The Disintegrating Republican Party

“The Republican Party is made out of sugar, and it’s raining.”  Rachel Maddow

Here’s one of the places where an MSNBC commentator gets it right.  Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party.  He rallied a small but tight group of frustrated, angry voters, most of whom have no concept whatsoever of a republican form of government (which is ironic considering the name of the party they joined) and succeeded in exploiting the cracks, divisions and weaknesses that existed in the Republican Party in order to secure the nomination.  Yes, his percentages of the vote grew as the primary season progressed, but the numbers really didn’t.  The percentages went up because more and more Republican voters stopped showing up as each succeeding candidate dropped out of the race.

The Republicans will not unite or coalesce behind Donald Trump’s leadership.  That’s crystal clear.  Too many of them have burned that bridge with statements they have made during the campaign.  One of the Clinton campaign PACs is now running a commercial which features nothing but disparaging, damaging remarks made by the GOP field against Trump during the campaign.  Oh, yeah, a few of the candidates in the field, like Chris Christie, and Ben Carson, turned around and endorsed Trump when they dropped out, but I don’t think those endorsements helped much.  By the time they dropped out of the race, they were getting close to single digits in terms of number of supporters that they had.  But most of the rest of the field has distanced themselves so far from Trump that there will be no coming back.  And the fact of the matter is that most of them, and many of their supporters in the Republican party, won’t support Trump.  Period.

Is this the effect of reality television?  I think that’s had something to do with it.  People seem to want to live in a state of pseudo-reality, a fantasy world that flits in front of a camera and gives us sound bytes and flashes.  What’s remarkable is that just about everything involved in his candidacy is diametrically opposed to the principles and values that the Republican party has adopted and has been promoting for decades.

I joined the Republican party in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was running, much to the chagrin of my Dad, who had been a lifelong Democrat, going back to Roosevelt, and a union member.  There were a lot of reasons for that, among them the patriotism and the apparent embrace of Christian values which I shared.  I believed we needed a change, and Reagan, while certainly not perfect, looked like he could pull it off.  And he did, using compromise and negotiation, with bipartisan support, to build a strong consensus around the key issues that he wanted to address.  Donald Trump is about as far away, and as much of an opposite to Ronald Reagan as you can get.

The “lesser of two evils” rationale usually means I’ll just vote along partisan lines and excuse my party’s guy for its sake.  That doesn’t necessarily have to be your option.  There will be several third party candidates who are running, who have a high level of integrity but are simply not endowed with the kind of money and notoriety it takes to win a national general election.  And I don’t buy the rubbish that if you vote for an independent, you’re simply voting for the favorite, which is in this case at the moment is Hillary Clinton.  It is a cherished American right to cast a ballot for whomever you choose, and doing so means that you are not casting a ballot for anyone else.  That’s simple enough to figure out, and it trashes the garbage about what such a vote means or does.  But there’s another reason for that.  It is only the electors who actually cast ballots for the Presidential candidates.  The popular vote is only taken to determine, state by state, who gets those electoral votes.  So a vote for the candidate of your choice is not, in any way, shape or form, a vote for someone other than the person whose name is beside your X.  That’s just political rhetoric from people who think other people are dumb enough to buy it.

It’s hard to say where this will go.  Clinton has a lot of baggage from years in the political establishment, and politically initiated investigations into Benghazi and her email server keep the radio disc jockey talk show hosts in material, though there is obviously not anything in either investigation to warrant an indictment, if you thought one might be coming.  But Trump is a liar, a xenophobe, a religious bigot, a racist, an adulterer, and there’s no guarantee that he will keep any of his promises, given his record in that department in his business dealings. He can’t release his tax returns because they are being investigated by the IRS.  He’s run up a cost into the multiple millions of dollars to the taxpayers for bankruptcies.  Is this a guy you want to have control of the nuclear codes?  The IRS?  And are these the values you want associated with your party?  Because if Republicans roll over and accept this as politics as usual, and those who have been moving heaven and earth to stop his run to the nomination decide its just time to support the party nominee, then they will wind up owning everything that is corrupt and bad about Donald Trump.  Everything.

Do you ever wonder…?

What are people thinking?

A recent couple of days for recovery from surgery, with a foot propped up in an easy chair led to some exploring of the cable television menu for something interesting to do in order to pass the time.  I’d ordered a couple of books, but they didn’t come in time.  After the morning news programs, I was done with sensationalism, so I started flipping channels.  I won’t say where I landed, but a program that clearly identified with Christian principles got my attention.

Wow.

Raised in a small, Southern Baptist church, with the opportunity to attend college and seminary in institutions connected to Southern Baptist roots, I thought I had a pretty sound, solid theological background, and a clear understanding of the nature of God, and the interpretation of the Bible.  So as the program I was watching progressed, my first thoughts were questions raised from the content that was being presented.

Growing up during the 70’s, I’ve read Hal Lindsey, Salem Kirban, Pat Robertson, and that whole generation of preachers and teachers who had their Armageddon calendars lined out and dated, and their interpretations of what the end times would be like.  Their failures and inaccuracies, excused by short memories and revised editions of books that allow them to say that they never really said something specific which turned out to be a false prophecy.

“You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’  If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message that the Lord has not spoken.  That prophet has spoken presumptuously.  Do not be afraid of him.”  Deutoronomy 18:21-22, NIV

Presumptuous.   I like that word.  I saw an awful lot of it, sitting in my easy chair, watching cable tv religion last Friday and Monday.  I remember being fearful, watching movies designed to make you feel afraid, like “A Thief in the Night,” with its accompanying theme song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  Then, in a New Testament class in college, and a systematic theology class in seminary, a deeper understanding of Biblical eschatology emerged for me, and I wasn’t as afraid.  Presumptuous.  Yes, that describes the approach of that movie, and those writers.  In order to draw their conclusions, you must first accept their premise.  And that very aptly describes what is happening now, especially, it seems, in the world of media religion.

