Challenging Assumptions

I was recently removed from a Facebook discussion after I challenged a cherished axiom of social/political/theological juncture.  (And no, it wasn’t about immigration.) I have also noticed that when I blog about anything that hints at scrutinizing accepted talking points, the traffic drops to nothing. People don’t even read just to say, “What an idiot.” When I want hits, I write sentimental schmaltz. Critical thinking is not a particularly popular pastime.

So what sorts of challenges are unwelcome? How about the one that most recently made me persona non grata.

Ever since Engel v. Vitale was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1962, prayer has become increasingly banned in public schools. What began as a ban on school-sponsored prayer during educational time eventually led to the decision in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), that student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games violates the Establishment Clause.  By extension this covers any student-led student initiated prayer at any school function.

Because Engel is a flawed example of judicial activism, it is bad. If prayer was constitutional for 171 years, it doesn’t suddenly become unconstitutional. This is just like the three-prong test of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that sets out the requirements of any legislation that touches upon religion. If three prongs weren’t necessary before 1971, they don’t somehow become necessary afterwards. Any cases based on Engel and Lemon (like Santa Fe ISD) are, ipso facto, flawed.

To this point, I no doubt have my cheering section of politically active, conservative Christians behind me. This is, after all, pretty standard Strict Constructionist, Original Intent stuff. However, I think there is a need to re-evaluate, not the legal arguments, but the moral arguments that have become a popular extension from them.

As I mentioned above, I had my comments removed from a Facebook thread. This happened after I challenged the following statement: “Morals declined when we took prayer and God out of school.” (Being removed from a discussion is nothing new to me. I’ve even been thrown out of an entire conservative Facebook group for holding a minority opinion on an issue.)  This proposition has become as much a part of the warp and woof of Christian conservativism as the legal analysis of Engel and its progeny. How dare I question the unquestionable. Yet that is exactly what I do.

I do this for two reasons. First, and most simply, because the truth matters. Second, and perhaps more controversially, because, as I addressed in another instance on this blog less than a year ago, conservative Christians have succumbed to sloppy scholarship.

I do this from two sources of evidence. First, it is worth examining school-sponsored prayer in state education outside of the United States. Second, there is the issue of the historical record and proximate cause.

I bring to this discussion seven years of experience as a teacher in the state schools in England and Wales. As recently as 1998, it was statutorily re-affirmed that in state schools all pupils must take part in a daily act of collective worship unless their parent has requested a waiver. The acts of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.” Not only that, but children are also required to attended Religious Education lessons throughout the entire course of their compulsory education. The majority of these RE lessons must also be based on Christianity.

With that experience, and over a decade of living in conservative rural England, I can assure you that the continuation of prayer and even of Christian education in state schools has done nothing to slow the decline of morals, of the young or the not-so-young, in the United Kingdom. Robert Bork once wrote that America is slouching toward Gomorrah. If the United Kingdom sought to pursue the moral standards of Gomorrah and its sister city Sodom, it would be an upward move. These two ancient conurbations of sin are veritable Cities Set Upon Hills compared to the morality of Sceptred Isle.

But what of the possibility of an actual causal link between Engel and moral decline? This raises a couple of related questions. First, did the removal of the content have an effect? What was the nature of that content in 1962?

We first have to recognize that in 1962, prayer in school wasn’t particularly widespread across the United States. It was actually at its peak in the 1920s, though it had been ruled out in quite a few states before or shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Along with mandatory Bible reading, it was the subject of considerable litigation in the state courts, sometimes upheld and sometime overturned, based on state constitutions.

Even though it was patchy across the US, what was the content of prayer in schools in 1962? Let’s look at the prayer that was ruled unconstitutional in Engel. In New York, the following prayer had to be recited by a school official each day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” After Engel, that one sentence was no longer recited publicly at some point during the day. It that enough to send the nation into a moral tailspin?

