Search Results for Richard Land
Richard Land is resigning as head of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The official announcement is here. Land has been the president of the ERLC for 25 years and is one of the most important – perhaps the most important – leaders of the Christian Right. He is particularly important for those concerned about the role of the church in politics because unlike most leaders of the Christian Right, he actually represents and speaks for a denomination. Under Land the ERLC advocated all sorts of policy proposals and particular pieces of legislation in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, pertaining to issues ranging from abortion and immigration to global warming and sex trafficking.
I have written about Land a few times in the past (here and here), and I have commented on the scandal that lies behind his current resignation. I won’t repeat all of that now, but I do want to make a few comments about Land’s approach to the church’s involvement in politics. As the announcement reports,
Land made it clear in his letter he is retiring only from the ERLC, “not from the ministry, or from what is popularly called the ‘culture war.’”
“When God called me into the ministry a half century ago, the burden He placed on my heart was for America,” wrote Land, who recently began his 50th year in the gospel ministry. “That call and that burning burden are still there. I believe the ‘culture war’ is a titanic struggle for our nation’s soul and as a minister of Christ’s Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle.”
As Land makes quite clear here, he believes the task of a minister of the church is to fight for the soul of the country, not simply to proclaim a gospel that saves individuals or the church. Readers might be puzzled by what he means by the nation’s “soul”, but in his many books Land explains that he thinks that if enough people in a country serve the Lord faithfully that country will reach a tipping point of divine blessing. At that point, in fulfillment to Old Testament prophecies like 2 Chronicles 7:14, God will exalt the entire country, morally, economically, and politically.
Part of what that means for Land is that Christians need to vote their values, serving the Lord by working hard to make sure that national policy is Christian. To be sure, Land consistently defends the separation of church and state; he is no theocrat or theonomist. But he is most certainly a transformationalist of the most energetic sort. As those paying attention to the recent primary cycle will recall, he does not hesitate to communicate his support for the Republican Party, or even for one primary candidate over another.
There are some who argue that Land has never really spoken for the majority of Southern Baptists, and that the SBC is not as solidly in line with the Christian Right as Land’s reputation would make it seem. There are others who believe the Christian Right is in decline, and I’m sure they’ll point to Land’s resignation as another example of this trend. I’m not sure about either of them. Pundits and intellectuals constantly claim the Christian Right is in decline and that it fails to represent the concerns of most Christians. Yet the Right keeps coming back, significantly influencing election after election. It also remains to be seen what Land’s new role in the Christian Right will be.
For conservative Christians Land should certainly be respected for his role in bringing the Southern Baptist Convention from the brink of Mainline liberalism and for his effectiveness of ensuring that the SBC would be a pro-life denomination.
Land’s hiring in 1988 came amid the ongoing effort by Southern Baptist supporters of biblical inerrancy to restore the convention to its theological roots. Conservative trustees of what was then known as the Christian Life Commission (CLC) had a majority after nearly a decade of appointments to the entity’s board.
The CLC had never had a truly pro-life head since abortion had become a culture-cleaving issue in the 1960s, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalizing the procedure for effectively any reason throughout pregnancy. Foy Valentine, a courageous voice on race relations, was firmly entrenched in the pro-choice camp and fought pro-life efforts within the convention. Larry Baker, Valentine’s successor after more than a quarter of a century of service, did not promote a pro-choice agenda when he took office in 1987, but he also was not a committed pro-lifer. Baker’s tenure lasted only 19 months before he left for a pastorate.
Land took office and began turning the entity in a pro-life-–and more conservative–-direction while stabilizing an agency that was in serious financial straits.
Now Land is stepping down. What this will do in terms of the public voice and image of Southern Baptists remains to be seen.
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.
In his excellent book on New Testament ethics, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, possibly the most significant book on New Testament ethics to be published in the past two decades, Richard Hays writes,
Many of his Jewish compatriots, including fellow Jewish Christians, were scandalized by the freedom with which Paul dismissed the particular commandments of the Torah, fearing that his preaching provided carte blanche for the flesh. (It is a peculiar irony that in the modern – and ‘postmodern’ – world, Christianity has come to be regarded as narrow and moralistic. Originally, it was quite the reverse: figures such as Jesus and Paul were widely regarded as rebels, antinomians, disturbers of decency.) (36-37)
Hays points out that Paul tended to resist the emphasis on rules or even on moral striving per say, preferring to emphasize the example of Christ and the good of the Christian community on the one hand, and the work of the Spirit on the other.
