Stephen Colbert Presents the Christian Gospel to Anderson Cooper

Here is the entire interview:

The stuff in the tweet below begins at about the 13:00 mark.

How Do We “Render Unto Caesar” in a Democracy?

CaesarThe following exchange takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22: 16-22.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.[b] 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.[c] 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Several Trump evangelicals are using this verse to justify their support for the POTUS.

Over at the Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz asks a question about coins:

So how might we hear Matthew 22:21 differently if we’re looking at the metallic relief of a long-dead president who held limited power for a relatively short period of time, rather than that of a living emperor with the hubris to believe himself a figure of unimpeachable power?

Great question.

Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, adds:

Perhaps we’d then hear “render unto Caesar” as a reminder that, if American Christians owe limited allegiance to any secular authority, they owe it to no one person, but to the American people, who govern themselves through elected representatives sworn to protect the Constitution. The same Constitution that keeps even presidents from benefiting financially from their position, from obstructing the work of those who investigate lawbreaking, or from inventing fake national emergencies in order to subvert the work of those who make laws.

So render to God what is God’s: your image-bearing self commanded to love other image-bearers. And render to Trump what is Trump’s: your responsibilities as an American citizen to dissent from unwise and unjust uses of American power and to hold American demagogues accountable for their attempts to play Caesar.

Read Gehrz’s entire piece here.  It deserves a wide readership, especially for his thoughts on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s use of this verse.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Miracles

No, this is not a post about sportscaster Al Michaels and his famous call of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team victory over the Soviets.

This is a post about actual miracles.  Over at Commonweal, noted biblical scholar and Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson makes a case for them.  Here is a taste:

The fourth element in recovering a sense of wonder about God’s presence and power in the world is embracing the truth-telling capacity of myth. Secularity’s success in shaping Christian consciousness is nowhere more evident than in the double-minded discomfort of educated believers with mythic language. We have been taught by our learned theologians that such language, in which divine forces are said to operate within the world, may have been appropriate for ancient people who knew no better, but cannot in good conscience be reconciled with a “scientific” worldview. Whatever is good and lasting in Scripture, they say, must be stripped of what is false about the construction of the world, so that what is true about God and humans might be saved. Others have gone further, observing that “God” is just as mythic as the three-decker universe, and all that Scripture ultimately teaches us is about the cosmic projection of human alienation and longing. All this is long past argument for religion’s contemporary critics; for them, “religious myth” is a redundancy, since religion is as false as the stories it tells.

Discomfort with the language of myth pervades the religious life of the double-minded. Listening to the stories of fellow-believers eager to share how God is working in their lives is positively painful, and recounting such narratives to others embarrassing. Teaching or preaching on the miracles found in the Torah or in the gospels becomes an excruciating exercise in avoidance or explaining-away. Even the public prayer of the church gives the sophisticated pastor pause, if he or she really pays attention to the wonders for which liturgy gives thanks and the wonders it seeks from God. This discomfort with mythic language forms a huge stumbling block, and believers need to challenge secularity’s pretense that its discourse is sufficient to understand human existence in the world. We need to demystify, and reverse, secularity’s epistemological overreach.

Read the entire piece here.

What About the Left? Aren’t They Afraid?

Believe Me 3d

I get this question all the time.  Too many times to count.  This is the kind of question I should expect after writing a book about evangelicals and Donald Trump in which I suggest that “fear” motivated evangelicals to pull the lever for Trump in November 2016.

Some folks have tried to turn the tables on me.  They have accused me of being afraid of Donald Trump’s presidency.  One Trump-voting blogger recently suggested that I would never have written such an “impassioned book if not motivated by fear for what Christian support for Trump was doing to the church’s witness.”

I have never thought of myself as a person of the Left, but I can understand why my critics put me in this box.  I prefer to think about the world from the perspective of my Christian faith.  Such an approach means that I don’t feel comfortable in either of the two major political parties in the United States.  As a Christian, I believe that fear is inevitable.  It is a natural human response to change.  I think American history confirms this.  Nativism, xenophobia, racism, Christian nationalism, etc. are all products of fear.  Fear is the product of a broken–I would say sinful–world.

In other words, I expect human beings to be fearful.  But I also see Christianity as a counter-cultural faith.  If the world is defined by fear, then Christians must always counter fear with hope–not a rosy liberal optimism, but a deeply theological approach to hope rooted in eschatological faith.   Having hope in the midst of fear is not easy to do. But if I am, or have been, fearful about what Donald Trump’s presidency will do to the republic or the church,  I am not living up to the demands of my faith.

