These folks aren’t self-consciously religious, though they may consider themselves “spiritual.” They blame the Protestant Christianity of their parents for much of what’s worst in the world. But if they’ve cast off their parents’ theological and ecclesial commitments, they have inherited a robust confidence in their own “essential moral rightness” (13). In fact, without the work of Christ or the fellowship of the church to fall back on, their sense of moral enlightenment becomes all the more crucial. It’s how they know their lives are justified; it’s how they know they belong among those who “get it.”
… They’re set apart as a class by their ability to recognize and personally reject the forces of evil—especially bigotry, militarism, oppression, and (sexual) repression. And they enjoy calm assurance that they’re insiders to a better world coming just around the corner.
And if you want a refutation of the wisdom of crowds—the “theory of equality applied to intelligence,” Tocqueville scoffs—look no further. As someone who believes that “freedom of the intellect is a sacred thing,” as Tocqueville does, “when I feel the hand of power weigh upon my brow, it scarcely matters who my oppressor is, and I am not more inclined to submit to the yoke because a million arms are prepared to place it around my neck.”
That same majoritarian tyranny explains why America’s elected officials are so mediocre. To win votes, they have to flatter public opinion with the obsequiousness of Louis XIV’s most sycophantic courtiers. Andrew Jackson is Tocqueville’s Exhibit A. He “is the slave of the majority,” Tocqueville sneers; “he obeys its wishes and desires and heeds its half-divulged instincts; or rather, he divines what the majority wants, anticipating its desires before it knows what they are in order to place himself at its head.” Like most politicians, he cares only about reelection, so that “his own individual interest supplants the general interest in his mind.” His (ultimately successful) vendetta against the Second Bank of the United States is a perfect example. Even though it inestimably benefits the nation by ensuring its monetary stability, Jackson happily attacks it, accusing its directors of being an aristocracy in the making, opposed to the democratic majority—and, incidentally, to Jackson as well. But of course, Jackson’s Democrats, the party that stands for the infinite expansion of the power of the people, have a permanent majority over the rival Federalists, who could win election only when the country needed to navigate the perils of the Founding, a unique emergency that prompted the Federalist Party’s superior men to accept public office.
Millennials must heed the Founders’ warning when voting in 2016. They explicitly warned us about inflammatory candidates (read: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders), and endeavored to structure a system that would protect the angry masses from themselves. In “Federalist No. 1,” Hamilton cautions against men gaining power through igniting the public’s fury, warning that they start by “paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
Kayla Nguyen, a fellow at the John William Pope Foundation, writes about the popular musical Hamilton and how it could speak to her generation and inspire them to believe in the American Experiment.
The [current] debate over religious freedom has generally assumed that the primary contest is over defining freedom, not religion. We assume that we more or less know what we are talking about when we say ‘religion’ . . . [I want to] question the assumption that Christianity is a religion to begin with, and examine both the advantages and the problems with claiming religious freedom for the church.
On the face of it, the question I’m raising seems ridiculous. Of course Christianity is a religion. A deeper look at the recent government arguments about the free exercise of religion, however, makes clear that what does and what does not count as religion is at the heart of the matter.
William Cavanaugh, quoted on the site for Mars Hill Audio Journal, from his book Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World.
I confess that far too often I have fallen into the heretical idea that it’s “me and Jesus,” which leads to the conclusion: If I am faithful, I know His pleasure; if I am unfaithful, I experience His loving but painful discipline. There have been many times in my life, when because of a particular unconfessed sin from which I have not repented, I have experienced with the Psalmist “my bones wast[ing] away . . . [and] groaning all day long. For day and night [the Lord’s] hand was heavy upon me [and] my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”(Ps. 32.4).
But far too seldom, until of late, have I understood that it isn’t just “me and Jesus.” Only in my old age have I begun – and I have only just begun – to realize that as part of a covenant community the sins of my people are also my sins, and that I am responsible before God to confess these sins, to ask His forgiveness, and to repent both personally and corporately of such sins, to turn from them, and to return once more to the way of the Lord.
Dr. Caines, who has been my pastor for many years, writes about his reluctance to accept responsibility for the negligence of God’s people in defending and uplifting those who suffered various abuses during the civil rights and Jim Crow eras.
While I would assume that some in my church in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s spoke out against injustice and prejudice, the overwhelming majority in my church and its leaders seemed more concerned about the possibility of whites and blacks intermarrying than about blatant injustice and mindless prejudice. In fact, some even twisted the Scripture to defend the “ways thing are.”
Part of his thinking comes from the idea that my Christian life is just a matter between me and Jesus, that I come to the garden alone for Jesus to walk strictly with me. Sure, he is walking with others too, but all of us are walking with him individually.
Clearly, the apocalyptic forces were running wild – famine, plague, insurrection, and war. What a proclamation of human powerlessness in the face of unknown powers, and the futility of all human efforts! How could anyone doubt that Judgment was near, or that revival was the only solution?
