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.

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.

A Matter of Principles

I haven’t seen the rhetoric flying like this for a long time. The battle lines are drawn. Ideologues on either side will truck no dissent. If there is one thing of which we as conservatives can be sure, liberals are always wrong about everything. If there’s a liberal is favoring a particular policy, we don’t have to know anything about it. That tells us enough to know we’re agin’ it.

I keep writing about the matter of illegal immigrants, even though I get very little blog traffic or Facebook comments about it. My liberal friends have written me off years ago and my conservative friends have by and large shunned me. Sadly, that includes most of my conservative Christian friends. But for Christians is it an area where the ideological rubber meets the theological road.

More than anything, this issue has highlighted that when it comes to politics for a lot of conservative Christians, they are conservatives first. If it is possible to eisegete their square Christianity into the round conservative hole, all the better, but if not, it can be silently left outside.

I consider myself a conservative. I’ve always been on the right wing of the Republican Party. At one time I was very active on the right wing of the Republican Party. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a conservative. You do however, have to be a Christian to be a Christian.

Christians are not called to be politically conservative. Neither are they called to be politically liberal. They are called to be Christians. Where being salt and light, even in political participation, intersects with being politically conservative (in the very limited meaning that term has within the very specifically American context, which most Americans assume is the only context), that’s great.

Time and again I have read and I have been told that we should be compassionate individual Christians, but that when it comes to the State it is a whole different matter.  The State, just like any other God-ordained institution, is nothing more than a collection of individuals. As such, it has – we have – a responsibility to act righteously and compassionately without assuming roles not delegated to the state. Should we not as the Church be compassionate? Should we not as members of families in whatever capacity we find ourselves – father, mother, child, sibling, or collateral – be compassionate? Likewise, we have a responsibility to look to the Scriptures for guidance with regard to how we treat others as a body politic.

A lot of Christians seem to be concerned with the fact that illegal immigrants broke the law to get into the United States. Now most of these people would not have been involved in the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t mean that they were too young to have been involved, but rather as conservatives they would have seen the whole thing as a big liberal conspiracy. I wonder how many of these people were involved in Operation Rescue. After all, I’ve never heard of OR folks being labelled as liberals.  And how many are old enough to have homeschooled in the 1980s when it was illegal in many states? For many Christians, it was imperative – it was a matter of conviction – to educate their children at home. In some states it was illegal to have an unlicensed private Christian school, especially one that did not have state-certified teachers. Nonetheless, otherwise law-abiding citizens opened them. To a person, these folks were committed to the right wing of the Republican Party and self-identified as very conservative.

I have heard complaints that these illegal immigrants are getting welfare benefits. Most of these people complain that anyone is getting welfare benefits – that, in fact, there should be no state-funded welfare benefits. I can’t disagree with the last bit. There is no biblical mandate for the state to be engaged in the financial support of individuals. That’s good conservatism. However, if the state chooses to provide benefits, it cannot biblically discriminate between the citizen and the stranger. To do so is to violate the mandate of Leviticus 19 – a civil mandate to love your neighbor as yourself including the stranger among you.

But let’s look at Leviticus 19 more closely. While there is no provision for the State to collect and distribute welfare, there is a provision requiring individual property/business owners to provide welfare in the form of unharvested produce. In other words – or in modern, non-agrarian application – to provide work and remuneration. And for whom is this provision made?  The poor and the stranger. This idea of providing for the alien among you is so important that it appears three times in the Torah (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:21). Biblically speaking, non-citizens are not only entitled (I know, a liberal word, but hard to get around) to work-based welfare, they are one of the principal intended recipients.

And while we are at it, it is unbiblical to choose your neighbors, stranger or citizen. Neighbors are yours because they see you have a desirable society and settle among you. Once among you, they must follow the rules – not any more strictly or with any greater consequences than citizens – but there’s no biblical provision for discrimination.

And finally for those repulsed by the theonomic tone in setting out what is biblical and what isn’t – those who say forget the Old Testament and ask WWJD – there is no evidence that the conservative views incompatible with the Torah are somehow more compatible with the New Covenant.

Theologically conservative Christians must begin to discerne where poltical conservatism merges and diverges. The current hot button issue of illegal immigration provides such an opportunity. It is then a matter of choosing which principles take priority.

