Category Archives: Religion and Politics

Faith, First Amendment, Culture and Etiquette

Christians and adherents of countless religions have come to the United States for one central reason: religious freedom. In many countries around the world, only one religion is legal. In North Korea, in order for the government to control people even more completely, the government invented a religion that is the only authorized religion. In Bhutan, there is a state religion, but a few other religions, not including Christianity, have been authorized in the Religious Organizations Act. In many European countries, a state church receives money collected by taxing all citizens regardless of whether they believe. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution has stood guard over the freedom of citizens to believe and practice any religion they choose. The First Amendment has also protected citizens from being required to support any state religion.  

First Amendment protections have been prized by citizens and guarded by presidents for more than 200 years.

 Over that same period, the bulk of the population of the USA has had some connection with Christianity. The original colonists came to the New World from England – some as emissaries of the state church and some as refugees from the state church. Even those who opposed England’s state church were predominantly Christian. A goodly number would likely have been classified by the faithful as nominal Christians, but in general, Christian ideas, Christian teachings, Bible imagery and Bible-based morality dominated the culture. Even though the country has always been a nation of immigrants, most immigrants assimilated the practices and etiquette of Christians whether or not they had the slightest interest in the faith. Blue laws enforced Sunday as a day of rest and a day to close the bars. Teachers felt free to read the Bible and pray in the classroom if they wanted to. Christians disputed the real presence and wrangled over baptismal forms in lunchrooms. Children played church as often as they played house. A Christmas pageant was the highlight of the school year. The dominance of Christians in the culture led Christians to believe that many cultural norms and practices were protected by the First Amendment.

 Now things are changing. Christianity no longer dominates the culture. Some Christians will say that an opportunity to have a true Christian culture was squandered, but that discussion is irrelevant to the realities. People who worship Allah and Vishnu and nobody are numerous enough in the culture to bring considerable pressure to bear on Christians. Now the question is, what constitutes a protected expression of Christian faith and what is no more than a cultural practice? To what extent must the law protect adherents of all religions from cultural persecution? When is an act or word persecution, cultural shunning, or impolite behavior which adults don’t honor with outrage?  For example, public schools have “always” had Christmas break. Now somebody wants to call it the “winter break.” Some people interpret that as persecution of Christians. Is it real persecution? Or is it cultural restriction? Or is it simply an accommodation that recognizes that a majority of the school population does not celebrate a religious festival called “Christmas?”

 I have a lot of questions. Do you have questions? When Christians are persecuted, how do you believe we should react? How should we deal with the increasingly rapid shrinking of Christian influence in the culture? What is the difference between taking offense and managing the problem of persecution? How is a Christian supposed to live an culture where other religions and even atheistic humanism seem to be more highly respected than Christian?

 

 

 

 

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Christ Enriches People’s Lives, The Government Perpetuates Poverty

I have pointed out previously that Jesus did not teach that we should give all our money to government in order that the government take care of the poor. Now I will explain why. Our decisions about our relationship with our government is part of the way we live in obedience to our Lord. When we choose to make the government the agent of our social concerns, we are denying our personal stewardship of the means God gives us to care for ourselves and others. We are further denying our individual and communal calling within the church to be Christ to the people we meet. This decision is not simply a mistake. It is bad for everyone.

Think about the amount of money and the number of programs our federal government has initiated in its efforts to help the poor. The outcome is obvious: there are more poor people than ever before. Common sense tells us that if we try something that fails miserably, the smart response is to try something different. We may decry the poor stewardship of God’s provision when programs fail. We may point accusing fingers at administrative failures and lying clients. But the bottom line is that the federal government keeps starting more and more programs that do not work, all designed to give money, housing, education and so forth to the poor, but none of them have ended or even reduced poverty. The number of people in poverty continues to grow year after year, and the cost of giving things to more and more people escalates with the client base.

Why?

Because as one radio commentator said recently, government social programs do not eradicate poverty; they simply make poverty easier to endure.

