January 5, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, January 5, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Mormon dimension of Oregon standoff largely overlooked by national media
In the last several days, headlines have originated from a little town in rural Oregon. The town is Burns, Oregon, and it is currently the scene of a standoff between a militia and the United States Federal Government. The scene is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and a militia there has taken control of at least one federal building and has claimed that it will hold out even as it is highly armed and will hold out to the death unless the federal government releases at least two federal prisoners.
The leader of the militia is Ammon Bundy, who is leading the effort along with his brother and several other militia members who are believed to be from Nevada and Arizona. Why they chose this particular federal installment in Oregon is not yet clear, but what is clear is that this family has had a long-standing conflict with the United States Federal Government. The head of the family, the patriarch, is Cliven Bundy, who back in 2014 had a much publicized standoff with members of the federal government and its law enforcement authorities.Show Full Transcript
Now, the head of the effort is Ammon Bundy, and he and his brother Ryan are leading the militia men who have undertaken the siege of this remote federal facility in Oregon. According to members of the militia, the precipitating cause of this standoff and their occupation of the federal facility is the fact that prison sentences for arson, that is federal charges, against Dwight and Steven Hammond have been lengthened even after there had been a minimization of their sentences. The federal government appealed the fact that their sentences were lessened, and the federal government won the appeal, leading to longer prison term.
What’s really underneath the headlines is a long standing conflict between this militia and the federal government having to do with claims over western land rights, grazing rights for livestock, and a number of other issues. These issues are very much tied to the culture of the American West and legal scholars suggest that there are legal issues to be debated here. But those are legal issues that have to do with the relative authority of the federal government, claims of federal control over local control, and other issues that are both legal and political.
What’s clear right now for Christians is that this is a group that has violated Scripture in undertaking and armed insurrection against the United States government. Taking up arms against one’s nation is an act that declares that nation to be irredeemable and its government to be illegitimate. There is no justification for any such judgment against the United States of America, and that’s where biblically minded Christians have to remember the mandate we find in Scripture in Romans chapter thirteen.
But what’s also clear is that there are deep historical conflicts that have marked much of the West, and in particular the parts of the West from which these militiamen come. But what many in the media have missed is what is there right before our eyes, and that is this, there is a very interesting theological dynamic and a theological worldview behind this militia and its members. The first key, the first clue to understanding this, is the fact that the spokesman for the militia identifies himself as Captain Moroni. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the book of Mormon, with Mormon history and theology will recognize immediately the name Moroni.
As John Sepulvado of Oregon Public Radio reports, what is behind the Bundy militia’s worldview, is in his words,
“A particular brand of Mormonism.”
Sepulvado reminds us that the spokesman for the militia is identified as Captain Moroni. Then he writes,
“That name is not a silly response to deflect responsibility: In many ways, it encapsulates a deeply intertwined anti-federal sentiment mixed with Mormon symbolism. Captain Moroni is a crucial figure in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He’s also a heroic figure for anti-federalist extremists.
In the modern day west, Captain Moroni has become one of several powerful symbols for the Bundy militia’s anti-governmental extremism.”
Sepulvado goes on also to write,
“According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni invented weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allowed them to worship and govern as they saw fit.”
In the book of Mormon, Moroni is identified as a champion of liberty, and the book of Mormon says this,
“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”
Back in 2014, when the patriarch Cliven Bundy had his much-publicized run-in with the federal government, the members of the militia with him cited passages from the Book of Mormon centering on Captain Moroni. We should immediately interject that the Mormon authorities in the United States would have nothing to do with Cliven Bundy or his militia, but we also have to recognize that the Bundy’s are able to claim a very important theological and historical strain in Mormonism and in Mormon history. This goes back at least to one of the most important figures in Mormon history, Brigham Young, who was the man who headed the government of the territory known as Deseret that was a Mormon territory that at one point claimed more of the land mass in North America than any other government accepting the United States of America.