Democracy can lose its soul when it “exaggerates” its principles, when it forgets the legitimate place of hierarchy, authority, and truth within their own spheres. As Dominique Schnapper argues in a brilliant new study inspired by Montesquieu’s insight (The Democratic Spirit of Law), in an “extreme democracy” equality risks becoming indiscriminate egalitarianism, the defense of novelty risks giving rise to the “temptation of the unlimited,” and healthy skepticism risks decaying into “absolute relativism.” As another contemporary French thinker, Pierre Manent, has put it, “To love democracy well it is necessary to love it moderately.”
This is what we should mean if we say we want to get back to a better America, rejecting hubris and restoring healthy boundaries in our civilization. People in the old days were not sinless, but they did understand the morality that builds and maintains a nation a little better than perhaps we do today. How do we get back there? It is partly by politics, but politics only as an outgrowth of godly community, by healthy church life, and by following the Good Shepherd wherever he goes.
A brief story about the aftermath of September 11 nicely illustrates how different things are in secularized Europe. I was at a conference of European and American lawyers and jurists in Rome when the planes struck the twin towers. All in attendance were transfixed by the horror of the event, and listened with rapt attention to the President’s ensuing address to the nation. When the speech had concluded, one of the European conferees—a religious man—confided in me how jealous he was that the leader of my nation could conclude his address with the words “God bless the United States.” Such invocation of the deity, he assured me, was absolutely unthinkable in his country, with its Napoleonic tradition of extirpating religion from public life.
Kurt Schlichter ruminates on our current obsession with zombies. Not long ago, many mainstream stories focused on foreign threats or nuclear fallout. Today, we entertain ourselves with mysterious outbreaks that turn people into flesh-eaters.
“What does it say,” Schlichter asks, “that our collective subconscious senses less of a threat from fanatical outsiders who, in the last couple decades, have killed thousands of us via terrorism, than from each other?
. . . The foreigners are a threat, but that’s under control. What is out of control, or what seems like it is out of control, is our society itself.”
Preaching on 1 Peter 3:8, Nicholas Byfield remarked, “The doctrine is cleer. That we ought to have a sympathie one towards another.” Robert Bolton urged his readers to “make conscience” their sympathy. Puritan sermons often aimed at stirring the holy affections of congregants, and Van Engen writes,
The imaginative work of sympathy, furthermore, constituted its own distinct practice. Puritan ministers instructed their parishioners to pray for others and provide physical aid, but before they acted, they had to be moved.
This helps explain why the Puritans, contrary to popular belief, were so expressive. When his wife was dying, John Winthrop was “weeping so bitterly,” Van Engen writes, “she asked him to stop” because (in her words) “you breake mine heart with your grievings.” When the Puritans fled England, and British soldiers separated children from their parents, William Bradford wrote that there was “weeping and crying on every side.” Anne Bradstreet regularly refers to her “troubled heart,” “sorrows,” “cares,” “fears,” and “joy” in her poetry. One of the most popular poems of the early colony was Michael Wigglesworth’s “The Day of Doom” (1662), in which he imagines the “weeping” and wailing of sinners but also the singing and “great joy” of God’s elect at Christ’s second coming. Van Engen writes that each instance of “tears and grieving, melting and weeping, pity and sympathy” in Puritan texts fits within “a broad tradition of Puritan fellow feeling.”
Speaking of early America, Mark David Hall criticizes a book on the religious mindset of the founding fathers. Were they a group of “pious, orthodox believers who sought to establish a Christian nation” or were they “Enlightenment deists who created a secular republic that strictly separated church and state”? Were they rational men who were strongly influenced by Christianity? Hall notes some good and bad points in Steven Green’s book Inventing a Christian America. (via Prufrock)
Stetzer says, “Recently, I interviewed Rodney Stark, one of the nation’s leading sociologists, and asked him about the state of Evangelicalism today. He was perfectly blunt. ‘I think the notion that they’re shrinking is stupid. And it’s fiddling with the data in quite malicious ways. I see no such evidence.'”
In his article, Carl Trueman explains, “Conservative Evangelicalism may be more robust in terms of recruitment than other Christian alternatives at this point but it looks singularly ill-equipped to face the challenges of the coming days. It simply lacks the identity and the resources that come with historic rootedness, a point which makes it perennially vulnerable to becoming simply American culture in a Christian idiom.”
John MacArthur was talking about forty years of ministry back in 2009 and he shared some details about his ministry after seminary. From the transcript:
Well in the purposes of God [Dr. John M. Perkins] returned to Mississippi to a little town called Mendenhall, and Mendenhall, Mississippi, south of Jackson, and he started a ministry there. He started a school there. He started a church. Started a little co-op for people to buy things and really helped that little community of Mendenhall. This was right at the time when the Civil Rights Movement really exploded, and John asked me if I would come to Mississippi and if I would preach, if I would go out to the black high schools which were totally segregated and always on the other side of town, and if I would preach and do some gospel ministry in these high schools around Mississippi. So I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to do that.”
Got a few friends, in those days I used to sing a little. And we would do a little bit of singing together. And then I would preach and I had an absolutely wonderful time. I can’t remember how many years, I think I went down there for a period of about five years, going down and spending a pro-longed period of time. I lived with John and Vera Mae in their house, very interesting to live at that time in the home of black people in the south and to be treated the way they were treated, to be refused meals at a restaurant that I would go to because they knew who I was associating with.