Just about anything in today’s culture can be used as an indicator to point to the imminent return of Jesus, or at least, to the rapture, the sounding of trumpets and the beginning of the great tribulation.  America seems to be the country leading the world down this path of destruction and judgment, since most of the “signs of the times” come from American culture.  The Middle East is not far behind, especially if you mix in some Old Testament names and references to tribes and geographical locations.  ISIS and Muslims have replaced the Soviet Union and Communism as God’s bad boy harbingers of judgment and destruction.  And of course, as a nation, America didn’t start its descent into the abyss until we elected President Obama.  It couldn’t have been Bill Clinton, bad as he was, because, well, when Clinton was in office, it was before Y2K and we were still operating under the old, now wrong, Armageddon calendar.

Even Target Stores have now joined the ranks of the condemned.  Did you know that if you shop at Target, it’s a sure sign that you don’t know Jesus as your savior?  I not only heard that on television, I saw it on Facebook, two inerrant and infallible sources of religious teaching.

When I see this sort of thing, and I see people who should have a measure of common sense and a decent understanding of the Bible and Christian faith buying into it, it is discouraging and disappointing.  It contributes to the disunity and fragmenting of the Christian faith that is one of the major flaws of the modern church.  We object to being portrayed in the media as dolts and dummies, running here and there like headless chickens, but then this stuff is all over the place.  There is the Kingdom, and then there are individual kingdoms full of people who don’t know the Bible well enough to discern when they are being deceived.

The Politics of the Day

Oh, my.

The first time I was able to cast a ballot in a Presidential election was in 1976.  I was a college sophomore, and it was Jimmy Carter running against the incumbent Gerald Ford.  I was excited about registering to vote, and did so following my 18th birthday in 1975, though the Presidential election was more than a year away.  I was influenced primarily by my Dad, who was raised in West Virginia during the depression, and had been a union man for most of his career.  He was a Democrat, and wouldn’t have thought about being anything else, because he, and millions of others like him, equated their working class values with their evangelical Christian values and saw the two things as inseparable.

But I was also influenced by the politics of the day.  Memories of the corruption of the Nixon administration, his resignation, that of his original vice-president, Spiro Agnew, the Watergate scandal and all of that were still quite fresh.  Many people didn’t trust Gerald Ford, and thought that Nixon had traded the presidency to him in exchange for a presidential pardon, which Ford duly delivered.  That pardon, along with Ford’s connection to the Nixon administration, cost him his own term as President.  It is difficult to describe the concern and anxiety that people were feeling about the country and its future while all of that was happening.

But it was nothing compared to what is transpiring today.

I’ve tried to imagine how my Dad would react to what is happening in this presidential primary season.  He had the opportunity to go to college, and trained as an air conditioning mechanic during his service in the Navy during World War 2.  He worked hard, but he also kept up with what was going on in the world.  A regular part of our evening at home during the week was the half-hour of the Huntley-Brinkley report.  He was rarely negative about the country, its future, or even about leadership with whom he disagreed.  I’ve tried to imagine what conversations about this might be like with him, if he were still alive.  I don’t think that there was much that could have dimmed his optimism, and he’d be having a good time with this, especially teasing friends who were taking their support of their candidate too seriously.  His predictions usually worked out.  I miss that, as I wonder what he’d be saying now.

Frankly, I think what will happen as a result of what is now nothing more than total chaos, at least, on the Republican side, is that this won’t happen again.  The fallout will be painful to endure, even conservatives are admitting that the Republican party is not only going to lose the White House in 2016, but it is probably going to lose the Senate as well, and there’s even some talk that the House might be close.  If the next President is a Democrat, and gets to appoint one Supreme Court justice, Citizens United goes away, and the way House districts gets drawn will favor Democrats.  That will change the Republican Party, and a new party establishment will prevent this kind of chaos from ever occurring again.

The American Republic is tough.  It was designed by the founding fathers to be tougher than the ebb and flow of partisan politics.  It will survive this, even if the voters make the highly unlikely mistake of electing a fascist, racist, bigot as their President.  The checks and balances will prevent him from doing much damage, and I don’t think he’d last more than one term.  I think he’d be impeached and removed from office before he gets to his first mid-term election.  And on the other hand, it will also survive the election of a former first lady and Secretary of State who made some mistakes along the way, or the election of a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist.  In the case of the latter, he at least has a constitutional understanding of the checks, balances and limits on the Presidency.

 

Hard to Resist: A Political Commentary

During a teaching career that began in 1983, mostly in high school social studies, I enjoyed election years, encouraging students to observe what was happening, and engage with the media.  I know that for many of them, political activity was boring, but I thought it was important for them to observe, and understand how the process worked. To help them with their interest, I would make a prediction, and then promise to do something silly, or allow them to do something silly, if the election didn’t turn out the way I’d predicted.  I had a pretty good track record.  Qualifications included being allowed to wait to within 90 days of the election to make the prediction.  I missed just one Presidential election since 1984, and that was 2000, which a lot of pundits missed as well.  And it was a learning experience for the students when they got to see how I gathered information to make my prediction.

It was hard for students to understand that my prediction was not necessarily always the person for whom I planned to vote.  They had a hard time understanding that you can be realistic about your candidate’s chances, without actually thinking that they are going to win.  But it’s not like a ball game, where you pull for the home team no matter what, and you always confess that you think you’re going to win, whether you really know otherwise or not.

It would certainly be fun, this election cycle, to have a class observing what is happening.  In all honesty, the Republican primaries have been an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions, and that’s not just a cliche.  Donald Trump’s campaign has turned the GOP on its ear, almost literally, and I think it has done significant enough damage to prevent a full recovery in time to convince the electorate that a Republican would be good for the country.  And whether it’s Trump’s crossing these barriers, or just that there were a lot of candidates and its been an intense debate, it’s too late for them to start thinking about setting the animosity aside in order to get to a more unified position behind a candidate by the time the general election rolls around.  Barring a major mistake by either of the Democrats, one of them will be making an acceptance speech at their headquarters sometime around or after midnight on election day.