Later he became the Governor of the Utah territory, and that territory, of course, eventually became part of the United States of America. But Brigham Young made the argument—an argument now echoed by Cliven Bundy, Ammon Bundy, and others—that the United States Constitution is not the problem, rather it is those who are heading the government and those who are, they believe, violating the United States Constitution in abrogating their rights—rights to land, rights to grazing.
One of the interesting things going on here is the fact that Mormonism in its history has a deep reverence for the United States Constitution, and thus you have these who are militiamen in Oregon claiming that they are representing the rightful interpretation of the Constitution rather than the federal government. The pattern of championing at least the cause of the United States Constitution while opposing the United States government is one that does have deep roots in Mormon history, and at least arguably, in Mormon theology. The existence and identity of the United States of America is not a matter germane to Christian theology, but it is directly germane to Mormon theology, and that’s a very important issue here.
The Book of Mormon and associated Mormon writings claim that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Christ, visited, physically, North America during his earthly ministry. And furthermore, there is the claim that the indigenous Indians in the United States, Native Americans, were actually part of the lost tribes of Israel. Once again there are clues here that the national media should have noticed, the most glaring of these clues is the fact that the spokesman for the group identifies himself as Captain Moroni. But the leader of the militia himself, Ammon Bundy, should have been another clue, because Ammon is another name that appears in the book of Mormon. There is more here than meets the eye. There is certainly far more here than meets the secular eye, and one of the great issues in terms of our understanding of the media today is that it should tell us something, not just about what’s going on in Oregon, but what’s going on in the worldview of the secular media that so few have even noticed the very obvious theological issues that are at stake here. Once again, we have a graphic reminder that underneath virtually every headline is a theological dimension, and in this case the theological dimension is glaring and exceedingly apparent. Just ask that spokesman for the militiamen in Oregon who identifies himself as Captain Moroni.
Post-Christian Britain becoming hostile, not neutral, to its historic Christian roots
Next, shifting to England, The Telegraph has a very interesting report about what it calls the silencing of Christians in the public sector of Great Britain. John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor for The Telegraph, writes about the chief layman in the Church of England, he is known as the Church of England Secretary General, his name is William Nye. He described what he called a “secularizing spirit” that now permeates the machinery of the British government, leading to what he described as,
“An unspoken ‘squeezing out of Christianity’ from national life, despite public [says The Telegraph] expressions of support from David Cameron and other ministers.”
Mr. Nye made the argument that even as Britain has an established state church, most members of the British public would be surprised to know how much Christianity had been, again in his words, “squeezed out” of public life and of their government.
William Nye has a great deal of credibility and experience from which to draw in this assessment. He spent twenty years in a series of senior governmental posts, most recently he spent time as Principal Private Secretary to Britain’s Prince of Wales. He most recently has taken over this chief lay position in the Church of England. The Church of England, as The Telegraph reports, is undertaking a major program of renewal, but the background to this is the radical secularization of Britain and the fact that the Church of England has been losing members and is now closing churches routinely. One of Mr. Nye’s central points in the report in The Telegraph is the fact that, even as Britain has a state church and has historically understood Christianity to be central to its identity, there are many members of the British government who seem to have basically no knowledge of what Christianity even is, or the fact that some of their colleagues might actually be Christian.
Nye wrote about the pressure he felt while in government service not to talk about anything related to his personal Christian faith—this in a nation that is supposedly headed by the Queen who is the Supreme Head of the Church of England, a state with a state church. We should also note that, in general, it is governments with a state church who have fared most poorly when it comes to retaining Christian conviction; and that’s very clear in Britain. But what’s even more fundamentally clear is that Britain has become pervasively secularized, and this was made very apparent in a major study that was released to much fanfare and controversy in Great Britain at the very end of last year, 2015. According to this official report from a national commission,
“Britain is no longer a Christian country”
And as The Telegraph summarizes,
“Should stop acting as if it is.”