I cannot count how many examples I’ve seen of charts, graphs, and tables marking the decline in morality since the Engel decision. The interesting thing is that they don’t chart back before 1962 to indicate trends already in the making and unchanged by Engel or its progeny. And of course they don’t demonstrate a direct causal link between the removal of a one-line prayer and the rise in violent crime, sexual promiscuity, music piracy, or whichever evil they are attempting to emphasize. Generally they are based upon the self-evident statement that such evils are what happens when God is removed from public schools. A little circular reasoning goes a long way.

I will finish by going to the heart of the matter. Did “we” (through Supreme Court justices appointed by three different Presidents before almost all of us were born) take prayer or God out of schools? I know I prayed in school long after Engel, which was decided two years before I was born.  Prayer is, after all, talking to God. And can anyone remove God from a school or any place else? On the other hand, how many kids were actually praying when a teacher or principal recited “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country”? Or was it form over substance?  Can the acts of Supreme Court justices confer collective responsibility upon anyone, not to mention lives not yet in being?

In the UK, God is mentioned everywhere in school and He gets his own lessons, yet almost no one acknowledges Him. In the US, He is not officially mentioned and churches (other than liberal Protestant denominations) continue to grow. He is more openly acknowledged in the media and in politics than in 1962. There are more open visible followers of Jesus amongst young people in America than ever before. In trying to make a connection between the virtually symbolic act of removing prayer from schools and the abundance of sin, there has been ignorance of the fact that grace has much more abounded.

Would it be nice if we returned to the practice of a content-free, one sentence, ecumenical prayer in public schools each day? Perhaps. Is it going to stem the dishonesty, violence, fornication, or whatever other ills we identify in our young people or in our society? No. That takes real prayer. That takes changed hearts and changed lives.

Catching Up on Things I’ve Missed

I just read a wonderful Bible story that I had never read before. It is an Old Testament story that is referenced twenty-eight times in the New Testament, from Matthew all the way through to the Revelation. It is a picture of the Father’s only Son who find a Bride – a Bride who becomes part of the Father’s household. It is about prayer, worship, healing and spiritual warfare. It is about so much more.

The story is found in the book of Tobit. It has been read by Christians throughout the ages. Most Christians considered it a part of Holy Scripture for 1500 years. At the time of the Reformation, certain influential Protestant leaders decided that the Old Testament books that had originally been written in Greek rather than Hebrew should be set to one side. Not thrown out of the Bible, but clumped together at the end of the Old Testament. Calvin and Luther did not consider then canonical, but Luther’s Great Bible of 1539 and the Geneva Bible of 1560 included them, as did the King James Version.  In fact, every Protestant Bible included them into the 19th century.

Why, then, have they fallen into disuse by Protestants? Even those whose did not consider them canonical considered them “profitable to read,” as Luther put it – profitable enough that they printed and bound them together with the rest of Scripture. (Luther also considered Hebrews, James, Jude and the Revelation to be New Testament deuterocanonicals – of less value than the rest – but did not exclude them from his translation in the end.)

They originally fell into disuse in the late 18th century, so that when there was a paper shortage in the United States in the early 19th century, they were not printed in many Bibles. It is much later that the idea that they were Roman Catholic books and therefore unworthy of Protestant consideration crept in. That being said, the Anglicans have continued to use them as worthy reading and some are included the Lectionary to be read in services. But for many Protestants, there has been an assumption that the 66 books now contained in most Bibles is the way it has always been.

Despite my best intentions, I have not read all of these deuterocanonical Old Testament books. (“Deuterocanonical” means second canon, a term which could equally be applied to New Testament books that had a harder time of getting into the canon in the first place and were considered doubtful even by some Reformers, as noted above.) Despite their use in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles, I’ve not given them due attention.

As a result, for 47 years I missed out on the wonderful story of Tobit and Anna, Tobias and Sarah, Raguel and Edna, and Raphael. I think I may go read it again.

The Impossible DREAM

It appears there will be a token vote, perhaps as soon as tomorrow in the House of Representatives, on the frequently defeated Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act before the end of the lame duck session of Congress. I don’t know if the House has the votes, but the Senate won’t get past a cloture vote, so it’s a moot point.

