Pope Francis and the Need for Christian Political Liberalism

Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.

This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”

Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”

There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,

Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.

The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.

[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.

Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”

Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.

To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”

These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.

I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.

Pope Francis Fails to Mention Jesus Before Congress

If the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter were given the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress, do you think they would mention the name of Jesus? Pope Francis allegedly occupies the place of St. Peter, the bishopric of Rome. Though often introduced as the “leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics,” his primary claim is to be the vicar of Jesus Christ. And yet the pope did not find it necessary to name the name of Jesus when he addressed Congress yesterday (transcript here; Nor did he mention Jesus’ name when speaking at the White House reception on Wednesday).

I am not the sort of person to be instinctively critical of Pope Francis, and I have praised his work before. Indeed, I largely agree with what he said in his speech about the importance of hospitality to the immigrant, care for the environment, justice for the poor, the protection of life, and the nurture of families. But I cannot get my mind around the fact that he mentioned all of this without saying why any of it matters. He did not even mention the name Jesus, or Christ, let alone say anything about Jesus’ death, resurrection, or future return.

Some of my Catholic friends are concerned about this too, and rightly so. Is Francis not as committed to the “new evangelization” as we had hoped?

Pope Francis has the attention of virtually the entire United States right now. The media is covering every word, every act, every moment of his visit. And what is the media talking about? Politics. Whether the pope’s comments benefit the right or the left, whether he’s helping Republicans or Democrats. No one, it would seem, cares much about the substance of the pope’s faith regarding Jesus. And why should they? The pope hasn’t mentioned Jesus, so Jesus must not be an important part of the pope’s message to America.

An atheist friend enthusiastically wrote on Facebook yesterday, “I am an atheist, and I love this Pope!” A writer for the Huffington Post happily declares that America has a “man crush” on Pope Francis. All people are speaking well of him.

There was a time when Jesus warned his disciples that such favorable reception on the part of “all men” is not a good sign (Luke 6:26). He warned them that the world would treat those who speak Jesus’ message as it treated Jesus himself (Matthew 5:11; 24:9). Prepared for this, the disciples insisted on doing everything that they did “in the name of Jesus,” using every opportunity, even when confronted by those in authority, to proclaim the good news of his death, resurrection, and future return. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).

The disciples’ opponents didn’t mind the good works, the acts of healing, the care for the poor. What bothered them was that the disciples were doing these things “in the name of Jesus.” As we read in Acts 4:18, the authorities permitted the disciples to carry out their ministry but “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” Peter’s response was that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20). When it became apparent that the disciples were more than willing to defy the authorities, they were arrested again. The council reminded them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name” (5:28). What did Peter say? “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).

This was precisely the point of conflict that cost the disciples their freedom and eventually their lives. Even when prohibited from speaking the name of Jesus on penalty of imprisonment, torture, and death, they insisted that this was fundamental to their basic witness.

Yet in the land that the Pope himself described as the home of the free and the brave, to enthusiastic applause, he cannot find it in himself to even mention Jesus’ name.

This was the first time a pope has ever addressed a joint session of Congress, and Francis is a very popular pope. He has the ear of the country.

He didn’t have to beat the heads of Congress with a jeremiad. He didn’t have to get theological or even evangelistic. He didn’t have to highlight any particular moral or political issue. He was more than justified in being, as Jesus put it, as crafty as a serpent and as innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16).

But he could have, at the very least, reminded his audience that he speaks for Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who came to dwell among us, died, and rose again, that human beings might have life in his name. He could have winsomely described that hope in just a few sentences, as we know he has done so eloquently before, before moving on to other matters appropriate for a joint session of Congress. No one would have questioned it. He is, after all, the pope, whose most basic claim is to be the vicar of Christ on earth.

Now the whole country is talking about the pope and the pope’s politics, but no one is talking about Jesus or the gospel. What a sad day. What a wasted opportunity.

How Do We Know What God Intended For Sexuality?

In one of his famous dialogues with the Pharisees Jesus skillfully appealed to creation norms to trump the part of the Mosaic Code that permitted men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons.