John Bingham and Steven Swinford, reporting for The Telegraph, tell us that this two-year commission involved leading religious leaders from all faiths, and it ended up calling for public life in Britain to be systemically de-Christianized. That’s an absolutely astounding proposal, and it is a huge—and hugely important—news story. The commission is known as the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life. It had been working for these two years, and no one seems to have expected anything like this radical report, which came from the commission at the end of the year.
The Church of England responded with horror at the report, claiming that the commission had been hijacked by humanists. But the reality is that the report has to be divided into two different sections: in one section, we can understand the report to be a very clear-headed analysis of just how secular Great Britain has become. And in terms of the trajectory of secular cultures, this should be important to all of us. As the report makes clear, a declining percentage of Britons have had anything to do with the Church of England, much less membership or participation for every recent decade. In more recent years, the membership of the church has plummeted, and participation in the church has reached the point that, not only does the Church of England not now represent a majority of Britons, it no longer, according to this report, even represents a majority of Christians in Britain.
In this more analytical dimension of the report, the commission went at the fact that Britain is becoming so secularized that many Britons no longer have any allegiance to Christianity whatsoever, and many have no ongoing identity as Christians in any way. And this has led to the commission’s second dimension, and that is the report’s call for what is described as the “de-Christianization of Britain.” The commission makes this proposal over against its judgment that Britain is becoming increasingly secular and on the other hand religiously diverse. Religious pluralism is another major factor in this report.
The commission calls for the de-Christianization of the country in terms of removing Christian symbols from public life and even changing the coronation service for the monarch, so that the monarch will no longer, as king or queen, be required to be Defender of the Faith, meaning the Christian faith, but rather the coronation service should be expanded to include all faiths, with the monarch representing all Britons. In one of the most controversial sections of the report, it calls for a complete openness on the part of Muslims in Great Britain to voice their opinions, and as The Telegraph said, it calls for a rethinking,
“Of anti-terror policy, including ensuring students can voice radical views on campus without fear of being reported to the security services.”
This is one of those commission reports that could very easily be missed in the United States. But this can’t be dismissed as something that is merely important to Great Britain. It’s one of those very important developments that tells us a great deal, not only about that culture, that nation, but about western civilization, western culture, and eventually about our own nation as well. The commission is controversial not only for the fact that it has released such a radical report, but for the fact that so many leading and influential Britons were either a part of the commission, or involved in the commission’s work. One of the most important of these is the last archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The current archbishop of Canterbury—that’s the spiritual head of the Church of England—Justin Welby, appeared before the commission, but the Church of England appears to have been astounded when the report of the commission was actually released. Very importantly, the commission falls just short of calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England, but effectively it calls for the disestablishment of Christianity in totality. In its most important section, the report calls for a new settlement, a new religious settlement, for Great Britain.
Now, in order to understand what that would mean, we have to understand that the current settlement goes back to Elizabeth I. That settlement established that Britain is a protestant country and that the Church of England is the official state church. But it also offered a degree of latitude to others including Separatists and Roman Catholics. Laying the groundwork for what it called a “new religious settlement” for Great Britain, the report stated,
“The increase in those with non-religious beliefs, the reduction in the number of Christians and an increase in their diversity, and the increase in the number of people identifying with non-Christian religions: these are the settled social contexts of Britain today and for the foreseeable future, as is the unsettled and unsettling context of the international environment.”
There are so many lessons for our observation here. In the first place we see the fact that, in the analytical section of this report, the commission is simply stating the obvious. Britain is a far-less Christian nation in any consideration than it was just a few decades ago, or than that it has been in any sense of British history. But now we’re looking at the reality that Britain is a pervasively secular country in which only a fraction of Britons have anything to do with the Church of England, and only a slightly larger percentage have anything to do with participation in any Christian denomination. This demonstrates, and should remind us, that a culture that had once been pervasively—and even officially—Christian can become very, very non-Christian and indeed secular in just a matter of time.
