Saturday, August 13, 2005

Garry Wills' Account of James Madison's Presidency

Garry Wills is one of our most eminent living historians. The scope of his interests and the depth of his scholarship dealing with those interests --from Saint Augustine to John Wayne, from Abraham Lincoln to Roman culture, from MacBeth to understanding what makes America American--is breath-taking.

To read his books is to know that Wills was always the smartest kid in school and though sometimes hints of hubris show, as in his book Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders, which might have profitably explored various types and antitypes of leadership but devolved into a kind of silly subjectivity, for the most part his books are insightful, literate, and enjoyable. I have never finished reading a Garry Wills book and felt that I hadn't learned a lot...and more than just facts. Like all great historians, Wills provides logically-derived reasons behind the events, trends, and the plots of the life-stories he chronicles.

Lincoln at Gettysburg, for example, is simply one of the best books I have ever read. In it, Wills shows the relationship of the speech by the classically-oriented Lincoln to the great funeral orations of antiquity. He also shows how Lincoln, always most at home in the wifty nether regions of the mind where nasty reality could not impose itself, crafted his amazing piece of prose-poetry, framing a reason for a Civil War that, until that point, neither he or anyone else had compellingly presented. Finally and most impressively, Wills shows that for the first time in post-Articles of Confederation American history, the Declaration of Independence and not the Constitution, was seen as the basic social compact out of which the United States was birthed. That has changed America's view of itself and given it a surer sense of what's called American Exceptionalism, the notion that the country is more than a swath of geography, that America is about something.

Wills' book on Washington, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, should be required reading for anyone who would understand America.

Knowing all this, I was excited to learn that Wills was to author the volume on James Madison in The American Presidents Series, under the general editorship of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. When completed, these books will present short portraits--usually running from 150 to 170 pages--of the administrations of each of our presidents.

Schlesinger's choices for the volumes have been nothing short of inspired. Roy Jenkins, distinguished British parliamentarian and biographer of Winston Churchill, has produced the volume on Franklin Roosevelt. John Dean, counsel to the disgraced Richard Nixon and native of Marion, Ohio, has written the book on a disgraced native of Marion named Warren G. Harding.

I've not yet read those two volumes, although I hope to do so soon. But before reading Wills' book on Madison, I had read Hans L. Treffousse' work on Rutherford B. Hayes, a volume that may be so burdened by the author's consciousness of the general readership's ignorance of Hayes that at times, in the effort to inform, becomes bogged down in a recitation of facts that may or may not be important. Robert Remini's book on John Quincy Adams is more satisfying. But he seems so intent on villifying the sixth president's mother and her influence on his life, that the book becomes difficult at times to read.

But in his book on Madison's presidency, Wills has hit a homerun. Maybe that's because Wills has a restricted goal for this narrative and sticks to it. While giving an overview of Madison's life before becoming president and a brief look at the twelve years he lived after stepping down, Wills' goal is to look at what sort of president Madison was, at his successes and his failures, and the reasons behind them.

He convincingly shows that Madison, the master of legislative negotiation, whether at the Constitutional Convention or as an early leader in the US House of Representatives, was not really an executive. This accounts for so many failures of leadership on Madison's part.

He also shows that it was Madison, with certain ideas about England and the capacity of America to bring that imperial power to its knees, as well as a desire to take Canada, who pushed the US into the ill-advised War of 1812. With a few exceptions, America lost that war on land and sea and yet, through the surprising diplomacy of America's three representatives at the peace negotiations in Ghent, the nation emerged stronger and more self-assured than it had been previously.

In fact, Wills asserts that, contrary to his and Jefferson's principles, Madison led the United States to adopt such decidedly un-Jeffersonian notions as a standing army, military and naval academies, internal improvements, a national bank, and so on.

Wills' Madison-as-president sometimes reminds me of the fictional character I once saw profiled in Life magazine. The guy had been an incompetent at every post he'd held in industry and government, but somehow kept landing further upstairs. Somehow, he haplessly landed on his feet time and again.

But of course, Madison is no incompetent and Wills acknowledges his brilliance--as a scholar of government and a legislative tactician.

He also points to what a preserver of the Constitution Madison was. Of course, he had a huge stake in its preservation as its primary author. But he, along with his co-conspirator Thomas Jefferson, had often sought to undermine it. Not when he was president though. This is all the more remarkable because, for more than two years, Madison presided over the nation in time of war. Wills claims, and with good reason, that no President--not Lincoln, not Wilson, not Franklin Roosevelt--showed more respect for the rule of law or the rights of citizens during war time than Madison.

At the conclusion of this wonderful book, Wills presents us with this touching appreciation of Madison:
Madison's claim on our admiration does not rest on a perfect [philosophical] consistency, any more than it rests on his presidency. He has other virtues...In discussing his presidency, I had to leave out larger achievements. Among this nation's founders, only two were more important--Washington and Franklin...As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer--James Wilson came in second, but by a long distance. The finest part of Madison's performance as president was his concern for preserving the Constitution. As a champion of religious liberty he is equal, perhaps superior, to Jefferson--and no one else is in the running. Even if he is to be considered merely as a writer, only Jefferson and Franklin were manifestly greater stylists. No man could do everything for the country--not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That is quite enough.

