Being black at Liberty University

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Over at Slate, Ruth Graham has a sobering piece on LeeQuan McLaurin, the Liberty University alum and employee who resigned in the wake of president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s racist blackface tweet. Since leaving Liberty, McLaurin has started the Liberty University Underground Railroad.

Here is a taste:

LeeQuan McLaurin thought it would be “the simplest of actions” for his department at Liberty University, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, to post something on social media in response to the ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality. But in this case, Liberty’s director of diversity retention says he encountered nothing but delays and confusion from colleagues when he tried to get approval for a post. According to McLaurin, his boss—the office’s director, Greg Dowell, who is also black—said a post was unnecessary. Then the topic came up at a larger meeting, still with no action. On June 1, McLaurin finally went ahead and posted something himself to the office’s account: a simple image reading “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and a caption citing six Bible verses backing up the slogan. Within an hour, McLaurin said, an administrator had removed the post. (McLaurin shared a screengrab of the post with Slate, but the administrator did not respond to a request for comment.)

McLaurin, who had worked at Liberty since he graduated from the school in 2015, resigned in early June, an act he described as the culmination of accumulated years of frustration at a school he loved. For him, the current moment is a time for both optimism and regret. He recalled feeling sick sitting as a chaperone to a mostly white student group at a “Blexit” event that black conservative activist Candace Owens held in Richmond, Virginia, last year—a rally intended to convince black voters to leave the Democratic Party. Liberty had offered the outing as a “cultural excursion.” McLaurin said that someone outside his department sent out an all-campus email about it from McLaurin’s Liberty email account without his permission. Backstage after the event, watching Owens surrounded by adoring white people, “it felt like I was in a horror movie.” “I cannot encourage students of color to go to that university the way that it is,” McLaurin said. “Our students deserve better. Our faculty deserve better. Our staff deserves better.” (A Liberty spokesman declined my request for interviews with Dowell and Jerry Falwell Jr. and did not respond to a detailed list of questions.)

Read the rest here.

What is happening to Liberty University? In the past year:

  • The school lost a star basketball player over Falwell Jr.’s racist tweet.
  • Prominent African-American alumni say that they cannot endorse the school.
  • The university dumped its philosophy department.
  • A vice-president wrote an op-ed in the alt-Right Breitbart News.
  • Falwell Jr. threatened a New York Times reporters with a late night phone message.
  • A former university executive says Falwell Jr. “doesn’t think anyone should be able to tell him what to do, and he’s going to do whatever he wants….”
  • At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, an English professor pleaded, “Please stop Jerry Falwell Jr. before it’s too late.”
  • When a parent questioned the president’s decision to keep the university open during the coronavirus, Falwell Jr. called him a “dummy.”
  • A new Liberty University think tank, created to promote Christian nationalism and Donald Trump, suggested that the biblical command to “turn the other cheek” is no longer sufficient in today’s political climate.
  • Perhaps the most well-known member of the Liberty faculty left.
  • When Politico published a piece critical of Falwell Jr. and his running of the university, he called it an “attempted coup” and “criminal conspiracy” against him.
  • Falwell Jr. admitted that he is not involved in the spiritual or Christian dimensions of Liberty University. The Liberty chaplain defended him.

Let’s remember that not all Christian colleges are the same.

When the Only Coffeeshop in Town Closes

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Here is Ruth Graham at Slate:

Fewer than 3,000 people live in Warner. For this community, losing Schoodacs is shattering. My family and I saw someone we knew at the coffee shop every time we stopped in. Our next-door neighbor worked on his novel there; a close friend hosted a reading series. We bought our Christmas tree on the coffee shop’s front lawn, and visited the jack-o’-lanterns lined up on the front steps in October. On Saturday mornings, my daughter and I made what we called “the Warner rounds”: Schoodacs, library, farmers market. In warm weather we sat in the sun on the porch, and in the winter we chose a game from the communal board game cabinet or chipped away at the jigsaw puzzle on a big table in the center of the room. The banner image for the private Facebook group for local parents (121 members) is a photo of Schoodacs on a sunny summer day.

And businesses like this one have a ripple effect. Schoodacs—named for a local brook with a spelling that is apparently only found in Warner—purchased hundreds of gallons of maple syrup a year from a family farm up the mountain; who will that farm sell to now? It provided a place for local realtors and other professionals to hold meetings; there’s nowhere else in town that can fill that role. What will happen to foot traffic at the outdoor farmers market without a coffee shop next door?