[T]he sanctified conduct Paul expects of the Galatians is not so much the product of moral striving as that of allowing the mysterious power of God’s Spirit to work in and through them. Where God’s Spirit is at work, Paul contends, the result will be peace and holiness, not moral anarchy. (37)
Paul was well aware that his gospel was viewed as antinomian by some, but he was not generous to those who misrepresented the freedom of the gospel as leading to moral relativism. As Hays puts it, commenting on Romans 3:7-8, “At this stage of the letter, Paul does not really answer the objection except by rejecting it as a ‘slander’, a reprehensible misconstrual of his gospel.” (37)
Nevertheless, and this is important, Paul does not tone down his rhetoric about the radical message of the gospel. In Romans 5:19, Hays points out, “Paul provocatively restates his message of grace in terms perilously close to the ‘slander’ he had rejected earlier” (38):
But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through [Christ’s] righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20b-21)
Paul goes on to demonstrate why it is precisely the freedom of the gospel that brings about genuine righteousness in the next few chapters of Romans. Hays summarizes,
The great difficulty with the Law of Moses, according to Paul, was that it could only point to righteousness, never actually produce it… Consequently, even where the hearer of the Law applauds the vision of the moral life conveyed by the Torah – as indeed we should, since the commandment of the Law is ‘holy and just and good’ (Rom 7:12) – the Law can produce only condemnation and frustration. (44)
The solution, for Paul, is the gospel, and the Christian life is one that is lived according to the Spirit, not according to a written code of rules and regulations.
For God has done what the Law – weak on account of the flesh – could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4)
One of the very important implications of this fact – that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that changes lives – is the sobering and yet often ignored reality that man-made rules and regulations designed to protect righteousness – often with the best and most pious of intentions – entirely fail to create true righteousness. In fact, insofar as they distract us from the power of the gospel itself, these human rules might even be detrimental. As Paul writes echoing Jesus’ warning against those who teach as doctrines of God the commandments of men (Matthew 15),
If with Christ you died to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)
Protecting the church from being dominated by human rules and regulations is no minor obligation. It is essential not simply to protect the gospel. It is essential if we actually want people’s lives to change, if we want to help them to stop the “indulgence of the flesh.” Even love for the weaker brother, in that sense, demands that we help them get to the heart of the matter, rather than focusing on externals.
Taking a gospel-centered approach to the Christian life may well result in you being called an antinomian and a relativist at times. And that can be as discouraging as it is frustrating. But don’t worry. You are in good company with the likes of Jesus and Paul, and you are standing up for what really saves. That’s worth it.
A week ago I received a report from the International Crisis Group that began with the following warning:
Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.
The report goes on to identify the various arguments in favor of the attack – and then to refute them.
- The United States wants to punish, deter, and prevent the use of chemical weapons. Response: But the use of chemical weapons account for perhaps 1% of the 100,000+ deaths the Syrian people have suffered during the past few years, many of them (but not all) at the hands of the Assad regime.
- The United States needs to attack in order to preserve its credibility, President Barack Obama having declared that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line that would not be tolerated. Response: such an argument would hardly persuade the skeptical Syrian people who have the most to lose from the escalation of the current war.
- U.S. attacks would be contained and would not lead to “boots on the ground.” Response: Rule Number One about war is that you can never predict consequences. There is no such thing as a carefully controlled war. If Syria or one of its allies retaliates, will the United States decline to defend itself? Not likely. Furthermore, if landing troops on the ground might secure chemical weapons against further use, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued before Congress, such a move must not be ruled out.