Everyone knows that poor people feel deprived and devalued. Those who have never known anything but poverty wonder where the people they see on TV got all that stuff, and they want the same stuff. This is the kind of envy that fuels the Occupy movement, which is largely populated with people who are not poor. The “Occupy” partisans simply feel angry and hurt that somebody has more than they have, and they feel entitled to take what others have acquired. They allege to believe that they are leveling the playing field.

When we Christians buy into this rhetoric, we are denying the teachings of Christ.

Remember when Jesus told us not to worry about what we need? This statement was not a mystical exercise to be folded up along with your meditation mat and your candle after prayer

time. This is the real thing. Jesus promised us that if we got our priorities straight, God would bless us with everything we need.

Sooo. How much is enough? How do we know that we have what we need and we don’t need any more? This is a very different question than the one the Occupy movement asks. The people in the Occupy movement look at other people and say, “You have more than you need.” Jesus says we should look at God instead of other people. We should ask what God wants us to be doing with our lives, instead of probing into the lives of other people to determine what they should and should not do. Jesus said we should be concerned about doing what God created us to do. He said that if we are achieving our own purposes, then we will be happy, fulfilled and not needy.

In other words, there is no single answer to what anybody “needs.” The government makes all sorts of definitions and regulations and policies and procedures. Despite all that effort to end poverty, there is more poverty than ever. What’s more, even people who are not in poverty feel needy. Government programs that attack one problem generate envy, jealousy and outright greed among people who have a different problem. They want to know why their problem is not being solved for them.

None of this is God’s plan for people. God created each of us to be blessed in relationship with him. He gave each of us gifts and vision and purpose, and he promises that when we are using our gifts and following that vision and accomplishing his purpose, we will be happy and content. He never ever at any time says that he wants everyone to have the same things or the same number of things. He does not even say that the playing field will be level or the rules will be fair. The mountains will become plains and everybody will be completely joyful in the new heaven and earth at the end of time, but not here and not now. In the here and now we will have challenges and fears and doubts and failures and wants and needs and happy days and sad days. This life will never be a picnic, but it will be fulfilling and worthwhile. The sense of fulfillment and the recognition of value will not be about some balance in a bank account.

Government can do nothing for the spirit of a human being. Government can grant people money and possessions, but that is all. Sadly, the human who has nothing but the gratification of biological needs is not a human being fully alive. That human is miserable, and all he or she looks forward to is receiving another possession or another payment. That is what we all see in the people who settle into government housing buying food with government payments and waiting for a raise in their benefits. They learn how to optimize their benefits, and they teach their children the same attitude.

This is not what God created people to be. If we Christians, who know Christ and the fulfillment of life in relationship with Him do not love and serve our neighbors ourselves instead of foisting it all off on the government, the world will become a desolate and dreary place. We must reclaim the role we have historically had in doing good for people. In big ways and small ways, we must show people the love of God every day. We must demonstrate that we love people by sacrificing self and serving others. We must do this in our daily lives in a million small ways. We must not put it off to be done by “ServeNow.org.”

Am I the model of this behavior? I am not. I am working on it. I spent most of my life believing I was supposed to spend all my time in mental activity. I am only just waking up to the truth that every Christian has the same calling – servanthood. I have never been humble and selfless and caring, but now that I see what government administration does to programs intended to love and serve people, I am positive that this is not the way to lift up the poor and bring liberty and prosperity to all. You tell me. What are you doing? Tell me what you do in big ways and small ways that have nothing to do with society or government or activism or “awareness” or any of the buzz words. Help me learn. I need your help. I am praying for guidance, but I do believe there are people out there somewhere living in the style that exemplifies Jesus’ teaching. Please share your experience and your thoughts.

How Does Persecution Begin?

The history of the USA is rich in stories of people who fled countries where their faith made them targets. In some cases they were in danger because their neighbors persecuted and scorned them while a complicit government cruised with hands off. In other places, the government persecuted them directly. Many of these refugees have suffered horrors American citizens can only barely imagine. American citizens welcome people fleeing persecution and give thanks that in this country, we have a Constitutional amendment that protects us from such things.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which became part of the Constitution in 1791, reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

 

It sounds quite straightforward. Congress may not make any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion.