I think there are a lot of folks on the Left who are afraid of the damage Trump will do, and is doing, to American democracy.  I expect them to be fearful.  I did not write Believe Me to tell them not to be afraid.  But for me, as a Christian, I agree with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson when she says “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”  I wrote the book to my tribe.  And in this case, my tribe helped carry Donald Trump to the White House.

Is White Christian Nationalism Christian?

Christian nationalismYes.

This is Daniel Jose Camacho‘s argument in The Christian Century.  Here is a taste:

I was reading something on Twitter that made me think of a question many are asking now: is white Christian nationalism a genuine expression of Christianity or is it a distortion of it? In other words, are white Christian nationalists practicing a kind of syncretism that mixes pure biblical Christianity with racist and nationalist beliefs?

My opinion: white nationalists are not necessarily distorting Christianity. Here’s my reasoning…

1. Calling this a distortion assumes that there is one pure “Christianity” when, in fact, there have always been various expressions of Christianities with some providing sanction to oppression and others resisting it. (More on this in point #6).

Read the rest here.

I don’t have time to reflect on this right now, but I thought it might make for an interesting conversation.

Chesterton: “Rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy”

A reader sent me this quote from Chesterston’s Orthodoxy (1908) after reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I am thinking through it.  I welcome you to join me in the comments section:

Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest — if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this — that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.

–G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p.118 (Doubleday Image edition).

Is Robert Jeffress a “Bigot” for Claiming that Jesus is the Only Way to Heaven?

 

I wrote this early last week and never got the chance to place it somewhere.  Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will recognize it as a compilation of a couple of blog posts I wrote in the wake of the dedication of the new Jerusalem embassy.  –JF

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In age in which the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel are scorned by a culture that celebrates tolerance as one of its highest virtues, Jesus’s claim in John 14:6 seems like bigotry.

Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, learned this hard way.  When Jeffress’s critics learned that he would be praying at last week’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, they recalled some of the Southern Baptist’s previous remarks about the exclusive claims of Christianity.

Mitt Romney led the charge.  In a tweet he criticized Jeffress for saying that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew” and “Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.”

If Romney had more than 280 characters to work with, he could have also noted Jeffress’s belief that Hindus “worship a false God” and Muslims are “evil.”

Indeed, Jeffress is a bombastic, loud-mouthed preacher who likes to peddle his brand of evangelicalism on Fox News and other politically conservative news outlets.  He was one of the few evangelical leaders to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy during the GOP primaries when there were Christian Right candidates in the field—Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, to name three—who did not come with Trump’s moral baggage.

On the evening of the embassy dedication, Jeffress appeared on Fox News to defend himself against charges of bigotry. While he did not say anything negative about non-Christian religions during this appearance, he firmly re-asserted his belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion.

The belief that salvation comes through Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, Jeffress proclaimed, has been the teaching of the Christian church for more than two thousand years.

He is correct.

And Noah Feldman, law professor and public intellectual at Harvard, agrees.  In a recent column at Bloomsburg News, Feldman argued,

“All Jeffress is doing is echoing an almost 1,800-year-old doctrine: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It can be traced to St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died in the year 258. The basic idea is that Jesus Christ came to save those who believe in him — and not those who don’t…Most religions in the monotheistic tradition think they are right and others are wrong. That’s normal. It isn’t a reason to consider those who hold other beliefs to be bigots.”

Why would we expect Jeffress, a Christian pastor, to believe that there is more than one way to God?  I am sure that Mitt Romney, if pushed to explain his own religious beliefs, would say something similar about the exclusive nature of the Christian faith as understood through his Mormonism.

Let’s face it, evangelical Christians are not going away anytime soon.  Thomas Jefferson learned this lesson the hard way.  The great man of the Enlightenment from Monticello predicted in 1822: “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Woops. So much for Enlightenment progress.

So rather than wishing evangelicals away, it is time for Americans to think seriously about how to live together amid what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as our “seemingly irresolvable differences.”  The practical application of Inazu’s vision will not be easy, and people like Robert Jeffress will make it even more difficult.

As an evangelical and a historian, I have been critical of the Dallas pastor’s attempt to fuse God and country in a desire to “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots.  It is a form idolatry and it is based on bad history.  Jeffress’s undying support of Trump and his Christian nationalism weakens the witness of the Christian Gospel–the “good news”–and alienates the very people who may be most in need of it.

Moreover, Jeffress’s dispensationalism makes him insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow evangelicals in Palestine. He seems oblivious to the very real possibility that Donald Trump is playing him and his fellow court evangelicals, the born-again Christians who frequent the Oval Office and flatter the president much in the same way that the King’s courtiers did in the Renaissance-era.

