Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

In American Christianity, fear has long been a popular way to frame reality. The real enemy is Satan, of course, but the form of the threat has changed throughout the decades. It’s difficult to discuss this with sufficient nuance, because Satan is the real enemy, and he is a crafty one, and his tactics do change with the times.

And yet … some flavors of American evangelicalism seem to frame reality by way of fear a bit too much. Or, a lot too much. A good deal of this is tied up with various flavors of conservative politics. This is not always religion as a cloak for crude nationalist impulses. It’s also because, as historian Jason Bivens notes, political activism by conservative evangelicals also arises “from specific religious convictions as these have been shaped by their tradition’s understandings of social and political change, understandings that they aim to transmit and promote,” (Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism [New York: OUP, 2008], p. 14).

John Fea, a Christian historian at Messiah College, discussed the phenomenon of “evangelical fear” in his 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Some may frown at that title, but I beg you to stay with me. Fea is describing a real phenomenon–the same one I have in mind. This phenomenon is that, for some American evangelicals, fear really is a vehicle for framing reality.

… this short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long—going back to the very establishment of European settlement in America. The various fears that combined to drive white evangelical Christians into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history. Evangelicals’ fears that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and that as president he would violate the Second Amendment and take their guns away, echo—and are about as well founded as—early American evangelicals’ fears that Thomas Jefferson was going to seize believers’ Bibles. The Christian Right’s worries in the 1960s and 1970s that they might lose their segregated academies should take us back to the worries of white evangelicals who lived in the antebellum South. Contemporary efforts to declare America a Christian nation should remind us of similar attempts by fundamentalists a century ago.

Believe Me (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 97.

This fear informs how they view the world, how they interpret the news, what they think of folks with different politics than their own. It impacts evangelism and a local church’s public face. Too often, that public face is one of outrage or bitter sullenness–sentiments incongruous with the joy the Gospel ought to bring, and the optimism it should foster in one’s heart.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be firm, but not angry. Realistic, but not afraid.

In this excerpt from a recent sermon, I chat a bit about this. I’m commenting specifically on the Acts 2:47: “they praised God and had favor with all the people.”

Sad about being fightin’ mad

Sad about being fightin’ mad

I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:

Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.

Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.

  • I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
  • I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
  • I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
  • I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
  • I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
  • One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
  • Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
  • One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
  • Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
  • Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
  • I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.

In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:

  1. I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
  2. I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
  3. I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.

Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?

Is natural law the answer?

Is natural law the answer?

This article was updated on 07 February 2021

When Christians consider whether and how to legislate morality, we’re immediately confronted with the fact we’re actually asking two questions:

  1. What should inform the content of public morality in an ideal sense? That is, setting present geo-political realities aside and focusing only on transcendent values, what is “the public good,” how can we know it, and to what extent should we advocate for it in the public square?
  2. How does the Church apply this public morality in real life, within the geo-political, pluralist realities that are the real world?

One way some Christians have answered the first question is to turn to natural law theory; specifically, a broadly Christian form of natural law. Is this a fruitful path?

What is natural law theory?

When we say, “natural law,” we mean it is “natural” in the sense that it reflects the nature, essence or intended form of something (X). “Law” refers to a normative dictum that explains what X, in light of its nature, should do in certain circumstances.1 This means human beings can (1) observe the nature and intended purpose of something, and (2) these observations form the basis for moral values and obligations.

So, to bring this down to earth, consider human beings. Natural law is our perception (even unwittingly) of the divine order within ourselves, by which we’re inclined to right action. We can observe ourselves, draw conclusions about our meaning and purpose, and so learn how we ought to behave. If you’re ever bored enough to read legal statutes, you’ll find that human laws are the result of a society’s reasoned application of general principles to particular cases for the common good. This is why even something so esoteric as the Washington State insurance code can proclaim:2

The business of insurance is one affected by the public interest, requiring that all persons be actuated by good faith, abstain from deception, and practice honesty and equity in all insurance matters.

It’s doubtful the Washington State legislature wittingly relied on natural law theory to craft this statute. Yet, there is an implicit appeal to such a law in that text. There is a public interest. Good faith can be known, defined, and it is “good,” (etc.). Indeed, some form of natural law must be the foundation for human law.3 Or else, we’re cast into the morass of subjectivism and individualism.

Christian natural law theory says scripture presupposes this divine ordering. David Haines and Andrew Fulford advance three propositions to express this idea:4

  1. there is an objective order to the universe;
  2. this order is objectively visible, there for all to see, “whether one is wearing the spectacles of Scripture or not;” and
  3. at least some unbelievers perceive this order.

They explain:

the very fact of divine creation seems to point towards what has been traditionally called natural law: the notion that there is, because of the divine intellect, a natural order within the created world by which each and every created being’s goodness can be objectively judged, both on the level of being (ontological goodness), and, for human-beings specifically, on the level of human action (moral goodness). Ontological goodness is the foundation of moral goodness.5

In one of his famous five “proofs” for God’s existence, Thomas Aquinas explained we can perceive God from the observable order of the world:6

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

God, as it were, created everything as a carpenter plans and creates a piece of furniture.7 He sees an image in His mind’s eye, then executes that plan. Thus, God has a moral standard to which men are accountable, and His mind contains that “ideal” purpose and end of everything in His creation.