Common sense has resulted in an understanding that if somebody’s religion called for child sacrifice, the nation would respond with outrage and certainly would prohibit a religion from engaging in that practice. It is interesting to me that this is a common example used to show that as a nation, our understanding of religious freedom balks at burning a child on an altar, precisely because the practice of abortion, and the related practices of contraception and sterilization, have become the elements of a prohibition of the free exercise of religion in this country. The Affordable Healthcare Act, conversationally known as Obamacare, has introduced something into our system of law that raises a bright red flag for anyone who pays attention to the history and daily news of religious persecution around the world.

This legislation requires every employer in the US to provide health insurance coverage for services the law classifies as “preventive” health services. The required services include contraception, abortion and sterilization at no cost to the employee. That is, the employee may not be required to pay the premium, and the employee may not be required to pay deductibles or copays for these services. For the employee, these services must be free. Further, the regulations built on this legislation allow a conscience exemption only for worship institutions whose religious theology prohibits engaging in or providing such services. Institutions such as hospitals, universities, counseling centers, and so forth are not exempted, regardless of the religious convictions of the employers. On February 10, 2012, President Obama announced what he called an “accommodation” in response to complaints by Catholic employers, a response that simply shifted the cost of providing such so-called “preventive” health services to the insurance company itself. Yet when the final rule was published on February 15, it appeared to be an unmodified publication of the initial rule. The Catholic Bishops and numerous other individuals and groups protested to no avail that this ruling was a breach of First Amendment protections.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this particular confrontational issue, it represents only the tip of the iceberg. Every Christian, and every person who lives by the principle that obedience to God trumps obedience to the State, must be concerned by this development. It is hard to imagine any prior administration daring to trample First Amendment rights this way. Catholic teaching for two thousand years has forbidden engaging in contraception, abortion or sterilization, and the government had to know this when the original rule was published. Yet the rule was published, the argument was argued, and in the end, unless some future court ruling changes things, the rule stands. The forcefulness of the government’s rejection of the issue of religious expression is startling, given our history. It may lie in the equally startling semantic corollary to this conversation. The advocates for this rule speak of pregnancy as a disease that must be prevented. Such a view of pregnancy is shocking by itself, but that view is required in order for the mind to accept the notion that contraception, abortion and sterilization are preventive health services, necessary, even essential to women’s health. In fact, the language being used has ramped up the concern about women’s health to such a level that many speakers talk about a universal human right to free contraception, abortion and sterilization.

The concise version of the story of the Affordable Healthcare Act and its mandate on employers to provide all women’s preventive health services at no cost to the employee is this: the State has a legitimate interest in assuring that women do not get pregnant by accident, and if an unplanned pregnancy should occur, it must be easy and cost-free to end that pregnancy. Notice how none of the verbiage uses the word “baby” or the word “child.” Yet the State is motivating women to practice contraception, abortion and sterilization without regard to the scientific truth that these procedures do, in fact, involve sacrificing a child on the altar of somebody’s convenience. In fact, the pressure exerted and the scorn poured out upon people of faith who object to this rule as a violation of their right to live their faith convictions makes it quite clear that the State’s convenience is at least as much at issue here as the convenience of women who don’t want babies.

The antagonists in this conflict are 1) the State (the United States of America personified by the President of the United States of America and the Congress of the United States of America), and 2) people who hold religious convictions prohibiting them from practicing or supporting the practices of contraception, abortion and sterilization. The State has by its actions asserted that to assert that God’s law has a higher claim to obedience than the law of the United States of America is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

It is not farfetched to say that the State wants to be a god for whom citizens sacrifice children.