Nonetheless, it’s litmus test time again.  Time to pull out all the talking points and treat them with the sacredness of Holy Scripture. It’s “amnesty by the back door,” “amnesty by the front door,” “amnesty by climbing in through the window,” etc. I just wish Holy Scripture was treated with the same sacredness.

The DREAM Act would allow children who were brought to the United States by undocumented parents to walk a narrow path to conditional permanent residency and eventually to full permanent resident status. Applying criteria we would never think of applying to those who providentially arrived on the planet north of the Rio Grande – especially if their parents were also so blessed in their own arrival – a few people will received a few opportunties they wouldn’t otherwise have. Of course the hitch is that the oppotunities will completely transform their lives. If there’s one thing we don’t like, it is people having their lives transformed when they don’t deserve it.

Other than the possibility of living out of the shadows and fringes of society, one of the aspects that irks opponents is the possibility that those for whom the DREAM Act is intended will be considered eligible for in-state college tuition. More than one commentator has asked why these people should get the benefit of resident fees when American citizen students from other states don’t. It could be because they are from out of state and aren’t  in the state for other the educational purposes. That’s the usual criteria. But this is a matter that will be decided by the individual states, or even the individual institutions or university systems, depending on how individual states have chosen to operate that decision making process.

One of the more outrageous comments I heard in opposition to the DREAM Act was that it was like letting the children of bank robbers benefit from the proceeds of their parents’ crime. However, this comment highlights a serious misconception that a lot of people seem to have. Legal residency isn’t a property right. Even citizenship is not a property right. It is not a possession. It is a legal status. There isn’t a big citizenship pie which can only be cut into so many pieces, so that only so many people can have some. If that were the case, we would need to consider imposing Chinese-style limits on the number children allowed in each family.

Undocumented aliens haven’t stolen anything by being undocumented. They haven’t stolen safety from drug lords and corrupt government officials. They haven’t stolen the possibility to work for food and shelter. They haven’t stolen the fear of detection that could lead them to being sent back to a place of danger and poverty. Were the DREAM Act to become law, they wouldn’t be stealing a chance at legal residency.

Status is an interesting thing. I was reading yesterday about the changes in the pecking order at Court due to the introduction of Kate Middleton into the British Royal Family. Particularly amongst the ladies, princesses mostly, there seems to be a great deal of concern as to who will now have to curtsey to whom and under what conditions, chiefly revolving around whose husband is in the room at the time. It is easy to look down our egalitarian noses at such nonsense.

But are we anything from outraged to at least a bit irritated that undocumented aliens, whether adults or children, would acquire a status, whether permanent residency or even citizenship, to which they are not entitled? Yet status is something about which the Bible reveals God is very interested. It also uses the analogy of robbery:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

So how do we filter our attitude toward undocumented residents through Philippians 2? Is it useful only in “spiritual matters” or how we treat each other in church? Is this one of those areas where our Christianity and our politics need not meet? Do we bifurcate our responsibilities as a Christian with our responsibilities as a member of the body politic? Are we willing to wash the feet of our undocumented brother and then ring up ICE to pick him up and deport him?

But say it’s nothing to do with Jesus. (Say it at your own peril, but say it nonetheless.) Let’s say it’s just economics. Won’t passage of the DREAM Act lead to all these barely-legal aliens flooding our state colleges and universities, taking away places from natural born (and even those despised anchor baby) citizens? And since they tend to be poorer than rightful Americans, won’t they then be stealing all the financial aid?

I suppose there is an argument to be made for keeping an uneducated social and legal underclass in America. After all, they aren’t going anywhere. Despite all the calls for rounding up every undocumented resident and shipping them to the nearest international bridge and forcing them to walk across at gunpoint, logistically it isn’t going to happen, regardless of which political party is making policy. Likewise, they are not going to voluntarily “go back” to a country most haven’t seen since early childhood. And there are all those necessary jobs that just wouldn’t exist within the constraints of exisiting labor laws, so if we let all these people become legal, who will do the work beneath the dignity of most citizens?