Read the entire piece here.

 

What Are the Court Evangelicals Saying About the Coronavirus?

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According to Ruth Graham’s piece at Slate, they feel pretty calm about.  Here is a taste:

In the 2015 book Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Robert Jeffress described a world on the brink of chaos. “Never in my lifetime have I sensed so much unrest in the air,” the Dallas pastor wrote. “Will an Ebola epidemic or an outbreak of some other super virus spread across America?” But today, as an actual “super virus” advances across the United States, Jeffress seems to be feeling much more sanguine. “I do predict this will be under control in the not too distant future,” Jeffress told me on Thursday. “I would encourage any Christian to take sensible precautions without being overrun with anxiety.”

Jeffress, one of Donald Trump’s most full-throated evangelical supporters, plans to preach a sermon on the coronavirus this Sunday at his church, First Baptist Dallas. Its title is “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” Jeffress strongly suggested to me that the answer is no: “Many times illness is just a consequence of living in the fallen world.” In other words, the virus is nothing to fear nor anything to draw theological or political conclusions from.

Graham asked me to weigh-in:

Few other prominent pastors would speak from the pulpit in such blunt political terms. But that doesn’t mean their politics aren’t influencing their theology. “It’s hard not to think of this as a political story,” said historian John Fea, who has written about white evangelicals’ loyalty to the president. Fea suggested that some Trump-supporting pastors and prophets may be taking their cues from both the president and from Fox News, even if they don’t see it that way. The president himself has gone out of his way to minimize concerns about the virus. In an interview with Sean Hannity this week, Trump said he had a “hunch” that the coronavirus death rate is actually significantly lower than the WHO’s estimate of 3.4 percent. “Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent,” the president said. At a Pennsylvania town hall on Fox News on Thursday night, he said that widespread travel cancellations might be good for the economy, since “people are now staying in the United States.”

Read the entire piece here.

Where is this “we have nothing to fear” and “trust God” mentality when it comes to the demographic and cultural changes that they think are undermining their Christian nation?

At Liberty University, David Nasser is the Good Cop

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Back in June 2019, after Jerry Falwell told megachurch pastor David Platt to “grow a pair,” Falwell seemed to justify the comment when he told the Washington Times that he was not a spiritual leader.  When Falwell and campus spiritual director David Nasser took heat for the comment from Liberty students, alums, and parents, Nasser defended Falwell Jr. (and himself) in a rather strange series of tweets.  You can read them here.

Now Nasser is the subject of Ruth Graham’s recent piece at Slate.  Here is a taste:

Micah Protzman was a junior at Liberty University the first time he was summoned to David Nasser’s office. Protzman had tweeted a complaint about the speakers at recent Convocation services on campus, a lineup that included conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza and Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Attendance at “Convo” is mandatory, and Protzman was disgusted. Nasser, the school’s senior vice president for spiritual development, retweeted Protzman’s complaint to his followers, and Protzman replied by slamming the school’s “blind ideology.” Within a few hours, Protzman got an invitation from Nasser’s office to talk.

To Protzman’s eye, everything in Nasser’s sprawling office suite was perfect: industrial chic decor, fresh flowers, floor-to-ceiling windows. There was a fridge of custom Coke bottles and stacks of premium candy free for the taking. Nasser offered Protzman a cup of coffee, and he accepted, thinking it would give him something to do with his hands if he got nervous. It turned out to the best cup of coffee he’d ever had.

The conversation was less satisfying. “I felt like I was being sold a car,” Protzman, now a senior graduating this month, recalled in October. He was sitting in a plush chair in the five-year-old Jerry Falwell Library, with sunlight streaming through multistory windows. From his perch in the library, he could see the tinted glass facade of Nasser’s office across a pond where the school performs baptisms. At their meeting, Nasser had quoted a passage in the Gospel of Matthew about how a Christian should confront a community member who has sinned: Don’t air a grievance publicly until you have gone to the person privately. To Protzman, it was clear that the point was to get him to shut up. “I wasn’t asked where I was from, wasn’t asked about my major, wasn’t asked about my work. There was no discipleship,” he said. “It was, ‘Just don’t speak publicly about the university.’ At what point does ‘interaction’ turn into quietism?”

