Politics, Morality, and the Religious Right

“But communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.”  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles The Communist Manifesto

 

This week the news has brought us the media’s lamentation over the conviction of two young men that raped a girl. They pointed to the culture of entitlement that existed for the athletes in the community. They spoke of the lack of oversight by adults, and supervision by those in authority. Most of all, they openly regretted the loss of opportunity and promise for young men because they were going to prison for rape rather than going to college to play football. They raped, let me say it again raped a girl! They recorded their evil on cell phones. And, they celebrated their activities. Why isn’t everyone equally outraged, sickened, disgusted, and saddened, because morality has been evacuated from the American conscience. I argue that it was a political inevitability that was undertaken as a task to grasp and maintain political power.

 

In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in the case of Roe vs. Wade. That landmark decision had a profound effect on America in three distinct ways. They are politics, morality, and the creation of the so called “religious right.”

 

Politically, Roe v Wade insured that abortion would be a go-to political issue for candidates when they needed red meat to throw to potential voters. Consider the last presidential election cycle. Unemployment, finances, turmoil in the Middle East, and immigration policy could have all been important factors in how political parties reached out to “swing” and “undecided” voters. To a large degree they were not. The Obama campaign and their surrogates invented a non-existent war on women and then made Republicans especially Mitt Romney the Cossacks leading the raid. It worked. Political polling indicated that for the vast majority of swing and undecided voters social issues outweighed tangible political policies. Honest politics has been sacrificed on the altar of abortion.

 

Morally, Roe v Wade forced Americans to determine the value of human life. Wrapped in the language of privacy, abortion advocates were armed with a morally defensible position. Likewise, they were able to augment their support if they could convince a majority of people that abortion is not a life vs. death issue. Thus, an unborn child became classified as less than human, perhaps pre-human at best. It worked, and now to consider one’s self to be pro life makes them subhuman to the majority of Americans. The American conscience and morality has been sacrificed on the altar of abortion.

 

The only set back that Roe v Wade cause for political progressives was that the decision was instrumental in creating the “religious right.” Politically, prior to 1980 reaching out to conservative Christians did not exist. It didn’t need to. At the national level the biggest political/religious issue was the potential election of a Roman Catholic president when JFK was nominated. During the third quarter of the 20th century voting and Christian values were mutually exclusive terms.

 

The Republican Party was the party of the affluent, upper class, and out of touch. Their policies and ideologies stressed capitalism, patriotism, and anti-communism. Christianity was invoked as a reason to resist the spread of communism on the basis of its ardent atheism. But, Christianity and economic, foreign, and domestic policy were largely unattached by Republicans.

 

Likewise, Democrats were an eclectic group during the same period. There were the East and West coast radicals, the college campus rebels, and the middle class and minority Kennedy voters. All of these groups were ardent civil rights voters. However, the largest identifiable group of Democrats existed in the South, the “Dixiecrats.” These Democrats were white, mostly Christian, very traditional, non-progressive and solidly anti-civil rights movement. The only thing the Dixiecrats disliked more than the civil rights movement was Republicans.

Then in 1976 a Southern Baptist governor from Georgia was elected president. During his campaign Jimmy Carter’s religious beliefs became an issue. On the pages of Playboy magazine Carter discussed lust, sin, and salvation in being “born again.” Once again, one can note that his faith in no way directed his progressive policies. American politics on both the left and right was a golem. A man-made living being that had no soul. But, by the end of Carters term in office and potential re-election the “religious right” would rise to life.

 

When Ronald Regan began his second bid in the Republican primaries he and his advisors identified and targeted Evangelical Christians because they saw a connection between conservative Christianity and conservative politics. Far from the country club Republicans in the North East, Regan saw pro-family, pro-life, small government, personal liberty, and anti-communism as Christian ideas. Regan’s campaign believed that in light of the dismal economy, difficulties in foreign policy and the Middle East, and the still rippling uneasiness of social upheaval in the late 60s and early 70s, the time was right to get conservative Evangelical Christians to connect their faith with their politics. It worked.