One of the arguments made against the DREAM Act by people like William Gheen of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC is that by allowing the narrow group of qualifying individuals (not that ALIPAC would ever characterize them in such a way) to obtain permanent resident status, they will then be able to bring more relatives into the US legally. But I thought that was what they wanted in the first place: legal immigrants. Thus they expose their agenda, which is really about keeping immigrants out altogether.

Here’s what Gheen said on FoxNews about the beneficiaries of the DREAM Act: “If these illegal aliens, millions of them, are turned into citizens, what it’s gonna do, it’s gonna displace and replace millions of innocent American college students; it’s gonna displace and replace millions, perhaps tens of millions, of American workers; it’s gonna displace and replace millions, eventually, as you said, tens of millions of American voters.”

The best estimates seem to indicate that there are about 65,000 undocumented students graduating from US high schools each year. So we’ve gone from millions to thousands. But graduating from high school isn’t enough. The DREAM Act requires them to also get at least an associate’s degree, complete two years toward a bachelor’s degree, or serve two years in the military during six years of conditional residency. They are ineligible to receive federal financial aid toward their education. They must also keep their nose clean. If they do all that, they are eligible for permanent residency – LPR status with what is commonly called a green card (though the card itself is not green). Permanent residency petitions normally take in excess of a year to process, so really they are looking at seven years of conditional reisidency. LPRs, who must also stay crime-free to maintain their status, become eligible for citizenship after five years. So yes, it is possible for several thousand college-educated or veteran children of illegal immigrants to become citizens after a twelve-year process.

So in reality, the number of students are a drop in the ocean of higher education in the US, where there are over 19 million enrolled. Yes, they will eventually join the job market competing for jobs, but it will be hard to “displace and replace” millions of workers with a few thousand immigrants.

How they are going “displace and replace” voters, I have no clue. As far as I’m aware, there is no competition for the eligibility to vote. A 30-year-old veteran of the US military who was born in Mexico showing up at a polling station will not force election officials to tell a Son of the American Revolution, “Sorry, but you are no longer allowed to vote, as we have to let this new citizen vote, since he got his citizenship under the DREAM Act.” What utter nonsense.

The last bit of nonsense that needs to be addressed is the objection raised by a number of opponents, namely, that we need comprehensive immigration reform rather than a piecemeal approach. If there was any real will in the Republican Party for any sort of immigration reform, this might have a shread of credibility. The only immigration reform desired by most non-Hispanic Republicans is to build the wall higher with enough guns pointed to Mexico to stop new arrivals combined with more aggressive efforts to flush out undocumented immigrants domiciled in the US. The DREAM Act will be rejected now and forever because it does not fit this agenda.

Yet, I can’t get Philippians 2 out of my mind.

The Heresy of Exceptionalism

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an article/newsletter by David Barton. Normally I am loath to read anything by Barton (the self-proclaimed “renowned historian” without even an undergraduate history degree or any clue about historical methodology), but since this had to do with Texas politics and particularly the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, I thought it might be worthwhile to give it a look. Barton’s contention is that Speaker Joe Straus isn’t really a conservative and not much of a Republican. Fair enough.

But what really caught my eye was an attack Barton made on one of Straus’ allies. After commenting on a piece of pro-life legislation that State Affairs Committee Chariman Burt Solomons prevented from reaching the floor of the House, he says, “Incidentally, as a reflection of Solomons’ philosophy, he had previously even objected to teaching that America is a blessed and unique nation – i.e., American Exceptionalism…” There’s no indication as to whether Solomons currently objects to this teaching, and the comment is a bit of the cheap ad hominem that is sadly found pervasively in conservative circles.

In my youth I imbibed heavily from the trough of American Exceptionalism and have held to it explicitly or implicitly for most of my life.  As a result, I have done the only logical thing: I have repented.

America has been a blessed and unique nation, but recognising this is not adhering to American Exceptionalism. Many nations have been blessed and all nations are unique, but this is not what David Barton believes. American Exceptionalism is the teaching that the United States is special above all other nations – that God has blessed America and likes America more than the others.

