Hauerwas — How Real is America’s Christianity?

Professor Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University’s Divinity School is a man who enjoys probing questions and has a habit of irritating the faithful. In a recent edition of The Guardian, London’s famed newspaper of record for the political Left, Hauerwas assured Britons that, contrary to popular reports, America is not so religious. As a matter of fact, he argues that America is actually more secular than Great Britain.

Now, that runs counter to just about all evidence and common sense. Sociological studies indicate that Americans report far higher rates of belief in God and identification with Christianity. Americans attend church at rates that dwarf those of Britons — so much so that America ranks as one of the most religious societies on earth, while the United Kingdom is one of the least. The data is so overwhelming that sociologists have had to explain what is often called American “exceptionalism” when it comes to secularization. America is profoundly unsecular.

So, is Hauerwas nuts? Not likely. He is a provocateur, however, and he means to provoke some thinking here.

The immediate background to the Hauerwas article in The Guardian was the selection of Ed Miliband as the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Miliband is an atheist, and as Hauerwas admits, that would be virtually unthinkable in the United States. “Indeed, it seems to be a requirement of political office in America that you believe in God,” he acknowledges.

He then writes: “In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.”

He is no doubt right about this, and this is evidence of the power of “civil religion,” which is not to be confused with biblical Christianity. Britain and most of Europe also had a well-established version of civil religion until the period between the two world wars. In Germany, a tragic form of civil religion served the cause of the Nazi regime.

Hauerwas continues:

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing. Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Now, there is much in that paragraph to appreciate. Hauerwas wants to make a clear distinction between authentic theism and its counterfeits. Any serious-minded Christian should agree with the necessity of this distinction.

At the same time, one of the difficulties of Hauerwas’s framing of the issue is what appears to be his lack of appreciation for lay Christianity and what some sociologists now define as “lived religion.” While I find Stanley Hauerwas to be unfailingly provocative as a thinker, I go away from the experience of reading his books with the firm impression that the Christian in the pew is just not to be trusted as really believing much of anything. I share his concern to reject civil religion as true Christianity, but I cannot share his dismissive approach to the faith of millions in the pews, who may not be theologians, but who are faithful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

For You, A Video on Reading

I had the honor of joining a panel of great friends at the 2010 RESOLVED conference in Palm Springs. I was asked about reading. Here is the video:

I will hope to see you at RESOLVED 2011. See www.resolved.org

Life — Not Only for “the Perfect, the Privileged, and the Planned”

One of America’s most brilliant voices on behalf of the unborn is now silent. Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from the Harvard Medical School, died on October 15 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When the infamous Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, Dr. Jefferson was stunned and outraged. She saw the decision not only as a direct assault upon the unborn, but also upon the ethics of her cherished profession. She later told the U.S. Congress that the decision “gave my profession an almost unlimited license to kill.”

Throughout her long life, Dr. Jefferson remained a stalwart defender of the unborn, and she was a sworn enemy of the Culture of Death. A surgeon, she dedicated her life to preserving and extending the lives of others. She was bracingly honest about what abortion meant for the medical profession:

“With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family,” Dr. Jefferson told Congress, “the state must be enabled to protect the life of the child, born and unborn.”

She once summarized her sense of urgency with these words: “I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.”

Rarely do we encounter such moral clarity matched to such personal courage.

Boys to Men — A Revealing Angle from the World of Advertising

The “Sunday Styles” section of The New York Times is often a useful barometer of the culture. On October 17, that section featured a front-page spread entitled, “From Boys to Men,” and the article is a sign of something larger than mere fashion and advertising.

Reporter Guy Trebay explains that advertisers have shifted their images of male identity from the “skinny skate-rat” of recent years to real and recognizable men. Trebay credits Hedi Slimane of Dior men’s wear for inventing the boy image so prevalent in recent culture. Images of skinny youths with slightly (or more than slightly) androgynous appearances have dominated. Trebay describes this pattern as “designer subversions of age and gender expectations.”

But now, a far more masculine and traditional model of manhood is showing up in advertisements and media images. Joe Levy, editor in chief of Maxim, a magazine that skirts the edge between the traditional men’s magazine and pornography, attributes the shift to economic factors. In other words, when unemployment threatens, skinny skate-rat images bring no comfort. Instead, men who look like they might actually hold a job are back in style.

