I receive regular emails from a number of Christian organizations and denominations advocating that I take particular political actions or support specific policies. Last week I was inundated with messages regarding gun control, nearly all of which sought to persuade me that my Christian faith requires me to support a particular policy or political stance.
From Sojourners, Evangelical Jim Wallis argued that people seek guns in reaction to their separation from one another. He noted that while we all want to tell our children they are safe, we cannot, until … Until we improve our gun control laws. Then, apparently, we could decisively tell our children they are safe. For Wallis, America would do the right thing here if only we would allow our faith to overcome our politics:
… if people of faith respond differently just because they are people of faith — that our faith overcomes our politics here, and that gun owners and gun advocates who are people of faith will act in this situation as people of faith, distinctively and differently.
Wallis offers thoughtful theological reasons for his position, and then tells us that he agrees with the judgment of his nine year old son:
“I think that they ought to let people who, like licensed hunters, have guns if they use them to hunt. And people who need guns — who need guns for their job like policemen and army. But I don’t think that we should just let anybody have any kind of gun and any kind of bullets that they want. That’s pretty crazy.”
Not a word on the constitution in this appeal, nor the faintest recognition that inscribed in the American Bill of Rights is the right to bear arms for the purpose – not of hunting, or of serving in government – but of securing the rights of a free people. Faith must not simply overcome our politics, apparently. It must also overcome our constitutional obligations to one another.
The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society likewise calls me to yield to the “moral imperative” of stronger gun control laws, noting that 47 religious leaders have signed a document declaring their support for legislation that would 1) require a criminal background check on anyone purchasing a gun, 2) prohibit civilians from purchasing “high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines”, and 3) make gun trafficking a federal crime. This statement, thankfully, addressed the question of the constitution, though only to state that the signers believe that the steps for which they are calling are compatible with the right to bear arms. Fair enough, though more on this would be helpful. But aside from appealing to safety and common sense, the Methodist Church gives me no biblical or theological reason why I should support this policy, nor does the letter signed by the 47 religious leaders do so.
That might be fine if I wasn’t receiving mail from advocacy arm of an even larger Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggesting a slightly different response. The ERLC sends me Richard Land’s letter to President Obama, calling for caution. Land declares first that “we [i.e., Southern Baptists] affirm and uphold the Second Amendment’s ‘right of the people to keep and bear Arms.’” In contrast to Wallis, Land declares that “no set of policies or gun restrictions can inoculate us from future Newtown-like killing sprees.”
Yet Land says that Southern Baptists “believe our nation can and should take some preemptive actions to quell gun violence in ways that do not infringe on the Second Amendment.” Among these actions Land identifies numbers 1 and 3 from the letter signed by the 47 leaders, but he notably leaves out the proposed prohibition of high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines. Land also calls President Obama to respect local authorities and states rights, asks him to consider taking action to constrain graphic violence in video games and other entertainment and urges consideration of stricter measures to contain potential violence on the part of the mentally unhealthy. Yet like the statement of the 47 leaders, Land gives little theological reason for his positions.
So what is the “Christian” position here? Wallis offers the deepest theological analysis of the appropriate Christian response to the problem of gun violence, but he is most dismissive of constitutional concerns. Land is most sensitive to constitutional constraints, but it’s hard to see how his position is distinctively Christian. There does seem to be a consensus among all three groups that there need to be criminal background checks on gun-purchasers and that gun trafficking needs to be a crime.
But what if our “faith” demands more than the constitution allows, as Wallis’s rhetoric might suggest? On the other hand, what if our faith requires us to submit to a constitution that prevents us from legislating policies we might otherwise have good reason to support? At the same time, what if the positions of the United Methodist and Southern Baptist churches owe more to their political convictions (and respective constitutional interpretations) than to any sort of substantive Christian teaching. What if there is no “Christian” position on gun control?
Unfortunately, the inevitable result of all of this ecclesiastical advocacy is a loss of credibility on the part of the churches. We all know that Wallis and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society lean left, and that Richard Land and the Southern Baptist Convention lean right. We know their respective attitudes toward gun control. And so we take their statements on these matters worth a grain of salt. Nothing has changed except that we all ignore the churches just a little bit more.