The other observation we need to make here is the hostility to historic Christianity that is reflected in this commission and in its report. This should underline for us the very important understanding that a post-Christian society is not neutral toward historic Christianity; it grows increasingly hostile to historic Christianity. And that’s exactly what we see in this report. The report may be shocking to the Church of England, but it’s shocking in terms of the reality it describes. Its proposals are indeed radical, and surely shocking to many, but these proposals rather naturally follow the assessment of just how secular Britain has become. There is a unique hostility to biblical historic Christianity, and even we should note, to the symbols—the historic symbols of Christianity—in a culture that was once Christian but has repudiated Christianity and distanced itself from its Christian identity and roots.
By any measure, the process of secularization has accelerated here in the United States. We do not have a state church, and we are a long way from the secular status of Great Britain today; but the question is this, for how long? And the reality is that we must see in this report the truth that the condition of being post-Christian means that a culture is increasingly hostile to Christianity, not merely indifferent to it.
Decline of Christianity in Europe sees rise in pagan spiritualism, not atheism
There is another angle on this that appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. It comes in a book review in the journal written by Naomi Schaefer Riley, and she is reviewing Rodney Stark’s new book, The Triumph of Faith. And what both Riley and Stark are trying to argue is that the world isn’t quite so secular as it appears. This would be good news if Christians were assured that all that’s important is that someone has religious beliefs. What both Riley and Stark do demonstrate is that, from the Christian worldview perspective, everyone does have religious beliefs. And sometimes even in a secular society those religious beliefs show through. Where I differ with these authors is an understanding that secularization doesn’t mean the total evacuation of all religious beliefs, it means in particular the displacement of theistic religion, of Christianity in particular.
But there is a point to be made here, and both Riley and Stark make that point very well. They point to secularized Europe, and they acknowledge that the churches there are empty. That’s an acknowledgement of the basic reality of secularization. But Stark goes on to point out that these very secularized people are not devoid of all religious beliefs. Naomi Schaefer Riley and Rodney Stark note that,
“In Austria, 28% of respondents say they believe in fortune tellers; 32% believe in some form of astrology; and 33% believe in lucky charms.”
Stark writes in his book that,
“More than 20% of Swedes believe in reincarnation, half believe in mental telepathy.”
Riley goes on to write,
“More than half of Icelanders believe in huldufolk, hidden people like elves and trolls.”
As these two authors argue, even if Europeans argue to be highly secularized, and in reality they are, they still hold to any number of supernatural beliefs—even bizarre supernatural beliefs. We should also note how many of these supernatural beliefs cited are actually rooted in historic paganism. On the one hand, all this is an affirmation of the point made over a century ago by G.K. Chesterton, basically the argument that when you cease to believe in something, you begin to believe in anything or you might say everything. But we also have an even more fundamental reality here, and that is one that is affirmed by the Christian worldview rooted in Scripture. And that is this: human beings, made in the image of God as spiritual beings, cannot be fundamentally unreligious. That’s simply impossible. They may be opposed to some specific religious truth claims—in the case of secularized Europeans, increasingly hostile to Christianity—but the reality is, they still hold to some supernatural beliefs. Or even if they are not described as supernatural, they are increasingly described and acknowledged as spiritual.
This point is actually made, in ironic form, by many of the leaders of the so-called new atheism who do their very best to argue for atheism and to argue for a consistent form of atheism, but they are having a very hard time staying consistent. Because even as they acknowledge a sense of wonder or a sense of something mystical—even as they may hold to what they consider to be a totally atheistic worldview—they have a very hard time actually holding consistently to that worldview over time.
Our secularizing cultures in the West in particular may be increasingly distant from Christianity, even hostile to Christianity, hostile to theism itself, but they are not truly unreligious. Just consider the resurgence of all kinds of spiritualties, even those rooted in paganism. Just remember that more than half of all Icelanders who say they believe in huldufolk, or that 32% of Austrians who believe in astrology, or 33% who believe in lucky charms. Once again we see that theology is all around us and Christians should understand that that is necessarily so, even if it’s not always apparent in the headlines.