Scripture presupposes that this natural ordering and purpose exists. Here are but a few examples:8

  • Jesus’ so-called “Golden Rule” (Mt 7:12) presupposes that everyone, regardless of their spiritual state, acknowledges it is “good” to treat others equitably. This is as close to a universal moral good that one can get.
  • Deuteronomy 4:5-6. If the Israelites obey God’s laws, pagan nations “will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people,’” (Deut 4:6). If unbelievers can look at God’s objective “good” and appreciate it, like it, acknowledge, want it—then there must be an objective “good” to define human flourishing. It isn’t a social convention; it actually exists and can be seen, known, appreciated.
  • In creation, God pronounced it all “very good,” which surely means there is an objective “good” to this world.

How, then, can we know right and wrong?

Well, first we need to understand that everything, including men, women, boys and girls, is made by God for a specific purpose or end. An ear is made to hear. A sock is made to fit on your foot. A book is meant to be read. A car is meant to transport you to and fro.

You can abuse the original design by using it in a way the designer didn’t foresee. For example, a neighbor of mine recently used his Jeep to prop up a section of fencing that had collapsed in his backyard. It “worked,” I guess, but it was crude. Why? Because the Jeep wasn’t designed to do that—it wasn’t its nature or raison d’être.

You could say there is a “fitness” and “unfitness” to everything, depending on its created purpose.

Thus fitness or unfitness may be affirmed, at every moment, of every object in existence, of the volition by which each object is controlled, and of every intelligent being, with regard to the exercise of his will toward or upon outward objects or his fellow-beings. Fitness and unfitness are the ultimate ideas that are involved in the terms right and wrong.9

So, consider marriage, children, government, attitudes towards elders, the sanctity of life, political society, political authorities—what are God’s purposes for these institutions? What is their nature? When you find that out—when you figure the ends for which God made them—then you have a secure base from which to understand and uphold these realities in the world.10

But, again, how can you figure out these ends? How can you know what they are?

Certainly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives one a new mind and a new heart, along with the illumination to understand divine revelation. Indeed, if God created a binding moral order, it seems He’d be remiss if He did not reveal Himself and this moral order to His creation.11

Not so fast?

However, natural law seems to not require this step. Instead, it asks one to reason from natural revelation—to extrapolate from the observable order to “think God’s thoughts after Him” in a whole host of modern contexts. Specifically, we can know right from wrong by considering various forms of the questions (1) what is the nature and purpose of the one doing the action,12 and (2) what is the purpose of the action, (3) what are the motivations behind the action, (4) what are the consequences, (5) what are the means by which we propose to accomplish this end, and (6) what are the circumstances surrounding the action?13

However, Haines and Fulford’s blanket assertion that when human beings observe human nature and draw conclusions about it, “we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” is not quite correct.14 Satan has thrown a dark cloak over people’s minds to “keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4). This a blindness to reality, including natural law, for which we must account. This means unbelievers will not always “see” the natural order flowing from a created order at all. Christians will usually have to do a three-step dance when pressing the reality of natural law; (1) it exists, (2) your sin stops you from seeing it in creation, and then (3) do you see it now?

Indeed, there are non-Christian theories about natural law predicated on secular bases. These contrasting theories “differ widely about what human nature is and, as a result, about the moral theory that can be derived from it.”15 Indeed, different schools of thought (even within Christian circles) disagree about the essence of human nature itself and, thus, the implications about the “ends” to be drawn from its nature. “Unless that picture can be firmly established in sufficient detail to warrant the moral inferences drawn from it, the theory as a whole will lack credibility.”16

So, for example, can we legitimately employ natural law theory to forbid birth control? After all, the reasoning goes, the “natural end” of marriage is procreation (or, is it!?), and birth control would impede this purpose, so it is morally wrong. It therefore seems that to be most persuasive, Christian natural law theory must function with some degree of abstraction.

Preliminary assessment

Nevertheless, does natural law theory provide the Church with a framework to understand the “public good” regarding legislation of morality in the public square? It does, but only obliquely. Simply put, why do Christians need natural law theory when they could just point to scripture? That, of course, is the rub—nobody wants to use scripture in the public square. Natural law theory, for all its promise, seems to be a method for reasoning “God’s way” while not actually pointing to anything God has said.  

Does it answer our second question? That is, does natural law theory help Christians “think God’s thoughts” via legislation in a pluralist society, in 2021? Haines and Fulford say it does:

The precisionists and the Anabaptists were wrong to deny that any just political order could be founded that did not submit to their own private and special revelation, since justice can be known from the wisdom in God’s creation.17

I am not yet convinced. To use just one example—people in the West simply do not acknowledge God’s justice or God’s objective order. Natural law theory appears to gravely underestimate the noetic effect of sin, which will inevitably prevent some people from agreeing with the specific implications of its general premises. In other words, while natural law theory supplies the Christian with some philosophical heft as a complement to a Reformed epistemology, I am not convinced it alone is a suitable vehicle for grounding moral values or legislation.  