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently put it, the ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Jerusalem embassy was a “Republican mid-term pep rally disguised as a diplomatic event….This was meant to fire-up the far-right religious base of the Republican Party.”

When Jeffress does announce that salvation lies only in Jesus Christ, he may have the history of Christian doctrine on his side, but he makes such pronouncements with a culture-warrior spirit that reflects a dark and angry brand of conservative evangelicalism that has little to do with the Prince of Peace.

If secularists need to learn how to live with the millions of evangelicals who believe that salvation lies only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then evangelicals need to learn how to engage those with whom they differ with “gentleness and reverence” that will cause them to ask about the “hope that lies within.”

Is Robert Jeffress Really a Bigot?

jeffress

On Monday, Robert Jeffress, the controversial pastor of the massive First Baptist Church in Dallas, offered the invocation at the dedication of Donald Trump’s new American embassy in Jerusalem.

When it was revealed that Jeffress would be praying at the event, the pundits pounced. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP candidate for president, led the way.  In a tweet he criticized Jeffress for claiming that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew” and “Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.”

If Romney had more than 280 characters to work with, he could have also noted Jeffress’s belief that Hindus “worship a false God” and Muslims are “evil.”

Indeed, Jeffress is a bombastic, loud-mouthed preacher who likes to peddle his brand of evangelicalism on Fox News and other politically conservative news outlets.  He was one of the few evangelical leaders to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy during the GOP primaries when there were Christian Right candidates in the field—Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, to name three—who did not come with Trump’s immoral baggage.

On Monday evening, Jeffress appeared on Fox News to defend himself against charges of bigotry.  Watch it here:

While Jeffress did not say anything negative about non-Christian religions during this appearance on Fox, he firmly re-asserted his belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion.  This, he proclaimed, has been the teaching of the Christian church for more than two thousand years.

Jeffress is correct. And Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard and a columnist at Bloomsburg News, agrees with me.  Here is a taste of his piece “This Isn’t Bigotry. It’s a Religious Disagreement“:

Do those statements really make Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a bigot? All he is doing is echoing an almost 1,800-year-old doctrine: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It can be traced to St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died in the year 258. The basic idea is that Jesus Christ came to save those who believe in him — and not those who don’t.

This view doesn’t reflect the latest in pluralism. The Catholic Church treated it as dogma for more than a millennium, but has backed away in recent decades. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, expressed skepticism about the view in a 1964 sermon. “We are no longer ready and able,” he said, “to think that our neighbor, who is a decent and respectable man and in many ways better than we are, should be eternally damned simply because he is not a Catholic.”

But plenty of Christians of many different denominations still believe this teaching in one way or another.

Even Mormons have their version. “Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5),” as the official website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts it. That’s one reason Mormons practice posthumous baptism of those who would otherwise be unsaved: so that good people who were not members of the LDS church can achieve salvation.

To be clear, I have no dog in the Christian theological fight about whether good people who aren’t Christians can be saved — much less which version of Christianity is necessary to achieve salvation. That’s because I’m not a Christian.

My point is rather that I can’t, and shouldn’t, feel offended by someone telling me that I won’t be saved because I don’t have the right religious beliefs.

Most religions in the monotheistic tradition think they are right and others are wrong. That’s normal. It isn’t a reason to consider those who hold other beliefs to be bigots.

Read Feldman’s entire piece here.

In age in which the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel are scorned by a culture that celebrates tolerance as one of its highest virtues, Jesus’s claim in John 14:6 that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” seems like bigotry.

But why would we expect Jeffress, a Christian pastor, to believe that there is more than one way to God?  I am sure that Mitt Romney, if pushed to explain his own religious beliefs, would say something similar about the exclusive nature of the Christian faith as understood through his Mormonism.  Let’s face it, Christians are not going away anytime soon.  Thomas Jefferson learned this lesson the hard way.  The great man of the Enlightenment from Monticello predicted in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Woops. So much for Enlightenment progress.

So rather than wishing evangelicals away, I think it is time for Americans to think seriously about how to live together amid what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as our “seemingly irresolvable differences.”  The practical application of Inazu’s vision will not be easy and people like Robert Jeffress will make it even more difficult.

I have been critical of Jeffress’s embrace of Donald Trump.  Just scroll through the blog and you will see what I mean.

As an evangelical and a historian, I have been critical of the Dallas pastor’s attempt to fuse God and country in a desire to “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots.  It is a form idolatry and it is based on bad history.

As I told a writer who interviewed me today, Jeffress’s undying support of Trump and his Christian nationalism weakens the witness of the Christian Gospel–the “good news”–and alienates the very people who may be most in need of it.