Anti-Semitism in a Santa Monica Starbucks

Danny Miller writes about being blindsided over lattes:
The other day I had what is probably the closest I’ve ever come to a true anti-Semitic incident. It happened at a Starbucks on Montana and 7th which is one of the toniest parts of Santa Monica. This is an area choking in upscale restaurants, multimillion dollar homes, and designer boutiques that are so exclusive their entire display area might consist of a single pair of insanely expensive shoes sitting on a pristine block of maple wood. It is also a neighborhood that has an extremely high Jewish population.
Miller goes on to reflect on being Jewish in America, his past efforts to pass as a "mainstream" American, the reactions of his extended family to his daughter's blue eyes, his feelings about Israel, and other matters.

This is an eloquent, evocative piece of writing. I hope that you'll read it.

An Answer to Many Prayers

[If you've been following the news about the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), of which I and the congregation I serve as pastor, are parts, you know that there have been three key votes coming up. Each vote addressed resolutions: one calling for unity in the midst of differences of opinion; another called for the blessing of homosexual unions; and the third on the ordination of practicing homosexual persons. The votes were taken today. See news item here.

[Below is an email I just sent to our congregation along with a piece written by theologian Roy Harrisville, head of an organization called Solid Rock Lutherans, which has been praying and disseminating information designed to help bring about the defeat of the second and third resolutions mentioned above. An amendment to the second resolution made it acceptable to Solid Rock (and to me).

[I am convinced that God has answered many prayers today.]

Dear Friend:
Prayers have been answered! Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), meeting in assembly in Orlando, has voted to uphold the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions in two very important ways. Dr. Harrisville's summary of the day's actions (prefaced by a remembrance of another eminent Lutheran theologian, Gerhard Forde, an American, who was buried today) is duplicated below.

What this means is that the Lutheran Church as a denomination will remain committed to reaching out in love and receiving all in the Name of Jesus Christ. But we will not label as acceptable what God has called sin and from which we're called to repent.

We are all sinners saved by God's amazing grace in Jesus Christ. But grace must not be cheapened by watering down God's law with human additions or subtractions designed to be politically correct. Today, our denomination has declared once again that the Bible is "the authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice."

Thank you for your faithful prayers, which I know many of you have been offering!

Blessings in Christ,
Better Living: Thoughts from Mark Daniels

Solid Rock News
Friday, August 12, 2005

Success and Disappointment in Orlando

This morning Prof. Gerhard Forde was laid to rest. May the Holy Spirit comfort his family in the knowledge that they will see him again on the last day. May we all treasure his memory and his life’s faithful work and give thanks to God that such servants are raised up in the body of Christ.

I think Dr. Forde would have been pleased with the day’s results at the Churchwide Assembly. The Churchwide Assembly voted to pass Recommendation #1 (on unity in disagreement). It also passed Recommendation #2, but with an important alteration in the language. Bishop Carol Hendrix of Pennsylvania offered an amendment to reinsert the original wording of the 1993 Bishop’s statement on sexuality, and that passed with a large margin. The motion, as amended, no longer makes reference to same-sex couples. Now it only reads that pastors provide faithful pastoral care to all to whom they minister.

Some could argue that such a wording leaves us in the morass of ambiguity and actually allows for the blessing of same-sex couples. Not to my way of thinking. Now that it no longer even refers to same-sex couples and the Whereas clause makes clear that no such blessing has warrant in scripture or tradition, it will be exceedingly difficult to try and read the motion as though it gives permission to bless same-sex couples. If anyone tries to read it that way, they will have little credibility. (Not to mention a serious frown from my eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Datko)

Recommendation #3, concerning exceptional ordinations of practicing gays and lesbians, was defeated by a 51 to 49% margin (my notes are in the plenary hall but I think the vote was 503-499). The Recommendation needed 2/3 to pass. 18 amendments and substitute motions were all defeated, save that one amendment to Recommendation #2. The Assembly, it seems, did not want to be pushed into voting on anything else but the Church Council motions.

This is a surprising result, since many of us did not expect to get anything close to a majority. But there it is. What happened? There was a great deal of pressure by the GoodSoil folks who stood in the visitors section holding pictures and holding a silent vigil. They also were standing in the hallways passing out gifts and a newsletter. During the final portion of the debate when all the amendments favorable to the GoodSoil view were defeated, a large number of GoodSoil supporters silently and in an orderly fashion marched in front of the podium and stood in silence for the rest of the session. They stood two people deep and stretched all across the stage right in front of the voting members. Bishop Hanson asked them twice to leave and several protests from voting members were voiced, but in the end Bishop Hanson let them stand where they were and the voting members simply concluded their business.

What does this mean for us? It means that the 2005 Churchwide Assembly made clear that it does not want to change existing policies and practices on sexuality and ordination. This Church, while wishing to be welcoming and gracious to gays and lesbians will no go so far as to bless what God does not bless. It is not a matter of loving one’s neighbor or not, but of refusing to approve certain behavior. The Church will bend over backwards but not break its back to accommodate certain things.