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. . . . Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:4-6, 8-9)

Here Jesus intertwined the teachings of Genesis 1 and 2 to tie marriage indelibly to the ordering of human beings as male and female, an ordering that was itself indelibly tied to God’s purposes for sexuality and procreation. By linking the sexual relationship between male and female introduced in Genesis 1 to the one flesh union introduced in Genesis 2, Jesus pronounced judgment on all legal engineering that would reduce marriage to something else (in the case of Matthew 19, an opportunity for men to treat women like slaves).

Read the rest of this article at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Cutting Ties With the Founders

The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.

Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.

The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.

But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.

But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.

It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.

As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.

Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?

What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.

We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.

Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.

The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.

Hiroshima, 70 Years Later: My Country Right or Wrong?

Today is the seventieth anniversary of Hiroshima. On this day, seventy years ago, the United States used an atomic bomb in warfare for the first time in history. Another would follow, dropped on Nagasaki three days later. It is no exaggeration to say that since that time the world has been fixated on making sure that no nuclear weapon is ever used again. At this very time the American Congress debates whether or not to support President Obama’s recent agreement with Iran, designed to prevent Iran from attaining the capability the United States already used against Japan a lifetime ago.

The single bomb used on this day, August 6, was not used against a military target. It was dropped on an urban area, a major population center with hundreds of thousands of civilians, including the elderly, women, and children. Some 85,000 people were killed either instantly or within the first day. Many, many more died in the days and months following. Within four months the death toll reached as high as 165,000, the vast majority of whom were civilians. For the survivors, that was just the beginning of the ordeal.

As one who experienced it writes today,

As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.

Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometers from Ground Zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help. As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city. Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast. They were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out….

Of a population of 360,000 — largely non-combatant women, children and elderly — most became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. As of now, over 250,000 victims have perished in Hiroshima from the effects of the blast, heat and radiation. 70 years later, people are still dying from the delayed effects of one atomic bomb, considered crude by today’s standard for mass destruction.

Many Americans are as convinced that the United States was right in using the atomic bomb against Japan as they are that the United States has the right to bomb Iran in order to prevent it from developing the same capability. The two situations are hardly the same, of course, and there are sophisticated arguments in defense of each position. But quite often, I fear, the opinion stems from little more than an instinct that amounts to “My country, right or wrong.”

In fact, both arguments – that the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and that the United States is justified in bombing Iran should it develop nuclear weapons today – are flatly contradictory to classic Christian just war theory. This is hard for patriotic American Christians to admit, but it is no less clear for that.

During the 1940s, it is true, Japan was a dangerous, imperialistic aggressor that had rashly launched the United States, Asia, and the Pacific into World War II. Millions of innocent people paid for Japan’s imperialism with their lives, and many more suffered unspeakably. The U.S. government accurately reasoned that thousands of American soldiers would have to die to bring the Empire of the Sun to its knees. Given this scenario it is understandable that President Truman decided that it was better for many more Japanese people to die than for more American soldiers to die. But that does not make it right, nor does it lessen the horror of what America did.

It was a decision that emerged within the context of the Allied strategy used against both Germany and Japan during the final years of the war. Major cities were targeted because they contained hundreds of thousands of civilians. They were carpet bombed and firebombed. The Allied strategy was not only to destroy the Axis powers’ military and industrial capacity; it was to terrorize their populations into refusing to support the war effort. The culmination of a long road of military reasoning that began with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s determination to make the people of Georgia know that “War is hell,” it was a blatant violation of the just war principle that says that innocent civilians are never to be targeted with lethal force in military operations. It was rationalized by the assumption that it was justified by in the context of civilization-threatening Total War.

