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MLK and the Role of Religion in Public Life

Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Many TV and radio programs traditionally mark the occasion by replaying King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Here are links to read and watch it if you’ve never done so.

It is interesting to think about King’s speech in light of the growing secularism of America. I have many friends who are atheists and agnostics, and they are quick to argue that religion should have no place in public life in America. In their mind, religious beliefs should not be permitted to influence what the law says – separation of church and state forbids this. The late atheist provocateur, Christopher Hitchens, summed up this secularist creed in a debate against Tony Blair:

Relatively simply, the United States has uniquely a constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter, or to sponsor a church, or to adopt any form of faith itself.

Hitches was arguing for the exclusion of all religious beliefs from any public policy question.

Contrast this attitude with King’s speech. When Martin Luther King Jr argued for civil rights for black Americans, he did so on explicitly (though not exclusively) religious grounds.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

King was not arguing for the federal government to officially recognize a “state church.” He was not claiming that the Congress codify specific religious practices like adult baptism or congregational church polity. Those actions would indeed violate what the First Amendment is about.

But he was arguing that government policy should reflect the view of human rights that flows from belief in God as Father and all humans as his children. Separation of church and state is one thing, but separation of faith from the state is a different matter entirely. Those who purport that religious faith should have no bearing on public policy are Constitutionally naive and historically illiterate.

King’s rousing conclusion to his speech sounds just like something a Baptist minister (which he was) might say:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

It is undeniable that religious faith played an enormous role in the civil rights movement. By the way, it is also inarguable that religion played a role in the effort to oppose civil rights – religious faith in and of itself is not a good or bad thing. My point here is that I’ve never seen any secularist impugn the religious motives of those who advocated for civil rights, like MLK.

And the fact is that when you get right down to it, what really bothers most secularists is not whether religion plays a role in government, but which religion it will be. Last year during Senate confirmation hearings, two different senators, Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein, explicitly attacked nominees to federal positions because they were professed believers from conservative faiths. This is a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which expressly forbids a religious test for public office. That doesn’t matter to dogmatic secularists like Sanders and Feinstein.

Yet at the same time as these senators undermined nominees to public service because their religious beliefs may have an impact on their work, the Boston Globe wrote a glowing piece about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s faith.

But religious leaders who have known her since her first run for public office say her Christian faith is a constant, if quiet, presence in her life, that it is deep and authentic, and informs her work as a senator.

If you read the article, you will find that Warren is deeply convicted by Jesus’ teaching about taking care of the poor and needy, and that it motivates her commitment to social justice. I am sure Sanders and Feinstein (and my secularist friends) have no problem with THAT religious belief informing public policy. It’s only the religious beliefs that they dislike (like the sanctity of unborn life and traditional marriage) that should be barred from public life.

Human rights don’t just magically appear. They flow from the belief in something transcendent, something that lies beyond the natural order of race and ethnicity. Societies that deny this transcendence (the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Maoist China), have horrific human rights records precisely for this reason. I don’t think my secularist friends on the Left  understand the implications of their effort to scrub faith from public life.

And what is most alarming to me is the growing secularism of the Right. The alt-right movement is an example of what happens when so-called “conservatism” is cut loose from its moorings in the tradition of faith. And once the secularists on the Left and the Right realize how much they truly have in common in their abhorrence of faith-informed civic life, night will truly descend on our society.

People of good cheer, dedicated to civil society, have a lot of work to do to keep the dream alive to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

You Don’t Have to Agree with Your Neighbor to Love Him

Last week’s horrific shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise elicited calls for unity from people in both major parties. This was good to see in the midst of tragedy. But not everyone was so gracious. Consider this Tweet from MSNBC’s Joy Reid-

Or this Tweet from George Takei (which he later deleted): Continue reading

A Peek at the Future of Religious Freedom

Tim Farron

If you would like to see the future of religious freedom in America, take a peek at Great Britain. The UK was once a vibrantly religious country – now, faith is on the wane there. As America follows the same trend toward secularism, we can see what awaits our society by looking at what is happening to our cousins across the Atlantic. And that brings me to the story of Tim Farron. Continue reading