The GoodSoil folks were sad at the end of the day. Before the votes I tracked down Jeff Johnson, my counter-part at GoodSoil, and gave him my blessings no matter how things would go. Afterwards I also tracked him down and tried to offer some consolation in the fact that he did have a great many people who supported him. I ask for your prayers on behalf of the GoodSoil folks who are quite disappointed. Pray that they remain in the Church and that one day we will be firmly united under God’s Word. Truly, there were no “winners” today and we are very much a divided Church.

We pay that today’s result give hope to those of you who have so graciously sustained us in prayer this whole week. There is hope that when the orthodox voice is heard, people listen. When those faithful to scripture band together, the Word multiplies and goes farther. We did not get everything we were looking for, but we did manage to halt the ELCA from sliding into the irrelevance of just another liberal protestant denomination. Who knows what will happen in the future?

As for Solid Rock Lutherans, we must decrease and others must increase. Our work is done. In a future newsletter we will tell you about the one remaining task of our organization. For now, please receive our heartfelt gratitude for your support both financially and in prayer. And thank God that his Spirit was brooding over this assembly. Next time, may he be even closer!

Rev. Roy A. Harrisville III
Executive Director

Friday, August 12, 2005

'Make Believe' by Weezer: First Impressions


When I bought Weezer's first (and self-titled) LP back in 1993, I may have been the only person in America who did so without seeing their music videos. I still haven't, perhaps indicating that I fit right in with the band's patented geekiness.

In the intervening time, I'd not only not seen any of the band's videos, I hadn't heard any of their music. But twelve years after my first Weezer purchase, on the strength of some good reviews I'd seen, I decided to pick up their latest release, Make Believe, the other day.

Musically, Weezer continues to mine the vain marked "post grunge, semi-punk, pop" rock, built on the time-tested elements of guitars, bass, and drums. Rivers Cuomo, the composer and lead singer of this band, displays a continuing mastery of melodies and catchy hooks. I also enjoy the band's vocal harmonies.

Lyrically, I've got some problems with Weezer. Irony is okay. Cynicism can be all right. But almost every track on this CD gives vent not just to the band's geekiness franchise, but to massive feelings of inferiority, or nihilism, or self-destructiveness. It's hard to imagine that all of this is authentic. If so, it's hard to understand how Cuomo and crew function from day to day.

Particularly egregious in this regard is the catchy, "We Are All on Drugs," which, by the way, sounds a lot like Bachman-Turner Overdrive's, "Takin' Care of Business."

For all that, if you don't pay attention to the lyrics a lot of the time, this is a good CD, one that I know I'll be listening to a lot.

British Not That Different from Americans in One Important Respect

Clive Davis, writing in today's, presents a brilliant look at British hostility toward America that includes skepticism about the US as a model for democracy and fear that US culture is overtaking everybody else's. It's a good piece, worth reading.

One section caught me, though:
Perhaps as a consequence of all those hours spent sighing over Hugh Grant, Americans tend to assume that British are much more worldly and sophisticated than they really are. The truth is, when it comes to knowledge of American history and institutions, the Brits are woefully uninformed. What they are familiar with is American popular culture, which is -- as I don't need to remind you -- a different thing all together. The result of that false sense of familiarity is a toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance.
Sadly, Americans are as ignorant of our history and institutions as the Brits are. This has dreadful consequences for our society and politics. One example is the way Americans now use the phrase, American Dream, which diverges substantially from what the phrase meant to us historically.

America is more than its land mass, prosperity, or military power. Americans forget that at our own peril--and not owing only to the perceptions of America in the world.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 6

[We took a week off from our study of Genesis last Tuesday in order to accomodate Vacation Bible School happening in our church's building. Below are some random notes from our discussion of Genesis 15:7-18:33.] [Genesis 15, Genesis 16, Genesis 17, Genesis 18]

1. Scholars seem to agree that Genesis 15:7 begins a new portion of the narrative, one kicked off by a strange new revelation God gives of Himself to Abram.

2. The mysterious incident recounted in 15:7-21, appears to be interrupted by the narrative in verses 12-15.

Genesis refrains from giving a "meaning" to this incident, although through the years I have been subjected to some rather creative attempts to interpret it.

The "ritual" Abram undertakes here apparently is seen in Hebrew and other Semitic cultures. The New Oxford Study Bible notes, "The covenant ceremony described in vv.7-12 and 17-18 rests on an early tradition, as evidenced by the ancient ritual of making a covenant by cutting animals in two (Jeremiah 34:17-19) and passing between the parts."

The appearance of birds of prey that Abram drives away probably indicates the evil which "lurks at the door" any time we are close to God. It's a simple spiritual fact that the closer we get to God, the greater our temptations and the greater the chances we'll be subjected to assaults on our relationship with God.

In verse 12, Abram falls into a "deep sleep." According to Gerhard von Rad, the Hebrew term here connotes not the sort of sleep we experience in our beds at night, but a sleep in which our body, mind, and spirit are utterly open to a revelation of God. It's the sort of thing that might happen when we are totally focused on God and God's Word. (This is what can occur, according to the Bible, when we meditate on its words.)