Nasser later summoned Protzman to his office again in response to two other Twitter complaints: once when he tweeted displeasure about conservative activist Candace Owens as Convo speaker, and once when he complained that Liberty had sent busloads of students to support Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate hearings. Protzman grew up in Lynchburg, where his mother worked for Falwell Jr.’s father and then for the college; he attended on a scholarship for the children of employees. Although his own politics always leaned left, Liberty felt like a family to him. But he left the first conversation with Nasser furious. Protzman said he has seen the same pattern happen with many of his friends at Liberty over the years—and often, it works. “Whenever there’s a complaint, you come in for a Coke and a coffee, and you never hear about it again.” Nasser, for his part, said of his interactions with Protzman: “He’s my [brother] in Christ and I pray blessing and honor” over him.

Read the rest here.

More on the New Independent Fundamentalist Baptists

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Earlier this month we did a post on Hailey Branson-Potts’s Los Angeles Times piece on the New Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement.

Over at Slate, religion writer Ruth Graham also has a piece on this brand of ultra-fundamentalism.  Here is a taste of  “The New Hate Pastors.”

A video clip circulated online last week that was so cartoonishly vile it might have at first scanned as poorly scripted fiction: A man in a pulpit rails against the comedian Sarah Silverman as a witch and “a God-hating whore of Zionism,” to shouts of apparent approval from an unseen audience. “I hope that God breaks her teeth out, she dies,” the pastor adds. “She’s the perfect representation of religious Judaism….”

When obscure pastors make national headlines for rhetoric like this, it’s sometimes a stretch to call them religious “leaders.” Another Florida pastor named Terry Jones dominated multiple national news cycles in 2010 for threatening to burn a copy of the Quran, and his independent church turned out to have no more than 50 members. Vice found him working at a fry stand at the mall five years later. Anyone can declare themselves a “pastor,” no matter how small their flock. The most virulent voices are typically fringe characters who do not represent—or even appeal to—very many people.

Sure enough, Stedfast Baptist Church, founded in 2017, is not a large or well-known church. Google Maps shows it located in a modest strip mall in Jacksonville, Florida, alongside an arcade, a barber shop, another church, and a raw-meat store for pets called Paw Lickin’ Good. Fannin himself is no longer a pastor there. He was ousted in a power struggle earlier this year, and according to an online directory, he is now preaching at a different Baptist church in Florida.

But Fannin is not just a random voice in a strip mall. He has ties to a small but growing network of ultra-fundamentalist Christian churches headed by young pastors whose noxious rhetoric has gone viral multiple times in the past few years.

Read the rest here.

The Collapse of Evangelicalism’s Cultural Center

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Over at Slate, Ruth Graham writes about the decline of the Christian bookstore.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The Christian publishing industry, and its distribution arm in Christian bookstores, plays a central role within evangelical culture, even for those who don’t read “Christian books.” Since evangelicalism has no central authority, the publishing industry’s self-defined borders have a huge impact on the people, ideas, and practices that get publicly promoted—and eventually accepted—as “true” Christianity. “Publishers have been really central to granting authority within evangelical culture … and for evangelical celebrities to be created,” said Daniel Vaca, a historian at Brown University whose book Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America will be published later this year. “Publishers have provided a cultural center for evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

This is so true.  As I read Graham’s piece, I was reminded of how little evangelical churches do to help their congregations navigate the evangelical culture–books, videos, television shows, movies, “Jesus junk,” and music–that they encounter online and in Christian stores.  A lot of evangelical churches have libraries, but they are usually not curated very well and have limited access to funds.  (There are exceptions to this rule!).

These Christian bookstores served as evangelicalism’s “cultural center” in the sense that they connected local believers to a broader evangelical world shaped by booksellers and other market-oriented forces.  The curators of this world brought us Joel Osteen, Paula White, Beth Moore, Rick Warren, Hal Lindsey, Josh McDowell, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, Frank Peretti, Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, Dave Ramsey, Lee Strobel, Eric Metaxas, Ben Carson, T.D. Jakes, David Jeremiah, Sarah Young, John Eldridge, Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, Kay Arthur, Anne Graham Lotz, Andy Stanley, and Joni Eareckson Tada, to name a few.