Moreover, Jeffress’s extreme dispensationalism makes him insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow evangelicals in Palestine.  He seems completely oblivious to the very real possibility that he and his fellow court evangelicals are being played by a man who may not survive his presidency without their support.  As Thomas Friedman recently put it, the ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Jerusalem embassy was a “Republican mid-term pep rally disguised as a diplomatic event….This was meant to fire-up the far-right religious base of the Republican Party.”

When Jeffress does announce that salvation only lies in Jesus Christ, he may have the history of Christian doctrine on his side, but he makes such pronouncements with a culture warrior spirit that reflects the worst form of fundamentalism.

If secularists need to learn how to live with the millions of evangelicals who believe that salvation lies only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then evangelicals to need to learn how to engage those with whom they differ with “gentleness and reverence” that will cause them to wonder about the “hope that lies within.”

And I could go on.  (Actually, I do go on here).

The Hopeful Christianity of Jimmy Carter

Carter Jimmy

Check out Elizabeth Palmer’s interview with Jimmy Carter at The Christian Century.  Carter’s new book is titled Faith: A Journey for All.

A taste of the interview:

In Faith, you write, “I have faith that God is slowly bending eternity toward redemption, and that someday . . . moral perfection based on love as expressed by Jesus Christ will prevail.” What gives you a basis for this kind of hopefulness?

The history of America gives me hope. We’ve been through some very trying times in the past, and the resilience of our country and the principles of our Constitution have always prevailed. I have confidence that in the future we’ll do the same thing, despite the difficulties we face today.

We went through a civil war to do away with slavery, and later we struggled to give women the right to vote in our democracy. In the 120 years since the “separate but equal” ruling of the Supreme Court, our judges have had to struggle with discrimination against African Americans. We’re still struggling with that. We’ve had a resurgence of discrimination in the last few years—and it’s against not only African Americans and other minorities but also immigrants. We have a great disparity in income, with people’s opportunities depending on how rich they are. There’s also a disparity of treatment within our judicial system. We have about seven and a half times as many people in prison now as we did when I left the White House, for instance, and we have the most prisons of any country on earth.

These problems have long existed, but they’ve been aggravated or brought to the attention of the public more recently, since the election. But in general, our country has proven able to deal with such struggles.

You note the divisions in our society that have increased sharply in recent decades—divisions rooted in political differences, racial tensions, economic inequality, and more. If you were president today, what would be your first steps toward mending those divisions?

I’d emphasize through public statements that I pledge to keep my country at peace and to be a champion of human rights. One of the things that America would like to be is a superpower, but there are more elements of being a superpower than just military strength. The United States of America ought to be seen by the rest of the world as a champion of peace, not war, a champion of human rights, a champion of equality, and a champion of generosity to help people in need. Those are the kind of values that need to be emphasized in the future of America, and I hope and pray that this will be the case.

If you had one final Sunday school class to teach, what would it be on? What Bible verses would you choose?

I change my Sunday school lesson every Sunday to accommodate modern-day headlines. But one of my favorite Bible verses is “Be ye kind one to another, as God through Jesus Christ has been kind to all of us” [Eph. 4:32]. And that’s a challenge. We now have the possibility of eliminating all living creatures on earth with the use of nuclear weapons. The next step in the evolution of human beings has to be learning how to live with each other in peace and with some degree of love. Jesus said we should not only love our neighbor but love our enemies [Matt. 5:43–44], which means loving those with whom we disagree. We have to learn how to get along with Russians and Muslims and North Koreans in a constructive spirit of care, instead of asking what’s the best excuse we have to go to war with them.

Read the entire interview here.

 

David French is Absolutely Right About the Court Evangelicals

Trump court evangelicals

Court evangelicals take heed.

Here is a taste of French’s “Open letter to Trump’s Evangelical Defenders,” published today at the conservative National Review:

A Christian’s primary purpose is not to defend his own religious liberty. It’s not even to fight abortion — as vital as that task is. His basic task on this Earth isn’t protecting Christian education or preserving the freedom of Christian artists. Each of those things is important. Each of those things is necessary. But their defense cannot and must not compromise our true purpose.

And what is that purpose? I’m reminded of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

Or, I’m reminded of Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Or, let’s refer to Christ’s famous words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

Taken together, these words indicate that our life on this Earth should glorify God, demonstrate profound virtue, and count even our lives forfeit in the pursuit of eternal truth. We are told — promised, even — that in living this life we should expect the world’s scorn. We are told — promised, even — that we will suffer trials of many kinds, and those trials can include brutal persecution.