In this reverie, God announces to Abram that more than four-centuries later, He would establish Abram's descendants, Israel, in the land then occupied by the Amorites.

After the sun sets, "a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch," probably the presence of God, signify God's seal on this covenant, by passing between the cut animals.

Passing amid the animals in this ritual, as Abram, the pot, and the torch do, signify the intent of the parties to complete it.

3. One question that came up during our class on Tuesday was why Abram was chosen by God? Another was, were all these peoples displaced by God's plans under divine punishment? The concern was whether God just operated by divine fiat.

One of the things that consoles me as an imperfect sinner, is that Abram was an imperfect sinner. But Abram trusted God. Even when he didn't trust God completely, Abram wanted to trust God. And God counted Abram's trust as "righteousness." He'll do the same for us.

Had Abram not trusted God, I believe that God would have found someone who would trust him and thereby be established as the paternal ancestor of all followers of God, whose only distinction isn't their particular virtue, but their belief in God.

Remember too, what the mission of the people who descended from Abram was to be. They were to be a "light to the nations." They were to give witness to the gracious God of all creation Who justifies sinners who will turn from sin (repent) and believe in Him.

When the descendants of Abram were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin, it wasn't just to their own people that they gave witness to their saving God. A number of non-Jews regularly gathered with the Jews at synagogues to know and worship this God. These "God-fearers," along with many first-century Jews, were among the first people to confess Jesus as the ultimate self-revelation of God and as the Savior toward Whom all of Jewish (and world) history had been moving.

As to the other peoples displaced from their lands to make room for God's people, we can be sure that in God's eyes, their greatest "violation" was refusing to trust in Him.

The New Testament makes a point of saying that the whole human race has an inborn sense that there is a God, that He calls us to love Him and others, and that whenever people who have never been introduced to God, strive to respond to the gracious Creator they believe is there, God counts that as belief in Him. They're like the elderly Chinese man who, after being told about Jesus Christ, began to cry and say, "All my life I knew He was there, but I never knew His Name."

I think we have to conclude that these peoples knew there was a God, but refused to acknowledge Him.

4. The incident involving Sarai, Abram, and Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6) may make us a bit squeamish.

Under the customs of those days, a wife could give her female slave to her husband as a concubine. Any child the slave bore would be considered that of the husband and wife. In a culture that not only regarded children as a blessing, but also barrenness as a curse from God, this solution would have seemed attractive.

In Sarai's and Abram's case though, this action is another of several incidents in which they try to take matters into their own hands, rather than trusting God. God, after all, had promised that they--though advanced in years and beyond normal child-bearing age--were going to be the parents of God's people.

Often, under these customs, the slave woman acting as a concubine to her mistress' husband would become contemptuous of the mistress. If this happened, the mistress would be in the right, again according to the custom, to deal with the slave as she wished.

5. The angel in Genesis 16:7 shouldn't be seen as a winged creature, as indicated by Hagar's initial response to him. It's only after they're into their conversation that she recognizes that she's encountering an "angel of the Lord."

The word angel, of course, means messenger. God can use human beings as messengers, as well as heavenly creatures, of course.

In the Old Testament also, the term angel of the Lord could mean something like the very presence of God Himself. This would be consistent with the theology of the Old and New Testaments which, contrary to many of the world's religions and the religiosity evident in much Christian faith and practice, sees God as immediately accessible. To use a word employed often by the theologians, the Bible sees God is immanent. Even when in awe, as Hagar is in this encounter, Biblical figures see the God revealed on the pages of the Bible as One Who deigns to have interactions with human beings without ritual incantations or the intervention of mediaries.

God, the Bible attests, has reached out to humanity "in many and various ways...but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, Whom He has appointed heir of all things, through Whom He also created the worlds..." (Hebrews 1:1-2).

6. Hagar is asked two questions: Where have you come from? Where are you going? She only answers the first one. God promises great things for her son and his Bedouin descendants.

7. Hagar expresses amazement in Genesis 16:13-14. She's amazed first that she has seen God and lived. It was thought that if one did see God in His bright perfection, one would immediately die. She's also amazed that God has bothered to see her.

8. Genesis 17:1-8 finds God underscoring His promise to Abram thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael. Does Genesis mean to tell us that God and Abram have had no encounters all those years? I don't know. But it is clear that in those years, the promise hadn't yet been fulfilled. Thirteen years with no indication of the promise or Abraham's prayers coming to pass!

It's hard to keep believing under those circumstances, I know. I prayed for about thirteen-and-a-half years for something that I really wanted to happen and which I was convinced God would want to grant. Every day for all those years, I offered that prayer and asked God to help me to trust Him no matter what the answer was. Then, miraculously, out of the blue and at a time I wouldn't have expected, the prayer was ways better than I could have imagined! So long as what we pray for seems consonant with God's will, I assure you that it's always too early to quit praying and trusting God!