Bernie Sanders Jumps the Shark (or at Least, Article VI of the Constitution)

Source: The Atlantic

During the confirmation hearing yesterday for Russell Vought, a nominee for a deputy position in the Office of Management and Budget,  Senator Bernie Sanders flagrantly violated the intent of Article VI of the Constitution. That article says, in part- Continue reading

The Catastrophe of Identity Politics

Earlier this month “Black Lives Matter” protestors prevented a conservative speaker, Heather MacDonald, from delivering a lecture at Claremont McKenna College. She was forced to make her presentation via web streaming instead. Sadly, this was nothing new. The Radical Left has made it a habit of stopping free speech on college campuses.

To its credit, the administration vigorously defended the right of free speech and academic freedom in an email sent out to students and faculty. But the Radical Left was unmoved. In a letter sent to the administration in response, the protestors claimed:

Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny.

So the quest for the “Truth” (scarequotes!!!!!!) is merely a construct of white supremacist culture.

My immediate question for these students is, Is that claim the “Truth”? 

If this claim is the “Truth,” then aren’t these students propagating the legacy of oppression and injustice inextricably linked to such truth claims? And if so, shouldn’t someone shut them down for this exercise in Euro-West cultural hegemony? And if this statement is not the “Truth” (scarequotes!!!!!!), why should I care?

Many profound injustices have been done in the name of the “Truth.” And many of these injustices have been perpetrated by whites against people of color. But the problem here is not the “Truth” per se, but the perversion of the truth in the quest for power and exploitation. To attack the concept of “Truth” (scarequotes!!!!!!) with claims that you expect to be taken as the truth is the very definition of self-refutation.

But the inherent and obvious self-contradictions are lost on these students. Later in the letter they claim:

The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical.

“Illogical”? That sounds an awful lot like someone is interested in “Truth” (scarequotes!!!!!!)!

Nor is this the only example of incoherence in the statement. The letter further asserts:

Non-Black individuals do not have the right to prescribe how Black people respond to anti-Blackness.

To these students, the cultural experiences of non-blacks are so different from blacks that non-blacks have no place to tell black students how they should act. But if there is such a great gulf between the black and non-black experience, then why would these students believe those who are not black would even understand their objections? Why bother writing such a letter?

This letter perfectly captures the two-fold catastrophe of identity politics. In the first place, it represents a grave challenge to freedom. By labeling those who disagree as “fascists” or worse, groups like “Black Lives Matter” can simply declare any opponent as unworthy of freedom of speech by definition and preempt the free exchange of ideas. In civil society, people can understand one another, and even feel for each other, but still disagree. But in the worldview of identity politics, disagreement itself is a form of oppression, and must be stopped by any means necessary, including violence. This is what is happening on college campuses around the country, and only the most courageous administrations will stand up to it. Otherwise, the mob rules.

In the second place, identity politics strikes at the common grace of our shared humanity. It reduces human beings to interest groups, to “tribes” that are incapable of understanding one another, much less pursuing mutually beneficial solutions. And of course, this means that no one from one “tribe” has the right to say anything critical about someone from a different “tribe.” Last summer during a Facebook exchange I was pilloried by a friend for daring to suggest that I could deeply empathize with African-Americans while at the same time condemning certain forms of protest. “I doubt you are racist, but….”

Even if I had never personally known someone of another race, is it not possible by virtue of the universal human endowments of imagination and conscience to nevertheless understand and feel for someone else? In my own experience, I have black members in my family. I had many non-white students when I taught in college. For many years as a preacher of the gospel I have ministered to non-white members of the churches I have served. If it is not possible for a person with these experiences to know, to feel, and to empathize with the concerns of people other than those of his or her own race, then how would it ever be possible for any of us to deeply feel for one another?

Sadly, I think there are many people on the Radical Left and on the Alt-Right who don’t believe it is possible – or desirable. I believe we are entering a very ugly time in our culture when the fabric of the “more perfect union” will unravel into frayed threads of racial and ethnic division and hostility. I hope I am wrong.

