reason4thehope

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Archive for the tag “Voting”

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

The Answer is Yes

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“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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