None of this is to say that Abram didn't doubt--or that I didn't doubt. But faith is built and strengthened when in the face of doubt, we ask God to help us keep following and believing anyway.

And of course, the greatest expression of faith in God is to submit to His perfect wisdom, praying, "Your will be done!"

9. Name changes often accompanied spiritual renewal in the Bible. As God instituted the rite of circumcision for Jewish males in Genesis 17:9-14, God also gave new names to Abram and Sarai. Abram, whose name meant exalted father was to change his name to Abraham, perhaps meaning father of many. Sarah is simply another form of the name Sarai and means princess.

10. In Genesis 18:1-8, Abraham seems to have an encounter similar to the one that Hagar had with the angel of the Lord in the sense that his understanding of Who he was meeting dawned on him slowly. Without knowing that he was greeting the God of all creation, Abraham displays hospitality toward Him and the two angels who accompany Him.

(By the way, Saint Augustine thought that the three persons who meet Abraham here are all God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)

Hospitality is to be a hallmark of faith, according to the Bible. Alluding to this passage, the New Testament book of Hebrews says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). Jesus says that when we serve others, we really serve Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

11. Previously, the aged Abraham laughed at God's promise that he and his post-menopausal and elderly wife would have a son and through him, become the ancestors of God's people. Sarah laughs in the wonderful incident recounted in Genesis 18:9-15.

The child born to the couple will be named Isaac, which means laughter. Sometimes, God is so amazing in His blessings and so outrageous that laughter is the first reaction.

Of course, Sarah laughs because this blessing seems too good to be true. She's skeptical and the very notion of her bearing a child seems ridiculous. I once studies this passage with a group of 70-something women. When I asked them how they would feel if they learned they were pregnant, they all laughed. It was a perfect object lesson.

12. Genesis 18:16-33 finds Abraham offering fervent prayers for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. What might have happened though if he had simply asked God not to destroy the cities? How often do we sell God short by failing to ask for what seems like the right or best things?

[Here are links to the first five installments of this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5]

Gender Differences, Extreme Maleness, Brain Differences, and Autism

Read this fascinating article by researcher Simon Baron-Cohen. (Thanks to my son for pointing it out to me.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A Poem About Al Gore?

That's only one of the gems you'll find on the blog of a high school friend of my son's, a bright guy, and a terrific husband and father, Spencer Troxell. Go, check it out. It's fun.

Potential "Shocking" Lesson from the Comments on Blogs

It won't surprise regular readers here to know that one of my favorite bloggers is Ann Althouse, even when I don't agree with her. Althouse comments on everything to the very serious to the super silly.

It's interesting for me to note what posts get the most comments on her site. It seems that supposedly "serious" issues often rouse interest insufficient to stir people into making comments, while topics that might be deemed "trivial" get a boatload of action in the comments section.

Over the past several days, for example, the biggest numbers of comments have been about rock music, especially from the 60s. I've got no problem with that and would argue that the music of the Beatles, Dylan, the Who, the Stones, and others is important in many respects. Equally interesting to me are the subjects that elicit scant comment from Althouse's readers. A far smaller number of comments have so far been made, for example, about Senator Ted Kennedy's rather inflammatory--and grammatically incorrect--fund raising letter meant to raise fears over present and future Republican appointments to the Supreme Court.

I think that some really enterprising sociologist could learn important things about what people really care about from reading and analyzing the comments left on the top blogs. It could well be a deeper window than is currently provided by pollsters into what people are really thinking and what's really important to them. What might be shocking to some is that politics isn't the most important thing in most people's lives!

'Only Christians in Office'? WRONG!

I live in the suburbs of Cincinnati and I'm now watching that city's mayoralty election with renewed interest since our special congressional election ended on August 2.

Among the contestants to succeed Democratic Mayor Charles Luken, whose politics could probably be described as moderate and on some issues, conservative, is an African-American, conservative Republican (and pastor) named Charles Winburn. Winburn was on Cincinnati's City Council at one time and has always been a somewhat controversial figure.

Now, statements he made in a book some sixteen years ago are being condemned by the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, although his Democratic opponents in Cincy's non-partisan mayoral primary are not commenting on the whole matter.

As an article in today's Cincinnati Enquirer tells it:
As the new pastor of a small church then known as Ridge Acres Christian Center, Winburn wrote a religious tract titled "Ruling and Reigning in the '90s." In a 250-word passage on the political system, he said it was the job of Christians to "elect only born-again Christians to public office."
Tim Burke, the county Democratic leader, calls Winburn's statements "un-American."

Apart from partisan or even, as Burke suggests, patriotic considerations, the statements are deeply disturbing to me as a Christian.

Jesus once told a parable in which a farmer allowed wheat and tares--or weeds--to grow side-by-side until the harvest. Jesus was saying that within the fellowship of the Church over time, there would be people who genuinely believed in Him as well as those who only pretended to do so. But God wouldn't hack down the phonies. He would allow them to continue to exist next to authentic believers, in part with the hope that the weeds would change their ways. But Christians weren't to make judgments about the salvation of those they might suspect of being weeds. That is only to be done by God--the farmer--at the end of history.