This week President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue their vigorous effort to persuade Congress (and the American people) that it should authorize an attack on Syria. President Obama is set to address the American people tomorrow. Although the administration has its supporters – including influential Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as well as the Republican House leadership – it faces much stronger opposition from across the political spectrum. Strong arguments against an attack have been raised by individuals and groups as diverse as the New York Times Editorial Board, Slate, the Cato Institute, National Review, Pope Francis, R.R. Reno, and Jim Wallis.
If there is a Christian view of the current crisis, it may be Syria’s Christians who can best articulate it. As Mark Mouvsesian writes at First Thoughts,
This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government.
This perspective doesn’t seem particularly distinctively Christian, but it’s not clear to me that it needs to be. Civil government is by its very nature a messy business, and Syria’s Christians can hardly be blamed for taking a strong Romans 13 line on this one.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… for he is God’s servant for your good.
Richard Land, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has for some time supported American intervention in Syria. When I had the chance to ask him about it a few months ago, his argument boiled down to this: the United States can’t let Iran win in Syria.
Is that the best that just war theory can do?
To be sure, some of the arguments against intervention seem to prove too much. The papacy always promotes peace as its official policy, as it probably should. Yet Catholic First Things editor R.R. Reno writes,
Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal–and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture–requires decisively defeating the Assad regime… We would be killing them so that. . . . the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.
Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to “show resolve” or “send a message” cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.
I disagree with this argument. Frankly, I find it absurd to claim that in order for a war – any war – to be just, it requires decisive victory. I find Reno’s claim just as troubling that waging war in order to send a message – “symbolic killing” – is “fundamentally immoral.” Pressed to its logical conclusions, this seems to imply that if there is ever just cause for the use of military force, it has to be all or nothing.
A glance over human history suggests otherwise. There are many instances in which nations have gone to war with very limited objectives, often simply to “send a message,” and been eminently successful. The whole balance of power that preserved early modern Europe (from the most part) from the cataclysmic wars of the later 20th Century was based on an understanding of the use of force that involved a highly symbolic framework, as well as codes of respect for civilians and the rules of war.
What’s more, Oliver O’Donovan has made a powerful argument that war can only be justified as an instance of judgment, and that all judgment, but especially the death penalty, is fundamentally symbolic. Considered in these terms, it is not so absurd for the Obama administration to claim that the use of chemical weapons violates international law, and therefore deserves punishment, a punishment that may be more symbolic than absolute.
Given this, John Kerry’s argument for an attack on Syria needs to be taken seriously. There will be painful repercussions of an erosion of the international ban on chemical weapons. This case does have fearful implications for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And no nation can afford to take such concerns lightly. As Kerry warns,
For nearly 100 years, the world has stood up for an international norm against the use of chemical weapons
Are we willing to abandon that position now?
But of course, the actual situation in which we find ourselves is much more complicated than this simple calculus implies. It is true that international law – including a treaty signed by Syria itself – condemns the use of chemical weapons. It is equally true that the same international law offers no clear justification for unilateral enforcement by one nation. President Obama is arguing that America should go to war without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, without the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and without the cooperation of our oldest and best ally, Great Britain. And this despite the fact that Syria has not attacked the United States, nor is it threatening to attack the United States. As the New York Times suggests, there is no precedent for this in international law.
The United States has used its armed forces abroad dozens of times without Security Council approval, but typically has invoked self-defense … The most notable precedent for the Syria crisis was Mr. Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, but that was undertaken as part of NATO and in response to a time-urgent problem: stopping a massacre of civilians.
By contrast, the United States would carry out strikes on Syria largely alone, and to punish an offense that has already occurred. That crime, moreover, is defined by two treaties banning chemical weapons, only one of which Syria signed, that contain no enforcement provisions. Such a strike has never happened before.
In addition to the objection rooted in international law, there is the objection rooted in the American Constitution. It seems more and more likely that President Obama will not receive the authorization of Congress. If so, the enforcement of international law not only depends on the unilateral use of power by the United States, but the unilateral use of power by the executive branch of the US. government, without the support of the American people. Is that really international law at work?