 

But, times have changed again. Liberals have learned to face the giant without fear. Most of all they listened to the father of their movement. “But communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.” The political left understands that Christianity must be marginalized if it cannot be removed from the public arena. Now, that has worked. Evangelical Christians are demeaned, derided, and drummed out. Now, even the Republican Party has rejected them. Why? Because politicians want to win elections not lead moral revolutions. Politicians are interested in building a private empire and not the kingdom of God.

 

Eternal truths, religion, and morality are an afterthought and all we are left with in America is the contradiction. Liberal policies have shaped public education in America. This is most evident in the area of character development. Public schools have implemented a variety of programs encouraging kids to respect others. Sadly, kids don’t understand contradictions and social experiments. When we tell them to respect people but deny the inherent value of human life they see the latter and not the former. When we tell them that “no means no,” but treat the powerful with a “boys will be boys” attitude, they will make amoral decisions. Just ask Bill Clinton! And, when the media laments the fact that rapists go to prison and not college, it tells them character is just a word that means the cultural elite haven’t found a way excuse all the evil . . .  yet.

Men, Messages, and Murder

In his book, The American Church in Crisis, David Olson argues that the church has in some ways failed to perpetuate Jesus’ core messages. In explanation, Olson says that in the four gospels one can find five central messages that Jesus employed to fulfill his mission. Olson also says that, “These (messages) create a framework that allows the gospel story to be more fully integrated into your life and the life of your church.(193)” Ultimately Jesus’ messages and mission were passed along to the church’s stewardship in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20.

What, according to Olson are Jesus’ five messages?

1). To forgive our sins and reconcile us with God.

2). To destroy the power of Satan and deliver people from bondage.

3). To change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.

4). To treat people with compassion and justice as God’s loved creation.

5). To invite and summon followers to become the new people of God.

All of these things seem to be noble and reasonable religious activities. However, note that I used the word “seem.”

The big religion vs. culture news in the past week is Tim Tebow’s withdrawal from a speaking engagement at the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. One of the news articles that prompted Tebow’s decline called this opportunity, “Tebow’s hate date: Tim to speak at gay-basing, anti Jew pastor’s church.” In his statement of retraction from the event, Tebow said that:

While I was looking forward to sharing a message of hope and Christ’s unconditional love with the faithful members of the historic … First Baptist Church of Dallas in April, due to new information that has been brought to my attention, I have decided to cancel my … upcoming appearance. I will continue to use the platform God has blessed me with to bring Faith, Hope and Love to all those … needing a brighter day. Thank you for all of your love and support. God Bless!

The media has specified what “new information” influenced Tebow’s decision. The February, 21 New York daily news provided the common caricature of the FBC’s pastor, Robert Jeffress. After calling the church “controversial,” the article went on to say that,
“the views of the church’s lead pastor, Robert Jeffress, didn’t exactly coincide with Tebow’s squeaky-clean image.”

No doubt, Jeffress has said some controversial things, the article points out that Jeffress is not backing away from that fact. In response to Tebow’s decline Jeffress said that, “I think as pastors we have a duty to preach ‘the whole counsel of God,’ and not just discuss those that are politically correct,” Jeffress also said. “It’s my role to speak clearly on the issues on which the Bible speaks clearly. It’s my role to preach what the Bible says, and that includes the controversial issues.

So, what has Jeffress said that was so controversial? The reporter provided that information as well:

Jeffress has spoken out in the past against Muslims, Jews, Mormons and homosexuals, claiming that Islam “promoted pedophila” and has said that “Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and virtually everyone else” are members of cults, according to reports. He has said Islam and Mormonism are “heresy from the pit of hell” and tied Catholicism to “a Babylonian mystery religion” that corrupted the early Christian church.

Strong words! Many Christians disagree with Jefress, I’m not necessarily one of them. First of all, you have to ask “What does the term “spoken out” mean.” Jeffress has agreed with Jesus that Christianity’s foundational message excludes religions that redefine Jesus in a way other than as he is described in the New Testament. Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). That’s pretty exclusive.