Historically, when the State requires any citizen to disobey God in order to obey the State, it signals the beginning of real persecution. The path from this moment of truth to some more gruesome evidence of persecution may be fairly lengthy, or it may be so short that we get there tomorrow. In many countries, the path for the State is smooth and unfettered, because many countries have no legal protection in place for Christians. In the US, there should at least be a fairly massive outcry against imprisoning or torturing Christians, but many more subtle and devious methods of persecution exist, and many are already in place in our culture.

This post is about an explosive and obvious moment when our country stood on a precipice and actually appeared to fall over the cliff. Perhaps rescue from this particular assault will appear from somewhere. Perhaps not. Christians cannot count on a drift away from the precipice. When someone with power exerts that power and subdues a powerful opponent, the high is like the first injection of heroin. The memory of that moment always calls out for repetition.

 Christians must be faithful in word and deed. We must speak out and stand up for the right to free expression of our faith. In the USA we have that privilege today. We must not let it dissolve before our eyes in a semantic cesspool.

What is so Wrong About Being Rich?

The latest brouhaha in the world of taxation is a big push called the “Buffet Rule.” It is only one of many assaults on people who have been successful in building wealth. It is part of a mindset that I find extremely offensive. I am not a wealthy person myself, and I have never been wealthy, but I have never been able to dredge up the pseudo-moral outrage that is expressed publicly against people who have become wealthy.

This kind of attitude is in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus never said that it was okay to hate rich people or steal their wealth. If you think I am wrong about this, please point me to the teaching you have in mind. I can think of two times Jesus spoke about the difficulty rich people have with spiritual growth, but I am not aware of even one place where Jesus said that anybody should steal from the rich and give to the poor.

 (1-A rich man came to him to ask how to have eternal life. Jesus told him to be perfect ((keep the Law)) but the man said he was already perfect. Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor. Notice that he said nothing about the man’s riches until the man alleged to be perfect. It was the man’s failure to put God first, not his possession of wealth, that was the problem. 2-Jesus said it was as hard for a rich man to get into heaven as for a camel to go through a needle’s eye. This doesn’t mean that Jesus thought wealthy people were wickeder than others. He simply observed that it was hard for them to put God first. Notice that he doesn’t say poor people get in easily. He just says that riches can make it hard for people to put God first.)

When I was a child I really liked the Robin Hood story, because I thought of Robin Hood in the same way I thought of Superman and Mighty Mouse. These were magical and mythical characters who fixed what was broken at the snap of a finger. They thumbed their noses at those who doubted them. I still like a good story that smacks of David’s victory over Goliath. We all do. However, in the real world, the idea of anything or anyone forcibly appropriating things that do not belong to them is repugnant.

The envy, anger and outright hatred directed against “the rich” in current political rhetoric, however, is not David versus Goliath. It is not the sheep against the goats in the final judgment. It is simple jealousy fueling gang warfare. It is mob violence. It is beneath contempt for anyone who claims the name of Christ to join in.

The rhetoric goes something like this. Look at that evil rich person. He doesn’t need all that money. He should be glad to give it away to help poor people. If he doesn’t voluntarily give it all away, we should take it away from him by force. We won’t personally steal it from him. We’ll go get our big brother, the federal government to do it for us.

As I listen to speakers, starting with our president and moving through his entire administration, all spokespersons for Democrats, some spokespersons for Republicans, numerous religious leaders, most of the media, and assorted private individuals I have encountered, I am appalled at the number who actually believe that this attitude is something Jesus would be proud of. I am also appalled at the number who believe they can define ‘the rich’ according to their annual taxable income. I am appalled at the number who seem to believe they have the right and the obligation to say what is “enough” for someone else. Even jurnalists, who of all people ought to be even-handed in their quest for truth, join in the assault. They freely label and classify everyone according to income, and they all feel qualified and authorized to cast aspersions on anyone who does not fit their approved model for income and lifestyle. They have appointed themselves to run other people’s lives. One wonders, who tells these critics what they can keep out of their personal income.