To be sure, there are emergency situations where the President has the constitutional authority to commit American troops to war without congressional authorization. But this situation is no emergency. President Obama is not arguing that American interests are at stake, or that the United States is in danger. He claims that we have time, plenty of time, to make the right decision. So why act alone? Again the New York Times reports,
The move [to seek authorization from Congress] is right, said Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, because the proposed attack is not “covered by any of the previous precedents for the unilateral use of executive power.”
“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become another precedent,” Mr. Dellinger added. “But when the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”
It also seems appropriate to judge that if Congress does not concur, the President may want to hold back.
There is no doubt that the United States needs to do whatever it can to persuade the international community to enforce its prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, and I laud President Obama for making that effort. But where such efforts at persuasion fail, it makes little sense to claim that one president – against his country and against the international community – can single-handedly uphold this standard. No matter how personally convinced Obama is that his cause is just and that he can represent the interests of the world, he is no more convinced than Woodrow Wilson was in 1917 or George W. Bush was in 2003. Our neighbors (and enemies) around the world get that, and they will not hesitate to use it against us.
Yet we should not be naive about the consequences of such a rebuff to the White House. Walter Russell Mead notes that President Obama has said so much, relative to Syria and Iran, about red lines, about regimes having to go, and about his determination to bomb Syria, that for Congress to pull the rug out from under him would be to destroy the credibility of the only President of the United States we will have for the next three years. This crisis may have been a crisis of President Obama’s own making (the President should have secured the necessary support before he said what he was going to do), but that does not make its consequences any less serious. In a Middle East that is already so volatile, in a situation where the big crisis (Iran) is still coming, for the region’s leading power and the guarantor of the current world order to be AWOL is a potentially cataclysmic scenario. As Mead puts it, “We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.”
Mead summarizes the dilemma perfectly. Congress only has two very bad possible courses of action, and the best we can hope for is that it chooses the least bad option.
Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.
Of course, I’m no Syria expert, nor am I a scholar of international affairs. But at a very basic level, it seems to me that if we have two very bad options, war and peace, neither obviously better than the other, we should default to peace. That’s where just war theory places the burden, and that’s where Jesus pointed Christians, at least as a general rule:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Sons of God.
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.
I don’t know whether or not we’ll be diving over the fiscal “cliff” in the next few days, but one of the discussions that has intrigued me in recent weeks has been the debate over whether or not Congress should preserve the tax deduction for charitable giving. This deduction will expire should Congress do nothing during the next four days, and it could also expire or, more likely, be modified, if Congress does take action.
Conservatives and Republicans love to claim that their policies are more fiscally responsible than are those of the liberals and the Democrats. Conservatives want to reign in spending to reflect tax revenue, they point out, while the Democrats are committed to the unsustainable welfare state. Liberals, on the other hand, note that the Republicans talk the talk but never actually make the hard decisions to cut spending. What recent Republican administration ever maintained a balanced budget?
Part of the problem, of course, is that while virtually everyone agrees that the federal deficit has to be reduced, no one wants to see their own pet projects abandoned. We can all outline a series of programs and initiatives that we think should be jettisoned, but there is no shortage of organizations and lobby groups to explain to us why such reductions in spending would be detrimental to the country. Similarly, when others outline their lists, we are ready with our defense of our own favorite policies.
Thus we have the phenomena of staunch conservatives attacking President Obama and the Democrats for refusing to make hard decisions when it comes to spending cuts, while at the same time adamantly insisting that the deduction for charitable giving has to be maintained. So for instance, Richard Land, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claims that the expiration of the deduction is a “draconian threat to the religious and non-religious charities they [Americans] cherish.”
Land’s concern is about a measure not aimed at charitable deductions per se, but simply attempting to limit the amount of deductions claimable by high earners. In fact, he insists, “By all means we should reduce tax loop holes and extravagant personal deductions.”
But not this loop hole and not this deduction.
At a time of a seemingly ever-expanding, but financially strapped, federal government, why would that government seek to weaken and eviscerate the civil society nonprofits so necessary to act as a gentle buffer between government and individual citizens in need?
The proposal to further cap charitable deductions in the federal tax code is a threat aimed like a dagger at the heart of America’s charitable nonprofit entities, secular and religious. It will weaken most, kill many, and harm all.