I am very new to the concept of natural law theory, and perhaps I have misunderstood it here. But my assessment at this date is that it would be simpler to use scripture to advocate for God’s values in a pluralist society. In that respect, it reminds me of the debate between classical and presuppositional apologetics.


Notes

1 David Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Lincoln: Davenant Press, 2017), pp. 4-5. 

2 Title 48, Revised Code of Washington; RCW 48.01.030. Emphasis added. 

3 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 8. 

4 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51.

5 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. ii.

6 This is Thomas Aquinas’ “fifth way” of proving God’s existence from Summa Theologica, First Part, Q1 (“does God exist?”), A2.

7 “[T]he divine mind ‘contains,’ or is, the ideas of all created beings—what we call exemplar causes—in much the same way that the carpenter’s mind contains the idea of a finished table prior to beginning his work,” (Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 23).

8 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 52ff. 

9 Andrew Peabody, A Manual of Moral Philosophy (New York: Barnes, 1873), pp. 35-36. 

10 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 24-27. 

11 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51. 

12 The Westminster Larger Catechism sums it up nicely when it says, “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever,” (Q1, A1).

13 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 38. 

14 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 44. 

15 Gerald Hughes, “Natural Law,” in Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, revised ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 414.

16 Hughes, “Natural Law,” p. 414. 

17 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 111.  

Life matters

Life matters

Each year in January, our congregation celebrates the gift of life and focuses on some aspect of the sin of abortion in the United States. This year, we were honored to have the Executive Director of Options Pregnancy Clinic in Olympia, WA speak to our congregation:

I then followed with a short sermon challenging our congregation to look beyond a cardboard approach to the sin of abortion, and to consider what the Church’s attitude should be towards a people and society that celebrate abortion.

Is pluralism a dead end?

Is pluralism a dead end?

I have come to realize a defining issue for Christians is the Church’s relationship to the State, particularly in matters of morality. The Constitution is a pluralist document. It does not go “on the record” for or against one particular religion, though Christianity certainly loomed large in the philosophical and moral shaping of the founders by dint of their culture. Instead, it guarantees religious freedom of conscience for all.

That much isn’t too controversial. The controversy comes with this question: what moral values should therefore inform legislation?

Every piece of legislation, every value judgment by the State, comes from some objective or otherwise “authoritative” and recognized moral standard. The line that “we cannot legislate morality” is both true and false. It’s true in that we can’t change people’s hearts, but every criminal law on the books in local, State and Federal jurisdictions recognizes the deterrent value in having penalties to curb otherwise “immoral” actions (e.g. murder, sexual assault, etc.). As long as there was a broad, implicit consensus about the content of morality (in America’s case, a generic Christian-ish deism), then people could reasonably be on the same page. This is no longer the case.  

Morality is legislated all the time. It certainly was in Bostock v. Clayton County, this past summer—a decision akin to Roe v. Wade for the transgender issue. The difference is we have competing and antithetical moral value judgments in our society; judgments that come from very different philosophical worlds. In this sense, I’m not certain pluralism is really tenable. It seemed like it could be if people operated from a common moral and epistemological foundation, even something as generic as a Christian ceremonial deism. But, that isn’t the case today.

Consider this excerpt from the splendid book by Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920. He recounts what ensued after yet another attempt by Christian lobbyists to amend the Constitution to proclaim explicit allegiance to Jesus as King in 1896 (p. 109):

For me, this is a true puzzle. I am doing research right now for a short book about the evolution of sexual mores in American society by examining key U.S. Supreme Court decisions from Roe v. Wade to Bostock v. Clayton County. I plan to examine each decision, and the accompanying transcripts of oral arguments and legal briefs, and provide a succinct analysis from a conservative Christian perspective. Of course, this means I’ll immediately come up against the Church’s relationship to the State regarding moral legislation.

I have much to read on Christian political philosophy and natural law. But, right now, these are my thoughts:

  1. Every State must identify a foundation from whence it draws its ideas about morality. After all, we will always legislate someone’s morality. We should be honest about that.
  2. Pluralism is a chimera unless the people have some shared epistemological foundation from which to argue, even if that foundation is something as generic as a Christian-ish deism.
  3. The United States used to have such a generally shared foundation, but no longer does. So, the public square arguments about morality will continue to escalate.
  4. Therefore, I am not certain an ostensible pluralism is a viable way forward in today’s Western culture, where morality is largely determined by majority consensus.
  5. But, I am uncertain what a Christian response to this environment ought to be. Here is where the concept of soul liberty clashes with the imperative to advocate for future kingdom values. Should Christians, for example, really be “for” something God hates (e.g. drag queen “story hour”) in order to uphold pluralism and religious liberty for all?

I don’t have answers to any of this. It’s some measure of comfort to me that Gaines Foster, author of Moral Reconstruction, didn’t have the answer, either. He ends his book with this line:

The fundamental tension built into the moral polity of the early republic thus persists two centuries later: a democratic republic needs a moral citizenry but cannot force its citizens to be moral.