Why We Don’t Need a 28th Amendment

I have been getting emails to pass on showing my support for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Now there are Facebook groups supporting this “proposed” 28th Amendment. I’ve gotten several invitations for those, too.  I delete chain mail, no matter how glurgy and heartrending on the one hand or politically outraged on the other. But this is one of those viral ideas that needs some sense slapped into it.

The good people at snopes.com have tried, but as I found when I looked at the discussion boards of one of these Facebook groups, they can’t be trusted because, in the words of one poster, “Snopes is run by a couple who are left-leaning Obama supporters. Not legitimate. Depends on what side of the issue you would like to believe is accurate.”

Now I seriously doubt that anyone who knows me or who has read anything I’ve written would call me left-leaning or an Obama supporter. But what I do know is that there are conservatives that assume any fact that does not support their agenda is part of the vast left-wing conspiracy. The sad fact is that our side has it’s own share of idiots. There are as many people swayed by the flag-waving and anti-government rhetoric as there are those who think everyone ought to be forced to pay for the less fortunate and save the polar bears.

Now let’s just look at this “proposed” amendment:

Congress shall make no law that applies to the citizens of the United States that does not apply equally to the Senators and Representatives and all other branches of the Government; and, Congress shall make no law that applies to the Senators and Representatives and all other branches of the Government that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States.

When I first read this, I realised immediately that the language was so vague as to be unenforceable. It doesn’t actually mean anything. Despite the Facebook group saying, “It avoids all the 18th century formal and ‘legalize’ language, and is simple to understand and straight forward,” it is neither simple to understand nor strightforward, despite the lack of “legalize” language. However, it does appear popular with those who lack the ability to write using proper vocabulary and grammar. Not a good sign.

With all the justification for this amendment that has been sent out with it, it appears that the motivation for it is the idea that members of Congress exempt themselves from legislation that applies to everyone else. This includes the myths that Congresspersons get their congressional salaries for life, that they don’t pay social security tax, and that they are “exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harrasment”. Of course the thing that spurred this into motion was that they exempted themselves from the provisions of the health care reform bill.

None of these things are true. I find the strangest of these to be the exemption from fear of prosecution for sexual harrasment. This implies that not only are Congresspersons somehow more prone to sexual harrasment than other people, but that they wanted to make sure they were free to do so. Beyond these patently ridiculous propositions, no one is prosecuted for sexual harrasment. It is a civil matter. People are sued for sexual harrasment. Congresscritters could already be sued for sexual harrasment as a tort before the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995. Now there is a specific statutory right to sue.

Some of the ranting and raving in the Facebook group is funny, if sad. One man said, “So snopes is making this mostly false. What kind of answer is that? It is a fact that Congress does pay themselves after they leave office.” Sorry, snopes didn’t make it false. They just showed how it was false. Most companies have a pension plan so that people get paid after they leave their employment. There are provisions for the pensions of all federal employees, just like there are for state employees. And just like other pension plans, they contribute to it out of their salary and if they don’t stay on the job very long, they don’t get a very big pension.

The same person said, “Poli means many and tics are blood suckers it may sound stupid but it is reality.” No, it is not reality, but he is right, it does sound stupid. About as stupid as a woman on the same thread who said, “We as a mostly nieve and willlingly uneducated ppl have let this situation creep up on us.”  I don’t know if I would attribute that to everyone else, but she did provide evidence that the uneducated bit applies to her.

But back to our proposed amendment. . . The last clause is the more useless. “Congress shall make no law that applies to the Senators and Representatives” unless it applies equally to everyone else. Does this mean that when they set the salaries for members of Congress, they have to give everyone else in the country the same salary? Since Congresspeople can participate in the Federal Employees Retirement System, they have to let every citizen join the FERS?

Where it really gets silly is the bit about “no law that applies to . . . all other branches of the Government that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States.” So when the Secret Service is authorised by law to protect the President and other member of the Executive Branch and certain members of their families, does this mean that every citizen is entitled to Secret Service protection? Or when the law says that the Department of Agriculture must inspect meat, does this mean that every citizen can (or perhaps must) inspect all meat produced? Or since the US Treasury is authorised by law to print currency, is every citizen authorised to print currency? Or how about the Department of State, which is the part of the executive branch charged with carrying out foreign policy and representing the United States to foreign governments. Is everyone entitled to negoitate with foreign governments on behalf of the American people?  There are an infinite  number of examples of how ridiculous this is.