In a sense Wallis does hold more credibility because he does not speak for a church. And we do want Christians to reflect on the potential insights of their theology for difficult political problems. Removing religion from political arguments may seem ideal, but in reality it simply obscures the reasons why people support the positions they do, impoverishing public debate. But Wallis’s enormous confidence in the degree to which his own political judgments are the demands of the faith is unwarranted. Unless you already agree with him, he’s probably not going to convince you.
It’s time for American churches (and theologians) to reconsider their claims to authority on matters of politics and policy. The church is charged with the proclamation of the gospel and the whole counsel of God to a suffering and sinful world. The more we waste our “ecclesiastical capital” advocating policies that have little obvious relation with that mission, the more we undermine our own cause.
The Southern Baptists have been debating Calvinism and Arminianism again, and the matter was addressed at the recent historic meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As the Baptist Press reports,
The issue of Calvinism also was addressed from the platform several times, with each speaker urging messengers to remain united for the Great Commission. Executive Committee President Frank Page — who said he’s not a Calvinist — addressed each side of the debate. He told the non-Calvinists: “There seems to be some non-Calvinists who are more concerned about rooting out Calvinists than they are about winning the lost for Christ.” He then addressed Calvinists, some of whom he said “seem to think that if we do not believe the same thing about soteriology that they believe then somehow we are less intelligent or ignorant.” Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation.
The article quotes the outgoing SBC president Bryant Wright:
“Our calling is to be centered on Christ and grounded in the Word, while agreeing to disagree on the finer points of theological issues,” Wright said. “May we all agree that Christ … has given us a very clear message and mission for the church.”
Wright added, “If we pride ourselves more on being a traditional Southern Baptist or more on being a Calvinist or a Reformed theologian, more than we are thankful that we are Christ-centered and biblically based … then it is time to repent of theological idolatry.”
For Reformed and Presbyterian Christians this attitude to Calvinist soteriology is quite interesting. Many Calvinists tend to view the “Five Points of Calvinism” (really the five points of the 17th Century Synod of Dort) as the heart of the gospel rather than as the “finer points of theological issues.” We are often more willing to allow divergence of opinion on the sacraments than on predestination. We are more likely to work closely with Reformed Baptists than with Methodists.
But the Southern Baptists see things differently. In his Imagine! A God-Blessed America Richard Land, the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, distinguishes between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues that divide Christians. Among primary issues, on which there can be no compromise, he lists doctrines like the resurrection of Jesus. Among secondary issues, on which Christians divide denominationally while affirming one another as true Christians, he mentions doctrines like baptism. Among tertiary issues, on which Christians may disagree but should not divide, he lists controversies like Calvinism versus Arminianism. For Baptists, in other words, the sacraments are more important than the debate over predestination.
At first glance John Calvin actually seems to agree with Land. In the Institutes Calvin argues that one may only leave a church if that church shows itself to be a false church, and a church can only be said to be false if it fails to preach the gospel or to properly administer the sacraments. Calvin even clarifies that a church may have many doctrinal problems but that as long as the gospel is preached, believers should not separate from it. From this angle, at least, it seems like Calvin may have been willing to be a Methodist, but that he could not have been a Baptist.
Of course, Reformed believers might quickly respond that the Five Points are essential to the right preaching of the gospel, and that although Baptists do not baptize infants, they still administer the sacrament correctly in virtually all other respects. And I have no disagreement with this claim. My point is not to say that we should not be committed to the Five Points, or that Baptist churches are not true churches. Let me be clear for the record, I would never make that argument, and in fact, I have argued in print against others who do. Many of the best preachers of the gospel are Baptists and one of the most faithful and enriching congregations I have ever worshiped in regularly was Baptist. I am not trying to be critical of the Baptists; on the contrary, I am trying to learn from them.
It is helpful sometimes to reflect on how we determine what doctrinal issues are important. Is predestination really more important than infant baptism? Why do the Baptists (and many other denominations) see it differently? If anything, I suspect we tend to exaggerate the importance of theological formulations concerning salvation and to underestimate the importance of the appointed means of grace in the church. After all, Jesus never outlined the Five Points as such (though I agree, he and his apostles did teach them, as should we). He did give us the sacrament of baptism.