Secondarily, people may hate the term “pedophilia,” but the founding prophet of Islam did marry, and encourage his followers to marry young girls. Was it a different era? Yes it was. However, adult males marrying pre-adolescent girls has been a taboo practice in a majority of cultures throughout human history. It is a practice that should be judged harshly. And, I don’t believe for a second that, if Jesus had done something similar, our contemporary culture would be willing to cut him the kind of slack that they give Mohammed and ancient Islam.

I do disagree with Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and virtually everyone else” being members of a cult. (The reporter did not cite this quote so I’m not even sure it is something that Jeffress actually said, or if it is a composite of his ideology). Technically, a “cult” is an heretical offshoot from a larger religious groups. The groups cited here are and should be classified as world religions. Islam should be included in that list as well. They are false religions with no hope of salvation apart from new birth in Christ, but not cults in the classic sense.

Finally, in terms of the Jeffress quote, he is correct about Mormonism. And, Roman Catholicism is historically influenced by Mithraism. You can dislike the fact that it is, and you can deny that it is a negative thing, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is true.

So, what does all of this mean? Quite simply it means that Olson is right. Jesus had a mission that was central to his ministry. Likewise, he is correct that Jesus’ message or messages were and are inseparable from his mission. I generally agree with Olson’s overview. Others may completely disagree with it. Jefferss believes that Jesus had a mission, ministry, and message. Likewise, Tebow in his own way believes that Jesus had a mission, ministry, and message. Both men have taken a public position, both are controversial for different reasons now. And, the rest of us Christians are left to determine what we believe.

For us Christians this whole episode is an encapsulation of where we are headed as a people group. We will have to engage our culture in more ways. Pining about the “good ol’ days is no longer an option. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he warns him of dark days ahead for Christianity:

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. [2] For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, [3] unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, [4] treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, [5] holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. [6] For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, [7] always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim. 3:1-7)

So what was Timothy to do? Was he supposed to hide, complain, back down from the challenge? No, Paul said,

preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. [3] For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, [4] and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. [5] But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim. 4:2-5 )

I’m not willing to say that Tebow missed a great opportunity to tell the world that Christianity is more than just writing Biblical quotes on football equipment and speaking at conferences. But I will say that Christianity is controversial, it always has been. Jesus told his followers that,

“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. [19] “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. [20] “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. [21] “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me. [22] “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. [23] “He who hates Me hates My Father also. (John 15:18-23)

I will say that Christians all around the world are paying a much higher price than bad public relations and negative articles. I will offer a bit of advice to Tebow (like he wants it or will ever even see it), and to everyone else that reads this. If you are going to take a stand, be a public figure, or try to influence the pubic arena in any way with the Christian message do three things:

1). Know what you believe and why you believe it. Don’t use buzzwords and catchphrases that sound good but have no real meaning (i.e. “message of hope and unconditional love”). There is a greater context, and if you are not willing or not able to keep the message in the context of Jesus’ message, just be quiet.

2). Know that people are not going to like what you have to say. If you are only comfortable with adoration and acceptance, don’t try to be a messenger in this culture. Like Jesus said, “once they kill me, all they have left is the messenger” (my very loose translation of the above passage). Killing the messenger and character assassination is the only accepted form of murder in American society, it doesn’t matter if its religion, politics, art, or academics. Debate is no longer about what you have to say, its onlyabout how loud you say it, and how well you belittle the other guy. Group think is the only accepted form of open-mindedness in society today. And, the group is not thinking with the mind of Christ.

3). Know that the only person you have to please is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. If your intention is to be pleasing to God by pleasing men you will discover a sad reality. You can only please both man and God when you are pleasing God. If you preach the messages of Jesus hearts will be changed and lives will be transformed. But, it starts with God and ends with pleasing God.