Land tends to give in to temptations to escalate his rhetoric in situations like these (he claimed a few months ago that the 2012 election was the most significant in his lifetime). The Christian Examiner reports,
The idea of capping the charitable deduction “is as serious a threat to religious organizations as anything the federal government has done in recent decades,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
As serious as anything? Even the contraception mandate? Even the attempt by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to curtail the “ministerial exception”?
I agree with Land that government needs to foster and protect a strong civil society. I’m not convinced that the survival of such civil society depends on selective treatment from a federal government reeling from its inability to say no to special interests. It is simply not enough to make a good argument that federal support for a particular program or tax break benefits the country and is financially beneficial in the long run. Such arguments can be made about virtually every program or policy. If we have any hope of establishing a just, simple tax code, however, such arguments need to be resisted. Conservatives need to be as ruthless with their own favorite policies as they are with those of the left. They certainly don’t need to be playing the religion card.
In the Washington Post Ken Stern questions the degree to which the tax deduction is an incentive to charitable giving,
People with income in the lowest quintile give a higher percentage of their earnings to charity than do more wealthy Americans. This pattern persists despite the fact that low earners have less disposable income and rarely take advantage of itemized tax deductions for charitable donations. Sure, some contributions are tax-driven: Almost a quarter of online giving occurs in the last two days of the year as taxpayers rush to qualify for deductions. But Americans’ generosity may be more resistant to changes in the tax laws than most people think.
Of course, Stern may be being unduly optimistic here. But in my view it is somewhat irrelevant. Even assuming giving should drop off somewhat, are charitable and religious organizations really as threatened as Land claims? I doubt it. If they have really become so dependent on favorable federal tax policies then the fault is their own for ignoring Rule #1 when it comes to maintaining liberty from government interference: He who controls the purse strings makes the rules …
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.
Needless to say, I have received many critical responses to my blog post of October 10, in which I warned that evangelicals should not publicly support Donald Trump due to his consistent track record of misogyny, racism, divisiveness, and demagoguery. Although I received much more support than criticism, I believe the critics deserve a response. Many of them are genuinely distressed. They are being bombarded with the argument – implicit or explicit, rational or emotionally manipulative – that as Christians they must vote for Trump.
To be sure, I was very careful not to say that a person should not vote for Trump, and most readers understood that. A vote for a presidential candidate is highly complex. There are so many issues at stake, so many factors that should inform a thoughtful Christian’s decision, that we can be sure intelligent Christians will disagree here. Each will follow his or her own conscience. And we need to be careful not to judge one another. I have thoughtful Christian friends who are voting for Trump, others who are voting for Clinton, and others who will vote for someone else entirely.
At the same time, many of my critics seem to think that to criticize evangelicals for publicly supporting Donald Trump requires me to criticize Hillary Clinton too – as if the mark of a good moral theologian is to spread moral criticism in as balanced and politically fair a way as possible. Why do they assume this? Is it because they think evangelicals who don’t support Trump must be enamored with Clinton and the Democratic party? I for myself, am well aware of the Democratic party’s flaws and of the flaws of its nominee as well. Yet somehow I’m not worried that most evangelicals have too rosy a view of Clinton. I certainly don’t think they need a warning from me on that count.
The real reason, I think, that many of these critics want to see me criticize Clinton at least as much as Trump is that they actually think there is only one faithful way a Christian can think about this election. There is one primary issue at stake – who will receive the power to make appointments to the Supreme Court, with their consequent significance for matters such as abortion and religious liberty. Beyond this simple calculation of power, in this view, every other issue pales in significance. Since only two candidates have a realistic chance at attaining power, then all votes for other candidates are wasted. We must choose between the lesser of two evils.
Note how much the power calculus drives Franklin Graham’s Facebook argument in defense of Trump (Graham’s post has received nearly 200,000 Facebook shares):
A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility. This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms. My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.
Note how Graham’s argument goes. First of all, he naively treats Trump’s boasting about sexual assault as a merely moral problem, as if it did not reflect the character and track record he will take with him into the executive office (and as if it will not really affect women in this country). In Graham’s view, Trump said bad things and Trump should apologize for the bad things he said. Once he has done that, we should all forgive and forget.