Moral Reconstruction, p. 234

Cuomo, COVID and the Notorious ACB

Cuomo, COVID and the Notorious ACB

Yesterday evening, the Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Cuomo had imposed to combat COVID-19. The vote was 5-4. If the late Justice Ginsburg were on the bench instead of Amy Barrett, it would have gone the other way.

This is not a permanent decision. Justice Kavanaugh explains:

Importantly, the Court’s orders today are not final decisions on the merits. Instead, the Court simply grants temporary injunctive relief until the Court of Appeals in December, and then this Court as appropriate, can more fully consider the merits.

Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 1.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, along with some Orthodox Jewish synagogues, asked for injunctive relief from Gov. Cuomo’s order that “imposes severe restrictions on attendance at religious services in areas classified as ‘red’ or ‘orange; zones. In red zones, no more than 10 persons may attend each religious service, and in orange zones, attendance is capped at 25,” (Decision, p. 1).

It has always been tricky to weigh religious freedom and the State’s legitimate authority to protect public health. In a recent article, I explained my own thoughts on this matter (for now, anyway) in my own context in WA State. This SCOTUS decision is very helpful because it crystallizes much of what I’ve been thinking for some time.

Strict neutrality. If you don’t treat religious institutions with strict neutrality, then a State will likely have a problem. You can’t single churches out for harsher treatment than other organizations:

In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons, businesses categorized as “essential” may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of “essential” businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities

Decision, p. 3.

What is the rhyme and reason for these determinations of “essential” vs. “non-essential?” I’m sure there is an alleged reason, and I’m also certain a binder exists even now in the State’s emergency management office that explains everything. I also know Gov. Cuomo made a moral distinction, a value judgement, when he drew those lines. A garage is more important to society than a church. This is not neutrality.

Irreparable harm. The decision notes:

There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm. ‘The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’ Elrod v. Burns, 427 U. S. 347, 373 (1976) (plurality opinion).

Decision, p. 5.

This is a point many Governors don’t understand and many Americans don’t understand. Religion is quaint, cute, mysterious and ultimately annoying to so many people today. They don’t understand it, so they don’t value it, and thus marijuana dispensaries are “essential” and houses of worship are not.

Public interest. Here, we have an especially compelling point.

But even in a pandemic,the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.

Decision, pp. 5-6

Justice Gorsuch issued a concurring opinion in which his tone was sharp and he appeared more than a bit … miffed. He proclaims:

At the same time, the Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pickup another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?

Gorsuch concurring opinion, p. 2.

A liquor store and a wine shop are not analogous to a worship service, but I take his point. It’s a shame Gorsuch wasn’t similarly outraged in Bostock v. Clayton County. He continues:

The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.

Ibid. Emphasis added.

Seemingly on a roll, Gorsuch now scales the heights of righteous indignation and observes:

In recent months, certain other Governors have issued similar edicts. At the flick of a pen, they have asserted the right to privilege restaurants, marijuana dispensaries, and casinos over churches, mosques, and temples. In far too many places, for far too long, our first freedom has fallen on deaf ears.

Ibid, pp. 2-3.

We cannot defer to Governor’s executive orders indefinitely, Gorsuch argues.

Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical

Ibid, p. 3.

Justice Kavanaugh echoes his colleague:

In red and orange zones, houses of worship must adhere to numerical caps of 10 and 25 people, respectively, but those caps do not apply to some secular buildings in the same neighborhoods.In a red zone, for example, a church or synagogue must ad-here to a 10-person attendance cap, while a grocery store, pet store, or big-box store down the street does not face the same restriction. In an orange zone, the discrimination against religion is even starker: Essential businesses and many non-essential businesses are subject to no attendance caps at all.

Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 2.

However, Kavanaugh goes further and insists States must explain why houses of worship are “excluded from that favored class” of businesses which can operate with fewer restrictions:

The State argues that it has not impermissibly discriminated against religion because some secular businesses such as movie theaters must remain closed and are thus treated less favorably than houses of worship. But under this Court’s precedents, it does not suffice for a State to point out that, as compared to houses of worship, some secular businesses are subject to similarly severe or even more severe restrictions.

Ibid.

To my knowledge, this point has not yet come up in a meaningful way in a COVID-19 context. This flips the entire script from “may I please stay open?” to “prove to me why I can’t stay open!” as follows:

  • Wrong: You can’t just say, “gyms are closed completely, while churches can stay open subject to restrictions, so there is no discrimination.” This isn’t good enough.
  • Right: Instead, you must say, “I know Walmart is open and the parking lot is always packed to the gills, but churches can’t do that because … (insert reasoning here).”

Thus, Kavanaugh tightens the screws:

Rather, once a State creates a favored class of businesses, as New York has done in this case, the State must justify why houses of worship are excluded from that favored class. Here, therefore, the State must justify imposing a 10-person or 25-person limit on houses of worship but not on favored secular businesses

Ibid, p. 3.