American Exceptionalism has been used as an exemption from the law of nations. The attitude is that international law may apply to the rest of you but it doesn’t apply to us, because we’re special and we don’t have to play by everyone else’s rules.  We will tell you what you can and can’t do in your country, but don’t you dare tell us. In fact, international law so doesn’t apply that we can violate the sovereignty of other countries and have done so with impunity. All countries are sovereign, but some countries are more sovereign that others. The sovereignty of other countries is always secondary to American interests.

This doctrine of American Exceptionalism is not something new. One hundred and seventy years ago it was called Manifest Destiny (though the term is often used for the period between 1812-1860, it was coined in 1839 and only came into common use around 1845). It was used to justify the expansion of the United States at whatever cost. The biggest acquisition was 42% of Mexico as a result of the Mexican War, which started as a dispute over the territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers in South Texas. This is a bit like taking an area twice the size of France as the result of a dispute about an area the size of, for example, Alsace-Lorraine. This area now contains over 16% of the US population, so it could be argued that we eventually needed the lebensraum.

It was also the justification to gain control of much of the central part of the continent that had been purchased from a European power which claimed it by right of conquest.*  Most of the inhabitants were completely unaware they had been conquered. When they objected to their lands being taken by white folks, the US Army brought this to their attention. They were, after all, savages, so it was okay to kill them. Having no concept of private property, they also had no property rights, so it was only right that it should be taken over and controlled by folks who understood their God-given right to plat and deed every inch land. Now it must be said that out of the goodness of their heart, the American government did reserve some of the Indians’ own land for them, force them to live there, and shoot them if they objected.

The most extraordinary thing about this American Exceptionalism is that it is generally agreed to have its roots in a thesis (it is often called a sermon, but we have no record of it ever being spoken to a gathering of people in church or otherwise) by John Winthrop, written aboard the Arbella on the way to Massachusetts Bay in 1630. The thesis was called “A Model of Christian Charity”. It is best known for the phrase “city upon a hill” which appears near the end.  I reiterate that this is an extraordinary thing, because there is nothing in Winthrop’s thesis that supports the idea of Exceptionalism or Manifest Destiny. If you doubt me, you need to read it. I welcome you to challenge my understanding of it.

“A Model of Christian Charity” is explicitly an exhortation of how the Massachusetts Bay colonists should behave toward one another. This is based upon their religious covenant to each other. Winthrop does say that what they are doing is extraordinary – not in founding a nation that would stretch from sea to shining sea, because they did not see themselves as founding a country nor did they have any concept of the size of North America. They saw what they were doing as extraordinary, so that living by the Golden Rule was going to be essential. The avoidance of usury was going to be essential. Being knitted together as the body of Christ was going to be essential while they struggled to hang on to an existence on the shores of New England.

I have outlined (barely) some of the practical results of Exceptionalism. I have demonstrated, if only enough to encourage you to read the original document (David Barton would be proud), that the connection with the Puritans and the “city on a hill” is non-existent. But none of that relates to the most important aspect of all and the reason I have titled this essay as I have. None of this is the reason I have repented.

Exceptionalism is a heresy. The more one tries to support it with a religious foundation, the more heretical is becomes.

Americans are not God’s chosen people. The Church is God’s chosen people. The Church includes some Americans. Americans do not even make up the largest fraction of national representation in the Church. (That would be the Chinese. Current estimates indicate that there are likely more Christians in China than there are people in the United States.) When St Peter said, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” he was referring to the Church.

In that oft-used phrase, John Winthrop refers to Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The “you” to whom Jesus is referring are His disciples – those who are hearing and following His teaching – the Church. Winthrop was referring to his fellow Puritan settlers as Christians living out the Gospel, not to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or a democratic Republic, which would have been the furthest things from his imagination.

With all due respect to Ronald Reagan, who co-opted Winthrop’s phrase in his Farewell Address, as well as by his own admission having use it all his political life, the city on a hill is not prosperity nor is it freedom. No, if we go back to the Original Document and Original Intent (I hope David Barton would be pleased), the city is the light of Christ. Inasmuch as it refers to freedom, we would have to cross-reference to John 8:38, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

Has the United States been blessed? Certainly. Has the US as a nation done some good things? Of course. Has this blessing been because we have somehow fulfilled Winthrop’s vision for Massachusetts Bay? Absolutely not. It has been by the grace and mercy of God, despite some very terrible shortcomings as individuals and as a nation. How dare we say, “Our fathers expanded and built the United States this way and look at how God has blessed us – surely this is evidence of our righteousness!”