The evangelical world created by Christian publishing and bookstores largely centered on personal piety, Bibles and bible studies, self-help, and products that fused evangelical Christianity with the American dream.  (I have actually read and benefited from a few authors on the list in the previous paragraph, but I find that most of this stuff does not feed my soul or help me navigate my world in a thoughtful way).  In other words, these Christian bookstores rarely had large sections devoted to serious theology, biblical scholarship or books on how to bring serious Christian thinking–the kind produced at Christian colleges and seminaries–to social issues.  (This is why places like Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania or Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan are so important).

Now that the Christian bookstores are going away, and since it is unlikely that the church will replace the publishing industry’s curating function, the Internet and social media will become the cultural center of evangelicalism.  (One could probably argue that this has already happened).  In some ways, this is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Individual websites, tweeters, and “influencers” will now serve as curators, resulting in the increasing fragmentation of American evangelicalism.

Are You Blasting Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Today?

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Here is Slate writer Ruth Graham:

Graham is correct.  The song is really dark.  Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago for Real Clear Politics after former Texas governor Rick Perry used this song at a campaign rally:

If the last several GOP presidential primaries are any indication, nearly every candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2016 will claim to be a follower of Ronald Reagan.

Rick Perry, should he decide to run, will be one of those candidates. The former Texas governor has even decided to use one of Reagan’s old campaign theme songs.

Last Thursday, at an event in Washington D.C., Perry walked onto the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s iconic 1984 single, “Born in the U.S.A.” About thirty years ago this song peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts and it continues to be a quintessential American anthem and a crowd favorite at Springsteen concerts.

Like Reagan in 1984, Rick Perry and his staff seem to have no clue about the song’s meaning. Anyone who listens carefully to the lyrics of “Born in the U.S.A.” will quickly realize that there is little about the song that reflects conservative values.

“Born in the U.S.A.” is about veterans living in the wake of Vietnam War. The first verse describes a veteran who can’t find a job when he returns home. He is rejected by potential employers so many times that he ends up like a “dog who has been beat too much” until he “spends half his life just covering up.”

Springsteen also sings about a fictional “brother” who was killed while fighting the Vietcong. He’s dead, but they’re “still there,” while the woman who he loved is left only with a picture.

Like most Springsteen songs, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a lament for the American working class. It reminds us that Vietnam was a “rich man’s war” and a “poor man’s fight.” This is a protest song. It is a song of tragedy. It tells stories of young men who sacrificed themselves for their country and got nothing in return.

On Sept. 19, 1984, a few months before his overwhelming victory over Walter Mondale, Reagan made a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, a rural and hardscrabble community with a large Italian-American population. It was a perfect place to test out his new theme song, “Born in the U.S.A.”

After the song blared over the loudspeakers, Reagan stepped up to the podium and said: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

On one level, Reagan interpreted Springsteen correctly. A lot of his music is about the way ordinary Americans yearn to live the American Dream. This theme in Springsteen’s music is what attracted conservative columnist George Will to bring The Boss’s songs to the attention of the Reagan re-election team in the first place.

But “Born in the U.S.A.” is also a song about what Springsteen has recently described as the large gap between American reality and the American Dream. The song is more about the tragic side of American life than the sunny pursuits of happiness that politicians, especially conservative politicians, like to talk about on the campaign trail.

“Born in the U.S.A.,” with Max Weinberg’s drum blasts and Springsteen’s rugged voice, is a musical assault on the purveyors of the American dream. It reminds us that for many people in American history the dream has been more like an illusion.

Springsteen heard about the way Reagan was using his song and he lashed back. Two days later, while playing a concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen paused from the music to say few words of introduction for “Johnny 99,” a song about an unemployed New Jersey autoworker. “Johnny 99” is a cut from Nebraska, one of Springsteen’s darker albums. It is filled with songs that are about brokenness, hardship and death.

Before he played “Johnny 99” that night, Springsteen referenced Reagan’s Hammonton speech: “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must have been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to that one.”

The chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.” may send chills of inspiration up the spines of Rick Perry supporters, but the former Texas governor should probably think twice about using it in any more appearances. 

 

Jerry Falwell’s “Two Kingdoms” View is Not Only Wrong, It’s Dangerous

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Many of you have seen court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s interview with Joe Heim of The Washington Post.