You will love how Trebay describes the trajectory of the new man-in-demand: “You lose the T-shirt and the skateboard. You buy an interview suit and a package of Gillette Mach 3 blades. You grow up, in other words.”

That is a classic statement that deserves great prominence. The crisis of delayed manhood for so many boys and young men is now well documented, and the larger culture reflects this phenomenon. Advertising does not rule the world, but it is a powerful indicator of the cultural direction. Advertisers make it their business to know where the culture is headed. This new trend can only be seen as good news, even if it does not yet represent any profound recovery of sanity in the society.

One important aspect of this report ties directly to a vital aspect of biblical masculinity — the reality and value of a man’s work. These advertisers are not shifting merely to older and more rugged males, but to men who look like they just might be able to hold a job and do it well.

That is a healthy and promising dimension of this new development. One statement from this article deserves to be imprinted on the male brain: “You grow up, in other words.”

Evolution and the Empty Nest Syndrome

Michael Shermer publishes Skeptic magazine, teaches at Claremont Graduate University, and writes a regular column for Scientific American. He is an ardent defender of evolutionary theory and a well-known critic of all supernatural claims. In today’s edition of USA Today, Shermer writes about the “empty nest syndrome” — the difficulty many parents face when their offspring go off to college.

While this has always been a difficult time for parents, in recent years many parents seem to be having a more difficult time than usual. Some colleges report that parents have to be told to go home. One college reported about a mother who slept in her daughter’s dorm room for a couple of nights until the girl’s roommate complained to school authorities.

Shermer has now experienced the “empty nest syndrome” for himself, as his daughter began her college studies just over a month ago. He clearly misses his daughter. And yet, how does he explain this experience?

He writes: “Why does it hurt so bad? Science has an answer: We are social mammals who experience deep attachment to our fellow friends and family, an evolutionary throwback to our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days of living in small bands.”

You read that right. Shermer reduces the love of a parent for a child to “an evolutionary throwback.” He adds to this a physiological theory:

We parents can’t help feeling this way, and neuroscience explains why. Addictive chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin surge through the brain and body during positive social interactions (especially touch). This causes us to feel closer to one another. Between parents and offspring, it cements a bond so solid that it is broken only under the most unusual (and usually pathological) circumstances.

He concludes with words that can hardly be described as sentimental. “Each of us parents makes one small contribution to the evolutionary imperative of life’s continuity from one generation to the next,” he suggests.

Rarely is the sterility and bleakness of the evolutionary worldview displayed with such candor. The love of a parent for a child is reduced to an evolutionary factor that works through a physiological process of chemical interactions in the brain.

If evolution is true, it must explain everything. Michael Shermer’s article demonstrates just how unsatisfying that explanation is.

Four Views of God? Another Look at the Baylor Study

Does America worship four different gods? Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today gives considerable attention to a recent study undertaken by two sociologists at Baylor University. The professors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, report their findings in a new book, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us.

The angle USA Today took is both predictable and interesting. With an important election date before us and with any number of issues dividing Americans, any argument that puts these questions into clearer focus is likely to gain attention. Froese and Bader argue that Americans cluster around four different understandings of God. They identify these “four gods” as the “Authoritarian God,” the “Benevolent God,” the “Critical God,” and the ‘Distant God.”

You can pretty much figure this scheme out for yourself, but the Authoritarian God is a deity of divine judgment, revealed truth, and moral precepts. The Benevolent God is loving and non-judgmental. The Critical God is a deity of delayed judgment and little engagement with the world. The Distant God is the god of Deism — a deity who created the world but is really a distant force in the cosmos.

Now, the front-page placement of the story in USA Today can be traced to what Froese and Bader assert are the likely moral and political postures taken by those who believe in each of these four gods. In the main, the big issues divide those who follow the Authoritarian God and the Benevolent God.

The big theological problem with this scheme is that it is a pure abstraction. The God of the Bible is unquestionably authoritative, but He is also loving, merciful, and truly benevolent. He is transcendent, but He also actively rules over his creation and creatures. No theologian would argue against the notion that an individual’s concept of God is largely determinative of all subsequent thought and mental operations. But the easy division of America’s religious diversity into these four arbitrary categories is more unhelpful than helpful.

Hats off to USA Today for its coverage of this research and book. The front-page exposure of this story indicates that this paper still believes that theological issues are important and worthy of primary attention.