Identity Politics in the Church – when we are obsessed with leaders and movements rather than with the truth
The Southern Baptist Convention is changing. For the first time in the denomination’s 167 year history, a black man, Fred Luter, will probably be elected as its president. Meanwhile, Richard Land, arguably Southern Baptists’ most prominent public voice and a staunch social conservative, has received a stern rebuke from the board of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is being forced to shut down his radio show Richard Land Live! Land has apologized for the comments he made regarding the Trayvon Martin shooting as well as for the plagiarism of which he was guilty.
While insiders characterize Luter’s anticipated election as a watershed moment for a denomination started by slave owners, some observers outside the SBC voice skepticism about the true potential impact on race relations.
“The real issue is whether denominational leaders, of whom Land is perhaps the most public right now … have any intent on sharing real denominational leadership with Luter or other non-whites outside the traditional networks of denominational power,” said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
The problem is, as even the above photo suggests, it is all too easy for critics to characterize the drama surrounding Luter and Land in terms of basic features of political and racial identity.
[David] Goatley predicted that Land’s statements would continue to carry more weight than those of Luter.
“No president with one or two years … can hope to have substantial influence in comparison to an agency leader who has served for decades … and nurtured a public persona that identifies him as a—or the—principal spokesperson for the organization,” said Goatley, a national board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In reality, Land has been a major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention’s progress in racial reconciliation, and it is very evident from his body of work that he takes the interracial identity of the SBC very seriously. He has apologized for his comments after the Trayvon Martin shooting, and he has the support of Luter.
“Our convention has made a lot of progress in the area of racial reconciliation, and we want to continue this effort,” Luter said. “Dr. Land’s letter of apology will hopefully keep us on track. I accept his apology and will look forward to working with him and others within this convention to tear down the walls of racism in our great country.”
These sorts of stories are the direct result of our cultural fascination with great personalities and dramatic confrontations. It does not matter that Luter and Land may agree on virtually every major issue currently faced by the SBC. It does not matter that the denomination has made dramatic progress on race relations, or that Land has been a part of that. People have their associations, sound-bites have their effect, and complex reality is so much more boring than the drama of racial and political conflict. Yet it is highly doubtful that any of this really matters much for the practical life and witness of Southern Baptist Christians.
Unfortunately, many conflicts among Christians are a lot like this. Believers don’t simply have their commitments on points of faith or matters of virtue; they love and are devoted to particular leaders, institutions, or movements. And so often the disputes that we pretend are really about substantive theology are actually just proxies for arguments about identity and politics. And the blogosphere is increasingly a big part of this. Because of its very nature as immediate digital communication, because anyone can start a blog, sound smart, and cause trouble no matter who he or she is, and because its constituency includes many who are tempted to limit their reading to what is exciting and short, the blogosphere breeds off of conflict and sensationalism.
Not all of this is bad. We need to talk about prominent people, movements, and institutions, and politics matters. But none of this should be our focus, and we need to be aware of how much it distracts us from what is really important. Our identity and purpose is tied up with Jesus Christ and the faith once handed down to the saints. Our goal is to believe and witness to the truth in a spirit of love and Christ-like virtue. All Christians, whether black or white, conservative or liberal, two kingdoms or Neo-Calvinist, Reformed or Evangelical, have this common ground.
Don’t forget, the world loves its drama too, and the media enjoys portraying the inconsistencies and conflicts among Christians. It is certainly in our best interests, and the best interests of the gospel, to focus on our common faith and our common Lord, not in order to downplay important differences, but to work together and gradually erase those differences in a spirit of mutual solidarity. The world – and our Lord – is watching.
The Tennessean has an excellent article out on Richard Land discussing the investigation of Land’s controversial remarks on the Trayvon Martin shooting as well as his confession of having been guilty of plagiarism on his radio show Richard Land Live! Land has been a crucial figure in contemporary Christian public theology for the past few decades. He has far more influence among most Christians (and with the media) than does anyone in the Reformed world. Lest we be distracted to the point of obscurity by our own petty in-house debates, we should pay attention to Richard Land.