It was so tense there. There was a friend of John’s who was a custodian in the First Baptist Church in Mendenhall which is a white church. This custodian loved Christ and he built a friendship with the pastor at the church, even though he couldn’t attend the church. The pastor started a Bible study with him on a regular basis and the church leaders told him he had to stop that. He said, “I can’t.” And the circumstances became so overbearing on him, he had problems in the community, in the town and getting gas and things like that. He had a nervous breakdown. They took him to Jackson. Put him in a hospital room and he dove out of the window, the third floor, and killed himself. That’s how intense that was.
Later on, he said he was arrested for fomenting trouble by preaching the gospel in high schools. That wasn’t nearly as bad as what Dr. Perkins’ suffered.
If you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Perkins, he spoke at the 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit in April on “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” on the Civil Rights Movement after 50 Years. He’s a good man. I’ve heard him many times on a radio program with Michael Card, musician and Bible teacher, and I recently listened to a seminar series from Covenant Theological Seminary which led with a couple sermons by Dr. Perkins.
The trouble-making is still here, but the church must not continue to hold to a politicized view of the gospel that ridicules the black experience in America and justifies past sins. The gospel is reconciliation across all barriers. “Segregation and discrimination are almost witchcraft,” Dr. Perkins says in the video below. It’s forbidden in the Bible we hold dear.
“We’re at a pivot place in the history of the church,” Dr. Perkins says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. . . . This is a conversation we need. We’re going to leave here and go to our homes and talk about the past, but forgiveness takes care of that.”
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Or is it something else?
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a wonderfully catchy tune that many have sung on the Fourth and even in church, because it talks about God’s truth marching forward, right? Just like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” isn’t it?
The writer, Julia Ward Howe, was a Unitarian, poet, and active supporter of abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and education. Her public support of these issues was opposed by her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, and put a strain on their marriage for years. He wanted her to keep her work domestic. When she published a book of poetry anonymously (but discovered a short time afterward), Samuel felt betrayed.
In November 1861, Samuel and Julia were visiting Union encampments close to Washington, D.C. as part of a presidential commission. Some of the men began singing, and one of their songs was “John Brown’s Body,” a song in praise of the violent abolitionist John Brown.
“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
But his soul goes marching on.
“He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
His soul goes marching on.”
Reverend James Freeman Clarke was touring with the Howes and remarked that while the tune was great, the lyric could be stronger. He suggested Julia write new words to it, and she replied that she had had a similar idea. Continue reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic→
Margaret Biser, who has led historical tours at a Southern house and plantation for years. She writes about the questions she received, such as whether the slaves appreciated the good treatment they received or whether being a house slave instead of a field hand was a cushy life.
Why did her guests continue to ask questions ignorant or opposed to the history she presented? Inaccurate education for many. Apathy for some.
“In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one’s ancestors reflect one’s beliefs about oneself. We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.”
This is how I understand the KKK began. You could call it a failure of believers to reach poor white members in neighboring small towns with the full gospel, but however you want to think about, people who felt rejected by their community turned their bitterness against blacks, an easy target. And some carry on that legacy today, both directly as members of the Klan and indirectly when they argue that #BlackLivesMatter is not as strong as #AllLivesMatter, missing the point that black lives are the ones still longing for respect.
“Addressing racism,” Biser writes, “isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others.” But with dehumanization active all around us today, we should wake up to the fact that we won’t learn this lesson without the gospel fully applied. Some of us haven’t learned it even with the gospel.
Nowhere did this spiritualizing of the material become more evident to Flannery O’Connor than in the civic boosterism of the 1950s. An editorial in Henry Luce’s Life magazine angered her because it charged that the nation’s novelists, in their existentialist angst, were failing to celebrate their prosperous and optimistic country. Luce’s editorialists thus summoned American writers to exhibit “the joy of life” and “the redemptive quality of spiritual purpose.” Where was such joyful purpose to be found? For Luce and his barkers, it lay in the nation’s remarkable decade of success: its unprecedented wealth, its world-dominating military power, its virtual achievement of a classless society, at least in comparison with other nations. For Flannery O’Connor, joy and purpose found in such places are gossamer and ephemeral things indeed.
This is not to say that O’Connor was an ingrate concerning her American freedoms. She was critical of her country because she loved it. She regarded the threat of Soviet communism as serious, for instance, even constructing a bomb shelter on her Georgia property. The family of refugees from post-war Poland whom she and her mother welcomed as workers on their dairy farm became the occasion for one of her best stories, “The Displaced Person.” O’Connor also refused, in 1956, to sell her work to Czech and Polish publishers, lest they use it for anti-American propaganda, as they had done with Jack London’s fiction. O’Connor also admired Reinhold Niebuhr for his principled opposition to Stalin’s desire to remake the whole of humanity into homo Sovieticus. For all the limits of American self-congratulation, it was infinitely preferable to the mind-body-soul destroying politics of the Gulag Archipelago.