We are not told, however, to compromise our moral convictions for the sake of earthly relief, no matter how dire the crisis. We are not told to rationalize and justify sinful actions to preserve political influence or a popular audience. We are not told that the ends of good policies justify silence in the face of sin. 

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Bowman

41wkagDrU8L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Matthew Bowman is associate professor of history at Henderson State University. This interview is based on his new book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America  (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian: The Politics of a Word in America?

MB: I wrote the book because of Anne Rice, if you can believe it; she wrote a piece a few years back in which she announced that though she considered herself a follower of Jesus, she did not want to be called a “Christian” because it was commonly understood that Christians were anti- any number of things: women, Democrats, LGBT people, and so on. This struck me as fascinating, because I didn’t think she was alone: a lot of people seem to have come to similar conclusions in the past twenty years, and a wide range of surveys bear that out. Why is it, I wondered, that the Religious Right and millennials who leave Christian churches over their social politics have essentially come to an agreement that “Christianity” is about social conservatism?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian: The Politics of a Word in America?

MB: The book looks at the ways the word “Christian” has been used in American politics since the end of the Civil War, and particularly follows the process by which white Protestants in particular have come to identify Christianity with something called “Western civilization” as defined in the twentieth century, a fascinating story that involves war, Cold War, psychology, and children’s textbooks. It’s that link, I think, that has allowed the Religious Right to identify the religion with traditionalist social politics, although I also explore a great number of dissenting voices, and point out ultimately that “Christian” is an essentially contested concept, one which might be best defined as a collection of concepts and ideas that can be marshalled to serve any number of definitions, theologies, or social orders.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian: The Politics of a Word in America?

MB: I think this sort of book is essential these days both for historical reasons but also contemporary politics. Of course it’s desirable to have a nuanced and detailed understanding of the American past, but I think questions like those this book raises also show how that understanding can serve a social and civic function: most people seem to agree that the polarization taking hold of American politics and culture these days is a bad thing, and one of the things I hope this book does is show that the history of American Christianity is profoundly resistant to that sort of polarization.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MB: Like many past Author’s Corner authors, in college I found myself deeply confused about the culture and society I found myself in and was relieved, genuinely, when history I began reading helped explain it to me. I was a librarian in college, and sometimes my supervisor would find me kneeling in the stacks next to a cart of books thumbing through one or another; this, actually, is how I discovered Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits, one of the first monographs I ever read.

JF: What is your next project?

MB: I’m working on a cultural history of Betty and Barney Hill, the first people in the United States to claim abduction by a UFO, in the sense that we define “abduction” today: little gray men, profound trauma, lost time, medical probing, and so on. The Hills are interesting in their own right: when they were abducted in 1961, they were an interracial couple, practicing Unitarians, and civil rights activists, and all these identities intersected uncomfortably with their new status of “abductees.” I think this story will tell us a lot about race, sexuality, and the rise of the New Age movement in the United States.

JF: Thanks, Matt!

This Explains a Lot

Great Commission

According to Barna, 51% of churchgoers have never heard of the Great Commission.

Here is a taste of Barna’s research:

In partnership with Seed Company, Barna conducted a study of the U.S. Church’s ideas about missions, social justice, Bible translation and other aspects of spreading the gospel around the world, available now in the new report Translating the Great Commission. When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%). Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. Six percent of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before.

The Pietist Option

Pietist Option 1

I was going to title this post, “Forget the Benedict Option, Embrace the Pietist Option!” But then I realized that by exhorting you to ignore Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” I was not acting in a manner befitting a Pietist. (Sorry, I am a work in progress!)

Yesterday I got two books in the mail: Joanna Bourke’s 2006 tome Fear: A Cultural History and Chris Gehrz’s and Mark Pattie’s The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity.  One book is (as the title suggests) about fear. The other book is about hope. I have been reading Bourke today, but have had Gehrz and Pattie nearby so I have something to turn to if I get overly depressed.

I read The Pietist Option in manuscript and was encouraged by it.  When InterVarsity Press asked me to endorse it, I immediately said yes!  Here is what appears on the back cover:

Pietist Option 2

Not all the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be interested in this new book.  I know many of you are not religious or people of faith.  If you fall into this category, I want to encourage you to read The Pietist Option anyway.  Gehrz (a Yale-trained historian) and Pattie (a Christian pastor) offer a way of thinking about Christianity that you might find appealing. Other readers of this blog come from Christian traditions that do not give primary attention to Pietism.  Fair enough.  But I still think you should read the book.  All Christian traditions could use a dose of something akin to Pietism.

