Friday, January 21, 2005

The Inaugural Address...Was It a Christian Statement?

The lead story in today's Cincinnati Enquirer, written by staffers Carl Weiser and Howard Wilkinson, dealt with the President's Inaugural Address. The opening paragraph, like so many commentaries and accounts, called attention to the references to God laced throughout Mr. Bush's speech. Weiser and Wilkinson write:
President Bush summoned the nation to "the great objective of ending tyranny" in an inaugural address that was remarkable for the way it looked outward, toward the world and upward, toward God.
A good observation. But was the address a Christian statement? That is, was it the statement of a Christian person, reflecting a Christian understanding of the world?

We all know that the President is a practicing Christian who appears to take his faith seriously.

And, of course, no Christian perfectly reflects God's will in their life. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," the Bible says. [Romans 3:23]

So, it would be unfair to hold the President to a standard of perfect consistency in living or articulating his faith in Christ. I can't live up to that standard and frankly, I don't know anyone who can. Christians are, in that metaphor first used by Martin Luther, beggars, people made acceptable to God not by their virtues or their good works, but solely because God gives the charity of forgiveness to those who turn from sin and walk with Christ.

This is the way the Bible completes the thought cited from Romans above:
since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by His grace [the Greek word is charitas, from which we get the word, charity] as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...[Romans 3:23-24]
I think one has to conclude that, as is true of the statements of any political figure who represents a pluralistic society and who wants to maintain popular support for his agenda, the Inaugural Address was, spiritually speaking, a mish-mash, reflective as much of Enlightenment notions as Christian ones.

This fact hit me when I heard the President say yesterday:
There is only one force that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and the tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

From a Christian perspective, this assertion is suspect at many levels.

For one thing, we should ask, by what standard will the "force of human freedom" wield its power? The framers of the Constitution knew that free peoples are as capable of despotism as kings. If "freedom" is given as an ultimate value, how will those who exercise it decide the manner in which they will use it?

In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis talks about the danger of elevating any virtue, however laudable, to a position of ultimacy. He writes:
The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials 'for the sake of humanity', and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.
Is "the force of freedom" as an ultimate value any less susceptible to manipulation and the justification of tyranny than is love? Clearly, it isn't.

Another problem area in the President's statement came when he referred to "the hopes of the decent and the tolerant."

Not to be flippant or to split hairs, but who exactly might that be? My Bible says that while we all come into this world with God's laws written on our hearts, and therefore, possessing an inherent sensibility about what is right and wrong, we also come fully equipped as sinners. David writes in the Psalms in the Old Testament:
...I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. [Psalm 51:5]
One of the reasons that the New Testament writers, like Paul, urge followers of Christ to be obedient to governments, even governments with which they may disagree, is that governments constitute a necessary emergency arrangement in a fallen world. They're made necessary by the sin that corrupts all human beings. If all would surrender to Christ and acquiesce to God's authority, people would be the "decent and tolerant" beings the President spoke about. As it is, however, governments exist to coerce those unwilling to acquiesce to God's rules (i.e., loving God and loving neighbor) into behaving decently and tolerantly toward those with whom they must share air, land, water, communities, states, and nations.

Something far less than a majority of people are "decent and tolerant," and most of the time, I wouldn't include myself in their number.

A small example:
(Manchester, New Hampshire-NBC) Jan. 20, 2005 - A New Hampshire woman working for a cleaning crew had an opportunity to clean up in more ways than one.

Maria Kater was having a routine day at work as a cleaner when she noticed something going on at a nearby automated teller machine.

A pile of money was next to the machine, and when she got closer to check it out the ATM spit out more. When the out-of-order machine finally stopped, Kater was left with more than $1500.

Kater unplugged the machine and called officials, but she admits she thought about what the stash of cash could have done, "I could pay my rent with it. You know, gas, food, bills, but then I thought, 'It's not worth losing my job or getting in trouble.'"

No word yet on whether or not Kater will be offered a reward for her honesty.
I read that story hoping that the woman in question acted as she did because is a member of the "decent and tolerant" contingent of humanity to which the President referred. Perhaps she is a decent and tolerant person. Perhaps she described her actions from the perspective of humility, refusing to take public credit for her virtue. But she seemed to say, "I acted the way I did because of the coercion I face in my life."

