Category archives: Religion & Culture

It Is Not the Political Critic That Counts

by Rob Schwarzwalder

January 11, 2016

Many politicians are some combination of the following: hypocritical, venal, self-interested, provincial, demagogic, too ideologically rigid, too easily manipulated, not close enough to the people, too susceptible to public whims, immoral, ignorant and arrogant. And so are many of the people they represent.

Many activists, Right and Left, are motivated by a confection of fear, outrage, anger, insensitivity, a sense of loss, and intellectual myopia, not to mention political unsophistication and a pattern of oversimplifying the complex.

Combined with the fact that the sun rises in the east and that water runs downhill, the above statements should be obvious to any reasonably close observer of the American political scene.

In other words: So what? Human moral and emotional frailties are not new, and that they are evident in the 240 year-long American effort to demonstrate that representative self-governance is not a farce should come neither as a surprise nor a source of contempt.

I am not talking about the excesses of human sin that blot the American political landscape. From marital infidelity to subsidization of abortion, the personal and public wrongs of those we allow to rule us stain the body politic, sometimes hidden beneath the heavy cloth of secrecy, at others as obvious as a rash on one’s cheek.

Yet painting all office holders as contemptible because some fall greatly or because all are imperfect amounts to little more than snide carping and usually is the result of personal non-participation in the arena of public life. Armchair critics enjoy the comfort of indolence and the luxury of indecision. This is not to say their criticisms are always wrong. Rather, it’s to note that their observations are made in the arid vacuum of passivity, preventing a fuller, deeper understanding of the tensions and difficulties found in writing a bill, taking a vote, electing a candidate, or marshalling a movement.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure,” said Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, “than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

A bit melodramatically stated, perhaps, but nonetheless a substantively accurate account of life generally and of politics in particular. Public action need not be perfect to be noble, permanent to be valuable, or complete to be worthy.

Cynicism is often tempered by engaging in the very activity condescending detachment sees as humorous or stupid. Tempered because in such engagement one comes to know the moral courage of one’s fellow participants. Even if some of those who act are ill-informed or driven as much by pain as principle, working alongside them shears-off the coat of patronization whose thickness prevents experiencing the empathy, joy, and sadness—the richness—political life can produce.

Those are things worth knowing, and can only be known by those whose intellectual knowledge is augmented by human experience. That combination, founded upon a bedrock of moral conviction, can make involvement in the public life of one’s country invigorating, honorable, and beneficial.

Christians know (or should) that until Christ’s return, political success will always be partial, transient, and pock-marked by sin. They should also know that justice and human dignity call for their faithfulness not only in private endeavors but appropriate public ones, as well.

Armed with that knowledge and stirred by that duty, let the redeemed of the Lord seek to protect the innocent, defend the fatherless, strengthen families, and do justice to the poor and oppressed, at home and abroad. People of the Gospel must do no less.

Poll Shows Americans Want Christmas in Schools and Religion in Public Life

by Travis Weber

December 22, 2015

According to polling recently released by Rasmussen, large percentages of Americans want more religion manifested in the public square and in public life.

76% believe Christmas should be celebrated in public schools, and 54% say there’s not enough religion in the public schools. Of those adults “with school-age children at home, 82% favor celebrating Christmas in public schools, and 61% believe there should be more religion in those schools.”

Interestingly, “[s]ignificant majorities of adults across most demographic categories believe Christmas should be celebrated in public schools.” 80% of adults who celebrate Christmas in their family support it being in schools, compared to just 27% of those who don’t celebrate the holiday, and 60% of adults 40 and over think there is not enough religion in public schools. 71% think Christmas should be “more about Jesus Christ than about Santa Claus.”

57% of Americans favor prayer in public school, and 73% support “giving parents a choice between a school that allows prayer and one that does not.”

Americans largely support religion playing a prominent role in public life: 57% say it is not possible to have a healthy community without churches or a religious presence. 71% of Americans say their religious faith is important in their daily life, and 49% consider it “very important.”

Americans also appear to be tiring of government’s over-sensitivity to political correctness. 42% of U.S. voters believe that “when it comes to the concerns of racial, ethnic, religious and social minorities in America, the government is too sensitive.” 29% say the government is not sensitive enough to those groups, and 18% think the level of government sensitivity is about right, while 12% are not sure.