I was reading some of The Pietist Option to my sixteen-year-old daughter last night.  (I managed to get her attention between Snapchats, texts, and AP U.S. history homework). Here are a few of the snippets I read to her:

“If we’re seeking after renewal, it’s got to start with you and me confessing how we’ve failed to love God and to love our neighbors.”

“The Pietist option calls Christians back to the motivations and actions of the Servant who stooped to wash his disciples feet.”

“Our world needs a new narrative to unite us in spirit and mission, to provide us a hopeful pathway to pursue together.”

She did not tell me to stop, so I guess that is a good sign. 🙂

 

Will a Post-Religious World Be an Improvement?

Church

Writing at The Week, Damon Linker is not so sure.

Here is a taste of his reflection on some recent polling data suggesting Christianity is in decline in America:

Liberals tend to assume that those who have left religious traditions and institutions behind will end up being … secular liberals, which is to say paragons (in their own eyes) of liberal tolerance and moral virtue. But not only is this belied by the occasionally harsh anti-religious fervor of many secular liberal pundits and public officials. It’s also contradicted by the rise of the post-religious right.

There is no guarantee at all that those who leave religious institutions and traditions behind will end up on the liberal left. As Trump’s strong support in the GOP primaries among non-religious Republicans attests, a significant number of the post-religious (especially those who are less well educated) could well end up on the nationalist alt-right.

Ross DouthatPeter Beinart, and The Week’s own Pascal-Emmanuel Gobryhave all noted the ominous emergence of a post-religious right, and have made the point that the left’s most vociferous critics of the old religious right (of which I was once one) may well end up ruing the decline and fall of their former opponents.

A post-religious America will be very different from the country we’ve known up until quite recently. Not all (or even many) of the changes will be improvements.

Read the entire piece here.

More on David Barton’s Use of That John Adams Quote

Barton Quote

Yesterday we did a lengthy post showing how Christian Right activist David Barton manipulated a John Adams quote to make it sound like Adams supported the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton is up to his old tricks here.  He is being deliberately deceptive. He seems to have no problem manipulating the past in this way to promote his agenda.

After I published my post, Southern Methodist University historian Kate Carte Engel took to twitter to give her take on Adams, Christianity, and the American founding.

Here it is:

The Court Evangelicals in Today’s Washington Post

Trump Jeffress

Here is a taste of my piece “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.”

If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

Read the rest here.

“That’s why I chose you”

PapaCarron375-1050x699

Check out John Allen‘s interview with Father Juan Julian Carron, leader of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation.  Carron offers some important reflections on how Christians need to live in this world.  I hope the court evangelicals are reading.

Here is a taste:

Allen: Rod Dreher recently argued that Christians should abandon the culture wars in the West because we’ve already lost, and the most we can hope for is a ‘Benedict option,’ meaning creatively preserving small islands of the faith amid a decaying and hostile culture. You too seem to be saying that we should get past the culture wars, without abandoning those positions, but for a different reason.

Carron: Certainly, absolutely. It’s always struck me, the contraposition between trying to make Christianity into a civil religion, on the one hand, and on the other, trying to make it entirely private. To me, it’s like trying to amend the design of God. I ask myself, who would ever have bet that God would begin to reach out to the world by calling Abraham? It was the most unlikely, most confusing, way of going about it anyone could have imagined.

The choice can’t come down to either the culture wars or a Christianity emptied of content, because neither of those options has anything to do with Abraham and salvation history. Abraham was chosen by God to begin introducing into history a new way of living life, that could slowly begin to generate an external reality with the capacity to make like dignified, to make it full.

I imagine that if Abraham were around today, in our minority situation, and he went to God and said, ‘Nobody’s paying any attention to me,’ what would God have said? We know very well what he’d say: ‘That’s why I chose you, to begin posing to reality a presence significant enough, even if no one believes it, that I will make of you a people so numerous that your descendants will be like the stars in the sky.’

When he sent his son into the world, stripped of his divine power to become man, he did the same thing. It’s like St. Paul said, he came to give us the capacity to live life in a new way. That’s what generates a culture. The question for us is whether the situation we’re in today gives us the chance to recover the origins of the design of God.

Allen: You seem fairly optimistic that’s still possible.

Carron: Yes, absolutely. I’m completely optimistic, because of the nature of the faith itself. I’m an optimist based on the nature of the Christian experience. It doesn’t depend on my reading of things, my diagnosis of the sociological situation. The problem is that to be able to start over again from this absolutely original point of departure, we have to go back to the roots of the faith itself, in what Jesus said and did.

