Monthly Archives: June 2013

It Goes On…

In testimony to the deep impact the Civil War (1861-1865) made on Americans, there is an ongoing quarrel between a Southern and a Northern state over the possession of a Confederate battle flag captured at Gettysburg.

Marshall Sherman, a private in the 1st Minnesota, captured the flag of the 28th Virginia in the heat of hand to hand fighting during Pickett’s Charge.

Turns out, Virginia wants her flag back. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has asked Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to loan the flag out to Virginia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). Dayton’s response to McDonnell reflects the acidity which plagued relations between North and South all those years ago.

The governor of Virginia earlier this year requested that the flag be loaned, quote, unquote, to Virginia to commemorate–it doesn’t quite strike me as something they would want to commemorate, but we declined that invitation.

It was taken in a battle at the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans. And I think it would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It was something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor of men who gave their lives and risked their lives to obtain it. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a closed subject.

Read the coverage in the National Journal here.


"Who Cares?"

That was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) response to Michelle Bachmann’s (R-MN) comments on the Supreme Court ruling which struck down DOMA. Bachmann said in a statement, “Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted.” When asked what she thought of Bachmann’s statement, Pelosi shrugged her shoulders and drily remarked, “Who cares?”

Before you conclude that you are about to read a post defending Michelle Bachmann, let me assure you that you have nothing to fear. What I want to point out here is really a stunning and fearful reality that we as a culture have entered.

Notice what went on here with Pelosi’s statement. A member of the United States Congress expresses her view on a major ruling handed down by the highest court in the land. That Congresswoman’s view is informed by her religious beliefs, specifically, that there is a higher authority than that of the government to which all are accountable. Rep. Bachmann was expressing a religious assertion in objective terms, meaning, if she is correct, that assertion applies to all and if incorrect, that assertion applies to none. Rep. Bachmann made this statement as a citizen of the United States, and as a public servant. No matter what your political or religious views, these facts are beyond dispute.

When Pelosi–another member of Congress, a colleague of Bachmann’s, indeed, the Minority Leader–was asked her response, she did not do so with another objective assertion challenging the one Bachmann offered. She did not care what Bachmann said, and was unafraid and unashamed to say so. Furthermore, the response she got was laughter from the other members of Congress who were joining her on the dais.

Political commitments and party affiliation aside, this is an alarming little incident. It is alarming because here you have the utter dismissal of religion and the religious assertions of a citizen and member of Congress by one of the highest ranking officials in the government. “Who cares?” she said. What has happened in our culture is that religious people–and religion, by extension–have become a joke because religious assertions are seen as completely irrelevant, useless, rubbish.

When something is considered rubbish, it is discarded with the other rubbish. If religious assertions are viewed as useless, then what happens to the freedom to make those religious assertions? Well, there’s no use for that either, so it gets thrown away also. Of course, it perfectly fine to throw conservative religious views to the trash heap. But does it stop there? When the freedom of some is discarded, can the freedom of any be maintained?

Don’t be so alarmist, you say. It was only Pelosi laughing at Bachmann, not Pelosi denying anyone’s religious freedom. OK, that’s probably true. But while that may be true, there is much more here than meets the eye. Everyone in this country should be concerned when the dearly held religious beliefs of a citizen are cast aside as a punchline by a member of the US Congress. Instead of laughing at Bachmann, we should all sit up and take notice. Next time, it may be your dearly held beliefs that are tossed aside by the state. And when that happens, when does it stop?

The Conflict Between Religious and Sexual Freedom

Today’s Supreme Court ruling striking down DOMA will have all the obvious enormous repercussions in society. One of the not-so-obvious repercussions has to do with its impact on religious freedom. Benjamin Domenech argues in this post over at RealClearReligion that the problem with gay marriage is emphatically not that gay people are getting married. It’s also not that marriage itself is being redefined in society (although that is disturbing.) The problem with gay marriage is that it touches directly on the First Amendment’s guarantee that the “free exercise” of religion will not be “prohibited.” Adherents to faith systems that take homosexuality to be ontologically aberrant, and thus, objectively immoral will necessarily be shut out of the public discourse. Not only will marriage be redefined to include same-sex relationships, religious freedom will be defined as merely “freedom of worship,” safely stashed within the four walls of a church.

