose” on gay marriage, school prayer, public Christmas displays or whatever other issues set the evangelical blood boiling? Well, God will still be God, and right will still be right, and our job will still be to speak the truth in love.

And what will it mean if Christians “win”? It would be nice to think revival will be at hand, and perhaps it could be. But more likely some critical mass of politicians will have learned to fear the Christian voting bloc, which is not the same as respect. And people outside the faith will live as before, though with an overlay of resentment where Christian ways of living have been forced on them.

This is not a call for Christians to drop out politically. Pray over your vote and, as the Bible commands, pray for your leaders. If you find candidates who authentically seem to represent the right values, vote for them, give to them, even work for them. But if you find yourself cheering for “your” candidate’s attack ads, or sniping at the opposition in online forums, it’s time for a hard look at where your heart is.

If your candidate’s walk while in office matches the talk on the campaign trail, all the better. But if your choice disappoints, there is no place for despair or fear. Your hope is not in that person anyway, and fear will only make you an angry Christian who lashes out at every perceived threat.

It’s a long way from writing God’s law into civil statutes, to writing it in individual hearts. The former will do little or nothing to accomplish the latter. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. I haven’t seen Him on any ballots lately.

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