If there’s a case for pessimism, it’s that too many times we’ve reduced Christianity either to a series of values, an ethics, or simply a philosophical discourse. That’s not attractive, it doesn’t have the power to seduce anyone. People don’t feel the attractive force of Christianity. But precisely because the situation we’re living in today is so dramatic, from every point of view, paradoxically it’s easier to get across the novelty of Christianity.

Read the entire interview here.

Hofstadter: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

Nashville 2

With Freedom Rider Rip Patton in Nashville

Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent.”  He offers this history lesson in the wake of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Virginia last week.

Here is a taste:

The notion that Americans are particularly angry today has become a rote talking point in the political press, repeated year after year. In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentally ill man, NBC’s Mark Murray wrote, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.” In 2007, George Will wrote in The Washington Post, “Americans are infatuated with anger.” In 1996, in her book The Angry American, George Washington University political scientist Susan Tolchin described an epidemic of “voter rage.”

But long before any of these writers, amid Barry Goldwater’s demogogic presidential campaign, the great historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” thus: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers… But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter was exactly right—not only about the anger in the mid-’60s, but also that it was “far from new.” We are not, as Podhoretz and Pelosi suggest, living in a especially or uniquely dangerous moment. Incendiary political speech and political violence have been pervasive in U.S. history.

“What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast without our pretensions to singular national virtue,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, the 1972 collection he co-edited with Michael Wallace. It shouldn’t surprise us that a colonial settler society that wiped out the Native American population, imported slave labor, and relied on vigilante violence to police newly incorporated territories should be prone to political violence. Reading through Hofstadter and Wallace’s book, one is reminded anew that American history has consisted of slave revolts and their violent crushing, race riots, labor clashes, and assassinations.

Read the entire piece here.

I first read Heet’s piece while traveling throughout the South on a Civil Rights bus tour where we learned a great deal about Martin Luther King’s theory of non-violence from several veterans of the movement who tried to order their lives around this principle. During a conversation with Freedom Rider Rip Patton in the Nashville Public Library, one of the participants on our tour asked Patton how to introduce the principles of non-violence to the students she teaches.  This participant, obviously moved by what she had heard and seen all week, prefaced her remarks by saying that she was convinced that King’s philosophy of non-violence best represented the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a pacifist, but I was also struck by the non-violent philosophy of the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement. I often wrote about it in my daily posts.  As Rip Patton spoke that day he referenced several passages from the Bible.  One of those passages was Romans 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Rip said that this verse was one of several Bible passages that motivated him to join the movement as a college student.

Romans 12:2 is one of the most counter-cultural verses in the New Testament.  I got the sense that the verse had layered meanings for Rip.  First, the “world” was no doubt the world of white supremacy that he had lived through in segregated Nashville.  He would no longer allow himself to be “conformed” to this unjust world.  This required action on his part.

But I also think Rip would say that the “world” of Romans 12:2 was defined by violence and anger.  As a Christian he could not “conform” to this world.  He would pursue a course of counter-cultural transformation–a path that was good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.  This course was defined by non-violence.

Heet and Hofstadter are correct.  American history has always been characterized by violence.  But it seems that the God of the early Civil Rights movement was calling its participants to something higher.

As I wrote this post I also thought about Martha Nussbaum’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on the limits of anger as a political and social emotion.  Here are some of my tweets from that lecture:

Nussbaum: The ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Just like modern democracies. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: Ancients raged a “cultural struggle” against anger, seeing it as destructive to democratic institutions. #jefflec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: We should resist anger in our political culture. This is not easy. Many feel anger is needed for justice. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: “Killing the killer does not restore the dead to life. Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it is a false lure. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: We go wrong when we permit retributive thoughts to convince us that inflicting pain in the present corrects the past. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: Hard to get our head around complicated truths. Easier to incinerate the witch. #JeffLec17 #humanities #anger

Nussbaum: Fear feeds payback. Obliterating wrong-doers makes us feel better. Even just wars decline into payback & bloodthirst. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: King gets busy turning retributive anger into work and and hope. #jefflec17 #humanities #mlk #anger

Nussbaum: Democracy must give up empty & destructive thought of payback. Move toward a future of regal justice & human well-being #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: Malcolm X was wrong to criticize King’s rejection of retribution. #Mlk #JeffLec17 #humanities #MLK

Nussbaum: Retributive desires are like the wild beasts in writings of Lucretiius. Anger is powerful, but always gets out of hand. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: History teaches that we always destroy ourselves when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger. #JeffLec17#humanities

 

Andrew Sullivan Pulls No Punches: “The Pope and the Pagan”

Pope

Andrew Sullivan has been one of the leading anti-Trump voices among the American punditry.  His recent piece at New York Magazine, “The Pope and the Pagan,” is scathing.