Falwell Jr. says:

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

When Heim asked Falwell if there is anything Trump could do that would endanger evangelical support for the President he answers, based on his political theology, with one word: “no.”

Over at Slate, writer Ruth Graham responds to Falwell’s one-word answer:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true. 

Graham also notes that Falwell’s views seem to contradict the mission statement of Liberty University.  This is true.

In its “Statement of Mission and Purpose,” Liberty claims to “promote the synthesis of academic knowledge and a Christian worldview in order that there might be a maturing of spiritual, intellectual, social and physical value-driven behavior.”  This kind of “worldview” language suggests that students at Liberty will learn to think Christianly about all things, including the ways Christianity intersect with politics and government.  After all, wasn’t this Falwell’s father’s vision for Liberty University?  Wasn’t Liberty University directly linked to Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority–an attempt to bring Christianity to bear on government and politics?

Falwell Jr. seems to believe that the only thing Christianity teaches Christians about their responsibility as citizens is that Christianity has no role to play in our responsibility as citizens.  If I am reading him correctly, he is arguing that the promotion of capitalism, entrepreneurship, free-markets, and the accumulation of wealth is the essence Christian citizenship.  In other words, Falwell Jr. assumes that Christianity and capitalism are virtually the same thing.  I would love to hear from a Liberty professor on this point.  Is there anything about capitalism (as defined by the accumulation of wealth, free markets, and entrepreneurship) that contradicts the teaching of Christianity?   I know some Liberty professors and I DO think that they would say there is a difference between the two, but I wonder how free they are to make that critique in public.

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. believes that there is anything within the Christian tradition that might provide a critique of government.  I don’t have the time to search, but I am sure it is pretty easy to find Falwell Jr. making some kind of theological or Christian critique of Barack Obama.

It is important to note here that Falwell is not arguing, as other court evangelicals have done, that evangelicals should support Trump because he will deliver a conservative Supreme Court or defend religious liberty.  Remember, in this interview he says that there is NOTHING Trump can do to lose his support.  NOTHING!  This, of course, means that if he would commit adultery in the oval office, appoint a radically pro-choice Supreme Court justice, call for the end of the Second Amendment, or shoot someone on 5th Avenue, Trump will not lose Falwell’s support.  I don’t know of any American–Christian or not– who would be so confident about a political candidate.

The Statement of Mission and Purpose also notes that Liberty University will “encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of Christian faith….”  Apparently Falwell believes that all these things can be practiced without any connection to politics or government.  In other words, Falwell wants to train students to live personal lives of faith, but never apply that faith to democratic citizenship.  I am not sure his father would have agreed with this.

Which leads me to one more question:  What is taught at the Jesse Helms School of Government at Liberty?  (Yes, THAT Jesse Helms). According to its website, the Helms School of Government develops “leaders who are guided by duty, honor, and morality.  It also claims to instill “a Christian sense of justice and civic duty in our students….”  Dr. Stephen Parke, the Associate Dean of the Helms School, lists his favorite Bible verse as Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  This is an interesting choice for a dean at a Christian school of government and politics at a university run by Jerry Falwell Jr.

It is also worth noting that legitimate advocates of a Two Kingdoms approach to church-state relations would also reject much of what Falwell has to say in this interview.

Again, here is Falwell:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Martin Luther also believed that government action should not be based on the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus.  For example, Luther defended the right to private property.  As a result, he believed government should not be based on Jesus’s idea of abandoning all of our material possessions and giving them to the poor. (Although he would have certainly warned against materialism rooted in the accumulation of private property).

But Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be.  (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

Ruth Graham links to Missouri-Synod Lutheran writer Lyman Stone’s First Things piece titled “Two Kingdom Theology in the Trump Era.”  Stone writes:

Is it the case that Lutheran theology favors brute political realism, mercilessness in state operations, perhaps even docility in the face of tyranny? Historically, the answer has often been “yes.” But it needn’t have been, if Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine had been understood correctly.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine originates in Martin Luther’s 1518 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” though before that it has resonance with Augustine’s City of God, which had influenced Christian church-state relations in the West for a millennium. In the 1518 tract, Luther lays out an idea that is central to all Lutheran teaching: There are two kinds of righteousness, civil and spiritual. By civil righteousness, Luther meant that people, by the powers of reason with which they are endowed, can refrain from murdering one another, or stealing, or lying. But no amount of civil righteousness amounts to spiritual righteousness, that is, the right-acting that may earn salvation. Perfect civil righteousness does not undo the basically sinful nature of man; only spiritual righteousness does that, and spiritual righteousness is nothing else than faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation. With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.