We will not answer to four gods, but to the triune God of the Bible. This new research out of Baylor is interesting, but more for its political and social implications than for any serious theological consideration.

Evolution: When Atheists and Baptists Agree?

Writing at “On Faith,” a joint project of The Washington Post and Newsweek, Rachel Held Evans calls for me to stop arguing against evolution and get with the program. She takes particular aim at this statement I made at the 2010 Ligonier Ministries National Conference: “The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures.”

Evans, author of Evolving in Monkey Town, a memoir about growing up in Dayton, Tennessee, scolds me for presenting the theory of evolution as inherently contradictory to Scripture. Furthermore, she insists that the net effect of my opposition to evolution will be an exodus of evangelical young people who will believe me when I insist that this contraction is irreconcilable. She accuses me of presenting a “false dichotomy.”

She writes further:

Mohler would be wise to consider the words of St. Augustine, who, (centuries before anyone had heard of common descent), said this of his interpretation of Genesis: “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

There are few figures so influential in my own thinking as Augustine, and his wise counsel about allowing the plain texts of Scripture to interpret the more obscure is inherently healthy. But it is Rachel Held Evans who must bear the responsibility to explain how any acceptance of evolution can avoid “prejudice to the faith we have received.”

Her glib and superficial endorsement of evolution and its reconciliation with Christianity is all too common and all too irresponsible. If she is going to quote Augustine, she should deal with the consequences. How are we to reconcile the absence of an historical Adam, for example, with Paul’s very clear and unambiguous affirmation of Adam’s headship and its centrality to the gospel? The age of the earth is not the central question, though it is an unavoidable and important question.

Most of those who urge a reconciliation of evolution and the Christian faith do so at the most superficial level, without ever acknowledging the near-total transformation of Christian theology that must result if serious minds ask the serious questions and do the serious work of actually thinking seriously.

The impact of evolution on the Christian gospel cannot be reduced to “both an old earth and a loving God.” That just does not represent intellectual honesty. Those who think responsibly about these questions must deal directly with the theological implications — something totally missing from Rachel Held Evans’ article.

She is frustrated that atheists and Baptists (to use her terminology) agree that evolution and Christianity are incompatible. She may be frustrated, but on this score the atheists and the biblical Christians are both correct, and both understand what is at stake.

The Black Church and the Prosperity Gospel

The scandals surrounding Atlanta’s Bishop Eddie Long now center on allegations of sexual immorality put forth by four young men who had been teenagers under his ministry. But previous attention had been directed at the financial elements of his ministry at Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

Eddie Long is a teacher of prosperity theology, a perverse distortion of the gospel that transforms the message of Christ into a message of secular salvation through wealth and prosperity. Scholars of the movement have studied why it is that poor, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised people seem so drawn to a false gospel that leaves them poor but makes their preachers wealthy. They seem to find encouragement and hope, even a source of pride, in a pastor who preaches prosperity and lives in ostentatious wealth, even as they contribute their own meager funds.

The Bible is clear in warning against false prophets who preach false gospels and those who would use spiritual authority for their own wealth. The world is scandalized by the false promises of prosperity, and believers in Christ should be just as scandalized about this false promise. But Christians should be far more concerned about the eternal consequences of prosperity theology — its false promise of salvation through financial abundance, of health and wealth through the exercise of “seed faith.” Missing from the prosperity gospel is the message of salvation through faith in Christ alone — a salvation that makes every believer unspeakably wealthy in the grace of Christ but does not promise earthly riches or unblemished physical health.

Writing in the “Houses of Worship” column in today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, DeForest B. [“Buster”] Soaries, Jr., pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, writes of the scandal of the prosperity gospel and its popularity among African American churches:

The prosperity gospel—the idea that God guarantees truly faithful believers physical health and financial wealth—is not new. But cable and satellite television broadcasting have turned prosperity preachers into celebrities that have followings similar to musicians and movie stars. A movement and a theology that once seemed like an aberration among black churches now appears to be mainstream.

He writes further:

Teaching that desire for more material possessions is a sign of one’s religious piety is simply offering a justification for crass consumerism. Prosperity theology elevates greed to a virtue instead of leaving it as one of the seven deadly sins.