A genuine "born again Christian," a person concerned, to love God and love neighbor, however imperfectly enacted the concern may be in their life, would certainly be a compelling candidate for public office. But there's no foolproof way to know that candidates are authentic articles and I have no desire to instate a kind of religious litmus test by which candidates are examined to determine their Christian authenticity.

But at a broader level, there is absolutely no reason why a Christian could not or should not support candidates for public office who don't share their faith. The Old Testament recounts the stories of several just foreign rulers who didn't share the religion of the Judeo-Christian tradition, persons who sought to do well in accord with the law the Bible says God has written on every human heart.

As a Christian, as I have written on this blog many times before, I want to share Christ with everyone with the aim of inviting them to follow Him too. That's something that Christ has commissioned us to do. But nowhere does He commission us to be prejudiced toward those who don't share our faith.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

China and Saudi Arabia and Freedom

China and Saudi Arabia are two very different countries. Yet, recent articles in US News and World Report and The Economist, respectively, tell me that they're in similar places, developmentally.

Each nation is governed by oppressive, totalitarian regimes. The governing elites in both places are striving to create wealth and so, placate people's desire for economic well-being. At the same time, the Saud family and the Communist Party are trying to hold onto dictatorial power and institute window-dressing democracy.

In their respective efforts, the Chinese and Saudi governments are betting that traditional Marxist theorists and some apologists for market capitalism are right in saying that the behaviors of human beings are always and solely economically determined. In essence, the totalitarians in both Beijing and Riyadh are hoping that they can buy off their citizenry; that people will accept oppression as long as they get another week of vacation, a nicer house, a new car, and plenty of Pepsi in the refrigerator.

Frankly, I don't think that it will work. As David McCullough shows in his newest book, 1776, the most materially well-off people in the world when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain were the people of America. And while some of the reasons for the American Revolution were economic, at their core, even they had a deeper motive: The desire for freedom that's about more than fattening our wallets or sating our bellies.

When people taste economic freedom, it creates a concomitant desire for freedom in other aspects of their lives: Freedom of speech, of religion, of vocation, of assembly, and of self-governance, to name a few. Economic freedom unleashes what used to be called a "revolution of rising expectations" in more than simply the economic sphere of life.

In a sense, the crying need in places like China and Saudi Arabia is the opposite of the greatest need we have in America. Here, and to varying degrees in the rest of the democratic West, there is a need to learn the distinction between democracy and license, or what the Founders called "mobocracy."

Freedom without a sense of mutual responsibility, whether in our personal interaction or in the policies of government, is its own form of tyranny.

Even as I hope and pray for greater freedom for people in China and Saudi Arabia, I hope and pray that all of us in the West won't lose our freedom by means of "anything-goes-ism."

When a Song Won't Quit Playing in Your Mind...

it drives you nuts! That's been my experience with the Coldplay song, White Shadows. I haven't listened to it in several days. But the melody keeps playing in my brain over and over again, especially the hook. What's especially frustrating is that the whole song makes no sense to me. But it's probably a tribute to the band's mastery of melody.

There's a Hot Time in Orlando Right Now

The Churchwide Assembly of the denominational grouping of which I'm a part, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is meeting right now in Orlando, Florida. Live coverage of the event is available for those who wish to see it. Me, I'm going to pray and wait for the press releases.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The New Puzzle Master

Speaking of Althouse, at her regular site she's been driving us nuts with three two-word terms that she said all had something to do with one another, as reported in a news story in the mid-70s. She finally gave enough clues so that even I was able to guess what she meant.

If Althouse isn't careful, they might invite her to replace Will Shortz on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She'd be the Puzzle Master with sass. (Or, she could occasionally fill in for Liane Hansen as host of the program, to which I listen as I get ready to leave the house on Sunday mornings.)

When Smokers Die of Cancer, the Press Should Mention It

Ann Althouse, one part of the guest-blogging triumvirate over at Instapundit this week, writes:
"IF YOU SMOKE AND DIE OF CANCER, every obituary will take advantage of your death as an opportunity to remind the living to quit smoking."
That's not taking advantage, it's called good reporting. On top of that, it's public service.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence that smoking causes cancer, strokes, and heart disease, those addicted to cancer sticks often remain in deep denial.

About ten years ago, a person in their early 40's I knew suffered a heart attack. The first thing the doctor said was, "Stop smoking!" The person's spouse approached me to ask for pointers on how to handle things. The spouse would crave cigarettes and all their closest friends were smokers. I couldn't imagine that even addicted smokers would be heedless of the risks to a friend or be able to deny the hazards.

I was wrong! Within a week of my conversation with the concerned spouse, I ran into the couple's "best friends." They brought up with me the advice of the doctor and dismissed it as so much quackery. They said that they had known people who'd had heart attacks or cancer who never had smoked.

It seems to me that every time a prominent person like Peter Jennings dies as the result of ingesting those tar-and-nicotine time bombs, it would be criminal for the press not to mention it.

Thirty-One Years Ago Today...

Richard Nixon announced that at noon on the following day, he would resign as President of the United States.