None of this is consistent with Jesus’ teaching that we are not to judge others. Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged,”[1] Imagine that the CBS News anchor says of a hypothetical Mr. Brown that he “doesn’t need three cars and he has no right to jet off to Las Vegas every year. Why does he need two houses? One is enough for anybody.” According to Jesus, that kind of attitude calls down a similar judgment on the speaker. Such statements imply that God has authorized some people to judge what other people deserve to possess. This is not Jesus’ way.

Jesus teaches us to love everyone – even the rich. Jesus teaches us to speak well of everyone. Jesus teaches us not to envy what others have, but rather, to be content with what we have.

In case you think this rule is relaxed as long as you don’t try to take the wealth of others for yourself, think again. God does not authorize people to define fiscal classes of people and steal from one class in order to pretend to benefit another. Keep in mind that God never gives out possessions evenly. You and I might think every person ought to have exactly the same as all the others, but that is not God’s way. Even if we pass a lot of laws to grab up wealth from some people and hand it over to others, you can be sure that all people in the world will not wind up with the same amount of money. Some of the inequity will be due to human venality, and some of the inequity will be a result of failure to show stewardship of God’s gifts.

The human campaign to make sure everyone has the same amount of possessions, including money, is exactly that: human. It has nothing to do with Jesus or his teaching. Jesus did not teach that any of us has the right or the scriptural obligation to tell others what they can or cannot possess. Jesus did confront people individually about the way they used their possessions, but he never said that some of us have the right to judge or steal from the rest of us.

In simple words: Do not envy people who happen to have more possessions or wealth or whatever other advantages you care to envy. Jesus taught us to love everyone and be grateful for what God has given us. Jesus is as disturbed by envy of the rich as he is disturbed by disdain for the poor.

There is a political agenda that is fueled by hatred and aggression toward “the rich.” In that political world, everyone who achieves great power in the administration of wealth redistribution becomes personally wealthy. Everybody else winds up with nothing. The national motto of that way of life was: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” The nation was the former USSR. The USSR was an atheistic socialistic heaven on earth that collapsed politically under the weight of its multitude of failures to serve its population. This nation is exactly what you get when you turn away from Christ and choose to follow the economic and political philosophy of socialism.

When you follow Christ, you are individually responsible for what you do with every gift God gives you. You help poor people personally and through private charities. You don’t empower government to steal from everyone. Jesus never said that we should worship and serve the state. Jesus said we should put God ahead of everything. Our two most important laws in obedience to Christ are first, love God above all else, and second, love your neighbor (even your wealthy neighbor) as yourself. That is what Jesus taught.

I repeat here my original comment. If you think Jesus taught us to judge and steal from the rich in the name of charity to the poor, please point me to that teaching in the Bible. I welcome your comments, and I love the conversation.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 7:1–2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Lee Greenwood Assaulted by Secular Culture

President George W. Bush puts his arm around S...
President George W. Bush puts his arm around Singer Bebe Winans as he sings ‘God Bless America’ during the ‘Saluting Those Who Serve’ event at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2005. Also pictured are, from left, Laura Bush, Lynne Cheney, and Vice President Dick Cheney. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday morning I read a headline that said, “School Removes ‘God’ from ‘God Bless the USA.’” The article explained that the school taught the children to sing, “We love the USA” instead. This news is quite disturbing to me.

It troubles me on several fronts.

For starters, I know that schools modify songs all the time for various reasons. They may use the catchy tune of some popular song and write new words in order to teach science or history or other material. This practice reminds me of the Salvation Army story about its founder who wrote hymns to be sung to popular tunes. He said “The devil shouldn’t have all the good tunes.” It is easier to teach someone the words to a new song if the melody is already familiar. The idea that the school would use a familiar melody and sing different words is not a shock to me.

It does shock me that the school would take a song with the iconic status of “God Bless the USA” and change only the words that are the backbone of the song. The reason the song has the status it has is the very message the school removed. People appreciate the message that we should pray for our country. People sing this song enthusiastically because they believe what it says. They love their country, and they love singing this prayer.