The Cold War showed us just where this attitude toward Total War could lead; the attitude itself threatens civilization. In recent decades America’s approach to war has shifted accordingly. The United States military worked hard not to target civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the motivation for the invasion of Iraq and the potential use of military force against Iran are driven by the determination to secure the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But the irony is that this determination has led to a new violation of just war theory, a violation of the principle that war is only to be waged when necessary to defend a nation from an aggressor that is already in the act of waging war or some commensurate injustice. This violation is rationalized based on the principle, first clearly articulated by President Bush’s administration, that preemptive war is sometimes necessary to prevent an aggressor from waging war before it begins. Once again, it is assumed that this course of action is necessary in order to preserve civilization from otherwise imminent destruction.

My point is not to reduce our memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to its relevance for present day policy (though we can’t afford to ignore its lessons). These events – and the people who suffered from them – should be commemorated in their own right. But one of the appropriate ways to commemorate them is to reflect on the consequences of human sin – the sheer depths of evil to which nations can fall even when they are acting according to what they deem the purist motives and the obliterating destruction with which humanity is now threatened on a permanent basis.

Does God see it? Does God care about this and other injustices? How long, O Lord? The answer to the problem of evil remains unsolved, but God has made it clear what side he is on. He hears the oppressed and he answers their cry. He judges evil, though not ultimately in the way that we might expect. To paraphrase Ellie Wiesel, where was God at Auschwitz? He was on the gallows. Where was God at Hiroshima? He was among the charred remains, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

One hundred and sixty-five thousand human beings, each with their families, their stories, their hopes, their struggles. One bomb. And that’s what the good guys did. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t forget it. How long O Lord?

Why is the Gospel ‘Good News’?

One of the reasons why many Christians are struggling to determine the appropriate response to America’s affirmation of homosexuality – and why some are even arguing that the church should embrace homosexual practice – is that they grasp that the Gospel is supposed to be good news. The Gospel is supposed to be liberating. The Gospel brings salvation, not judgment.

How can Christians, who are supposed to represent good news, be identified with a political and cultural position that is associated with animus and bigotry? What has gone wrong? Is the traditional Christian position on homosexuality misguided? Even if we assume that the world is wrong to denigrate this traditional position as one of animus or bigotry, surely no Christian can be comfortable with this state of affairs. No Christian can take lightly the fact that the Christian witness is being interpreted primarily as one of judgment.

I realize that some Christians think we solve this problem if we simply distinguish between politics and the church. Then we can oppose gay marriage at the political level while showing love and grace at the personal level. But what about our churches? Increasingly it is not just the mainline churches who want to welcome those practicing homosexuality to the Lord’s Table; prominent evangelicals are moving in this direction too. The reality is that the angst Christians have experienced dealing with homosexuality at the political level is nothing compared to the angst they ought to feel witnessing to the Gospel’s implications for sexuality at the personal level, and in the church.

At a time such as this we need to remind ourselves why our witness regarding homosexuality needs to be rooted in the Gospel, not just the law, and we need to wrestle more deeply with why the Gospel is ‘Good News.’ Too often Christians have assumed that by standing for what the law says about sexuality they are fulfilling their obligation to witness to Christ. They have imagined that opposing gay marriage in and of itself is standing for the Truth, capital T. And then they wonder why gays, lesbians, and various liberals do not see the graciousness of the Gospel.

Christian witness is not fundamentally about standing up for the law. Nonbelievers don’t need us for that. That is what the conscience is for. The law is written on human hearts (Romans 1-2).

What nonbelievers need Christians for is their witness to the Gospel. What men and women who practice homosexuality need to receive from Christians is a clear sense of how in the world the Gospel is Good News, not just for the righteous, but for gays and lesbians.

But how can a message that rejects a person’s very identity be received as Good News? This question lies at the heart of the anxiety many Christians feel about the church’s response to gays and lesbians.

What is the Gospel? Stated most simply, it is the good news that because he loves the world infinitely, God has sent his only Son to take the world’s sorrow upon himself, in order that the world might be saved from sin, oppression, and death. He accomplished this through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, reconciling all things to himself, such that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to lead men, women, and children to faith in order that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins, empowerment for a life of love and justice, and the promise of life in the coming kingdom of God.