COVID is certainly dangerous, Kavanaugh admits. But the great danger, he warns, is if the judiciary continues to defer to the State. This cannot be:

But judicial deference in an emergency or a crisis does not mean wholesale judicial abdication, especially when important questions of religious discrimination, racial discrimination, free speech, or the like are raised. In light of the devastating pandemic, I do not doubt the State’s authority to impose tailored restrictions—even very strict restrictions—on attendance at religious services and secular gatherings alike. But the New York restrictions on houses of worship are not tailored to the circumstances given the First Amendment interests at stake.

Ibid, p. 3.

However, Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan disagree. They wish to continue to defer.

Thus, according to experts, the risk of transmission is higher when people are in close contact with one another for prolonged periods of time, particularly indoors or in other enclosed spaces. The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the State has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges.

Breyer dissent, p. 4.

I suspect (but, of course, cannot prove) these Justices simply do not appreciate the importance of religious worship and are therefore incapable of adequately protecting it. I’m unmoved by stories about how Joe Biden (et al) have “deep Christian faith.” The Christian faith isn’t play-dough to be molded and appropriated by the owner. It’s objective. It has content. It has meaning. The ideologies of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (and, for that matter, President Trump) largely do not comport with the Christian faith and message.

The dissenting justices continue:

We have previously recognized that courts must grant elected officials “broad” discretion when they “undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties.” That is because the “Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States.”

Breyer dissent, p. 5.

Sotomayor, in her own dissent, writes:

I see no justification for the Court’s change of heart, and I fear that granting applications such as the one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn (Diocese) will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering

Sotomayor dissent, p. 1.

To her, the nature of religious activities make it more dangerous.

But JUSTICE GORSUCH does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID–19: large groups of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time

Ibid, p. 2.

Sotomayor epitomizes this deference to public health authorities. No sane person would deny these individuals have expertise. The dispute is over whether public health concerns can trump religious freedom, and if so for how long. Can, as Gorsuch quipped, the Constitution actually take a sabbatical? Sotomayor apparently believes it can:

Unlike religious services, which “have every one of th[ose] risk factors,” bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time. Id., at 7 (“Epidemiologists and physicians generally agree that religious services are among the riskiest activities”). Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.

Sotomayor dissent, p. 3.

I wonder, then, why States do not issue edicts forbidding potlucks at Baptist churches because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 655,381 Americans died from heart disease in 2018. One could marshal precisely the same public interest arguments for abolishing potlucks and communal meals at all houses of worship. Of course, that’s absurd. Why is COVID different, given the COVID death rate in 2020 (262,158) is only approximately 40% that of heart disease?

I can only see this continued judicial deference to the State as a sophisticated extension of the “stay safe at all costs” mindset that is so common, today. Sotomayor concludes thus:

Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights. States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one. But those principles are not at stake today. The Constitution does not forbid States from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives

Sotomayor dissent, p. 5.

Predictably, Gov. Cuomo dismissed this injunction as a partisan political move by SCOTUS. However, the decision signals how the Court will likely rule on similar cases that come its way, and lower courts may well use these same arguments to rule in favor of houses of worship.

Legal experts said that despite the governor’s assertion that the decision was limited to parishes and other houses of worship in Brooklyn, the court’s ruling could be used to challenge and overturn other restrictions elsewhere. “The decision is applicable to people in similar situations,” said Norman Siegel, a constitutional lawyer and former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s applicable to any synagogue, any church, to any mosque, to any religious setting.”

Jesse McKinley and Liam Stack, “Cuomo Attacks Supreme Court’s Emboldened Majority Over Virus Ruling,” in New York Times (26 November 2020). Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/378Wmwp.

In its amicus brief to SCOTUS, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission asked for clear guidance on how lower courts should weigh public interest and the free exercise of religion:

This Court’s guidance is needed, and, in its absence, the lower courts are left grasping for whatever they can find. Indeed, a search of Westlaw reveals that the concurring opinion in South Bay (declining to grant the requested injunction) has been cited 118 times in the past five-and-a-half months, leading to a hodge-podge of results across the United States and uncertainty as to what standard the lower courts should apply … It is time for the Court to weigh in and provide clear rules for lower courts struggling to resolve these questions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ERLC amicus brief, p. 4. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/39gWDjp.

Well, SCOTUS did just that. Whatever else they may feel about his fitness for office, all people of faith owe President Trump a debt of gratitude for appointing Justice Barrett, a convictional and faithful Roman Catholic, to the Court. This decision is a wonderful victory for religious liberty, and I suspect 2021 will see many of these executive orders struck down State by State.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on …

Happy Thanksgiving.

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

As I write this, on Friday morning 06 November 2020, it appears as if Joe Biden will win the Presidency. For many Christians, this is discouraging news. He is an older man, weaker in mind and body than he used to be, and at risk of being manipulated by the more radical people in his entourage. In order to secure his party’s nomination, he was forced to agree to policy agendas at odds with the scripture’s teaching on some of the most basic issues of life; abortion, marriage, what it means to be male and female, and more.

And yet, if the electoral college votes continue to go his way, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. This didn’t happen by accident. God is not in heaven above, biting his fingernails, pulling for Georgia and Pennsylvania to finish their vote counts. God knows the vote counts. He determined them. The 1618 Belgic Confession of Faith explains scripture well when it says (Article 13):

his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.