While governments and activist groups may want to scrub the public square of religion, the American public itself doesn’t want that. Any way you slice it, people are voicing the view that religion has a role to play in our society, and it isn’t going away.

Winning the “War of Exhaustion:” Persevering in an Eroding Culture

by Rob Schwarzwalder

October 23, 2015

In 2009, retired Army General Mark T. Kimmit wrote in the journal Foreign Policy of what he called “war exhaustion” respecting America’s military efforts in Afghanistan.

The objective in a war of exhaustion is to defeat a nation’s will to fight. The British Empire was not defeated in Afghanistan by a war of attrition, nor was the Soviet Union defeated in Afghanistan through attrition. Both were defeated through exhaustion. And this is how the Taliban intends to defeat the current coalition efforts in Afghanistan — by steadily eroding our will to fight,” he explained.

Whatever is now happening in Afghanistan, there is another “war of exhaustion” plaguing America: The exhaustion of social conservatives as we continue to defend life, uphold marriage, and protect religious liberty.

It’s wearisome to be in combat for a sustained period. Combat is usually a “dirty business fought by tired, hungry soldiers,” wrote Frederick J. Manning, former Director of the Division of Neuropsychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, in the book War Psychiatry. “High morale demands, for each soldier, a goal, a role, and reasons for self-confidence,” he argues.

Christians involved in the public debates of our day often feel like they are in a “war of exhaustion.” Like the “tired, hungry soldiers” engaged in a “dirty business,” many of us are struggling with a sense of weariness, discouragement, and, in some cases, even hopelessness.

Some need to take a true break, to replenish their spirits and refresh their minds. There are many ways to serve, and not all of them involve political activism. No believer should ever withdraw from serving Christ and those made in His image, but there are seasons when Christians who have long participated in the cultural battle can, as Jesus said to the Twelve, “come away … and rest for a while.”

In the case of His disciples, His call to rest came because, as the apostle Mark explains, “many were coming and going, and they (the disciples) had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). For Christians enmeshed in today’s social issues, “having the leisure to eat” – to detach from constant engagement in seeking to uphold righteousness and justice in the public arena – might well be merited.

With respect to Dr. Manning’s comments about the need for “a goal, a role, and reasons for self-confidence,” Christians who are committed to life from conception until natural death and protecting it in law, who understand the implications of turning from the historic (and biblical) definition of marriage as the covenantal union of one man and one woman, for life, who grasp the necessity of healthy families for parents, children, and the nation as a whole, and who recognize that religious liberty is under threat at home and being violently suppressed in many places around the world – we have our goal. As Family Research Council puts it, that goal is “a culture in which human life is valued, families flourish and religious liberty thrives.”

And we each have a role. There are various ways to participate in building such a culture, from sending emails to friends about an upcoming ballot initiative to running for office or preaching a sermon on biblical values. Most of us already know the roles we can play, given our time, health, and various other resources.

Perhaps what some of us need is a boost of confidence, not in the sense of “self-talk” or desperate efforts to see a bit of blue amid the gathering gray storm clouds. Rather, true confidence, in the context of the cultural battles we face, comes from surety that (1) we are in the right with respect to the convictions we seek to uphold and (2) in eternity, we indisputably are on the winning side.

As to the first point, I am not suggesting that every position taken by every conservative Christian activist on every issue is correct! Rather, the declarative, clear, and propositional assertions of the Bible concerning the sacredness of personhood from the womb onward, marriage and human sexuality, and human dignity and its obvious implications for religious liberty assure us that on the essentials of our efforts, we are moving in tandem with the Holy Spirit.

As to the second, the temporal scorecard is uneven. There have been some valuable federal court wins and some disastrous court losses. We have had some significant political victories at both the state and federal levels, and some noteworthy losses.

We need to keep seeking to advance the things we believe God cherishes for any society and do so with grace, courage, integrity, an unremitting allegiance to truth, and prudential good judgment. We must love our enemies, pray for those who oppose God’s rule and rules, and share with them the good news of a King Who died for them and rose again in triumph.

But we need to do so with a firm understanding that eternity awaits us, an eternity in which the Lord of Glory will reign over “new heavens and a new earth” in which justice and purity will be unblemished forever.

With that perspective ever in mind, exhaustion will never be our permanent lot. We will not lose heart (II Corinthians 4:16) nor grow weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9).