The ancient Christian writer Tertullian said that the pagans of his time hated Christians because – paradoxically – Christians loved each other irrespective of social standing.

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death. They are wroth with us, too, because we call each other brethren… (The Apology, 39.7-8).

As we enter a period that resembles the pagan culture of Tertullian’s day, Christians must stand in defiant protest against all forms of tribal hatred. We cannot allow the racial or ethnic animosities of the world to seep into our thinking.

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3:11).

Christ is in all of His people, and Christ is the only identity that counts.

 

 

Mike Pence: Sexist, Islamist, or Rapist

Last week The Washington Post reported on Vice-President Mike Pence’s longstanding practice of avoiding one-on-one meals with women (other than his wife). This elicited a round of jeers and criticisms from many quarters. Since it is curious to me that many of these harsh judgments came from people who ordinarily espouse tolerance and inclusion, I made the following comment on Facebook –

It is amusing to see those “nonjudgmental” types who champion “tolerance” now bashing Mike Pence for his personal choices.

Continue reading

Rebuilding Amidst the Ruins – The Benedict Option

“In the world but not of the world” – that’s the calling of followers of Jesus (John 17:13-16). But finding the right balance in this equation has always been challenging for the people of God. In first century Judaism, many Jews opted for isolation from the world, such as the “separated ones” in the sect of the Pharisees, or to a more extreme degree, the ascetic Essene community in Qumran. Others embraced accommodation with the world, like the aristocratic Sadducees or the politically connected Herodians. But Jesus called His followers to chart a different path – insulation from the world and for the world. From the world in the sense that the values of His people would be shaped by God’s will and not by the standards of the world. And for the world in the sense that His holy people, firmly rooted and grounded in the faith, would then share the transforming life of Christ with others.

In his new book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher argues that western civilization is in a period of stark decline, not unlike the fall of Rome in the days of the ancient monk for whom the book is named. And just as Benedict left the ruins of Rome to create a new community designed to keep the faith alive so that some day civilization could be rebuilt, Dreher argues that Christians need to strategically withdraw from our degraded culture to revitalize faith, family, and community. Continue reading

The Intolerant Future of Post-Christian America

A good Facebook friend pointed me to an article by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic that I think is vital reading for Christians. Actually, for everyone. The article is called “Breaking Faith,” and the subtitle spells out its thesis: The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.

The basic premise of the article is that Christianity is on the decline in the US. Sure, the vast majority of Americans identify as Christians, but those numbers are declining. More significantly, the level of regular church attendance is dropping across all demographics, even among self-professed “evangelicals.” I’ve heard the old excuse that “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian.” That’s like me saying, “I’m a member of the YMCA, but I don’t have to go regularly to stay fit.” You can see the results! Continue reading

Assimilate or Pay the Price

“Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.” –The Borg in Star Trek

Last Thursday the Washington state supreme court issued a chilling ruling against religious freedom. The case in question involves a Baptist florist named Barronelle Stutzman. For years she provided service to two homosexuals, Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed. But when the men decided to marry and asked Stutzman to do the flowers for their wedding, she deferred, recommending several other florists in the area. The couple then sued, along with the ACLU and the state of Washington. Stutzman lost, and her last hope is that the US Supreme Court will hear her case and defend her rights. Continue reading

The Gorsuch Nomination – A Temporary Reprieve

Picture from The Denver Post online

Yesterday the President nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. By all accounts, Gorsuch is a highly qualified nominee, possessing the skills and temperament needed by a Supreme Court justice. His nomination will be fiercely contested in the poisonous atmosphere of Washington politics, of course, but that is to be expected.

From what I have read about Judge Gorsuch, his track record of decisions indicates he possesses a robust view of religious freedom. His opinions – ranging from the Hobby Lobby case to the Andrew Yellowbear case – reveal a firm commitment to defend the free exercise of religion from governmental intrusion. And as a Christian concerned about the growing threat to religious liberty in America, I am thrilled with this nominee. Continue reading