Everyone knows the bit of Winthrop’s thesis that says, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The important bit follows: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake.”

As Christians we are the light on a hill. It is we who have a responsibility to live out the Gospel. Not because of what John Winthrop wrote and a connection we feel to the Puritan fathers, however tenuous that may be. Not because we are Americans. Because we are Christians. We have a responsibility to live charitably toward one another. Again, if you want to know the characteristics of the city on a hill as outlined by Winthrop, as true and biblical today for all believers, read the whole thing.

God does not love America more because some of the first white settlers of an area that eventually became a colony and eventually broke away from England were good Christian folk. (And just for the record, we have no covenantal connection to those good Christian folk of Massachusetts Bay, so we are not reaping what they have sown. But that’s an article for another time.) Nor does He love us more because a lot of people that were involved in the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention were Christians and even those who weren’t occasionally used Christian shop talk.  Nor does he love us more because we are a democratic Republic that has tried to spread our form of government around the world, whether other people wanted it or not.

I’m blessed to be an American, but that does not make me special to God, nor did it make the generations of my forefathers going back to colonial times any more special to God. Nations rise and nations fall. The United States hasn’t been around all that long and it won’t be here forever. God operates on a completely different time scale.

The exceptional thing is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, whether we were blessed to be born in America, Europe, Africa, Asia or anywhere else. As the Church, we are God’s special people and unique nation. That is the Gospel.

*Technically, it was purchased from a country (France) which acquired it in a treaty from another country (Spain) which had acquired it in a treaty from the first country (France), which had laid claim by conquest.

Why I’m Giving Up My American Citizenship

This might have been a better post for the Fourth of July, but most readers were probably out watching the fireworks and wouldn’t have seen it. So perhaps it is better to write it and post it today.

Yes, it’s true. Soon I will no longer be an American citizen.  Don’t worry, I won’t be a British citizen either. I’m giving up both citizenships. But then again, so are you. Whichever one you have. The reason is very simple. I’ll be dead and so will you. Heaven doesn’t take passports. Hell doesn’t either for that matter. (And if you are one of my atheist friends who doesn’t believe in either and thinks you will just cease to exist, annihilation brings loss of citizenship, too. But I’m going to continue in a Christian perspective…)

I say soon, because this life is but a moment, whether you live one year or one hundred. Kerry Livgren described us as dust in the wind. Moses, in Psalm 90, says were are like grass that grows up in the morning and in the evening whithers away.

Even in that moment, it will have mattered very little. If there was pride to be had in American citizenship, I think I could have it. I could sound like St Paul in Philippians 3:5 describing his Jewishness. I am of the stock of the United States, of the state of Texas, an American of the Americans; concerning the law a Strict Constructionist; concerning zeal, persecuting the liberals; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, a law-abiding citizen. I can trace my lineage in North America to before the American Revolution several times over.

If God has so chosen, I may be an American for another 46 years, maybe even a bit longer. I’m going to be stateless for eternity. In between is the Judgement Seat of Christ. As far as I know, the relative zeal of my flag waving will not be mentioned. My committment to national sovereignty probably won’t be challenged. There may not even be a query about whether I supported and defended the Constitution. Now I don’t know all the questions that Jesus is going to ask me or you, so you may dismiss this as pure speculation. However, I believe there is a practice exam with the correct answers in Matthew 25.

For as long as I’m an American and living inside the United States, I will participate in civic activities, including voting in elections for those candidates I think will best preserve the good things about the United States for future generations of blown dust and whithering grass. After all, living in the US provides one of the best opportunities for a life of relative ease and safety and modern conveniences. And liberty and justice for all, of course.