Land, as the article points out, is a warrior for the Christian Right, closely identified with the Republican Party, even as he has degrees from Princeton and Oxford. He understands how to engage liberalism and academia in a thoughtful and friendly way, and so he holds grudging respect from many in the academy and the media. Indeed, Senator Joe Lieberman, recent Democratic nominee for vice-president, wrote the Forward to Land’s latest book, The Divided States of America. While Land takes traditional conservative positions on matters of sexuality, abortion, the size of government, and taxation, he has also been a leading figure in more liberal causes like immigration reform and racial reconciliation. Land strongly defends the Baptist tradition of the separation of church and state and was critical of Alabama Judge Roy Moore for defying authority by refusing to take down his display of the Ten Commandments.
What makes Land so interesting is his view of America and the church’s role in America. Land believes America was an essentially godly nation before the 1960s hit, and he argues that many of the problems our country faces today are a direct result of the turn away from God since that time. He wrote a whole book explaining how the famous promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”) continues to apply to America. As he put it in that book, “In this passage God defines the conditions for His blessing on any nation – the people of God must get right with Him.” (xii) God is waiting for his people to turn to him, and if a sufficient number of people do that with a sufficient degree of piety and faith, they will reach a “divine tipping-point” at which time God will pour out his blessing on their land. “God has already established the conditions under which He will bless America, and what that America would look like. This primary Scripture passage provides a blueprint for restoration of a nation.”(13)
Land wrote a sequel to that book explaining “how it could happen and what it would look like,” urging Christians to take up their tasks of cultural engagement in order to bring about a God-blessed America.
Let us refuse to leave the future of this country to those who dream impossible dreams of man-made utopias. Let us refuse to settle for merely ‘Christian’ dreams, which never rise above wishful thinking, while we wring our hands and tsk our tongues over how much worse things will get before Christ returns. Let us commit ourselves to a vision of humbling ourselves, praying, seeking God’s face, and turning from our wicked ways … a vision of what our country might become if the blessing of God Almighty began to turn the tide. (xiii)
Land pounds his readers with the warning that it is our own fault if this does not occur. “But if we don’t envision it, it won’t happen. And it won’t happen unless individual people of faith commit themselves to living godly lives.” (5)
Land, it is crucial to remember, is not just a thoughtful Christian employed by a think tank or university. He is a minister of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). His office is to speak for the church, and under his leadership the ERLC urges Southern Baptists to vote their values by rejecting policies like Obamacare, or Cap and Trade. If you think the church should apply Scripture to policy and politics in concrete and practical ways, Richard Land is your man.
Any man with the influence and prestige of Richard Land will create many enemies. And in recent months those enemies have struck, accusing Land of racism and plagiarism. It is no accident that these are charges that hold most power among the mainstream media and among academic elites. As the Tennessean quotes one critic,
[Robert] Parham thinks Land is more a Republican activist than a Christian leader. He said Land’s influence among Baptists is waning.
“I don’t see Land as influential among rank-and-file Southern Baptists, not as a mega-church preacher or a seminary president would be,” he said. “His main constituency is probably the media, which given the media’s aversion to plagiarism ought to be a major problem for him.”
While it is true that Land does not speak for all Southern Baptists, and while it is true that the media probably enhances his influence and prestige because of its own fascination with him, Land nevertheless does speak for massive numbers of Evangelical Christians in this country. That’s precisely why his enemies want him removed.
Not all of Land’s opponents are liberals, however. Some recognize that there is something inherently problematic about having one man speak for a whole denomination in such concrete political ways.
The Rev. James Porch, former head of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, believes it’s time for Land to go — and not just because of the current controversy. He believes that for many people, Land has become the face and voice of the Southern Baptist Convention. But no one person speaks for Baptists, he said.
“Any time someone tries to speak for the denomination, they have exceeded their authority,” he said. “It’s a violation of Baptist polity.”
What happens to Land in the next few months is a crucial story to watch, not so much because of what it says about Land, but because what it says about what kind of denomination the Southern Baptist Convention wants to be. Given that it is the largest Protestant denomination in America, and a conservative Evangelical one at that, we should pay close attention.