Of course, it is much easier for clergy to preach this gospel when they are living proof that the “system” works. Hence the celebrity-like lifestyles of so many religious leaders. The fact that the people most likely to do well in the prosperity gospel movement are the people at the top suggests that it is all an ecclesiastical pyramid scheme.

Soaries seems mostly concerned in this article about the false promises of wealth and the economic effects of these teachings on African Americans. All Christians should share his outrage and know that prosperity theology is found among all races and ethnicities. The television screens are filled with their messages and heresies.

But the central problem with prosperity theology is that is is a false gospel. The prosperity preachers do not promise too much. They promise all the wrong things.

Of course, The Wall Street Journal is an interesting place to find an article on prosperity theology. The editors of that famous newspaper know what leads to financial wealth — that is their business — and they know that prosperity theology leads into deeper poverty. It’s only those at the top who drive the expensive cars and ride in private jets.

It Takes a Court to Define Sin?

When a scandal breaks in the media, attention to previous scandals comes almost as a reflex. With accusations swirling around Atlanta’s Bishop Eddie Long, the media have turned back to Ted Haggard, who, at the time of his own scandal, was pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a large independent mega-church, and president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Haggard resigned in 2006 after a male prostitute accused him of paying for sex and buying drugs. Confronted by the media, Haggard admitted to “sexual immorality” with the prostitute. Just last year, he admitted also to having engaged in “sexual immorality” with a male volunteer at New Life Church when the man was twenty-two, echoing the accusations against Bishop Long. In recent months, Ted Haggard has started a new church in Colorado Springs.

What makes all of this so instructive are comments made in the press by both Ted Haggard and his wife, Gayle. In light of the accusations against Long, Haggard told AOL News: “Nobody’s guilty until the court says he’s guilty.”

Nobody’s guilty until the court says he’s guilty?

In a legal context, that might have some cogency, but a church cannot possibly settle for this as a principle of how to deal with accusations of sin. The church does not need the courts to define either sin or its remedy. Haggard’s statement is particularly troubling given his own story.

On TV’s “Inside Edition,” Gayle Haggard said that Bishop Long “has been a great man. … He has done wonderful things. I hope they hold onto that knowledge as they try to understand what these allegations are about, if they are indeed true.”

The bizarre part of that statement is her encouragement to the church that it remember Bishop Long as a great man and “hold onto that knowledge as they try to understand what these allegations are about, if indeed they are true.”

Well, if true, I think we all know “what these allegations are about.”

The Prior Scandal — An Absence of Accountability

The expanding scandal now associated with Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta is only the latest to dominate the nation’s media attention. Four young men have filed lawsuits against Bishop Long, accusing him of trading gifts for sexual favors while they were still teenagers. Long told his massive congregation yesterday that he would fight the charges like David fighting Goliath.

But, as Tom Breen of the Associated Press reports, the larger issue here is the lack of accountability in many Christian ministries and independent mega-churches.

As he reports:

It’s too early to say whether the sex allegations against Bishop Eddie Long, the famed pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, will spur the kind of soul-searching that followed the downfall of the Rev. Ted Haggard in Colorado.

Regardless, pastors and experts say the Long case demonstrates how vulnerable the country’s independent churches still are to being damaged by the misbehavior — sexual, financial or otherwise — of leaders whose considerable influence often comes with temptation and little accountability.

The prior scandal in so many of these cases is the lack of accountability in these ministries. Many of these independent mega-church pastors are de facto dictators, totally without accountability structures. The congregations lack the discipline of a denomination, and the pastors or leaders often lack any accountability at all.

At the end of Breen’s article, Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School points to the congregation as the instrument of accountability. Breen writes:

“The main check on leadership that goes berserk is really the congregation,” said Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox, an expert on Pentecostal and charismatic churches. “You’ve got to keep the congregation with you, or they can toss you out.”

Well, the problem is that these ministries are built on charismatic leadership, so the congregation rarely tosses any leader out, regardless of behavior. In a confrontation with a Senate committee, Bishop Long was asked if he, rather than the church’s board of directors, was in actual control. We are about to find out.

What about at your church?

On Getting Boys to Read

There is ample documentation to prove that boys are falling behind in reading skills at virtually every age level. In many cases, boys are semi-literate at best, and many never develop adequate reading skills. They never know the pleasures of a book.

Writing in today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, publisher Thomas Spence offers helpful advice and insight in “How to Raise Boys Who Read.” After expressing appreciation for the fact that many authorities and parents now recognize the problem, Spence asserts: “The bad news is that many of them have perfectly awful ideas for solving it.”