The confession goes on:

And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ.

If you’re demoralized and hopeless about the results of this election, know that God determined it. It’s His will. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but you do have to accept it. Even Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above,” (Jn 19:11). There’s a whole lot in that sentence. Pilate is only there because God wanted him there. Jesus knew that.

It’s the same with Barack Obama, Donald Trump … and perhaps Joe Biden.

So, how to react? Since at least the 1960s, evangelicals in America have often framed their engagement with the world as “cultural resistance.” This framing casts the Church as the brave underdog, manning the ramparts with spears, crossbows and swords, protecting the Bride of Christ against “the world.” It was an attitude of isolationism; of defensiveness. This is why, about a generation ago, so many churches hurriedly passed bylaw addendums that explicitly identified homosexual “marriage” as illegitimate, and declared that no same-sex “marriages” could occur in its facilities.

Mission accomplished? Not really.

It wasn’t about the Gospel. It wasn’t about engagement. It wasn’t about taking the message outside. The ethos was about resistance, about building higher walls to keep it all “out there,” to protect ourselves from “the liberals.”

As we consider a Joe Biden presidency and all the freight it’ll bring with it, the Church’s role is not to build higher walls or buy more guns. Christ doesn’t expect His Bride to hunker down and dig. He expects us to advance, to sally forth into this world with a message of rescue, reconciliation and hope.

The Church is a forward operating base in enemy territory. Our job isn’t to build a bunker and wait for the cavalry. It’s to advance, to march onward, to get outside the walls and advocate for Christ in this community. Think about these statements:

“We’ve got to take back our country!”vs.“Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!”
“America has turned its back on God!”vs.“You’ll only find peace through Jesus Christ.”

The column on the left is framed from a perspective of cultural resistance, of defensiveness. It has no Gospel content. The column on the right is different. It’s the way the apostles preached. As we contemplate a Joe Biden presidency, the Church can’t retreat behind walls or use the same old tactics of cultural resistance. That isn’t evangelism; it’s isolationism.

Don’t give way to despair. Know God chose Joe Biden, and has a reason for doing it. Know He expects His Church to do its job and to advance onward with the Gospel. We can’t issue frightened cries from behind the castle walls. We can’t hide inside our shells like scared turtles. We have to go outside the fortress with the banner of the truth of the Gospel and tell people that old, old story. It isn’t about “taking back our country.” It’s about telling people about God’s country and God’s kingdom, so perhaps some of them might become citizens, too.

Singing the Ballot Blues

Singing the Ballot Blues

This Sunday, I preached a sermon about voting. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to telling Christians how to vote. I didn’t tell people “vote for Donald Trump or America is toast,” nor did I say “We must vote for Joe Biden!” I took a middle road, which is really the best road. It’s an uncomfortable road, because I believe a Christian ought to feel politically “homeless” in a world to which he doesn’t belong.

The Christian faith is about hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better us. Hope for justice. Hope that things are meant to be better than they are.

Hope that a God exists who is good, and that His Son Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose again to fix this broken world, by the power of the Spirit.

The Christian faith is about hope that God will rescue some of us, so we can be with Him in the new community, as part of a new family, in the new and better world to come. Christians can live here in peace and joy because of this new relationship.

But, while we wait for all that good stuff to happen … we’re stuck here. We can’t withdraw from society and isolate in Tupperware containers. We can’t marry the Church to the culture. We’re in this uneasy middle ground, with the Church set apart from the culture but not isolated from it.

This produces questions about how the Church should interact with society[1]. The election is 03 November; what should you think about voting?

I tried to answer that, here. I provided three principles to follow when voting:

  1. God will fix everything … later.
  2. Vote to support all kingdom values, not just some.
  3. Realize God doesn’t care if you don’t like your leaders.

The uncomfortable bit is in the second principle. I’m essentially taking the approach Michael Svigel summarizes pretty well in his article The Conscience of the Kingdom: A Third Way for Christians Caught Between Isolationism and Constantinianism. He writes:

On the basis of God’s Word and in allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians speak and act on behalf of righteousness. Christians address political corruption, weigh in on social ills, take righteous action on behalf of truth, justice, and mercy, and do so in ways that refuse either to empower a “strongman” or take shelter in a bunker. All of this is done in a manner that reflects the fruit of the Spirit and the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Conscience Christians avoid any alliances or allegiances that would surrender their ability to speak prophetically to the “Herods” of their day. And they refuse to surrender the impartiality necessary to serve as the conscience of the kingdoms of their age.

This kind of approach almost always means withdrawing membership and loyalty to political parties and political action organizations, but it never means retreating from political, social, cultural, and moral engagement. It means boldly but lovingly speaking out against unrighteousness and injustice while promoting righteousness and justice—assuming, of course, that Christians are actually living out righteousness and justice themselves! In the Conscience of the Kingdom approach, the Church neither unites with nor retreats from the State; rather, she lives as the Church in the State and speaks as the Church to the State.