I’m not a platform or package voter.  I doubt that very many people are, at least, those who think about the candidates and the issues.  I’m generally not a fearful person, so I don’t like it when candidates pander to people’s fears. I really detest the “happy spin” that so many politicians put on everything they do, especially when they need to hide their inconsistency.  I like it even less when candidates point out the faults of their opponents, and pander to hatred to get your vote.  That is happening way more in this election cycle than it should.  If we are at the point where we think that fear and hate are better campaign motivators than the truth, then the whole system needs to be changed, starting with getting billionaire money out of the political contribution business.

It did not take me long to determine that I wouldn’t cast a ballot, under any circumstance, for Donald Trump.  He’s clearly a panderer and an opportunist, and is prone to say whatever he thinks it will take to get enough votes to win the GOP nomination.  His presence on the Republican side of the campaign is one of the main reasons why it has gone south, in terms of civility.  While I understand that it is popular to bash the current administration, expressing a negative opinion is a far cry from making stuff up and saying anything, whether its true or not, just because you know there are people out there dumb enough to believe whatever you say.  That’s unethical.  Putting Trump in the White House would be worse than putting  Nixon in it was.  At least, in his case, most of his lack of integrity wasn’t on display for everyone to see when he was running.

This has been quite a week for Trump.  First, he broke with political correctness and blamed President Bush for not protecting the country, because 9-11 took place on his watch.  That’s as much of a faux pas among Republicans as pointing out that the Iraq war was launched against the wrong country, and the vacuum of power that it left behind was responsible for the development and growth of ISIS.  Not only that, but he claimed that the Bush administration was left a pile of information and intelligence by the Clinton administration, which was ignored, leaving the country vulnerable to terrorist attack because of the President’s action.  That’s a simplistic way of making those claims, though they are generally true, but for a Republican candidate for President to be that critical of the last sitting president of his own party is unthinkable.  I’m surprised that these statements did not draw more opposition or ire among Republicans in South Carolina.  No wonder the presence of both Barbara and George W Bush in the state hasn’t enhanced Jeb’s standing.

Then, he got into a dust-up with, of all people, Pope Francis.  Perhaps the Pope would have been wise to simply ignore the Trumpster.  Perhaps Trump would have been wiser to just move on, without comment.

I think a lot of damage has been done.  Trump has cut himself off from virtually all of the other GOP candidates, and that sends a signal to his supporters.  He’s basically said that none of them are right, and none of them are worth supporting.  So when the general election rolls around, where do his supporters go?  Not to the Democrat, for sure, but if they stay home, the Democrat, whoever it turns out to be, won’t need them.  If Trump is the nominee, then a lot of other Republicans will stay home.  Some of the more moderate ones will vote for the Democrat, along with the lion’s share of independent voters.  If I were in a classroom setting, I’d be comfortable at this point making a prediction and buying my class a milkshake if it didn’t turn out that way.

I think we are where we are because our education system, which has as one of the main reasons for its existence the objective of  providing an educational foundation on which the preservation of our Democratic Republic can exist, and have citizens who are literate, and informed voters, has failed.  It’s objectives have been more aimed at helping students “get a better job” than they have at informed citizenship.  The quality of instruction and the level of expectations of student outcomes have deteriorated to the point where there is a long list of countries in which students do better than Americans, in skills and in basic knowledge.

We’ve also been hearing, for quite some time (back into the early 80’s at least) that the church is failing to hang on to the children of its own members, much less to make any kind of inroads into the unconverted population.  If you use church membership as the measuring rod, one out of three Americans under age 35 has a connection to a church.  That doesn’t sound bad.  But in most American denominations, and churches, only about half of those on the membership roll can be found in services on at least a monthly basis.  If you look at the research, and do the math, especially the subtraction, those 80% losses of the children of church members following college are adding up.  Perhaps as many as 15% of those between 18 and 35 are involved in a church enough to show up on the radar screen, but I’m guessing the figure is closer to about 6% who are really active members.

And that should leave few questions regarding why what we are seeing is happening, as well as what needs to be done to hold it in check, and bring about the kind of change that is more than just lip service.

 

 

Where did all the Evangelicals go?

“Evangelical Christians” have been considered a constituency within the Republican Party ever since the days of the Moral Majority and the Reagan years.  Prior to that time, they were not really considered a voting constituency, and it was widely believed that many of them shunned the political process because they viewed it as potentially corrupting, or that it was something that was better left alone, “rendering unto Caesar,” so to speak.  Ironically, the awareness of the presence of “Evangelicals” was heightened by Jimmy Carter, whose self-identification as a “born-again” Christian attracted a lot of interest and attention, as well as criticism, from the media.  However, it was the entry of “Evangelical Christians” into the electorate that turned the margins, particularly in the Presidential elections of 1980 and 1984, opening the door for Reagan’s election.

Since that time, the turnout of Evangelicals has been credited with victories for some, and the lack of turnout has been blamed for the defeat of others.  It has become clear that a majority of self-identified Evangelical Christians tend to support Republicans, and that core of support, which is estimated to be somewhere north of 60% of those who fall into that classification, has become one of the most influential constituencies in the GOP.

The failure of Evangelicals to turn out in large numbers in 2012 is one of the main reasons cited by Republicans for Mitt Romney’s defeat.  The claim is that about 4 million fewer Evangelicals turned out in 2012 than in 2008, failing to support Romney because of his Mormon faith, or because he just wasn’t really “their” candidate.  That’s not really consistent with what the exit polls showed, but that’s the claim.  And one candidate, Ted Cruz, has even suggested that 54 million Evangelicals still don’t vote, and somehow need to be activated for the GOP to win in 2016.

I’m not sure what sources he uses for his numbers, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near the ball park.  In fact, as the polling data, and religious survey data both show, the number of people who identify as members of Protestant churches in the US is in decline, as is the number of those who are identified as “Evangelicals.”  And my point here isn’t so much to lament the decline of their political clout as it is to point to some inherent problems that are indicating a decline of church participation in the country in general.  There are several reasons why Mr. Cruz’s numbers don’t add up.