He writes:

Everyone agrees that if boys don’t read well, it’s because they don’t read enough. But why don’t they read? A considerable number of teachers and librarians believe that boys are simply bored by the “stuffy” literature they encounter in school. According to a revealing Associated Press story in July these experts insist that we must “meet them where they are”—that is, pander to boys’ untutored tastes.

For elementary- and middle-school boys, that means “books that exploit [their] love of bodily functions and gross-out humor.” AP reported that one school librarian treats her pupils to “grossology” parties. “Just get ’em reading,” she counsels cheerily. “Worry about what they’re reading later.”

Spence isn’t buying that argument, and for good reason. It turns out that boys are not finding an easy path from the “gross-out” books to the love of reading.

There are several enemies of reading in the lives of boys. The educational system is largely feminized, and boys are often not challenged. We must remember that boys have always been boys, as the saying goes. There is nothing in the constitutional makeup of boys that is opposed to reading. Generations of boys grew to love books and lost themselves in stories, adventures, historical biographies, and the like.

The most direct enemies of reading in the lives of today’s boys are video games and digital media. These devices crowd out time and attention at the expense of reading. Spence cites one set of parents who tried to bribe their 13-year-old son to read by offering video games as a reward. Spence is exactly right — don’t reward with video games. Instead, take the games away. If parents do not restrict time spent with digital devices, boys will never learn to read and to love reading.

In another interesting section, Spence cites C. S. Lewis, who expressed agreement with both Aristotle and Plato in arguing, without apology, that boys must be trained in matters of taste. Lewis wrote: “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

That is worth savoring, especially if you have those little human animals in your house.

The Survival of the Book — A Word from James Billington

James H. Billington, the nation’s Librarian of Congress, writes in today’s edition of The Washington Post about the survival of books. The occasion is the 10th anniversary of the National Book Festival on Saturday. As the day approaches, Billington answered the question some might be asking — will the book survive in the digital age?

Billington writes:

Why, you may ask, celebrate books at a time when everything is going digital? Certainly the book business is in a transitional state like all print media. But books are not going away. New technologies tend to supplement rather than supplant older ones. Television did not destroy radio; the VCR and DVD players did not keep people from movie theaters. While the technologies we use to read books may change, the value of reading them does not; and the values of the book culture that helped create our nation must not be left behind. In an era of 140-character messages and the increasing destruction of the basic unit of civilized discourse (the sentence), it is critical that we continue to encourage the production and reading of books.

It is good, even essential, that the Librarian of Congress would defend the book against its detractors. But it is also important that he understands the digital revolution and the usefulness of electronic readers.

“Both electronic and analog media will have their place in the future of reading and research. Electronic books offer the ability to pinpoint a word or phrase in seconds, and there is a tsunami of information and much new knowledge on the Internet,” he writes. Yet, the printed book is still the best medium for most reading.

It is not news that the Librarian of Congress would defend books, but it is noteworthy that he would defend them in this way . . . and so well.

What Would Luther Say? — A Church Apologizes for Church Discipline

The great moral revolution on the issue of homosexuality collides with the total surrender of a liberal denomination, and the result is the church’s apology for having once stood on biblical grounds. That was the picture just a few days ago, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America welcomed three lesbian ministers into the clergy roster through a “Rite of Reception” ceremony held last Saturday at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As the Star Tribune reported: “In a ceremony that started with a public mea culpa and ended with a prolonged standing ovation, three lesbian ministers were officially embraced Saturday by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.”

This comes in the wake of the denomination’s vote this past summer to rescind a policy that prevented clergy in homosexual relationships from being listed on the church’s official clergy roster. Since then, conservatives have moved to organize a new Lutheran denomination.

The most interesting part of the “Rite of Reception” was a confession voiced by the congregation. Look closely at this:

We have fallen short in honoring all people of God and being an instrument for that grace. . . .We have disciplined, censured and expelled when we should have listened, learned and included.

That’s right — the church actually confessed the “sin” of having once stood on biblical ground and the “sin” of exercising church discipline.

Given their new policy on homosexuality, it is the one who affirms the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality that is called to repent, rather than the unrepentant homosexual.