Stone reminds us here that God has ordained the civil kingdom–the realm of government.  God rules in both kingdoms and he rules, according to Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus, in “goodness, mercy, and love.”  Althaus adds: “Through the political authorities, God protects his people from the violent acts of evil men.” Luther believed in a state where justice prevails as a glimpse–but only a glimpse–of the kingdom of God.

As Christians, we are called to different vocations in this civil kingdom  As Stone writes, “without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation.”  But this does not mean that Christians are not called by God to be engaged citizens.  We must exercise citizenship as a vocational act.

Stone adds:

Does this mean that Luther’s Two Kingdoms should be viewed ignominiously today? I do not think so. Rather, Lutherans should reconsider this doctrine in light of Luther’s teaching on vocation.

In this light, several facts become clear. Citizens have a different vocation than subjects. Modern governments place a duty and a burden upon citizens, demanding that they participate in governance. No modern American has a ruler, in the sense that the Christians did to whom Paul wrote his letters. All the scriptural teachings about governments apply, but the reality of democratic and participatory governments means that a vocation-centered theology cannot view Christians as merely the subjects of the state: By having voice, Christians are participants in the rulership of their state. As such, when considering what sins they should confess, they must consider sins of rebellion against lawful sovereigns and sins of misgovernment, that is, failures to discharge the duties of self-governing citizens.

Beyond this, Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

A similar Two Kingdoms argument comes from Glenn Tinder in The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation.  He writes:

Christianity, then, requires acceptance of society, and such acceptance cannot be a matter simply of bowing to bitter worldly necessity.  It is more appreciative than that.  Even if society is not community, it serves community in various and essential ways; and a responsible person will feel obligated to defend society when it is threatened…. (pp. 56-57).

Christians are traditionally, in their relations with governments, obedient yet disrespectful.  Thus, they violate the ethos of both secular radicals (disobedience grounded in disrespect) and of conservatives (obedience grounded in respect).  Eschewing absolute principles, they are unreliable allies of either left or right.  Their attitude, however, is anything but frivolous.  It goes down to the first principles of Christian faith.  Estranged from God, from human beings, and even from ourselves, and in our perversity continually reaffirming our estrangement, we would be overwhelmed by chaos if we did not ordinarily submit to the order contrived by political rulers.  On the other hand, we are, in the Christian vision, recipients of the mercy of God, and if we obeyed unconditionally, we would replace the exalted individual with exalted governments…As an eschatological being, man is always critical, normally acquiescent, and potentially rebellious. (p.210-211).

Falwell Jr’s view of government is dangerous.  It is a corruption of the Two Kingdoms view.  Such a corruption is what led German Lutherans to sit quietly as the Nazis took control of Germany in the 1930s.  Here is University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh in Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Acting in the name of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms–that God has established two kingdoms (zwei Reiche): the kingdom of the earth, which he rules through human government and law; and the kingdom of heaven, which he directs by grace and through the church–the German Christians determined to achieve an accommodation (however tortured) of the Fuhrer principle and Aryan paragraph under church law.  And this they would do in a spirit of obedience to God!  Under this accommodation, baptized Jews, being a difference race altogether, could no longer serve in the German Protestant Church, whose identity was now rooted in ethnicity, or racial sameness, rather than in the confession of Christ as Lord. (p.162).

In 1938, Freidrich Werner, the director of Germany’s Protestant consistory, was tasked with bringing Lutheran clergy into line with Hitler.  He required that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Marsh writes:

Refusing the oath subjected one to dismissal and criminal detention.  To some degree, the underlying idea was consistent with the traditional Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms: Christians must be obedient to the earthly authorities unto God.  But Werner went to an unprecedented extreme, turning a doctrine that had historically yielded a variety of views on church-state matters into an absolutist principle: make a “personal commitment to the Fuhrer under the solemn summons of God,” and forge an “intimate solidarity with the Third Reich” and with the saintly man who both “created that community and embodies it.”  “Submit to Hitler with a joyful heart, in gratitude, as pleasing to the Lord.