How is the term “Evangelical Christian” defined? 

The Association of Religious Data Archives says that there are 26,344,933 people who are members of churches that are considered part of Mainline Protestantism in America, and 39,930,869 members of churches that are considered “Evangelical” Protestants.  The means of distinguishing the two is primarily related to the emphasis placed on the “social gospel,” with Evangelicals being somewhat critical of those they consider “Mainline.” Evangelicals are much more involved in activity which they see as witnessing, and preaching the gospel aimed at getting people to convert to Christian faith, while Mainline churches are more involved in activity which is aimed at addressing social problems and not necessarily involved in winning converts.

Many Evangelicals are involved in non-denominational churches and groups that don’t show up in religious surveys or censuses.  Non-denominational churches that identify as either conservative, or Charismatic, have a collective membership of about 12 million that is probably not all added into the figure reported by ARDA.  If that’s the case, then those who are identified as “Evangelical Christians” among Protestants in America, probably number somewhere around 50 million.  And if they are registered to vote at percentages that run 8 to 10 percent higher than the general population, which is what the surveys and polls show, that means there are about 32 million voters who are classified as Evangelical.  And that number is consistent with the percentage of the electorate that self-identified as “Evangelical Christian” in exit polling in 2012.

More Evangelicals Voted in 2012 than in 2004, or 2008

According to Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which would probably be the top Evangelical PAC in the country, the number of Evangelicals who turned out in 2012 was a record, higher than the 2008 percentage that turned out for John McCain.

“Evangelicals turned out in record numbers and voted as heavily for Mitt Romney yesterday as they did for George W. Bush in 2004,” observed Reed, the day after Romney’s defeat.  “That is an astonishing outcome that few would have predicted even a few months ago.”

So where will Cruz get more Evangelical voters?

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Evangelical denomination, and counts among the members of its cooperating churches Republican Presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and former candidate Lindsay Graham, as well as John McCain.  My friend and fellow blogger Bob Cleveland, who writes Eagle’s Rest (http://www.mightyfowl.blogspot.com/) has pointed out on more than one occasion the SBC’s irregularities in keeping track of its membership.  The SBC reports that it has 16 million members in approximately 45,000 churches located in all 50 states, but primarily in the South.  However, on any given Sunday, the collective worship attendance of those churches is between 6 and 6.5 million.  In addition to that figure, the SBC reports that more than 7 million members of its churches are considered “non-resident,” that is, they have an address not in the same general area as the church to which they belong.  Most are probably not active in church, and many are, at this point, probably either dead, or just phantom numbers that can’t be connected to a name.   Bob’s guess is that about 60% of the membership of most Southern Baptist churches is inactive, not attending, and generally not supportive of the denomination’s ministries.  He compares that with other churches in other denominations, in which 50% of the membership falls into the inactive category.

If Bob’s figures are correct, and I see a lot of evidence to support what he says, then the number of Evangelical Christians in America is probably closer to 30 million than it is to 54 million.  If you figure that among the 30 million is a percentage of children not yet old enough to vote, and calculate a slightly higher percentage of registered voters among the eligible membership, you get a figure that supports the claims of the Faith and Freedom Foundation, and that is consistent with what the major network exit polls indicated in 2012.

Mitt Romney got a higher percentage of the evangelical vote in 2012 than any candidate since George W. Bush in 2004, and a higher percentage of the white vote than any candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988.  He lost.  In both the exit poll analysis, and in the Faith and Freedom Foundation’s Analysis, the increase in the number of younger voters under 35, and the percentages in which they supported President Obama, made the difference in 2012.

That makes a couple of statements.  From a political perspective, the number of younger voters continues to increase, and they have become the new constituency for the Democrats that Evangelicals once were for the Republicans.  But that’s not as concerning as the fact that there are relatively few people in that particular age demographic that consider themselves Evangelical Christian.  That’s the alarm bell that should be ringing, and its more important than figuring out how to get more Evangelical votes in an election.

Notes:

1.  The figures provided by the Faith and Freedom Foundation reflect their definition of “Evangelical,” and there’s no specific information included to determine how they arrived at that definition.  Given the percentages that they report in support of Romney and Obama in 2012, it is likely that they are excluding the membership of historically African American denominations in that total.  While those denominations are generally more conservative theologically than their white counterparts, and because of their intricate involvement in the African American community, produce more converts per capita, they are also highly involved in social action, which, in the opinion of those within Evangelical political organizations, categorizes them as Mainline, or separates them out as a different category of “Historically African American, rather than Evangelical.  The largest African American denominational grouping is Baptist, most of whom would be considered Evangelical from a doctrinal and theological perspective, along with another large African American denomination that is Pentecostal, the Church of God in Christ, while the other large denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is Mainline. With 96% of the African American vote going to the President in 2012, that explains the discrepancy between the high percentage of “Evangelical” voters going to Romney in 2012 as reported by the Faith and Freedom Foundation, and the lower figure that virtually all of the major television networks, including Fox News, reported. 

2.  There is an observable perspective among conservative candidates like Ted Cruz in particular, that because there is a clear majority of support for their political position among those in the Evangelical constituency, the minority that doesn’t support them is “wrong.”  Almost every philosophical argument comes down to the Republican platform’s plank regarding abortion.  The insistence that this issue trumps all others, and that somehow candidates are going to be held accountable to the platform hasn’t worked out in practice.  Many Republican candidates simply ignore the pro-life issues once they get into office, and some of them are outspoken opponents of it.  There’s no party apparatus that makes candidates tow the line on issues.  The voters do that, and there are many pro-choice Republicans who are in office because Evangelical voters cast ballots along party lines, instead of examining the candidate’s views.  The next big issue with religious overtones is that of same-sex marriage, which many Republicans also support.  Many Republican candidates for office openly cite the fact that they know Evangelicals are one of their most reliable constituencies, and that they can pretty much take their support for granted.  And they do.