There is no requirement that the school use this particular song for any particular purpose. For the school to gut the message by removing the word ‘God’ in this way sends two destructive messages to me:

  1. 1.      The teachers who made this change are telling children that they don’t think the children should acknowledge God, and
  2. 2.      The teachers are telling the children that teachers can do anything they like with cherished patriotic expressions.

This action is yet another statement that our culture is becoming secularized. We must face this reality without flinching, and without whining.  We must recognize the change that has happened and is happening. We must continue to be salt and light in the name of Christ no matter how energetically the culture rejects the salt and covers up the light. Our response to this outrage must be expressed with serpentine wisdom coupled with the grace of doves bearing olive branches.

There are many patriotic songs children could learn to sing. If they are going to sing this one, they ought to sing it as it is. If the school wants a patriotic song with no reference to God, let the teachers find a different song or write one themselves. To modify some silly ‘flavor of the day’ popular song in order to teach children something or to have some fun is fine. To modify a song that evokes in many citizens the same response as the sight of the Statue of Liberty is a slap in the face of the whole nation.

We need to remember that this song is not a song that we normally use in Christian worship. Those who modified it would tell us to quit complaining, because this is a popular song, not a hymn. It was written to arouse patriotism and commitment to the USA, not to God. However, the very wording of the song expresses faith in God and expresses an attitude that people approved as a cultural expression for most of my life. Only recently has it been common to hear anyone complain about asking God to bless our nation or participate in assuring its well-being. During the past three years, however, there has been an escalation of rhetoric demanding that the word ‘God’ and all other evidence of faith in God be expunged from public life. Until recently, most people in our culture nominally acknowledged the existence of God and considered the Christian faith, but no particular denomination, to be a normal and obvious component of the community. Currently, there is a growing sense that many people in the culture take offense at the mention of God in public and at the assumption that the Christian God is the one named when that word is used.

This developing trend is expressed in a desire that children sing patriotic songs whose lyrics are not a prayer to God. While I deplore that attitude, I would not be upset at children singing some patriotic song that did not include God’s name. However, it isn’t a neutral act to gut “God Bless America” and strip out the message that is so important to the songwriter that he used it for the title. It is an act of aggression against Christianity to do this. The people who changed the song sliced it up like a potato, boiled it, and mashed it, serving up a glob of words and notes that is completely secular. They have a right to a secular song and a secular message. I don’t think they have a right to trash a patriot’s expression of the way his faith is integrated with his patriotism. The author, Lee Greenwood said, “The most important word in the whole piece of music is the word God, which is also in the title God Bless The USA.”

The fact that the school butchered this song in this way is strong evidence of the more troubling truth that children in public schools are immersed in secularism much stronger than even the cultural secularism. Increasingly, the culture within the boundaries of school property filters and shuts out all Christian references and the expression of Christian faith.

When the Catholic Bishops protested that the federal government had overstepped its bounds in requiring the Catholic Church to pay for and encourage use of contraceptives, abortion and sterilization services, many people in the culture were angry at the bishops, not the government. The culture said with a loud voice that the Catholics had no right to opt out of the cultural standard that said that preventing or ending unwanted pregnancy is a national imperative. The religious principles of the Catholics were rejected and trashed. In Massachusetts at Stall Brook Elementary School, the religious principles of Lee Greenwood were rejected and trashed.

It is all very well for the culture to choose to be completely secular. God created people free, and he lovingly allows them to be free to reject him completely if that is their choice. It is not very well for the culture to choose to crush people for whom their faith is their way of life. I seem to recall reading that Buddhism was quite popular among people who don’t want to worship God, because they were told that it was a way of life, not a religion. I submit that the distinction expressed is only semantic. The real truth is that your way of life is your religion. You live by the principles that express your values, and your values come from somewhere. For Christians, our values come from God. We cannot live as if he does not exist. As the secular culture exerts increasing pressure to push God out of public life, the Christian way of life will inevitably be stressed. The slaughter of Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA” foreshadows things yet to come. We will need to be very assertive, and very loving and prayerful, to counterbalance that momentum by living our faith, the faith that teaches us to love and pray for those who treat us spitefully.