What would Martin Luther say? It would doubtless be colorful and thunderous. But here is something he did say that fits the situation perfectly:

“You should not believe your conscience and your feelings more than the word which the Lord who receives sinners preaches to you.”

Damon Linker Offers a Religious Test — From the Left

One of the illusions of modernist thinking is that religious beliefs can be sanitized and separated from public life. The experience of humanity disproves that theory, but it nevertheless remains something of a sacred precept within the intellectual elites — a sector of society most prone to believing that religious convictions ultimately do not matter.

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of his speech, I argued once again against the position taken by John F. Kennedy when he spoke to a gathering of ministers during the 1960 presidential race. Sen. Kennedy spoke eloquently about his hope that his religious beliefs would be a private matter and his affirmation that he would keep them so. [See my article here.] This was a pledge that could be made only by someone who would straightforwardly say that his faith was not, in essence, a significant part of his intellectual framework.

In general, the political Left has tenaciously held to the Kennedy formula. But next week a book appears that might well reset that equation. Writing from the political Left, Damon Linker argues that religious convictions do matter — and matter a great deal.

His new book, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, is due out next week. We can gain a taste of what is coming through a major opinion piece he contributed to Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post.

Here is a crucial excerpt:

Every religion is radically particular, with its own distinctive beliefs about God, human history and the world. These are specific, concrete claims — about the status of the religious community in relation to other groups and to the nation as a whole, about the character of political and divine authority, about the place of prophecy in religious and political life, about the scope of human knowledge, about the providential role of God in human history, and about the moral and legal status of sex. Depending on where believers come down on such issues, their faith may or may not clash with the requirements of democratic politics.

That is a classic paragraph that will be hard for anyone to refute — unless you still believe that religion and public life can be neatly divided.

Now, Linker calls for the deregulation of sexual morality, and these controversial issues frame the urgency of his argument. I will take a closer look at his book next week.

A Favorite Quote from Jimmy Carter’s Diaries

The publication this week of White House Diary, the edited diary entries of former President Jimmy Carter, is a signal event in the publishing world. The book really is as interesting as expected, and much is revealed about Jimmy Carter and his times. I couldn’t help thinking that I would really like to read the entries that did not make it into this book, but I have enjoyed the book as it is.

One thing is for certain — only Jimmy Carter could have written this book. The real Jimmy Carter shows through on virtually every page.

Here is my favorite quote from the book, from the entry dated January 22, 1980:

I had a breakfast with evangelical leaders. They’re really right-wing: against ERA, for requiring prayer in school, against abortion (so am I), want publicly committed evangelicals in my cabinet, against the White House Conference on Families. In spite of all these negative opinions, they are basically supportive of what I am trying to do.

I think that redefines “basically supportive.”

When Telling the Truth “Isn’t a Risk Worth Taking”

Writing at The Los Angeles Times, Professor Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School argues that American presidents often do not get far ahead of public opinion on controversial matters — especially on matters of moral combat.

In making his case, Klarman argues that President Abraham Lincoln “was a relative latecomer to the abolitionist cause,” driven by Union losses on the battlefield to free the slaves. He argues further that Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy worked slowly on the issue of civil rights. Kennedy, he asserts, did not move to support civil rights within the first two years of his presidency because he needed the political support of conservative Democrats in order to achieve re-election.

Writing on “The Political Risks of Supporting Gay Rights,” Klarman explains that President Bill Clinton ran on a platform to eliminate the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, but he was forced to compromise after facing opposition from the military and congressional leaders. President Barack Obama, he reports, ran on a platform to eliminate all discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation but resisted any affirmation of same-sex marriage. Klarman attributes the President’s position to political necessity and polling.

In two very interesting paragraphs, he writes:

Public opinion on gay marriage has continued to evolve since 2004, when the nation opposed it by a margin of roughly 2 to 1. Most recent polls still show majority opposition, but the margin has shrunk to less than 10 percentage points. One well-respected statistician has estimated that by 2012 or 2013, a majority of people in a majority of states will support gay marriage.

Should Obama be reelected in 2012, he almost certainly will endorse gay marriage during his second term. By then, a majority of Americans, and an overwhelming majority of Democrats, will support the practice. Could Obama shift his position before 2012 without endangering his chances at a second term? Possibly.

Klarman’s analysis is interesting, but his prediction is fascinating. He openly predicts that President Obama “almost certainly will endorse gay marriage during his second term,” and he attributes the President’s current lack of open support for same-sex marriage to political necessity.