Now as I understand it, this life of relative ease and safety and modern convenience is a scare commodity and can’t be spread too thin, or people start to suffer. Well, not suffer, exactly, but their quantum of relative ease and modern convenience could be marginally reduced. Therefore if anyone is going to be allowed come along and enjoy it (along with that liberty and justice for all, of course), they need to prove that they will be net contributors, and we’ve set up rules to make sure that’s the case.

People who arrive with needs will only be a drain on the whole system of relative ease and modern convenience (though not necessarily on liberty and justice for all, but that’s secondary, really). So as it has been explained to me by those with minds greater and sharper than my own, it is my civic duty to keep them out. An example of drain is having to print things in other languages. (I’m guessing this causes massive demands on both the ink and paper industries, with a domino effect on the rest of the economy.) A country needs to have everyone speak and write one language. Otherwise we end up like Canada, Belgium, Switzerland and the UK. Where would we be then? Even if some people get in who have needs, but I’m sure Jesus is going to understand if we insisted that they learn English first.

Real Americans don’t like socialism. Except for Social Security. Even the most conservative Republicans will not touch the socialist/ponzi scheme that is Social Security. It is possible that those who come here to drain the system will end up getting a Social Security number, working forty quarters, paying in, and drawing benefits. Benefits that are for American citizens who worked forty quarters and paid in. There’s no actual legislation pending that would give the drainers a chance to do this, but all good Americans are upset that it could happen, and I’m sure Jesus understands that.

Social Security is one thing, but health care is another. While we tolerate providing minimal health care to the poorest of the poor, people who arrive with needs have been known to receive health care this way. Once again, they are putting a drain on the relative ease of those born here or invited here because they are net contributors.  Jesus understands this.

I hope so, because after I give up my American citizenship, I will have to answer for how I used it. No, there won’t be questions on the flag, sovereignty and the Constitution, but there is an awful lot covered on that practice exam in Matthew 25.

In sermons, my father often quotes a couplet from his childhood for which the source is unknown, but the sentiment entirely biblical:

Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last

What’s done for Christ?

Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.

Standing before Christ, it may be possible to plead that while being personally supportive of those in need, volunteering at the soup kitchen, putting change in the poor box at church, and sending a check to the charity of your choice (those people who look after other people for a living so as not to interfere with your relative ease and convenience), as a voting member of the State, your civic duty was to look after the relative ease and modern convenience of your former fellow citizens and keep others away from liberty and justice for all, at the point of a gun or the barbed wire of a fence if necessary.

You go ahead and try that approach. I’ll have enough on my plate that I won’t have a chance to look over, give you that Sarah Palin wink and say, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

The New Litmus Test

For almost all of my political life, abortion has been the litmus test for conservatives in the United States. Not anymore.

Some pro-life leaders are worried about “fetus fatigue” (a term coined by Douglas Groothuis in 2008), where it appears that many young evangelicals have given up on making sigificant progress in reeling back from Roe v. Wade. I think Groothuis is correct in part. However, I also think that conservatives, evangelical Christian and otherwise, can only handle one Big Issue at a time. Move over, Abortion – Immigration is here.

All of my friends (and yes, I have a few) who used to go on and on about abortion now go on and on about immigration. The level of perjorative that used to be reserved for those favouring abortion rights or, at worst, abortion providers, are now reserved for those favouring leniency toward undocumented immigrants. In fact, if anything, it is worse. In reading around the conservative blogosphere and even in talking to individuals face-to-face (because people tend to be much less restrained in the pseudonyminous detachment of the internet), opposing views are treated with anger, aggression, and a remarkable lack of civility.

In one sense, the anti-immigration crowd have become the new liberals. I say this only with regard to manners and decorum. I used to occasionally read liberal blogs – mostly if said bloggers strayed over to this or predecessor blogs and left a link with their comment.  The venom and vitriol spewed at virtually anyone in the Republican Party was astonishing. I’ve been around for a long time and met a lot of people of various backgrounds carrying a variety of baggage, but I had never seen anything like it. Now it has become increasingly the common behaviour of those who comment in conservative blogs to do the same thing.