3.  I believe that the decline in Evangelical membership and participation, which is getting close to the percentages that Mainline denominations have been experiencing for years, is due in part to the corner that they have painted themselves into from a political perspective.  It’s hard to expend the kind of energy and support for political issues that Evangelicals have spent, and continue to maintain commitments to missions and evangelism.  It’s also much harder to reach people who think that your primary purpose for conversion is to convince them that your political perspective is the right one.  Whether Evangelicals are directly involved or not, the kind of language and approach that is taken in politics by many conservatives, including vitriolic personal attacks, name calling, the “our view at all costs” approach, and all the mud-slinging, is a turn-off for most Americans.  The majority of the country’s population doesn’t attend church regularly, or at all, and depending on whose research you look at, between half, and two thirds of today’s Millennial generation has no connection to a church or faith at all.  But the church isn’t having any success at all in reaching into that population.  The data, whether secular polls or religious surveys, points to a shifting here and there within the church, but to a downward trend in winning new converts and gaining members.  Churches are not even able to hold on to most of the children raised within their walls.  In the 1980’s, the figure was 70% of those raised in church, and active in their childhood and youth years dropped out by the time they were 30, and only about half of them came back.  That figure is now up around 80%, and the return rate is fractional.  They are not coming back. 

I’m not opposed to Evangelical or Christian involvement in the political process, and in fact, I believe that it is essential for the survival of the Democratic Republic that is the United States of America.  But a partisan expression of that causes polarization, and limits the effectiveness of the church as it remains true to its mission and purpose.  Evangelicals, and those who see that a secular, humanist government is also opposed to the social gospel, operating as an independent political entity, would be a powerful force, influencing the government from both sides.  As long as most of the American church resides in a polarized, political climate, it will continue to experience decline.  And while I’m not a prophet, it’s not really hard to see what will happen as the current generation reaches adulthood, with somewhere between 8% and 12% of their number counted among active church membership, as they raise the next generation. 

 

 

Happy New Year, 2016

This is my 58th New Year’s eve.  I don’t remember a whole lot of the early ones.  In fact, I was probably nine or ten before my parents would let me stay up until midnight.  When I was in high school, our church started having “Watchnight” services followed by a fellowship breakfast, and those are really the first New Year’s eve celebrations that I can actually remember.  You might not think that it was much fun, spending New Year’s eve in a Baptist church fellowship hall where there was a lot of adult supervision, but I wasn’t really the type to find a party with a lot of contraband booze, and if the church hadn’t had something going on, I’d probably have stayed home, or gone on a date to a movie, or something like that.  While I was a student, my world operated on an academic calendar, so the last day of school generated more excitement, and, well, that hasn’t changed much, since I’m still in education, and I still operate on an academic calendar.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen as much doom and gloom around a new year as I have about the approach of this one.  That’s probably a perception that has come about from the increased presence of social media in our lives.  We have contact with more people, so we hear more griping.  There are a few people who pull out some of the standard cliches in response.  Jeremiah 29:11 shows up a lot, since most of the people I’m in contact with on social media are Christians.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the message of Jeremiah 29:11.  Jeremiah, of all of the Jewish prophets, takes us to the very depths of despair, allowing us to feel, through his words, the grief and broken heart of God over his people, and then, in places like this specific verse, can bring us back to the heights of joy.  And in its context, these particular words have been particularly promising and comforting to me.  They are far more than just a cliche, to be pulled out when others around you are negative and critical.  Likewise, the New Testament verse about all things “working to the good for those who love the Lord” gets used as well.  There’s a lot more meaning there, too, than just as a cliche to counter a negative attitude.  But I won’t get into that here.

For many Christians, each succeeding new year is a sign of the times, a calendar date to check off on their Armageddon calendar as the rapture approaches, with a list of Biblical prophecy matched up with current events as proof of their perspective that we are living in the last days.  There was a time when my eschatology was pretty settled, mostly the result of a collection of futurist books I’d read.  If I learned anything from seminary, it was caution about drawing a conclusion, or having a completely settled eschatological perspective.  And while we are moving forward in time, inevitably toward the return of Christ, I don’t see the New Year, or the litany of problems that developed in the previous one, as specific signs of the times.  When has the world ever been able to resolve its own problems?  When will it?

Even in the relatively short history of our own country, there have been plenty of times, facing the arrival of a New Year, when the Armageddon calendar planning got a helping hand.  There have been many times when the future looked bleak, when current event seemed to line up with what the scripture describes, and when people were convinced that the rapture of the church was right around the corner, and they would see it in their lifetime.  Futurist eschatology is a relatively recent development in church history, from the nineteenth century, related to an era when a whole lot of world-shaking events were taking place.  It prompted some very strange movements and activities, including a group that became known as the “Millerites,” after the leader who actually predicted dates for the rapture and the second coming of Christ.  William Miller, a Baptist preacher, made not one, but two mistaken predictions of the date of the second advent, and in spite of the first mistake, which he explained away by citing Jewish and Roman calendar differences, continued to draw followers right up to his ill-fated second false prediction.  Even after the second failure, he still had plenty of followers who eventually codified their beliefs and doctrines, and formed a major denomination.

You can imagine the impact of events of such major historical significance as the Great Depression, and the outbreak of the Second World War must have had on the attitude toward the future as each new year approached.  American theology has developed the idea that God’s blessings are directly connected to both personal and collective prosperity, so the Depression certainly had an impact on how people felt about the future, and about God’s blessings.  With the idea that developed regarding a specific, and literal personage known as the “Antichrist,” there were plenty of people who thought, initially, as things developed, that Lenin, and then Stalin, personalized those kinds of characteristics.  And if you read most of the eschatology of the time, the name Adolf Hitler is frequently mentioned as a reasonable candidate.  The Apostle John tells us that the spirit of Antichrist is anyone who denies that Jesus is the son of God, doesn’t apply the term to a specific individual, and doesn’t use it in Revelation, but rather in I John, his epistle to the church.  That’s a broader definition than that which is generally accepted in futurist eschatology, I think.  But it certainly makes it a whole lot easier if you have such a clear definition, to apply it where it is appropriate and accurate.  It doesn’t leave a lot of room for speculating about who, or what, Antichrist is.  Clearly, the term is not intended to be applied to a specific politician or world leader, especially one that we don’t particularly like.