In the end, Christians–whether they embrace the Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran tradition–are called to live out their vocations as citizens.  In this sense, they agree with my good friend Philip Vickers Fithian who believed, with the authors of Cato’s Letters, that “political jealousy” is a “laudable passion.

What Happens to the American Bible Society When Everyone Has a Bible?

Bible Cause Cover

The American Bible Society began asking this question in the 1990s.  Their answer was to move away from a distribution model that defined success in terms of “tonnage” and toward a “scripture engagement” model that taught people how to use the Bible as a source of spiritual growth.  In the process, the organization became much more evangelical in orientation.  As many of you know, I have written a great deal about this transition.

Today the American Bible Society is the second largest religious non-profit organization in the world.  Ruth Graham introduces the American Bible Society to her Slate audience in a piece titled “The End is Nigh.”

A taste:

American Bible Society was founded in Manhattan, New York, in 1816 with the “sole object” of encouraging wider circulation of the Bible throughout the world. It was a project whose obstacles soon became clear, as John Jay, the founding father and first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who served as the society’s second president, put it in 1822. “The languages of the heathen nations in general being different from the Christian nations, neither their Bibles could be read, nor their missionaries be understood by the former,” he said. “To obviate and lessen these difficulties, numerous individuals have been induced to learn those languages; and the Bible has already been translated into many of them.”

Translating the Bible into every language has long been seen by many Christians as a divine command: In what is known as the “Great Commission,” Jesus ordered his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” It’s hard to make disciples if you don’t speak the nation’s language. As the 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe, who ruffled feathers by translating the book into common English, put it, “It helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence.” Today, many translation organizations refer to the state of not having access to a Bible in one’s own language as “Bible poverty.”

Read the rest here.

Writer Ruth Graham on “Being Ruth Graham”

graham-head-2Slate contributor Ruth Graham, who is not directly related to the recently deceased evangelist, says that “Billy Graham has hovered over me my whole life, and not just because I share a name with his wife and daughter.”  Read her recent piece at Slate:

Ruth Graham died in 2007 when I was about to embark on a daylong hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. Browsing a rack of newspapers on a coffee run before heading into the woods, I was jarred to see my own name in the headlines. Feeling uncharacteristically superstitious, I called my dad to let him know where I was going and what time I’d be back.

I felt a similar shiver of affinity on Wednesday morning when I read that Ruth’s husband, the legendary 20th-century evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, had died at age 99. I’m not related to that Graham family, but they have hovered over my whole life in more ways than our not-uncommon last name suggests. I am the granddaughter of a theologically conservative Protestant pastor and a woman named Ruth Graham. My childhood bedroom overlooked the cupola of the Billy Graham Center, a large building that opened the year after I was born. When I was 18, I moved a half-mile across the tracks to that same campus, Wheaton College, Billy and Ruth Graham’s alma mater. And I’ve spent much of my career reporting on evangelical culture, where Graham is revered as a lion of the faith.

She concludes:

When President Obama tweeted his respects on Wednesday, his mentions lit up with rebukes for honoring a “monster” like Graham. Decency, respectability, civility—lately it feels like these qualities are sometimes read as code words for a failure to speak truth to power. Indeed, it’s tempting to daydream about what theologically conservative Christianity might look like in 2018 if Graham had been just slightly more willing to afflict the comfortable. Instead, he was a natural moderate who had the misfortune to die in a moment in which fence-sitting has fallen out of favor. Perhaps that’s for the best, at least for this moment in history. But I believe something will be lost if Graham is remembered warmly only by his fellow theological conservatives. Call it self-interest, but I hope his good name endures. 

Read the entire piece here.

“This Embodies Everything Weird About The Role of Women in Evangelicalism”

The title of this post comes from the Facebook page of Adina Johnson, a Ph.D student in American history at Baylor University. (Used with permission).  It is her written reaction to a story on Ruth Graham (the wife of evangelist Billy Graham)  that she discovered during her research in the December 1954 issue of the national evangelical magazine Moody Monthly:

Graham Ruth

Adina did note that pictures of Ruth Graham do appear on subsequent pages of this article.