Klarman concludes:

But in many of the states that proved to be battlegrounds in the 2008 presidential campaign — Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida — majorities still oppose same-sex marriage. A presidential pronouncement in favor would rally conservative opposition and could prove crucial to some swing voters. For many political progressives who believe that the issue already may have cost Democrats one presidential election (and, with it, two Supreme Court appointments), the risk isn’t worth taking.

We can only wonder: how many politicians on both the right and the left take their positions based on such a political calculation? Apparently, for far too many, the risk of telling the truth “isn’t worth taking.”

Marriage in a Post-Proposition 8 Culture

What is the church’s role and responsibility on the issue of marriage in a time of revolution and social turmoil? We discussed this question in a panel format today. I was joined by guests Dr. Russell Moore, Pastor Eric Bancroft, and Dr. Barrett Duke. I think you will find the discussion to be interesting.

John F. Kennedy in Houston, Fifty Years Later

On September 12, 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States, went to Texas and addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance. The background to Kennedy’s speech was ardent opposition to his Catholicism and accusations that, if elected, he would be controlled by Catholic authorities. Against the advice of many of his own senior staff, Kennedy decided to face the issue head-on, and to do so in a context that was anything but friendly.

Kennedy’s speech is one of the most memorable of his political career, and it may have been essential to his narrow victory over Vice President Richard M. Nixon just a few weeks later. And yet, what strikes us now is that this speech actually set the stage for a very unfortunate turn in national politics.

In essence, Senator Kennedy argued that his Roman Catholic faith would not be a consequential matter in his political life. He stated:

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

Note his assertion that his religious convictions “should be important only to me,” and thus of no public consequence. In the most famous line of the speech, he said: “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.” In his book, The Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy points to that language of “happens to be” as the language of avoiding or denying significance to beliefs.

Looking back, the Houston speech was probably a political necessity for Kennedy. A careful reading of the text will reveal much to admire, as well as many areas of concern. But, in the end, the significance of this speech lies in its role as the paradigm for so many that would follow, in which politicians and public figures would insist that their religious convictions and beliefs have no public consequence.

We must expect more than that. What we need is for politicians and candidates to tell us what they believe, and how this will be translated into a governing philosophy and moral/political decision-making. “Happens to be” is just not enough.

I May Be a Baptist, But I Am Not A Moron, Says Evolutionist

Writing at Discover.com, Chris Mooney responds to my critique of his essay in Monday’s USA Today. After citing my criticism of his argument that a vague “spirituality” will bridge the divide between science and religion, he reasserts his thesis: “That’s the power of spirituality. Religious or otherwise, it gets you outside the structure of an established church, and lets you decide what matters, and what has meaning. For some traditional religious leaders, I’m sure that’s a very scary prospect. For scientists, it’s the opposite. It meshes perfectly with their individuality.”

Well, neither side is buying his argument. The naturalistic scientists want nothing to do with what they see as a pandering to superstition, and those with any genuine theological convictions want nothing to do with a vacuous “spirituality.”

Interestingly, evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, has written a response to Mooney from his own perspective. In a lengthy essay, he rejects Mooney’s argument as unhelpful:

Scientists are not automatons.  Just like other people, we have emotions and feelings, and sometimes these are connected with our work.  If you want to call that “spirituality,” so be it.  But I don’t see how recognizing that both scientists and religious people feel emotions about their work or faith can heal the breach between them.  That breach is irreparable: it comes from the very different and irreconcilable methods that science and faith use to find truth—combined with the fact that science hasn’t buttressed the “truths” of faith nor has faith produced truths convergent with those of science.  Science is at war with faith because it shows that religious “truths” are bunk, and the faithful realize this.

In other words, mere “spirituality” will not heal the breach between naturalism and theism. Coyne cites my own critique of Mooney’s proposal as evidence that both sides in the argument see that Mooney’s emperor wears no clothes.

In a rather interesting section, he writes:

Mohler may be a Baptist, but he’s not a moron.  He knows that Mooney’s “spirituality” is just science dressed in faith’s clothing, and is still a threat. Mohler isn’t buying it, and neither will other religious people who oppose science.

So I am a Baptist but not a moron? Well, I will file that under awkward compliments.

1 4 5 6