A recent troll commented on another post I wrote about immigration: “You seem to consider yourself a Christian. I don’t think you’re a especially good one, but perhaps you’ve be better off dropping the ‘conservative’ label entirely and just using the Christian one.” If it comes down to it, that would be my choice. I still consider myself a conservative and I believe that my political views – including my views on immigration – reflect true conservative values. I believe in small government and a free market. I believe in the sanctity of life and of the family as created by God. However, if I’m only allowed one, I’ll take the label that has eternal value.

Bad Scholarship, Bad Behaviour and the Call to Something Better

Tonight I was looking for some books as presents. A couple of volumes that had been recently featured or recommended by Glenn Beck were suggested to me as appropriate for the intended recipient. I searched for them on Amazon and decided to read some of the reviews.

In both cases, the overwhelming number of reviews were accompanied by a five-star rating of each book.  Seems like a no-brainer. Everybody likes these books. Must be good. Why even bother with the couple of two-star ratings and reviews?  Maybe it was Proverbs 18:17 niggling in the back of my mind:

The first one to plead his cause seems right,
Until his neighbor comes and examines him.

In both cases, there was a very thoughtful, thorough, critical review. There was detailed analysis and no hint of ad hominem. However, it was only tonight I discovered that Amazon reviews are subject to their own reviews. Each one has its own comment section. That’s where the detailed analysis and lack of ad hominem ended. It’s just an extension of the blogosphere.

In both cases the source of the attacks was patently clear. They confirmed that I’m becoming increasingly disturbed by fortress Christian America. There is one narrow interpretation of history and anyone who questions it or one of its recognised spokesmen (I can’t use the word “scholars”) is a liberal, a secularist, and in all likelihood a homosexual. I’m just telling you what I’ve read from some very angry people.

Does this mean I’m disturbed by the idea of Christians being involved in politics at every level? No. Do I think Christians should exert their influence to bring the law at every level and in every area into conformity with Christian morality? Absolutely.

However, the idea that we can only gain the moral high ground by proving that everything of any importance in early American history was done by Christians operating out of a Christian worldview in the ultimate pursuit of promoting Christianity is wrong. It’s wrong because it isn’t necessary to operate from this presupposition and it’s wrong because it just ain’t true. I’m sorry folks. I’m happy to find Christians wherever  and whenever in history I can. I’m always pleased to see those whose heart and actions were set on building the Kingdom of God, whatever their calling, including statesmanship. But the idea is becoming pervasive in certain circles, mostly emanating concentrically from people like David Barton and Peter Lillback, that if we dig deep enough we’ll find that virtually all of the Founding Fathers were trinitarian Christians with good conservative Protestant theology. If we ferret out enough quotes, partial quotes, or buzz words, that must prove something, right?

All we prove is that there are Christians who are willing to be at best shabby, and at worst dishonest, scholars. And if book sales and the Texas State Board of Education are any indication, there are a lot of people out there who don’t care. They don’t care about the shabbiness and dishonesty, that is. As the Amazon review comments demonstrated, they care very much if anyone dares to call them on it. If Glen Beck endorsed it, that’s good enough.

Christians are called to something better than this. We do not need to engage in historical re-revisionism. We don’t need to prove that Christians formed a perfect country that secularists and liberals went and messed up. We don’t need to prove Original Christian Intent. We don’t need to be afraid of review and criticism.

In reading the Amazon reviews, as well as in reading the engagement in the comboxes of much more popular places in the blogosphere, I read lots of militancy and lots of anger. I see lots of name-calling. I see the exact same behaviour that I have seen from the secularists and liberals. It doesn’t look prettier because the mud is being slung in the other face. I’ll say it again: Christians are called to something better than this.

We are not going to achieve whatever our goal may be by cheating and bullying our way there. We have to strive for what is right and rely upon Divine Providence. As a Christian and as a historian I know two things. First, God wrote the history that has already happened. We don’t have to dig around and find Him in it. It is what it is and He did it how He did it. Second, He wrote the history that has yet to happen. What is true of the Gospel is true in everything: “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” In the history yet to be made, we labor faithfully, but God will determine the outcome of our labors.