Second, to Graham neither Trump’s behavior, nor, for that matter, Clinton’s track record of behavior, are relevant issues in the current presidential election. This election is about one thing: power. What is at stake? Power. Who do we trust to use the presidential power to choose judges in a way that serves our objectives? Who do we trust will use power to preserve our religious liberty? To keep us safe so that we don’t have to suffer? Nothing else matters.
Is this sentiment anything other than a lust for power? Is this Christian political engagement?
In fact, it’s an astonishingly thin and naive argument coming from such a prominent evangelical leader. It reveals how little he has learned from his father Billy Graham, who was so manipulated and embarrassed by Richard Nixon. And it reveals just how enslaved many evangelicals remain to the ideology of the Religious Right.
According to Graham’s logic, it does not matter how toxic and divisive is Trump’s effect on America’s political and moral culture. It does not matter that his demagoguery is wrecking the Republican party before our very eyes (because of Trump the Democrats may win both houses of Congress in addition to the White House). It does not matter that vocal support for Trump has so blackened the image of right-wing white evangelicalism that it has shattered its potential effectiveness for Christlike gospel witness. It does not matter that Trump’s rhetoric is tearing the moral, social, and political fabric of our country to shreds. As deplorable as all of this is (and I take Graham and other evangelicals at their word that they think this is deplorable), when a simple calculation of power is at stake, we must make that grab for power. So the logic runs.
It is this sort of logic that requires people like me to warn evangelicals about Trump in a way that we don’t have to warn them about Clinton. We are not in danger of exchanging our gospel witness for lust for power when it comes to Clinton. But we are in grave danger of doing just that when it comes to Trump. Christianity Today recently put it quite well:
[T]here is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Again, the point here is not that you should not vote for Trump. I am not so much concerned with who Christians are voting for as I am with how they are arguing – and thinking – about this election.
As Christians we are called to witness to the lordship of Christ in everything that we do. And as Paul makes quite clear in Philippians 2, that does not mean seizing power and lording it over our neighbors, whatever the cost; it means humbling ourselves, taking up the form of a servant, and seeking justice and peace in accord with love. It doesn’t mean doing whatever it takes politically to make sure that we won’t suffer in the future. It means suffering at the hands of power as the very way in which Christ has called us to serve.
What does this mean in terms of voting? For one, it means that we need to be wary of all “lesser of two evils” calculation. The logic of the lesser of two evils argument assumes that power is our primary objective. Yet for Christians, faithful witness to Christ’s lordship is the ultimate concern. Sometimes fidelity to Christ means that we choose the path of less power, the path of greater suffering, because that is the path that love for our neighbors demands, and because that is the path that Christ himself took. You can indeed vote in good conscience for a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning. Perhaps that precisely what Christlike citizenship demands.
Second, lets at least be honest with ourselves. If you vote for Trump you are voting for Trump. If you vote for Clinton you are voting for Clinton. You are supporting that candidate, with all that he or she stands for, in light of who that candidate’s track record shows him or her to be, for the office of president. You may not personally like it, but that’s what a vote means. That’s how it is legally registered. Enough with all of the rationalization that says – I’m not voting for Clinton, I’m just voting against Trump, or vice versa. If you can’t look your neighbor in the eye as a Christian and defend your positive vote as an act of love, then you probably can’t defend your conscience before God either.
Finally, pace Graham (has he learned nothing from the last forty years?), political power is not the primary thing at stake for Christians in this election. At stake is the simple question of whether or not we will love and serve our neighbors faithfully, as befits those who claim to be followers of Christ.
But even so. Even if power was the primary concern, there are many thoughtful Christians – especially Latinos, African Americans, and women, but many white evangelical men like me too – who somehow doubt that identifying ourselves with Donald Trump and dogmatically, even stubbornly, supporting him for the highest office in the land (and the world) genuinely advances any of the causes we really care about (life, human dignity, the rule of law, prosperity, religious liberty), let alone the kingdom of God. And to paraphrase Paul, I think that we too have the Spirit of God.