That’s our call. That’s our challenge. That’s our confidence.

Bigots?” Memories Pizza Demonstrates its Tolerance.

by Travis Weber

October 9, 2015

It is hard to miss recent media portrayals of anyone who voices or acts on their religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage in how they run their business as “bigoted” and seeking a “license to discriminate.” This consistent narrative has judged their motives without reason, roundly rejecting small business owners’ (often wedding vendors) claims that they are simply living out their faith with love, but can’t be a part of a ceremony that violates their consciences.

When the owners of Memories Pizza — a small town pizzeria in Indiana — were posed a hypothetical question about whether they would cater a same-sex wedding last year, the “intolerance” of their simple response that they would not resulted in a threat to burn down their shop. They didn’t react in turn, but continued to explain that they would happily serve customers who identify as homosexual; they just didn’t want to be a part of the wedding. Of course none of this mattered to those not seeking the facts.

Now it appears that a man ordered two pizzas from Memories Pizza, without stating his reasons (as is quite normal when ordering pizza), and brought them back to serve at his same-sex wedding. He’s recorded the event, and claimed Memories “catered” his gay wedding — without knowing it. In response, Memories owner Kevin O’Connor hasn’t threatened to burn anything down. He hasn’t called anyone a bigot. He’s actually not really too interested in what happened.

So what’s the point?

Memories Pizza served a man regardless of his sexual orientation. The owners did not deny him service. They didn’t “turn him away.” And the fact that their pizzas were served at a gay wedding isn’t too bothersome to them. They didn’t quiz the man when he came in, asking him what he would use the pizza for. Those truly seeking to understand the conflicts in the “wedding vendor cases” should study what happened here, for they will see that no one involved is interested in simply turning away customers based on their sexual orientation.

What else can we learn?

It’s important to note that Kevin O’Connor didn’t run around claiming “my conscience was violated here!” Conscience is not violated merely by the occurrence of events; there must be knowledge of what one is getting oneself into. Thus, conscience is violated when someone is forced to knowingly participate in something they believe is wrong. Kevin wasn’t forced to participate in anything here; thus he wasn’t upset. He had no problem with serving a person in his shop, whether or not that person identifies as homosexual.

This is an important teaching moment on the role of conscience in the “wedding vendor cases” and beyond. The small business owners involved are not asking to simply “turn people away” or for a “blank check” to do whatever they want; they are advancing sincere conscience claims in certain circumstances. Memories Pizza’s unproblematic “catering” of this same-sex wedding shows that. Those who sincerely care to understand more about such religious freedom claims can learn from this development.

Pope Francis’s Words Confound Liberal Orthodoxies

by Daniel Hart

October 6, 2015

The mainstream media seems to be in a constant battle to try and wrest control of who they think Pope Francis is and what he stands for. What the media often fail to do is to quote the Pope’s actual words when he speaks against the modern orthodoxies that they are so fixated on upholding, in particular that of same-sex marriage.

During his homily at the Mass in Rome celebrating the opening of the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family on October 4, Pope Francis reflected yet again, as he has done throughout his papacy, on the central and indisputable truth and beauty of the family, that is, of one man, one woman, and their children:

In the first reading we also hear that God was pained by Adam’s loneliness. He said: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). These words show that nothing makes man’s heart as happy as another heart like his own, a heart which loves him and takes away his sense of being alone. These words also show that God did not create us to live in sorrow or to be alone. He made men and women for happiness, to share their journey with someone who complements them, to live the wondrous experience of love: to love and to be loved, and to see their love bear fruit in children, as the Psalm proclaimed today says (cf. Ps 128).

This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self. It is the same plan which Jesus presents in today’s Gospel: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:6-8; cf. Gen 1:27; 2:24).

But the Pope did not stop there. He went on to point out the ills that modern society currently suffers from in regard to its understanding of what marriage actually is:

For God, marriage is not some adolescent utopia, but a dream without which his creatures will be doomed to solitude! Indeed, being afraid to accept this plan paralyzes the human heart.

Paradoxically, people today — who often ridicule this plan — continue to be attracted and fascinated by every authentic love, by every steadfast love, by every fruitful love, by every faithful and enduring love. We see people chase after fleeting loves while dreaming of true love; they chase after carnal pleasures but desire total self-giving.