So as I look ahead to 2016, I won’t make a prediction as to whether or not this will be the year that Jesus returns.  I’ll allow that it’s a possibility, not because of any specific events that are happening, or because declaring that the times are bad is a backhanded way of slamming the politicians who are currently in office, but because the scripture does say that this is a matter of decision for a sovereign God, who isn’t going to clue us in as to what’s on his mind, at least in this regard.  I’ll look forward to a full year, and I’ll plan for it, after praying and asking God for his guidance in what he intends for me to do in it.  It’s also OK to have a pretty good idea, based on past experience, of exactly what that might be.  Predictability doesn’t mean you don’t trust God.  I happen to think it’s a pretty good sign that you do.

 

Living Close to Fear

“Do not be agitated by evildoers; do not envy those who do wrong.  For they wither quickly, like grass and wilt like tender green plants. 

Trust in the Lord and do what is good; dwell in the land and live securely.  Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires.”  Psalm 37:1-4, HCSB

“There is no fear in love; instead perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment.  So the one who fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.”  I John 4:18-19, HCSB

Social media, cable and satellite news outlets, and access to information instantly has had an effect on our culture and society, and not all of it has been good.  We are almost on top of dramatic events when they happen, cameras may even be rolling and showing scenes before something is over, on the other side of the world.  That brings the event close, right into your living room, on your lap, in your mind.  We can relate to what we see, so it makes us vulnerable to fear.

The writers of scripture had a lot to say about fear.  It’s one of those concepts that, when translated from the original languages of the Bible into English depends a lot on the context in which it is used.  The idea of approaching God with “fear and trembling” carries with it the idea of ultimate respect, not only because of what he can do, but because of who he is, by nature, of the authority that he has, and of what he has done for us, whom he created.  Conversely, the kind of fear that terrorists generate is a perversion of the same concept.  It is a twisted form of respect that depends on their unpredictability and the perception that they want to create, through extreme actions that are counter to the respect for life that directly results from God’s creation of it.

It’s no accident that terrorists have become adept at the use of modern technology and communication.  That has been a vehicle they’ve used to enhance the effect of the fear they want to create, so that they can experience more immediate results.  They cannot win an ideological battle up front, nor do they have the resources to win by military conquest.  ISIS/ISIL has introduced the concept of an Islamic “caliphate” to terrorism, setting up a state to use as a means of gathering resources and having a base of operations to carry out their terrorism.  Though their approach is different than previous terrorist organizations have taken, the goal is the same.  They use terror to get their perceived enemies to abandon their principles and values in exchange for a sense of security.  In so doing, they achieve their ends.

Compared to air attacks and ground battles in the Syrian and Iraqi desert, the Paris attacks, and the shooting in San Bernardino, if it is indeed ISIS-directed, ISIS-inspired, or merely a copy-cat act, are small potatoes.  But if the public reaction to these events is any indication of the way people in the United States, and in Western Europe, are thinking, the terrorists may be losing ground in the Middle Eastern military fight, but it won’t take much to win the philosophical and ideological battle.  Here’s the evidence of that.

Many Americans, including government officials and politicians, are willing to completely abandon a fundamental core principle of American ideology, which distinguishes our nation from the rest of the world, in exchange for some nebulous idea of “national security.” 

Our national identity is inexorably linked to the concept and history that we have cultivated as a refuge for the oppressed and persecuted people of the world.  Even as children, when we read about people who were persecuted for their faith, or because they were a minority under a monarch or dictatorship, or because of famine, we automatically thought, “Why don’t they just move here?”  That’s a simplistic answer of course, but the bottom line is that the world believes that America is a nation that does not abandon the oppressed to their fate.  There have been times in the past when, because we are human, and we are prone to mistakes, we have allowed prejudice and bigotry to interfere with this principle, but the national will has always been to strive for this ideal.

Now, we’re hearing rhetoric about registering Muslims, putting Mosques under surveillance, and we’re seeing a rise in threats and attacks against Muslims in this country.  That should scare us a whole lot more than terrorism.  It’s time to study the biographies of Father Bernard Lichtenberg and Deitrich Bonhoeffer again, and take a look at history, and what happens when people are singled out for their religion or race.

The immediate access to information, and video images, along with the availability of internet technology seems to remove the ability to think, and to understand facts, and pushes people to react to rumors and propaganda. 

That’s frightening.  Look at the facts.

The Muslim population in the US is about a half of a percent of the total, with approximately 2.5 million adherents.  However, the US Muslim population represents as broad of a diversity of practice and belief as any group of Muslims in the world.  Many of them are here because of the US’s extensive involvement in the oil business, and a fairly significant percentage of them, almost half, are native born Americans of either Caucasian or African American descent, and have family roots here that go back for generations, many of them into the colonial days.

Conversely, hundreds of thousands of Americans live and work every day in countries with significant Muslim populations, and are, by comparison, safer there than they are in the US, where the statistics on deaths by shooting are comparably higher.  From teaching in a Christian school in Texas, I met many families who had lived for an extended time in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait, and remote places like Kazakhstan, and our school had a high percentage of students who were born in those places.

The idea that the Koran teaches Muslims to rise up and murder “infidels” can be argued from a literal interpretation of some verses, and those are places which fundamentalist, radical Islamic clerics rely upon to motivate their followers.  But from the evidence, it is clear that few Muslims of any branch of Islam take those passages literally, and interpret them as being relevant for their faith today.  If that were the case, living and working in Indonesia would be impossible, since there are more Muslims there than any other country in the world, and being in Saudi Arabia would be a danger that would actually outweigh the profit motive.  Wouldn’t it?

Are Christians abandoning scriptural principles to give in to fear?