So no, we don’t need a 28th Amendment to limit Congress, especially one as useless a current viral proposition. The biggest limit on Congress is already in the Constitution. They are elected. Don’t like a particular member? Don’t vote for them. What usually happens is the people want to limit somebody else’s Congressman. You know what? They don’t represent you. If people in another state or another district make a bad decision, too bad. It is the nature of representative democracy.

Why I am a Reactionary

It is a term that is generally meant as a perjorative.  Reactionaries rebel against all the wonderful progressive ideas that all right-thinking people know make the world a better place. In a word, liberalism. Well, I am a reactionary. I react against all of the ideas that see separation from God as progress. That it because these ideas are not progress at all. Progress is to move toward God’s desire that creation be reconciled to Him.

In being a reactionary, I follow in some pretty big footsteps. When someone called me a reactionary recently, I began to think of other reactionaries among whom I am not worthy to be counted.

I think of that young Jewish boy 3000 years ago, not old enough to be drafted into the army, reacting against the challenge of a giant man who had defied the armies of the living God. He reacted with a stone in a sling.

I think of Elijah in the midst of a government that had rejected the historic worship of God for worship of Baal. He reacted by calling down fire from heaven.

Elijah was but one of the prophets who reacted against the apostasy, injustice, and bad governments of the day. The people still chose captivity, but it was reactionaries who warned them and showed them another option. Being a reactionary has long been a thankless task.

Then I think of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – usually known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego.  The government said bow to the statue. It’s not a big deal and you won’t notice any real difference to your everyday life. Just bow and everyone will be happy. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were reactionaries. They just weren’t willing to buy into the spirit of the age.

They had a friend called Daniel. When the government said all petitions must be made to the state and not to any god, Daniel reacted by opening his window the exact same way he always had (conservative that he was) and knelt down and prayed the same way he always had. It cost him a trip to the lions den, because the state doesn’t like to be defied when it has set itself up as the font of all blessing and the focus of worship.

And there was that carpenter from Nazareth. He reacted against “you have heard it said” with “but I say to you”. But wasn’t this progressive? No, quite the opposite. He peeled back all the Talmudic layers of Pharisaism and brought it back to the revealed truth. And when it came to moneychangers in the temple, He was very reactionary. You might even say He was reactionary after they killed Him. He reacted by rising from the dead, trampling down death by death. That was the ultimate reaction.

So while I will never be as significant or successful a reactionary as David, Elijah, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, Daniel, or Jesus, I will be a reactionary nonetheless.

Stand in the ways and see,
And ask for the old paths, where the good way is,
And walk in it;
Then you will find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.
Also, I set watchmen over you, saying,

‘ Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not listen.’
Therefore hear, you nations,
And know, O congregation, what is among them.
Hear, O earth!
Behold, I will certainly bring calamity on this people—
The fruit of their thoughts,
Because they have not heeded My words
Nor My law, but rejected it.

Changing Horses

I was a bit surprised to see prominent reports about the CNN/YouTube GOP debate in the UK press. I was especially surprised to see positive press for Mike Huckabee. After all, he’s the one candidate about whom there’s never been any question with regard to the place of religion in his life and if there is anything hated by Brits, it is religious politicians.

As a result, I had to watch the debate on YouTube. I was also quite impressed with Huckabee. For now I am switching my support from Thompson and following the lead of Chuck Norris in endorsing Huckabee. I’ve no doubt his campaign will be excited to learn of this. I’m not switching because he has the best chance of getting the nomination – even if he is leading in Iowa. He is the most principled candidate in the race.

I think Huckabee could be what George W Bush wanted to be. He has a vision for the compassionate conservatism that got derailed by 9/11 and Iraq. He is also a tremendously better public speaker. Let’s face it – many of Bush’s image problems, just like those of Dan Quayle, are rooted in a stumbling communication style. Mike doesn’t have that problem.

Even while running for President, the former pastor of First Baptist Texarkana still finds time to preach. He doesn’t visit a church to give a political pep talk and press the flesh, like so many candidates who, as my dad would say, wouldn’t know Jesus if he rode up on a pinto pony. Though the amateur camera work is terrible, you can get an insight into the real Mike Huckbee by watching his sermon at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas  back on November 4.