The twin evils of Vietnam and Watergate, the legacies of Lyndon Johnson and Nixon, respectively, have haunted America's politics, the presidency, and our foreign policy ever since. By fits and turns, subsequent Presidents and would-be Presidents have tried to ignore their lessons, enact their lessons, or have drawn wrong conclusions about them. They and the country have lived in what Bob Woodward has rightly described as "the shadow" ever since.

Johnson and Nixon both willfully disregarded the Constitution, taking for granted the credibility that the American people assigned to Presidents. Perhaps our national innocence deserved to go the way of the do-do bird. But the cynicism that these two pathetic "leaders" spawned has been a corrosive on our body politic and our national life ever since. It has, in a way, lowered the expectations of the public of their leaders and even of the leaders of themselves, ironically leading to a widespread acceptance of lying on the part of public officials at every level of government.

Richard Nixon was right to announce his resignation thirty-one years ago today. I only wish that his decent successor, Gerald Ford, hadn't been so unwise as to preemptively pardon Nixon for crimes he may have committed during his time as President. Ford was right that any trials that Nixon might have undergone would have created or deepened divisions in the country; Nixon was a master at creating and exploiting divisions, after all. But at the end of the day, the message would have been clear that nobody, not even Presidents, may abuse their power with impunity.

As it is, we still live in that shadow. Those with influence and power are thought to be given a pass when it comes to our system of justice, althought that's clearly not always the case. And many of those with power think that such "passes" are theirs by right. It's a sad anniversary.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Maybe the Best Short Definition of Blogging I've Read

Mass-appeal blogs have a special function, according to Vik Rubenfeld: They provide analysis and collectively forge a kind of group wisdom for which the mainstream media isn't equipped or to which, maybe, it isn't disposed. That's at least true, I think of political blogs and may be true of the entire blogging world.

Much of what is written about blogging by bloggers is self-aggrandizing and self-congratulatory. But I think that this piece by Rubenfeld gets it right in many ways. It may be the single best piece of writing about what the blogging phenomenon is that I've read, at least in a shorter format.

Mass-appeal blogs, is my term, not Rubenfeld's. He calls them "wide-appeal" and says that they're different from web logs that are personal diaries, aimed basically at the families and friends of the bloggers.

Anyway, read his piece, to which Glenn Reynolds.

Two More Good Blogs

Several good blogging sites I've been reading lately include:

Give Me Five: In which we're presented with lists of five and encouraged to respond with our own. It's fun!

Lunar World: An Arizona couple presents their respective reflections on life and faith. Good stuff!

One Reason Christians Don't Have a Greater Positive Impact on the World

My colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois, begins his sermon for today this way:
Archbishop George Appleton tells the following story which a Jewish rabbi friend told him. At a meeting of Christians in Jerusalem, the Professor of New Testament Studies in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem remarked that he prayed for Christians every day. When the time came for discussion the first question asked was…

"What do you pray for us Christians?"

His reply reduced his audience to silence. He said…

"I pray that you Christians may be more like your Jesus."
The world isn't looking for Christians who are perfect. But it is looking for Christians who, acknowledging their imperfections, seek God's help in being like Jesus.

Sadly, what the world often sees is Christians who act "holier-than-God." They see us being judgmental, legalistic, intolerant, and domineering. Read the Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and that isn't anything like Jesus.

Personally, I offer a prayer that virtually paraphrases that of the rabbi. "Lord," I say, "help me to be more like Jesus." And then I ask God to help me to get over myself long enough to get out of His way so He can answer that prayer.

The Map to Rightness with God

Romans 10:5-15

My wife and I took the back roads to return from visiting our friends in Sidney, Ohio, this past Wednesday. Ordinarily, from there we would take I-75 South. But after catching Route 741 near Dayton, we got to see some slightly different territory and wound up on I-71 South, close to the Morrow Montgomery, Fields Ertel exit.

Ann was behind the wheel as she usually is when we take long trips--mostly because I can read out loud to her from whatever book I’ve selected for that journey without urping my cookies. (This is something which none of the other members of our family can do.)

Now, you need to know that we get a charge out of simple things. We just joined Costco, one of those big warehouse retailers. So Ann asked, “Do you want to look for the Costco that’s around here somewhere?” “Sure,” I told her.

Many of you probably think that what I'm about to tell you about is a man thing. But it’s not. It's a people thing. The two of us spent twenty minutes looking for this place, cutting down one road after another. One of us would say, “Maybe it’s over here” and off we’d go. Or the other one would suggest, “Let’s try there” and we’d go tearing in the other direction.

After about the sixth U-Turn, I said to Ann, “You know, we probably could ask for directions.” She laughed and said that might be a good idea. But she had another inspiration and sure enough, she got us to the Costco. (Where, I might add, we purchased a carton of chocolate chip cookies and some cheese.)

Our little mini-adventure is probably emblematic of the way you and I go through our lives most of the time. We chase after one wild hare after another and in the end, have little to show for it. That can be fun sometimes, as it was for Ann and me coming back from Sidney.