It appears that might be the case in some instances.  There are Christian leaders who see what is happening, and are speaking the truth in love.  But these days, speaking truth that’s not politically correct and aligned with the political view that some church leaders and church groups have adopted as dogma can be hazardous.  I know Christians who will not speak to other Christians because they don’t agree on political candidates, or political positions, and as far as God’s word is concerned, that’s wrong.

The passions were inflamed, and the words were strong in support when Kim Davis’ religious freedom was apparently violated when she was jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as ordered by the courts in compliance with the law.  But it doesn’t seem that the same principle applies to American Muslims.  They can be subjected to violations of their religious freedom, based on the extreme actions of what is a relatively small handful of extremists, without the same consideration.

That is frightening.  Where does it stop?  If Muslims can be singled out as a group, and held accountable for the actions of a few extremists, then no religious group is safe from persecution.  The threshold will be breached, the principle broken.

I cited the first few verses of Psalm 37.  That is scripture, you know.  Do you really believe what the Psalmist says there?  Do you understand that the context in which that Psalm was written was every bit as intense, and occurred in a time that was far more dangerous to the writer and his nation than the problems we face now?

“Refrain from anger and give up your rage; do not be agitated–it can only bring harm.” Psalm 37:8, HCSB 

Do you really believe that?  I think, like Jesus’ words, “love your enemies…”, the scripture isn’t getting much attention among many Christians who post on social media.  And we’re seeing some Christians, including some pastors and church leaders, come up with some interesting convolutions when it comes to interpreting and applying the parts of scripture that address these issues directly.

When Americans abandon fundamental founding principles of the nation, the terrorists have achieved their goal.  When Christians abandon the truth of scripture in the face of fear, the enemy wins, and you are giving the kind of respect that only God deserves to those who use terror to get their way.

 

 

 

 

Much for which to be thankful

Of course, I’m thankful for my wife, my job which is also my ministry, my family.  I’m thankful for my health, which, though not great, is still manageable.  I’m going on two years cancer free, and that’s a blessing.  I’m thankful for my Gracie, my beautiful dog, who is a wonderful companion.

I’m thankful that I have a roof over my head, and plenty of food to eat.  And I’m thankful that this past week, my awareness of the needs of other people, not just for material things that I take for granted, but for the simple acknowledgement from me of their existence, was increased.  I’m thankful that opportunities have come up which have allowed me to put into practice my new awareness.

I’m thankful that, in the movement of human history, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been put in a place where I don’t have to make a run into a strange country to preserve my life, and be safe, risking the safety and security of family members in order to pursue a distant, almost impossible dream of freedom.

On this Thanksgiving Day, when we have so much for which to be grateful, I won’t abandon either my gratitude, or my principles and values, in the face of fear.

More Thoughts on the Syrian Refugee Issue

The identity of the United States of America is as a country that is a refuge from oppression and conflict.  We’re a land of liberty, the home of the free and the brave, the hope of mankind.  It’s a personal belief that I hold, but I believe the concept of “America” resulted from the pioneering spirit of the oppressed and persecuted people who came here as a means of escape, and to start a new life.  The toughness that was required to survive, and to build a new life produced character.  That character, blended with a strong faith in God, “Divine Providence” as the founding fathers referred to him, left a rich deposit of values that defined America as no other nation in the world had ever been defined, or has been since.

My Southern Baptist upbringing is responsible for my feelings about missions.  By extension, that has helped to develop a deep regard for peace, and a strong disdain for violence of any kind.  My background as a Social Studies teacher, with a passion for modern American and European history, blends in with those Christian convictions.  The end result of that is my understanding of an America as a refuge for the oppressed and persecuted, which is an essential core value that goes to the very character of the nation.  Most of us who are Americans today have ancestors who came here because they were oppressed or persecuted, and sought the promise of a better life by starting over and working hard.

It is very difficult for me to understand how fear, coupled with a heavy dose of misinformation, and blended with destructive partisan politics, can so easily cause people to even consider abandoning this core value, much less actually doing it.  We hear an awful lot about the faults of the mainstream media, but some of the things I’ve read and seen on social media, which is basically the same thing as gossip, are incredible in their inaccuracy, bigotry, twisting of the truth, and outright lying.  I’m not in favor of, as one post said, “Flinging open the borders and just letting everyone come in.”  No one is advocating for that.  In fact, in light of the size of the crisis, and the numbers of people who are involved, the world’s wealthiest country agreeing to accept 10,000 thoroughly vetted and screened refugees seems like a small issue, and a very paltry response.

Maybe some factual information is in order.