American Christianity: Toward a Poll Driven Dogma

When it comes to religion, Americans tend to think in one of two ways. First, some see religion as cold and institutional. They have a tendency to point to Christianity as an example. Roman Catholics have priests and nuns that are seen as detached from the reality of everyday life. Protestants are not exempt either. They provoke images of angry red-faced evangelical preachers, hard-hearted deacons, and the bumper sticker slogan quoting “church ladies.” Who wouldn’t want to avoid these? I know I do. Hopefully, you understand these as caricatures. The are the bogeyman in the closet of the decidedly un-religious, except in some cases they do exist. However, they are far from the norm.
The second example is far more common. American religion, especially Christianity is far less a rigid, pietistic, structured organism, than an ideological free-for-all. I’m not talking about denominational sectarianism, infighting within denominations, or local congregations adjusting to their surroundings. The issue is more complex. Americans have generally rejected any idea of religious authority and adopted an ecclesiastical anarchy that is the theological equivalent of a junior high school popularity contest.
As it turns out, answering life’s ultimate questions is hard. It’s even harder if you want to be popular. Here is a case in point. The Pope resigned yesterday. It came as a great surprise to the whole world, especially Roman Catholics. After all the Catholic church is a worldwide entity. The head of the organization (the Pope) oversees over a billion members. Selecting the next leader will require the College of Cardinals to consider a lot of information before making their final selection.
But, how did the American media respond to the idea of electing a new Vicar of Christ? Did they desire a theologically sound and doctrinally pure Roman Catholic leader? Hardly, they responded by saying that the new Pope needed to be “more reflective of American Catholics.” I guess we could call him an American culture friendly Pope. ABC News pushed the idea heavily. In arguing for a poll driven dogma they gleefully reported that American Roman Catholics had different values than the current leadership of the Catholic church. They cited polls that show American Catholics are in favor of abortion, homosexual marriage, and female priests. All important issues and popular causes in the current culture that are frowned upon by traditional Catholics.
All of this raises a couple of questions when it comes to Americans and religion. First, shouldn’t there be some type of ultimate authority? One can argue about what that authority should be, and that itself is a great topic of discussion, but should there not be something or someone that determines timeless truth for a religious entity? For Catholics, it could be Scripture, church tradition, or the recognized human leadership (the Pope and church hierarchy). The waters are a bit murkier for us protestants, but the same holds true. Something has to be our compass that points us to true north.
The second question is even more important. If someone is persuaded that current cultural trend is more reliable than the religious organization they are affiliated with, who should be obligated to change, the individual/group or the institution? The fact that the Roman Catholic church does not reflect American values should not mean that the church has to change. Nor does any other religious group for that matter. But, Americans don’t like that very much.
Some may argue against my point here by saying that Martin Luther sparked the protestant reformation because he disagreed with Catholic dogma. To which I say, “Yes he did.” But, Luther didn’t reject authority, nor did he seek to change the church to fit cultural acceptance. On the contrary, Luther argued that the church was under obligation to be defined by Scripture, not men. Which is exactly my argument here!
I have no idea who will be elected the next Pope. I also don’t pretend to know what kind of leadership that the Catholic church needs to embrace. I do however know that great leadership never came from an opinion poll. Which is a message all American Christians need to understand. There is a phrase that is used in the Bible. It goes something like this, “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). It is speaking of a time when there was no king in Israel and people had rejected the idea of a religion that was authoritative. Micah had built his own shrine, made his own idols, and consecrated his own son to be the priest of his religious order. Later on Micah runs into a Levite and pays him to become a priest in his personalized religion. He was very pleased because he thought that by involving something that was recognized as authoritative (a Levite) into his idolatry that he now had legitimacy. That was not the case.
And, so it is with our American religious culture. One can identify himself or herself with Christianity (either Catholic or protestant), or any other religious movement; but if we deny the authoritative nature of the organization or if the organization offers no fundamental or authoritative matrix to which one can dedicate themself, there is no purpose for identifying with the group. The apostle Paul offered these words to converts to Christianity: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
If your religion is shaped more by popular opinion than you are transformed by your religion, you are a hypocrite. It does not matter if you are a protestant, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, or atheist (and yes atheism is a religion), if you can’t live what you say you believe figure out what you believe, and live it. Culture is a notoriously bad leader, especially when mixed with religion. Don’t be led by it, most of all don’t make it your religious authority. Popular opinion may be a great way to pick a prom king, but it’s a terrible way to determine your morality.