This is fundamentally a message of liberation. When Jesus first preached this Gospel of the Kingdom he proclaimed it in the form of blessings on those who found themselves on the underside of history. It is an approach that much of the contemporary church has long forgotten but that we would do well to recover. (We tell ourselves that the beatitudes of Matthew and Luke are purely ‘spiritual,’ which seems to mean that they don’t really mean what they say.)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. (Matthew 5:3-6)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)

Does the church preach this Gospel today? Is this the message for which we are known?

We live in a world in which the masses who do not believe the Gospel are desperately trying to make meaning for themselves. Women and men pour their energies into all manner of ambition, sensuality, self-righteousness, and idolatry (the buzz words are success, self-expression, affirmation, and fulfillment) because they think that they can find happiness in the pursuit of these things. As time hurtles by, reducing all of us to decay and death in a series of accidents without meaning, people existentially cling to their autonomy as the only means of attaining some small measure of happiness. The opportunities for pleasure and fulfillment seem endless, but the enterprise is ultimately futile, the sheer weight of expectations crushing our accomplishments, relationships, and manufactured identities.

This is a scenario ripe for good news.

True, there are some people who are so invested in this futility that they will consistently reject the Gospel. Their minds are too darkened by the present age to see good news when it is staring them in the face. But there are many others who grasp that their deepest desires cannot be fulfilled by this world, that it cannot liberate them from the powers and failures that oppress them.

What Christians need to communicate to these children of God, many of whom are gay and lesbian, is that the Gospel brings with it complete salvation: not just the forgiveness of sins, not just the end of homosexual practices, not just personal affirmation, but complete salvation, the fulfillment of every purpose and desire for which we were created in the God who is love. It clears away our inadequacy and guilt by paying the price of sin, it tears down our pride and self-righteousness by filling us with love for our neighbors, and it ends our need to manufacture and fulfill our own identity by identifying our purpose in faithful response to the love of God.

Yes, the way in this life will be hard. It will require tremendous self-denial on the part of gay and straight alike. In the short term we have nothing to offer but that a person deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Christ. But while this is a hard way, it is also a fulfilling way because it is the way of Truth. In the long run it is easy and light because it leads to Life. And in the end, that is what many people so desperately desire. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Let’s show it to them.

Should Christians Respect the World?

One of the basic themes of Rosaria Butterfield’s book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, is the importance of hospitality and friendship. It is no exaggeration to say that Butterfield was converted through friendship. She emphasizes the fact that the pastor who led her to Christ neither shared the gospel with her nor invited her to church during their first visit.

Midway through the book Butterfield describes her distress when moving into a red Republican county for the first time and seeing placards with Scripture verses everywhere. This disturbed her on at least two levels. First, as she puts it, “Political advocacy plastered next to Bible verses makes me anxious.” No matter how much some conservative Christians might believe their faith requires them to vote Republican (or at least to vote against the Democrats), it is an abuse of the word to claim its authority for that conviction.

But the placards also disturbed Butterfield because they inevitably take Scripture out of context and separate it from any context of hospitality or friendship.”Do these Bible verses that sit on placards take up the same cultural space as the rainbow flag that once resided on my flagpole? Are these ‘Welcome’ signs or signs that read ‘Insiders Only’?”

She illustrates the point with respect to the oft-placarded verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Why is this verse so often separated from the one that follows it?

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

Butterfield observes,

This verse gives me greater clarity into how to read the one that comes before it. It tells me that if Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, then neither should Christians… [T]he domain of Christian witness is not salvation (that is God’s work) but service – selfless love and sacrifice.

The implication that she draws is that Christians are too quick to deliver a message without showing any concern for individual persons as unique persons. The point, of course, is not really primarily about placards.

Bible verses that front salvation over Christian service, instead of being important interfaces between Christian homes and the watching world, seemed like sneaky little raids, quick and insulated targets into culture, with no sense that a worldview of care lay behind them.