So, here’s the sermon. I think it’s pretty important:


[1] For an excellent discussion, see especially John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 697-736; esp. 711-714. 

Pilgrims in an unholy land

Pilgrims in an unholy land

In its October 2020 issue, WORLD Magazine (a conservative Christian publication) has two interviews about the upcoming Presidential election. WORLD’s editor, Marvin Olasky, interviewed both Wayne Grudem and David French. They’re polar opposites, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.

Here, in those few pages of interviews, you have the ethical divide that splits conservative Christians. I suppose this is all really about the Church and the Christian’s responsibilities towards society. Basically, what you think about the Kingdom of God matters. I recommend the following resources for those who are interested in the Church, the Christian, and social engagement. Read in order, according to the amount of time you have available to invest:

  1. Michael Svigel’s wonderful article, “The Conscience of the Kingdom: A Third Way for Christians Caught Between Isolationism and Constantinianism.
  2. J.I. Packer’s article, “The Bible’s Guide for Christian Activism.”
  3. Charles Ryrie’s little book The Christian and Social Responsibility.
  4. Scott Aniol’s article, “Polishing Brass on a Sinking Ship: Toward a Traditional Dispensational Philosophy of the Church and Cultural Engagement.

But, back to the point. The divide is real. So real that French and Grudem seem to inhabit different planets.

Wayne Grudem

To many evangelicals, Grudem needs little introduction. He’s the author of the best-selling text Systematic Theology. Here’s his bio the seminary where he teaches:

Dr. Grudem became Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in 2001 after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 20 years. He was named Distinguished Research Professor in 2018. He has served as the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (1999), and as a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He also served as the General Editor for the ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008).

Grudem is a well-known supporter of President Trump. Several years ago, Christian historian John Fea coined the phrase “court evangelical” to describe conservative Christians who seem to desperately yearn for access to the President, like so many little children lusting after candies:

The politics of fear inevitably results in a quest for power. Political influence, many evangelicals believe, is the only way to restore the nation to the moral character of its founding. How much time and money has been spent seeking political power when such resources might have been invested more effectively in pursuing a course of faithful presence!

Clergymen and religious leaders have, at least since Billy Graham, regularly visited the White House to advise the president. Like the members of the kings’ courts during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who sought influence and worldly approval by flattering the monarch rather than prophetically speaking truth to power, Trump’s court evangelicals boast about their “unprecedented access” to the White House and exalt the president for his faith-friendly policies.

John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 12.

By some people’s reckoning (like Fea’s), Grudem is a court evangelical. In his interview, he sounds less like the respected Christian theologian he is, and more like a GOP policy wonk from Fox News. Here are some excerpts:

The political left certainly has a lot to answer for, but what about the responsibility of Christian leaders? When Barack Obama made untruthful claims, he received a lot of criticism; but have we seen similar criticism regarding President Trump? I’ve publicly criticized his previous marital infidelity and his vindictiveness at times, and his brash, confrontational behavior at times. I looked at The Washington Post’s list of what it calls 16,000-some “lies” Trump has spoken and examined 20 or 30 of them. They’re what I’d call conclusions drawn by a hostile interpreter of words that a sympathetic listener would understand in a positive way. President Trump is often not careful in some of the things he says. He is given to exaggeration. Sometimes he’s made a statement after being given inaccurate information. I’m not sure he’s ever intentionally affirmed something he knows to be false, which is how I define a lie. As you know, I have written an ethics textbook. I believe it’s never right to affirm X when you believe X is false. If someone wants to point out to me some actual Trump lies that fit that definition, I’d be happy to look at them. 

Will America in 2024 be in better or worse shape if Biden is elected, or if Trump is reelected? The Trump presidency has resulted in a stronger economy, stronger national defense, positive steps toward achieving border security, standing up to China and Russia, negotiating new trade agreements, advocating educational freedom, standing with Israel, strengthening our military, and reforming our judicial system. Those are all what seem to me to be evidence of God’s blessing on the nation with President Trump. If he wins again, I expect there will be more blessing on our nation. If Biden is elected, he’ll support abortion, cripple the economy, weaken our military, largely abandon Israel, select more judges who legislate from the bench, weaken religious freedom. We’ll have more crime, a complete federal takeover of our healthcare system, and much more that looks like the withdrawal of God’s blessing.

Perhaps the strangest thing Grudem suggested (underlined, above) was that President Trump has never lied in his life. That is … an odd thing to say!

David French

French is a well-known Christian commentator:

David French is senior editor of The Dispatch, a conservative website, and a member of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn. He served in the Iraq War, was a senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, and was a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019.

However, if Grudem seems to be speaking more like a GOP strategist than a Christian theologian, David French seems to have no goal other than to not vote for President Trump. His basic point is the Church has consistently failed to change public policy on critical issues by supporting GOP Presidents, and it will fail here, too:

Has he helped or hurt regarding our racial division? The extraordinary racial division in the United States is not just dealt with by policy. That is dealt with through character, personality, leadership, and charisma. The core of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ critique is that Trump by pattern and practice intentionally tries to divide the United States of America. I think that critique is right. A president of good character doesn’t try intentionally to divide the United States of America. All of this stuff is super basic. You ask Christians about this in 2015, and they say, “Of course.” But Christians have joined with Trump and look for a rationalization.

