For the Sake of the Kingdom: Redefining Retirement

The concept of retirement is rather recent in origins. Most historians trace the concept back to Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, who pushed through a series of social changes in the late 19th century. Among those changes was a system something like Social Security, intended as a guaranteed pension for the elderly.

Bismarck’s idea was that workers in Germany would need to give way so that younger men would be able to enter the workforce and support their families. The concept of retirement from the workforce took root, and by the mid-point of the 20th century, most American workers expected to retire at something close to age 65.

The contemporary ideal of retirement was a life of travel, leisure, golf, and time with grandchildren. In states like Florida, California, and Arizona, entire communities of retirees emerged. “Leisurevilles” advertised a concept of the good life that was free from employment and largely, if not exclusively, devoted to withdrawal from the world of all work.

These communities are now in trouble. The concept of retirement is now changing, brought about by the economic recession that has propelled many older Americans back into the workforce. As Laura Vanderkam reports in USA Today:

After decades of decline, the labor force participation rate among people older than 65 rose from a low of 10.7% in 1987 to more than 17% now. Nearly a third of those ages 65-69 are working or looking for work, up from less than 20% in the 1980s, and surveys of Baby Boomers find that many don’t intend to retire immediately either.

We will likely look back on the period between 1950 and 2000 as the Era of Retirement. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, the expectation was that workers would probably live an average of 5-8 years after retirement. But the extension of the human lifespan during the last half of the 20th century meant that retirement could easily last for twenty years, and often even longer. Now, those who live to age 65, Vanderkam reports, “can quite reasonably expect to live to age 85 or more.”

Here is the key sentence in Vanderkam’s essay: “The notion that work is something you want to stop doing is getting a makeover as well.” It’s about time.

The Bible dignifies both labor and age, but the modern American ideal of retirement is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures. Instead, lives of useful service to the Kingdom of Christ are the expectation, all the way to the grave.

The economic crisis of recent years has forced many Americans to rethink and redefine retirement as a matter of necessity. For Christians, this represents an important opportunity. The ideal for Christians should be redeployment, even after employment. There is so much Kingdom work to be done, and older believers are desperately needed in this great task. There are missionaries to be assisted, ministries to be energized, young couples to be counseled, boys without fathers to be mentored, and wisdom and experience to be shared. The possibilities for Christian redeployment are endless.

There is room in the Christian life for leisure, but not for a life devoted to leisure. As long as we have the strength and ability to serve, we are workers needed in Christ’s Kingdom. Given the needs and priorities all around us, who would settle for life in Leisureville?

The Morning After — What Does it All Mean?

Evangelicals tend to swing between extremes when it comes to politics and elections. We are too easily elated and too readily depressed. Make no mistake. The election results of 2010 will lead to big changes in Washington and far beyond. That in itself is good news. But all this must be put in a truly Christian context.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Homosexuality and the Military — What’s Really at Stake?

Unless something alters the political context, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is about to become history, and the U.S. military is about to be changed forever. The summer of 2010 may well turn out to be a watershed season in this nation’s life and history. Is anyone paying attention?

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Empire of Liberty — When America Became American

Gordon S. Wood is one of the most influential historians writing in the field of American history today. His reputation will only be enhanced with the publication of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815,  the newest volume in “The Oxford History of the United States.” Wood has written a massive work of over 750 pages, tracing the life of the early Republic and the transformation of America in what amounts to its national adolescence. “By 1815 Americans had experienced a transformation in the way they related to one another and in the way they perceived themselves and the world around them,” Wood observes.

Americans tend to jump from the Revolution to the Civil War with little concern for the period Wood so thoroughly covers in this volume. And yet, America came of age during those years, developing political habits, establishing a national identity, and claiming more new territory than had been claimed during the entire colonial period.

During this period, America left behind its British identity and forged a new American ideal. It was the Age of Jackson and of the notion of the average American as “a new man.” It was also the age of the Second Great Awakening and the transformation of American Christianity. As Wood notes, many of the changes that occurred on the American religious landscape during this period continue to be determinative today.

Empire of Liberty is an important work that is both encyclopedic in scope and incisive in judgment. His treatment of religion during this period, though theologically thin, is genuinely interesting. Evangelical readers should supplement Wood’s volume with Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Religion and Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism.

An excerpt from Wood:

This Second Great Awakening was a radical expansion and extension of the earlier eighteenth-century revivals. It was not just a continuation of the first awakening of the mid-eighteenth century. It was more evangelical, more ecstatic, more personal, and more optimistic. It did not simply intensify the religious feelings of existing church members. More important, it mobilized unprecedented numbers of people who previously had been unchurched and made them members of religious groups. By popularizing religion as never before and by extending religion into the remotest areas of America, the Second Great Awakening marked the beginning of the republicanizing and nationalizing of American religion. It transformed the entire religious culture of America and laid the foundations for the development of an evangelical religious world of competing denominations unique to Christendom.

“Tear Down This Wall” — A Book for Leaders

Communication is one of the central tasks of leadership. No one seemed to know this like Ronald Reagan. Much like Winston Churchill, President Reagan understood the power of words and the opportunity of a great speech.

On June 12, 1987, President Reagan delivered the 1,279th speech of his presidency. He stood at the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall and called for the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to take down the wall.

Well into his speech, the President said:

We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.

Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

“Tear down this wall.” Those four words, now so memorable, were words with effect. Just over two years later, the wall fell, torn down by a people tasting freedom.

In Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War, author Romesh Ratnesar, deputy managing editor of TIME magazine, tells the story of that speech and its delivery.

That story is nothing short of amazing. Ratnesar’s book takes the reader into a feverish debate at the very top levels of the American government. He tells of diplomats and other figures who sought at great length to prevent the President from speaking those four words. The diplomatic establishment feared that the President’s ultimatum would “embarrass” Gorbachev.

Ratnesar takes the reader into the times, into the White House, and into the mind of President Reagan. The book is a fascinating historical account. Leaders will be especially interested in Tear Down this Wall for its lessons in the strategic importance of words, a message, and the power of the spoken word.

From the book:

Reagan loathed the Wall. On a trip to West Berlin in 1978, he was taken to an eighth-floor office overlooking it and told the story of Peter Fechter, the youth who had been gunned down by East German police in 1962 as he tried to crawl over. The authorities left Fechter unattended for nearly an hour, while he bled to death. “Reagan just gritted his teeth when he heard all of this,” says Peter Hannaford, a longtime aide who was with Reagan that day. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look and some of the things he said that . . . he was very, very determined that this was something that had to go.