Christians may think in their heart of hearts that getting a point across, taking a stand, or quoting the Bible is the most loving thing they can possibly do. And such actions are often motivated by loving concern. But that is not how they are usually received. Why not? Because as delivered they remain abstract; they could be delivered in just the same way to any given number of people; they can even be communicated through Twitter. They reflect no particular love for this particular individual as a particular individual with all of her own cares and concerns. They suggest that we might be willing to have a relationship, but it will be on our terms and in our world.

Of course, Butterfield is not trying to take anything away from the importance of Scripture or of the preaching of the word. Anyone who has read her book knows that these channels of grace loom large for her, both in the way that they proclaim the “forgiveness of sins” and in the way they warn about the one who will “come to judge the living and the dead.” But in a society that is not Christian, as much as so many Christians insist on assuming and acting as if it is, these messages must take place in contexts of service and friendship.

This is, after all, the model of the New Testament. The apostles, prophets, and pastors were called to proclaim the message of salvation, but most Christians were called to follow Christ in a manner attractive to the world by fulfilling their various vocations of service. The Apostle Peter exhorts Christians not to use their faith as an excuse to be disobedient, belligerent, or obnoxious, but to do good to others in a spirit of love and humility, always being prepared to suffer at the hands of the unjust.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)

This is the context for Peter’s call to believers always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them, yet to

do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:16)

What is the meaning of this word ‘respect’ that Peter uses? Perhaps that’s what Christians often struggle to show to the world, and perhaps that is one of the dimensions of what Butterfield is calling us to think about. When we interact with nonbelievers, no matter what the controversy or circumstance, do we communicate respect?

How Did Christians Lose the University?

Rosaria Butterfield was a professor of women’s studies who specialized in Queer Theory at Syracuse University. A practicing lesbian, she was an activist in the gay and lesbian community until she converted to Christianity in 1999. She is now a Reformed Presbyterian.

Given such a story, you might expect Butterfield to have an interesting perspective on the relationship between Christians and the academy. And you will not be disappointed. Only seven pages into her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield declares that she maintains her appreciation for the university and her respect for feminism:

Although I live my life now for Christ and Christ alone, I do not find myself in like-minded company when my fellow Christians bemoan the state of the university today. Feminism has a better reputation than Christianity at all major U.S. universities and this fact really bothers (and confuses) many Christians…

But how has the church responded to this truth? Too often the church sets itself up as a victim of this paradigm shift in America, but I think this is dishonest. Here’s what I think happened: Since all major U.S. universities had Christian roots, too many Christians thought that they could rest in Christian tradition, not Christian relevance.

These words accurately capture many Christians’ bewilderment about what has taken place during the past few decades. The academy, leading the culture, has abandoned Christian teaching about gender and sexual ethics wholesale. Not only are sexual promiscuity and divorce widely accepted, not only have traditional gender roles been widely jettisoned, but the very normativity of sexual complementarity has lots its persuasive power. And it has lost persuasive power not only to a few fringe radicals in the academy, mind you, but to the very people who determine the highest law of the land. Christians are not shocked because they do not expect to witness evil in this life. They are shocked because these developments defy what Christians think are the most basic common sense assumptions possible about the differences between male and female.

Butterfield’s words confirm what many Christians are only beginning to realize. Our worldview – our moral paradigm – is not nearly as intuitive or persuasive as we have imagined it to be. The authority of our churches and our sacred texts is nowhere nearly as widely respected as we thought it was. We are quite out of touch. We have not been engaged. We have been resting on the laurels of more than a thousand years of Christendom. As Butterfield puts it,

Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue. There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted. Like it or not, in the court of public opinion, feminists and not Bible-believing Christians have won the war of intellectual integrity.

A few points jump out at me from Butterfield’s reflections.

1) Attempting to impose our moral framework on American law is not the same as being engaged in the nation’s moral conversation. We have too often confused political activism with thoughtful engagement. If we can’t even persuade the country to uphold marriage at a civil level, what does that say for our ability to witness to the need for the gospel at a moral and spiritual level?