He followed this by quoting his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger), who cuts to the heart of modern society’s ill-conceived notion of “freedom”:

Now that we have fully tasted the promises of unlimited freedom, we begin to appreciate once again the old phrase: “world-weariness”. Forbidden pleasures lost their attraction at the very moment they stopped being forbidden. Even if they are pushed to the extreme and endlessly renewed, they prove dull, for they are finite realities, whereas we thirst for the infinite.”

Despite the media’s best efforts in pigeonholing him to fit their agenda, Pope Francis will continue to confound them with what he actually says. Only time will tell if they will ever listen.

Israel, Oregon, and Religious Persecution

by Joshua Denton

October 6, 2015

Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the UN and berated the assembled members for their deafening silence over the Iran Deal and the threat it poses to Israel.

He reminded them of the promise made by Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s, “there will be no Israel in 25 years,” and recounted to his listeners that only 70 years after the murder of 6 million Jews, Iran’s rulers have promised to destroy his country and murder his people. He rebuked the individuals represented at the UN for their lack of response, saying it has been “Nothing but absolute, deafening silence.”

Netanyahu then proceeded to silently glare at the UN for a full forty-five seconds before proceeding with his speech explaining why Israel was not celebrating this deal. And with good reason. The Iran Deal is in fact, a deal which will almost invariably provoke a nuclear arms race and is nothing short of a machination to destroy his country.

Also last week, in our very own United States a young gunman murdered innocent victims in a mass shooting. Why? Simply for their Christian faith. CNN reported the testimony of a father of a wounded student:

Before going into spinal surgery, Anastasia Boylan told her father and brother the gunman entered her classroom firing. The professor in the classroom was shot point blank. Others were hit, she told her family.

Everyone in the classroom dropped to the ground.

The gunman, while reloading his handgun, ordered the students to stand up if they were Christians, Boylan told her family.

And they would stand up and he said, ‘Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second,’” Boylan’s father, Stacy, told CNN, relaying her account.

And then he shot and killed them.”’

In the history of the universe, the persecution of Israel is nothing new; religious persecution of the people of God is nothing new; even Christians slaughtered for their faith is not a new phenomenon. It may be new to Americans because it is on our soil, and in our lifetimes.

Israel is currently defending the right to protect its very existence. The jailing of Kim Davis marks the first time in American history a Christian citizen was incarcerated for not compromising a sincerely held religious belief. Last week, we had American citizens shot in cold blood for testifying for their Christian faith.

Franklin Graham said so aptly, “Persecution and targeting of Christians isn’t just in Iran or the Middle East, its right here in America. The bold souls at Umpqua Community College who stood up to say they were followers of Jesus Christ were heinously gunned down with no mercy. Jesus said, ‘If they hate you, remember they hated me before they hated you.“’ (John 15:18)

If you were faced with a similar situation, how would you react? Ponder that question deeply. It should drive you to your knees. While you’re there, pray for Israel. Pray for those facing religious persecution. Pray for the victims of those in the Oregon shooting. Pray for your family and friends.

On Religious Liberty, Pope Francis Reminds Americans to Be American

by Travis Weber

October 5, 2015

There has been much media discussion over what the Pope said or did on his brief visit to the United States last month. Some topics drowned in the news coverage of others. However, one thing the Pope was certainly not confused about was his stance on religious liberty. Before Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis clearly proclaimed:

One of the highlights of my visit is to stand here, before Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States of America. It was here that the freedoms which define this country were first proclaimed. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

He continued:

History also shows that these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.”

Concluding his speech, he stated:

Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights. May this country and each of you be renewed in gratitude for the many blessings and freedoms that you enjoy. And may you defend these rights, especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God himself.”

In so clearly restating the American vision of religious liberty which has existed for over two centuries, Pope Francis reaffirmed the human right of religious liberty, given by God to all people, everywhere. In clearly restating this right, Pope Francis reiterated and reaffirmed an American ideal.

And by reminding us to defend and uphold religious freedom, Pope Francis simply reminded Americans to be American.

President Obama: Patiently Chiseling Away at Religious Liberty

by Travis Weber

September 28, 2015

At a recent Democratic Party fundraiser, President Obama reportedly said:

We affirm that we cherish our religious freedom and are profoundly respectful of religious traditions … . But we also have to say clearly that our religious freedom doesn’t grant us the freedom to deny our fellow Americans their constitutional rights.”