French continues in the same vein, but in response to a different question:

Does this president’s control over policy trump his own incompetence and poor character? The plight of the country now says that’s not just wrong, but laughably and tragically wrong. There is nothing MAGA about where we are now. There is an enormous amount of heartbreak, misery, death, division. That Donald Trump had a better platform than Hillary Clinton did not spare us from any of that. His character made it all worse.

Then this:

So you want a narrow Democratic win? No, I want a decisive loss for Trump, because if the loss is very narrow you’re going to have extraordinarily divisive forces in the U.S. calling into question the legitimacy of the election. A decisive win is the only way Americans are going to have confidence in the legitimacy of the election, sad to say. The margin will matter a lot. My hope is that a resounding rejection of Donald Trump doesn’t carry with it a resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That’s what I’m pessimistic about. I suspect the resounding rejection of Trump will also lead to resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That outcome is not best for the country.

Read both Wayne Grudem and David French’s interviews. It’s likely you have friends and family who exactly mirror both Grudem and French. The men inhabit different worlds. You can’t be more apart on issues. Yet, they’re both conservative Christians.

What to do in November?

I know that the Kingdom of God isn’t here, yet. It’s coming, though. The Church’s mission is to preach the Gospel, equip God’s people for faithful life and death in His service, and reach out so more people will join the family of God. The Kingdom won’t come until Christ rolls up this ruined world, throws it into the trash, and makes a new and better place for His chosen people. Then, we’ll have justice and righteousness.

Until then, Christians must speak and vote for policies that are closest to God’s. In other words, Christians must go in for kingdom values now, while we wait for that kingdom to come. Read Michael Svigel’s article.

On hating unbelievers

On hating unbelievers

There are a number of popular Christian pastors and teachers, usually on Twitter, who are writing about how evil Justice Ginsburg was. They suggest it’s ridiculous that any Christian express polite appreciation for her legacy. They seem quite happy she is dead. They typically mention her support for abortion as justification.

It’s seems strange that Christians should be pleased when an unbeliever dies. It is strange. These Twitter Christians often accuse those who do express appreciation for Justice Ginsburg of being soft on sin. Being wimps, basically.

I think those Christians are very angry people. Angry at what’s happened to their country. Angry at changes in society. And, their philosophy of ministry is essentially Christian fundamentalism. That movement has a good and noble legacy that’s often tarred by the foolish excesses of its worst people. These angry Twitter pastors would never say they’re fundamentalists, but they are. They often want to fight, fight, fight. They’re the archetypes of a philosophy they often claim to despise.

I was reminded, recently, of the strange dichotomy between Charles Stanley and a certain other well-known, conservative octogenarian preacher. What different philosophies. What different mindsets. What different emphases. What different ministries.

One Christian pastor, popular on Twitter, wrote just today:

Why must we refrain from stating the necessary and obvious reality that Ruth Bader Ginsburg promoted clear, definable, delineable evil? For over fifty years? In a position of great power, and hence responsibility before God? With all her strength, purposefully? With her last breath? And can we step back long enough to realize that if we allow the cultural pressure to “be nice to the dead” to control our speech at this time, that the result is the fundamental denial that true moral evil actually exists, that the secular worldview is truly morally evil, and that the deaths of the born and unborn that will be laid at the feet of Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the judgment were not as important as our cultural comfort?”

These words, and others in his article, ooze hatred. Anger. This is an unhappy man. Ginsburg was not on the Court in 1973, when it decided Roe v. Wade. She came 20 years later. What could force a Christian pastor to hate a dead woman so much? Justice Thurgood Marshall concurred with Roe v. Wade in 1973, but can’t we still laud his achievements for civil rights in the 1940s and 1950s?

I’ve watched this same pastor become increasingly polarized in his politics over the past two years. He believes all Democrats are evil. He slanders evangelicals who think differently than he about every aspect of social justice. Politics infects everything he says, now. He doesn’t see it, of course, but he’s become a very angry man. So have many other Christians. Angry enough that he can write:

What is RBG’s legacy? I am seriously listening to Christian leaders lauding her for her “courage” and “consistency.” There is no questioning her intelligence. She had a formidable mind. And yes, she was consistent. Very much so. But here’s my point: so was Jezebel.

So many Christians are consumed with hate fueled by partisan politics. When you begin to think of all your ideological opponents as not wrong and misguided, but deliberately evil, then you’ve crossed the line. You’ve been radicalized. Ironically, you’re the mirror image of the leftist partisans you hate so much.

He hates Justice Ginsburg. HATES. Why? Should we be surprised when an unbeliever acts like an unbeliever? How can you reach somebody with the gospel if you hate her? Forget Justice Ginsburg; how can you reach a culture that largely agrees with her if you hate them, too? You can’t, of course.

That’s very sad. To hate people so much because they act like … unbelievers. Such were some of us. If God (Father, Son and Spirit) had that mindset, we’d all be toast.