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.
As [Dr. J. Kameron] Carter explains it, white churches that sprang up throughout American history did so in the pattern of the great European cathedrals and denominations from which they were transplanted. Black church, while it is related to those European frameworks, “is in excess of them,” says Carter, meaning they “were already doing work beyond what those traditional denominations were doing.”
“In the face of a modern condition that told Blacks they were only worthy of their labor power, black churches came along and affirmed that there was a mode of life far beyond the woundings that came along with black existence in America.”
This is the tradition that produced King. And it’s the same tradition that produced other civil rights leaders, like Rosa Parks and Ella Baker.
Brandon Ambrosino has written a lengthy interview with three scholars on Dr. King and the black experience in America.
The American Policy Roundtable has a podcast this week on Dr. Martin Luther King with a pastor who knew him personally, Dr. Sterling Glover. It’s remarkable what some of us do not know about certain important figures in our country or the truth of the biggest civil problem of 20th century America.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, lobsters were so common all you had to do was stroll down to the nearest tidal pool and pluck them out by the bushel. But the Pilgrims wanted meat, not fish — not even fish as succulent as lobster. Very quickly familiarity bred contempt: The better class of colonists scorned the crustacean as suitable only for the poor. In his journal for the year 1622, William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, recorded the landing of a boatload of new colonists from England. Their arrival was a thrilling event, yet Bradford confessed that he and his fellow Plymouth residents were humiliated that they had nothing better to offer the newcomers than lobster.
Also on The American Spectator, Jay D. Homnick riffs on Georgia’s prayer for rain. “Pray today, give thanks tomorrow. Remember also that prayer is not only a means to an end, as Maimonides explains, it must catalyze each of us into reflecting upon our priorities,” he writes.
“God said, I am tired of kings, / I suffer them no more;” Emerson has an interesting poem here, Boston Hymn.
Gaius writes about the Pilgrims early attempts to live communally. This appears to be within the first seven years of their landing in America. According to what I’m reading, the pilgrims’ voyage was funding by London investors who required they work for them for seven years doing whatever profitable work they could find. At the end of those years, the survivors would receive a small share of the profits, but everything belonged to “the common fund” or that of the investors. Even the clothes they wore were owned technically by the men in London. Perhaps that’s why the colony started with a communal attitude.
Now, a little holiday advice: If you start feeling like this little guy, throw out your inhibitions and do something different. Take that walk. Eat that brussel sprout. Whatever you don’t normally do, do it. (Cute warning alert)