  1.  The US has already taken in, under existing quotas and immigration law, thousands of refugees from the Middle East’s recent upheavals, including Syria.  To date, there is no record of any Syrian refugee being involved in a radical Islamic terrorist attack in the US, or anywhere else for that matter.
  2. The US has, at several times in modern history, taken in huge numbers of refugees, screened them thoroughly, and allowed them to settle without much in the way of difficulty.  That’s partly because the screening process to be admitted to the US is so secure, and so rigorous.  Remember the fall of Saigon?  The Mariel Boatlift?  There were inherent problems with screening the Vietnamese to make sure that no Communist plants got in with the crowds, likewise with the Cubans, as Fidel Castro opened up his prisons and attempted to pour criminal elements into the US.  But we did it.
  3. In the wake of the Paris attacks, like 9-11, fear seems to be the driving force, and reason is being abandoned.   Why aren’t we clamoring for a shut off of refugees from Belgium, or shutting down airline flights from there, or refusing to allow people with Belgian passports into the US?  That’s where the Paris attackers came from, at least, the ones who didn’t already live in Paris.  They were a combination of Belgian and French citizens, most of them native born. The news that one of the terrorists came into the country posing as a Syrian refugee has yet to be confirmed by the French.
  4. Few Syrians are involved, or ever have been involved, in Radical Islam.  ISIS or ISIL is an insurgency that has welled up in the vacuum created by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that deposed Saddam Hussein who was one of the stabilizing forces in the region preventing an Islamic insurgency.  The other upheaval is the Syrian revolution against the Assad dictatorship.  The Obama administration has hesitated to get involved in that conflict, because of the uncertainty of who we would be supporting against Assad.  Now we know.
  5. No doubt among some Radical Islamic elements, there is an expressed desire for world rule, and the destruction of democracy, Christianity, Judaism or any other world religion.  But it takes a very in-depth understanding of Muslim history, from the time of Mohammed, to understand the idea of Caliphate as ISIS or ISIL is attempting to establish, and why.  And attempting to interpret the verses of the Koran that have been cited in support of those who want to believe that all Muslims hold this worldview requires much more than a surface reading of them.  Muslims don’t accept an English translation as authentic, and the key to understanding their language about “killing infidels” requires understanding how the Imams interpret the Arabic text.
  6. I’m not going to argue against the inevitability, or the high likelihood, that the United States will experience another terrorist attack.  The pressure never lets up.  We’re a big piece of geography with long borders and coastlines, and all of that is tough to control.  Donald Trump’s wall, notwithstanding, however, given what has developed in the world since 9-11, the fact that the US has experienced far less Islamic terrorism than other parts of the world is due directly to how our security has been improved and updated, to technology we have, and that most of our enemies don’t, or don’t even know about, and the amount of resources that the US puts into national security.  On a per-capita, per-person basis, we spend far more and have a much higher level of security than France, or any EU country for that matter.  And the political liability of budget cuts and policy that opened the door for the 9-11 attacks is high enough to be a motivating factor to keep security high, on the cutting edge, and in massive quantities for both Congress and the President, whoever he or she may be.

Terrorism isn’t aimed at winning by conquest.  It is aimed at winning by causing a shift in ideology.  It was never the intention of the Islamic revolution in Iran to take over the United States, but the Ayatollah Khomeini manipulated the hostage crisis in such a way as to intentionally damage Jimmy Carter’s re-election chances, and then claimed he helped Reagan get elected, and thus controlled who was the President of the United States.

These terrorists didn’t even attack the US, they were attacking France.  They might be tempted to think that it is quite easy to get Americans to abandon the core values and principles of the country if this one came about so easily.

 

The Loss of Christian Compassion

Be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for him; do not be agitated by one who prospers in his way, by the man who carries out evil plans.  Psalm 37:7 HCSB

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” inscribed on the Statue of Liberty

The fear from the Paris attacks of Saturday night is beginning to find its expression in the United States, and elsewhere.  Fear is the weapon that terrorists wield to make their point, to advance their cause and to get their way, mainly because it works.

One of the seven terrorists involved in the Paris attacks, one, had been able to enter France through the corridor of refugees streaming into Europe from Syria.  One.  The others came in from neighboring Belgium.  It was an attack that would have happened regardless of the presence of that one.  But fear has a way of distorting perspective.

In relatively short time, the fear has crossed an ocean, and is finding expression in voices on this side of the water who are speaking out against receiving any Syrian refugees at all.  These are people who are fleeing the same terror that we are fearing, except that it is happening in their streets and in their cities, on the heels of a revolution that has already claimed lives, destroyed property and impoverished millions.  And here’s the even bigger irony.  Many of the American voices opposed to taking in Syrian refugees are Christians.  It’s disappointing to even make that statement, but it is true.  Do you realize that 10% of the population of Syria is Christian?  That many of these people are your brothers and sisters in Christ?  That they have been victims of persecution because of the revolution, and are now victims of ISIS, too?  And there are American Christians who want to slam the door shut and keep them out of the one country that the world looks to as a refuge from oppression and persecution, because of its Christian heritage.

Religious beliefs should not make a difference here.  But they do.  In spite of the noble poetic reference on the Statue of Liberty cited above, the United States has often been a very selective and exclusive refuge for those seeking freedom from religious persecution.

Remember Hitler?

Pernicious immigration policy prevented most European Jews wanting to escape Nazi persecution from getting into the United States.  The State Department used a number of policies, including strict quotas based on national origin, not religion, to block the entry of European Jews prior to World War II.  Jews jammed into Europe’s neutral countries, like Switzerland, Sweden, Spain and Portugal, where they were safe, but where their numbers eventually overwhelmed the government’s resources, and caused them to stop allowing others to enter.  Private resources from Jewish sources in the United States could have been provided in almost unlimited quantities to transport and house hundreds of thousands of Jews that were piled up in the neutral countries, opening up room for more to escape the Nazis, but the state department pulled out all the stops to prevent Jews from entering the United States.

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust.  The United States, the bastion of liberty, freedom and justice, managed to rescue somewhere around 100,000.  Between 1939 and 1941, when the US entered the war, the only way European Jews, in countries occupied by Hitler, could enter the US was under the quotas from their country of origin.  Most were in Poland, but the number of immigrants allowed into the US from Poland was miniscule.  Jews from Germany were limited to the quota of Germans allowed into the US, and most of those spots were taken by anti-Nazi German citizens who wanted out.  Following the lead of their northern neighbor, Latin American countries limited their acceptance of Jewish refugees.  Great Britain and Canada accepted more Jewish refugees than the United States, and so did Spain.  Tiny Portugal saved almost as many.

The state department hid behind the same excuse that is popping up in the calls for refusal of Syrian refugees.  We can’t let in all those Jews because the Germans may send saboteurs and terrorists in among them.  So you’re telling me that the United States, with its military resources, cannot equip its FBI and CIA, and its state and municipal police forces, with the ability to screen refugees?  After the fact, we determined that gross negligence allowed the 9-11 attackers in.  We haven’t experienced an attack since then.  There’s been a learning curve.  Perhaps an attack is inevitable, but whether it is or not, taking care of a few thousand Syrians isn’t going to make it any more or less likely.

Terror is a weapon that is used to force people to give in to fear, and in so doing, give up their values.  Take a look around.  Fear is causing the abandonment of Christian compassion, and of a core founding principle of this country.   Isn’t that what the terrorists are trying to do?