I'm not picking on Ms. Kater. None of us can say how we would react under similar circumstances. I like to think that I would act honestly...and for the right reasons. But it's far from certain that I would.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a pessimist about human nature. I am in fact, an optimist about human beings. I believe that when Jesus Christ becomes God and Lord and Savior to a person, their lives undergo the beginning of a transformation that will ultimately be completed in eternity. But I do not believe that any of us are inherently "decent and tolerant," just awaiting the opportunity to grab our neighbors' hands and sing, "Kumbaya."

Although we know it's right to live with decency and tolerance for others, we only really do so to the extent that our wills are subordinated to God's.

But the biggest problem I had with the President's statement from a Christian perspective was in its insistence that "only one force" could break what tyrannizes humanity. That force, he asserted, is "the force of human freedom."

As a Christian, I believe, have observed, and have experienced, that only the God made plain to us all through Jesus Christ can really break our tyrannies.

It was the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ that propelled the work of those who sued for an end to slavery in Great Britain and the United States.

It was the Gospel of Jesus Christ that sustained Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa as they faced down injustice.

This same Gospel lay behind the Oxford Movement which resulted in the transforming power of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps.

This Gospel inspired the reforming work of Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, and John Calvin.

It also incited the work of John Wesley, setting people free of sin and often, the slavery of alcoholism, to live with God's approval and power working in their lives.

In the end, for whatever other virtues the Inaugural Address may have had, it was not a particularly Christian statement.

While I understand the need for a President to mobilize a nation behind a particular program, I would prefer Presidents to reflect a more humble and realistic understanding of what governments, no matter how virtuous their leaders, can accomplish. No government and no set of political principles can transform a human life, society, or world. The President then, might very well have said something like:
Political and economic freedom are good things. Democratic nations are peaceful neighbors. We believe in political and economic freedom and we will support, in whatever ways we can, all movements around the world that work to bring these good ends about.
But real human freedom comes only from a relationship with Jesus Christ, a topic I hope to tackle here in the next few days.

Anyone who reads this blog knows how opposed I am to Christians forcing Christ or specifically Christian values down the throats of society at large. We live in a pluralistic society and we must acknowledge that fact.

Furthermore, it is absolutely contrary to the will of God for Christians to force their beliefs on others. Followers of Jesus are called to share their the hope of Jesus Christ in gentle ways.

So, I didn't expect the President to make some overtly Christian declaration of public policy.

But I am more than a little disappointed that the President assigned a place of preeminence to a value which, unless subordinated to Jesus Christ, will render monsters of us all.

In the end, I suspect, I'm making too much of this. Inaugural Addresses are generally hollow and meaningless wind. My hope for this address is that it's mere rhetoric and not presidential acquiescence to the false idol of human freedom.


Deborah White said...

No, you're not making too much of it. In contrast to all the press, I thought it was an oddly, thoroughly secular speech, and that the whole inauguration glorified human might and military power (not service men and women, but collective power) rather than God. I wrote a brief blog on the subject, on inauguration day, I think.

George Curcio said...

As a Christian, it was very disturbing to hear President Bush declare in his inaugural address that "there is only one force that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and the tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom."

As presented by the President, the force of human freedom was equated with the force of American military might and seemed yet another desperate attempt to justify a war for which none of his administration's many excuses have been proven credible. Most disturbing, however, is that our President's comments have elevated the notion of military might above the notions exemplified by the gospel of Jesus Christ, who told us that blessed are the peacemakers.

As with many other areas of his governance, President Bush has once again used rhetoric that indicates his personal actions do not coincide with the values he infers by his constant references to his personal Christianity. Fortunately for the President, as for all of us, his failed nature does not preclude the availability of Christ's forgiveness.

Tom Patterson said...

You're not making too much of this at all! In fact, because the self-proclaimed "evangelical" community of Christians (I refer here to the Dobsons, the D. James Kennedys, et al) didn't react in the same way demonstrates the extent to which so many of us are blind to the civil religion his address portrayed. There was nothing "Christian" about it.