2) Preaching at people – proclaiming the truth – is not the same thing as communicating. We need to proclaim the gospel, of course, but we have too often confused the bare declaration of various messages found in Scripture with the thoughtful engagement that comes from wrestling with what the word of God has to say in light of what we learn from observing, listening, loving and conversing with our neighbors and fellow citizens. We prefer to imitate the way the apostles confronted the covenant people of God (i.e., Acts 4) rather than the way they witnessed to the Gentiles (i.e., Acts 17). We mimic the way Jesus confronted the Pharisees (Matthew 23) rather than the way he ministered to “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 14-15). But America is not the covenant people of God and Americans are not – by and large – Pharisees.

3) Our inability to wrestle with the way the word of God speaks to contemporary culture in a thoughtful, humble way communicates a lack of integrity on our part. Why? Because a tendency simply to preach at people as if they share our basic assumptions about life – while ignoring the fact that they don’t – shows that we do not respect them. We do not take them seriously. We are not willing to learn from them, let alone grant them equality in a conversation. What we think is faithfulness looks to the world an awful lot like arrogance. And Christians, of all people, should know that this is a problem. The Christian tradition has a lot to say about the evil of pride.

We have a lot of work to do, and not primarily at the political level. As James Davison Hunter argued several years ago in his book, To Change the World, we need to be less focused on politics and more focused on culture, less focused on power and more focused on people, less focused on winning and more focused on witnessing.

I think our situation is a little bit like that of a husband and wife whose conversation has gradually escalated to the point where they are talking past one another and each is equally frustrated that the other person is not listening – no doubt willfully. It is time to step back, do some real soul-searching, and think about what and how we are communicating. Communication does not simply consist in declaring what you think and feel is true. Communication is a two-way street. Messages must be received and understood, not simply delivered. And that can only happen in contexts of respect, friendship, and trust.

As in a marriage, if we think the fault is all on the other side we are sadly deluded. In that case, the road ahead will be quite rocky indeed.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Gospel Politics

Reformation 21 has published the third part of my series on Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race. It is entitled “Gospel Politics” and seeks to contrast King’s tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the gospel to the segregationists’ tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the Old Testament. At the heart of it lies King’s critique of the southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, a doctrine that had a lot in common with a certain contemporary version of the two kingdoms doctrine. As King put it,

I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’ … In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

What was King’s alternative? Whereas conservative southern Presbyterians tended to interpret the relevance of God’s natural moral law for society and politics through the prism of the Old Testament, King interpreted that same law in light of what he understood to be the meaning of the Gospel for the dignity of the individual human being.

Read the article here. Read parts 1 and 2 in this series here and here.

Can Christianity and Liberalism Coexist?

In a thoughtful and honest article at Reformation500 Stephen Wolfe suggests that in my work Reformed social ethics has taken a “social egalitarian turn.” Wolfe is responding to my series of articles on Presbyterians and Race at Reformation 21. He specifically highlights this claim that I made:

The real problem was the interpretation of the concept of ‘spirituality’ through the lens of an underrealized eschatology. By stressing that the Gospel does not affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class southern Presbyterians were bound to have a bias towards the status quo, and they were bound to turn to the Old Testament as an alternative source for guidance about the nature of a godly society.

Wolfe agrees that southern racism was unjust. That is not his concern. His concern is that my article touches, if only in passing, on other forms of social hierarchy as well, and he fears that my arguments suggest that I disagree with the classic Christian position on social hierarchy. As he puts it,

The ideas that the Gospel does not significantly affect social structures of nation, gender, and class and that social hierarchy is natural are standard positions in the Christian tradition. Major figures in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist traditions are in agreement on this.

Wolfe offers numerous quotes from leading theologians, including Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, to prove this point. He seems comfortable endorsing what he himself calls a “‘spiritualized’ gospel.” He concludes with this claim:

Conservative Protestants have bought into the promises and premises of modern liberalism, and they proclaim it with confidence without having acknowledged and dealt with the dominant view in the Christian tradition. This must change.

I am grateful to Wolfe for his engagement of my essays, and I want to take this opportunity to clarify a few points about my views.

Read the rest of this article here, at the Calvinist International.


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