This is a perfect example of the incrementalism by which rights are diminished, relegated to second-class status, and eventually dismissed altogether.

President Obama’s comment may sound innocuous on its face, but what he’s actually saying is the First Amendment is to be subjugated to his own vision of society as implemented through his own view of the Fourteenth Amendment — a view which for our nation’s entire history was never even seriously considered right up to a few years ago.  It’s noteworthy that President Obama also publicly opposed same-sex marriage in the not-too-distant past — a fact which should tell us (and his current swooning supporters) something about his convictions. The “constitutional rights” to which he now so confidently refers are actually nonexistent in the text or meaning of the Constitution, only imposed on the nation through one ill-formed opinion of the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, the First Amendment (which he fails to even mention) has plainly and openly provided protection as the first of our Bill of Rights for centuries (since the founding of our country), clearly protects wide-ranging and robust religious practice, speech, and action, explicitly protects the “free exercise” of religion (which protects far more than the “religious traditions” and “religious institutions” the president references), explicitly prevents the government from “establish[ing]” what citizens must believe (in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Court said, “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein”), and has been consistently held by the courts to provide strong and wide-ranging protection from government interference and coercion in religious matters.

Thus, with one off-putting comment, President Obama attempts to use “rights” which aren’t even mentioned in our primary written legal authority (the Constitution) to denigrate rights which are clearly protected by the first provision of the Bill of Rights of that same Constitution.

As it’s said: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

President Obama: Insulting Friends, Placating Adversaries

by Rob Schwarzwalder

September 21, 2015

Today’s Washington Post carries one of the most remarkable and surprising op-eds that paper has published in a long time. Note: This op-ed is the paper’s own “voice,” not a piece by a columnist.

Commenting on the Obama administration’s inclusion of “transgender activists, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and a nun who criticizes church policies on abortion and euthanasia” in the welcoming ceremony planned for the Pope’s upcoming visit, the Post comments:

What struck us as we read about this small controversy is the contrast between the administration’s apparent decision to risk a bit of rudeness in the case of the pope and its overwhelming deference to foreign dictators when similar issues arise. When Secretary of State John F. Kerry traveled to Havana to reopen the U.S. Embassy recently, he painstakingly excluded from the guest list any democrat, dissident or member of civil society who might offend the Castro brothers.

And when Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to the White House next week, shortly after the pope leaves town, it’s a safe bet that he won’t have to risk being photographed with anyone of whom he disapproves. Chen Guangcheng, the courageous blind lawyer, for example, lives nearby in exile, but he probably won’t be at the state dinner. Neither will Falun Gong activists, democracy advocates or anyone else who might, well, give offense.

The Obama administration argues that it will include many people of every background. Yet according to the Wall Street Journal, “The presence of these (controversial) figures is especially irritating, (a) Vatican official said, because it isn’t yet clear if the White House has invited any representatives of the U.S. anti-abortion movement, traditionally a high-priority cause for the U.S. bishops.”

Read that, no one active in the pro-life movement is welcome to greet the head of the world’s largest pro-life organization.

There will be some Evangelical leaders present at the event. U.S. News reports that they include “the Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor from Florida who is a confidant of Obama on spiritual matters; the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 40 conservative Christian denominations; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.”

While it’s nice of the White House to include some Evangelicals, the inclusion of persons at overt and public odds with the teachings the Pope represents and the omission of others whose political activities — standing for the unborn and their mothers — are essential to Catholic teaching are startling.

Remarkable: A stinging and blunt calling-on-the-carpet of an Administration far more concerned with advancing an aggressive “gay rights” agenda than defending religious liberty here at home or standing with those being horribly persecuted for their faith in repressive nations around the world. As I have written elsewhere, President Obama “cannot defend abroad what (he and his) administration … are working to erode here at home.”

The willingness of this Administration to affront the leader of the world’s largest Christian tradition is an embarrassment to our country. It demonstrates a moral arrogance so profound as to be one of the few things that still surprises after nearly seven years of the President’s diligent efforts to, in his words, “transform the United States of America.”

Insulting foreign friends while placating foreign adversaries strikes one as an unusual approach to advancing America’s national security and vital interests. Sadly, this Administration seems eager to do just that.

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