Here is a taste:

The contrast between a grim-faced pope and the grinning president at the Vatican this past week was not lost on the press or late-night TV. But they missed the mark, it seems to me. They noted merely that the two leaders profoundly disagree on, say, the dignity of immigrants, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, or the urgency of tackling climate change. While these disagreements exist, they are, it seems to me, merely symptoms of a deeper chasm — the vast, empty, and dark space that lies between Donald Trump and anything resembling Christianity.

I don’t believe that there is a Christian politics as such — there is plenty of scope for disagreement about how to translate a Christian worldview into secular politics, or whether to translate it at all. But I do believe there is a Christian set of core human virtues and values, rooted in what we Catholics still think of as the truth, and that those virtues are rooted in the Gospels. We all fail the virtue test, of course, including yours truly, perhaps more than most. But Trump is a special case — because when you think about those virtues, it is very hard to see Donald Trump as anything but a living, breathing, shameless refutation of every single one.

Trump is not an atheist, confident yet humble in the search for a God-free morality. He is not an agnostic, genuinely doubtful as to the meaning of existence but always open to revelation should it arrive. He is not even a wayward Christian, as he sometimes claims to be, beset by doubt and failing to live up to ideals he nonetheless holds. The ideals he holds are, in fact, the antithesis of Christianity — and his life proves it. He is neither religious nor irreligious. He is pre-religious. He is a pagan. He makes much more sense as a character in Game of Thrones, a medieval world bereft of the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, than as a president of a modern, Western country.

He loves the exercise of domination, where Christianity practices subservience. He thrills to the use of force, while Jesus preached nonviolence, even in the face of overwhelming coercion. He is tribal, where Jesus was resolutely universal. He is a serial fantasist, whereas Jesus came to reveal the Truth. He is proud, where Jesus was humble. He lives off the attention of the crowd, whereas Jesus fled the throngs that followed him. He is unimaginably wealthy, while Jesus preached the virtue of extreme poverty. He despises the weak, whom Jesus always sided with. He lies to gain an advantage, while Jesus told the truth and was executed for it. He loathes the “other,” when Jesus’ radical embrace of the outsider lay at the heart of his teaching. He campaigns on fear, which Jesus repeatedly told us to abandon. He clings to his privileged bubble, while Jesus walked the streets, with nothing to his name. His only true loyalty is to his family, while Jesus abandoned his. He believes in torture, while Jesus endured it silently. He sees women as objects of possession and abuse, while Jesus — at odds with his time and place — saw women as fully equal, indeed as the first witnesses to the Resurrection. He is in love with power, while Jesus — possessed of greater power, his followers believe, than any other human being — chose to surrender all of it. If Trump were to issue his own set of beatitudes, they would have to be something like this:

Blessed are the winners: for theirs is the kingdom of Earth.

Blessed are the healthy: for they will pay lower premiums.

Blessed are the rich: for they will inherit what’s left of the earth, tax-free.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for oil and coal: for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciless: for they are so, so strong.

Blessed are the liars: for they will get away with it.

Blessed are the war-makers: for they will be called very, very smart.

Blessed are those who support you regardless: for theirs is the Electoral College.

Blessed are you when others revile you and investigate you and utter all kinds of fake news about you. Rejoice and be glad, for the failing press is dying.

Read the entire piece here.

We are all sinners. We are all flawed.  But I am still in the camp of people who want my leaders to act with some degree of moral integrity in this broken world.  Anyone who thinks that morality is unimportant for a President is fooling themselves.  United States presidents must make moral statements and judgments all the time. It is part of the job description. Think about Trump condemning the terrorist attacks in Manchester or, God-forbid, having to comfort Americans experiencing the next major tragedy on American soil. Where does he find the resources to fulfill the moral responsibilities required of this office?

We want our presidents to do what is right for the country.  We will not always agree with our president about the nature of what is right, but we want him to articulate a moral vision that is rooted in something.  Perhaps it is religious faith.  Maybe it is moral philosophy or ethics.  Maybe it is something else.  But I am still of the belief that leaders must have a moral core that informs his or her trade deals, Supreme Court appointments, and the defenses of religious liberty.

Without character, Trump’s appeal to the court evangelicals looks like little more than political manipulation.

ADDENDUM:  As pointed out by many of you on Twitter, “moral integrity” is technically not part of the “job description” of the President of the United States.  Fair enough.  I should have chosen another word or phrase other than “job description.”  Heck, I am just glad people have read this far in the post and read carefully enough to notice this error! 🙂