Here is a taste of Domenech’s piece:

So the real issue here is not about gay marriage at all, but the sexual revolution’s consequences, witnessed in the shift toward prioritization of sexual identity, and the concurrent rise of the nones and the decline of the traditional family. The real reason Obama’s freedom to worship limitation can take hold is that we are now a country where the average person prioritizes sex far more than religion. One of the underestimated aspects of the one out of five Americans (and one out of three Millennials) who are now thoroughly religiously unaffiliated is that, according to Barna’s research, they aren’t actually seekers. They’re not looking or thinking about being part of a community focused on spirituality, in prayer, fellowship, worship, or anything else. Their exposure to faith is diminished because they want it to be.

In a nation where fewer people truly practice religion, fewer people external to those communities will see any practical reason to protect the liberty of those who do. The world could in time come full circle to Mrs. Campbell’s old line: You are free to believe, as long as you don’t do it in the streets, so as not to frighten the horses.

We hear talk of living in a “post-Christian” society. I have my problems with that description, but one thing is certain–we have returned to the state in Western culture that existed in pre-Christian Europe: religious syncretism, subjective morality, and Christianity relegated to the outskirts of culture and law.

How the church responded to these realities in the second through fourth centuries, and again in the fifth through eleventh centuries, determined the subsequent direction of Western culture that has lasted a thousand years. How will the church respond this time?

John Fea to Speak in Houston

Summer is supposed to offer a bit of a break for teachers and professors, but this summer has been quite busy for us here in Houston, Texas. After leading a short men’s retreat (21 mile hike in the Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness in 11 hours) and preaching at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, VA, and attending Acton University in Grand Rapids, MI, I am looking forward to welcoming John Fea to Houston. He will be speaking to the students at the SWBTS Extension at the Darrington Unit on his book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation. He will also be presenting at North Oaks Baptist Church, where he will also be signing books. If you are in the Houston area June 29, you should plan on attending the event at North Oaks from 9-12:00.

If you’d like to hear Dr. Fea’s presentation at the Darrington SWBTS Extension, you’ll have to make arrangements for an extended stay at Darrington. That involves profound complications. I recommend you come see and hear him at North Oaks!

The Foundation Under Jefferson’s Wall

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

So wrote then-President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. This letter has perhaps come to represent the most popular understanding of religious freedom in the collective mind of America next to the First Amendment. Because of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, some would like the letter to pass back into the shadow of obscurity under which it rested prior to the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision. Others rejoice that the letter provides the lens through which religion itself is defined and applied in contemporary America.

Jefferson’s famous metaphor is important, but it is a star drawing into its orbit the comet of our short attention span. In our fascination with the wall metaphor, we often miss how Jefferson understood the basis for religious freedom. Jefferson saw religious freedom as being built on a non-sectarian theological foundation. Jefferson thought that, like all natural rights, religious freedom is predicated on God’s sovereignty and benevolence. It is also justified by the fact of man’s responsibility to God for what he believes.

Notice how Jefferson articulated the meaning of religion—it is “a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Further, Jefferson acknowledged that man “owes account to none other [than God] for his faith or his worship.” Just as religion would have no meaning apart from God’s existence, His relation to man, and man’s accountability to God, the freedom to relate to God according to one’s conscience would also have no meaning.

Notice also that Jefferson indirectly included religious freedom as one of other natural rights in his letter. (In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson argued that God as Creator bestowed natural rights upon man.) Natural rights per se complement social responsibility. Thus, religious freedom, situated upon a broad theological basis, helps to ensure human flourishing. It does this by not only securing the person’s relationship to God, but also the person’s relationship to his community.

Church and state maintain their distinctive roles in such a society. It is not necessarily inappropriate to envision Jefferson’s wall of separation existing between church and state. But the metaphor must be understood in the context of how Jefferson articulated the meaning of religious freedom. Put another way, the wall of separation rests on a solid foundation—the acknowledgement of God and man’s responsibility to Him. Read in context, it is really impossible to interpret Jefferson’s letter as an argument for the expulsion of religion from the public square. As a natural right bestowed by God to creatures accountable to Him, religious freedom contributes to the flourishing of the society as a whole, because the church and the state restrict themselves to their proper public roles. If religion is privatized, and thus relegated to the interior of a church building, or the individual heart, then it can make no meaningful contribution to the common good. 

Jefferson’s wall is not hanging in the air. It is not based on nothing. It is based on something solid. The basis of religious freedom is an acknowledgement of the reality of God. The reality of God is what gives our rights meaning.