But sometimes, it’s good to have a map. One pastor talking about this morning’s Bible lesson points out that maps have always been valuable things for soldiers, saliors, and airmen and women. But paper maps have obvious limitations. They can be torn. With a bit of wear, they can become virtually pulverized or their ink can be erased. If a paper map gets caught in the rain, it can become pretty useless. And even it survives all those threats, the acid in the paper on which it’s printed, will begin eat it up.

During World War Two, the Brits came up with a brilliant idea. They created silk maps, imprinted with pectin-based ink for their airmen. As someone has pointed out:
“Concealable silk maps were stuffed in hollow boot heels, tucked into cigarette packs, or sewn in inner linings inside flight jackets. During an initial search, the silk maps were frequently missed. Silk maps of France, of Belgium, of Germany and elsewhere helped scores of downed airmen flee to freedom...”
What kind of map are you using to get to a place of rightness with God, a vulnerable type made of flimsy stuff or the resilient kind?

In today’s Bible lesson, Paul talks about two kinds of righteousness. Righteousness is one of those Biblical words that gets thrown around and is usually misunderstood. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word is dikaiosounai. It basically means to be accounted right with God. In legal terms, it would mean to be acquitted of the charges against us. When it comes to God, it means being certified as worthy of living with God for eternity. So, it’s an important word. While living this life and facing death and the life beyond, I surely want to be counted worthy of living with God.

Paul says that there are two roadmaps to righteousness and with each, he attaches a representative.

With the first one he associates the Old Testament law giver, Moses. (Frankly, I think Paul is a bit unfair to old Moses here. But I will leave that discussion for another day for now.) This road map--the Moses road map--to rightness with God says, “If you obey the law of God, God will count you righteous, right with Him.”

That folks, from the Bible's perspective, is absolutely wrong! It’s the view of Islam, of the Mormon Church, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and of every cult group on the planet. It’s the view of materialists who believe that money makes the man, of women who think that looks are the end-all and be-all of life. In short, this is the view of people who believe that you and I can be good enough, virtuous enough, worthy enough, exacting enough in our personal standards and integrity to earn our way to worthiness of being with God or acceptable to the world.

This paper road map to rightness with God will fall apart and will leave us far from God. Why? Because, as the Bible tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

What does that mean for us? Just this: God refuses to allow a drop of moral imperfection in His presence. I don’t know about you, but I’m not perfect. I mean I’m really not perfect. I’m more like the guy you may have read about who prayed, “Dear God, I’m having a good day so far. I haven’t lied or cheated or cursed or lost my temper. But, Lord, I’m about ready to get out of bed and then I’m really going to need your help!”

When I come to God in prayer or when I stand before God’s judgment seat at the end of my life and I’m asked why my requests or why I deserve to be accepted by God, I sure don’t want to be left with, “Look at all the good things I did.” Because sure as shootin’, someone else will be able to come up with a much bigger list of rotten things I’ve done. I cannot get to rightness with God by being a good person. I’ll never be good enough. And neither will you.

Fortunately, God has given us another road map to rightness with Him. It’s the silk map, the one that will last forever. It comes from trusting Jesus with our whole lives.

It is the righteousness of those with faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus, Who voluntarily bore our sins on a cross and took the death sentence for us, has risen from the dead. He sits at the right hand--the power side of God--and says every time one of us surrenders to Him, or confesses our sins and seeks forgiveness, or makes a prayer request in His Name, or after following Him, stand before the judgment seat at the end of our days, He’s the One Who says to God the Father, “He or she is a sinner, Lord. But I’ve covered them with Myself. They’re with me.”

Do you believe that? Paul tells us today:
“...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in Him will be put to shame’...[and] ‘Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”
If you came here this morning feeling ashamed or if you doubted your place in God’s kingdom, put away your shame, doubt, and guilt right now. Tell God that you trust Jesus or that even if you find it hard to do so, that you want to trust Jesus. The God we know in Jesus will reach down to us in our weakness and give us His strength. Faith--trust--in Jesus is the road map to rightness with God and nothing can destroy it or your relationship with Jesus once you let Him give it to you.

Now, one other thing. Right after reminding us that “everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved,” Paul asks these questions:
“But how are they [in other words, how are other people] to call on One in Whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in One Whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him? And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent?”
The point is that you and I are to be like the Auto Club for our friends and neighbors, our co-workers and family members. We need to share the road map that lasts forever with those who don’t yet know Jesus Christ.

Once again this morning, I issue a simple challenge to all of us--including me: Let’s make it our business to invite at least one spiritually-disconnected people to know Jesus or to worship with us once a month for the rest of our lives.

Sharing Christ with others is one very important part of the mission He has given to all of us who believe. We get to help people know the roadmap to rightness with God. Jesus is, He Himself tells us, “the way, and the truth, and the life” and He says, “No one comes to the Father but through Me.”

You and I are privileged to help the world know that. No wonder that Paul writes, quoting a passage from the Old Testament: “How beautiful the feet of those who bring good news!” We might paraphrase, “How blessed the ones who show others the way to God.”

[The information about the silk roadmaps of World War Two comes from]