Christianity or Nationalism

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote a significant and influential book, Christianity and Liberalism. In the midst of a knockdown, drag-out fight between modernist revisionists and orthodox Christians, Machen was a persistent and often forceful voice arguing, among other things, that the revisionists of his day were actually creating a new religion that could not properly be called Christianity. Not surprisingly, the revisionists did not agree and continue to claim to be Christians despite often having little association with traditional Christian belief.

Setting that debate aside for the moment, there is another assault on orthodox Christianity underway. In this case, rather than being an assault from the left, it is an assault from the right. In this case, instead of directly modifying Christian doctrines to make them more palatable, there is a move to substitute the good of the nation. The question is now whether the church will be most attracted by authentic Christianity or nationalism.

Nationalism Defined

As with any critical debate, definitions are important.

As I use it here, Nationalism is the preference of one’s country above all others and the belief that the nation’s interest is (if not ultimate) among the highest goods available to motivate political action. In the most extreme cases, nationalism espouses the idea that what is beneficial (typically economically) for the nation is good without exception. Such nationalism can justify taking over neighboring countries by force, barring refugees, and making policies that recklessly harm minority communities that are not properly considered part of the national identity.

The specter of nationalism is typically a politically right magnet. It often is accompanied by enthocentrism and identity politics. It is on the rise in the United States and throughout Europe. Presently, it is being demonstrated by animus toward people of color, especially refugees and immigrants.

Even among non-racist strains of nationalism, there are problematic elements. Nationalism is often summarized in the U.S. by the slogan “America First.” Notably, the government of a territory exists primarily to serve the interests of its people. This is not really debatable. What is often neglected by nationalists is that some actions or policies that privilege American people and businesses may, in fact, unjustly harm people in other nations. For example, protectionist economic policies are often supported by “America First” rhetoric. In some cases, they can be extremely harmful businesses and workers in other nations. When that is deemed either a good thing (or simply a consequence not worth considering), a government and a people may well have crossed from healthy self-interest to nationalism.

To be clear, there is a love for country that is healthy and good. This would better be called patriotism. It is a good thing to cherish the positive events in our nation’s history. It is a good thing to feel a desire to defend our nation against harm. It is reasonable to expect that the government will enact economic policies that serve to correct injustices in another nation’s trade policies.

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is often presented as one of degree. However, it is better understood as one of ends. In other words, for nationalism the primary goal is the good of the nation, for a healthy patriotism, the primary goal is the good, with the expectation that one’s nation will pursue that both internally and externally.

Nationalism and Christianity

There is room for a healthy level of patriotism and Christianity to coexist. Though we are ultimately sojourners in every nation, state, and town we inhabit, Christians are also residents charged with seeking the good of the city. (Jer 29:7)

However, when the good of the nation becomes the summum bonum, it usurps the place of God in the heart of Christians. Nationalism, as I have defined it, is not compatible with orthodox Christianity. It is a replacement for orthodox Christianity.

Evidence for this abounds in our present political context. A few particularly egregious examples will be sufficient to demonstrate the nature of the problem.

One clear example is in the continued defense of sexual immorality by many nationalists. Any stream of political thought that seeks to justify supporting politicians like Roy Moore, who was credibly accused by a number of women (including those politically aligned to him), as necessary for the good of the nation has missed the point. Not only was he politically unsavory in other areas, but there were people (some who identify as Christians) who claimed that his behavior simply didn’t matter. Or, in the accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, those who argue that a sexual assault simply doesn’t matter have supplanted an ideological support for their preferred politics for good. (This is not to say that he did it, or that any accusations should disqualify a person, but there are people arguing that if the alleged assault happened, it simply does not matter.) In another case, President Trump is a known adulterer, has paid hush money to a porn star for an affair while married, and was caught on tape admitting to something that sounds an awful lot like sexual assault. It is one thing to hold one’s nose and vote for such a candidate, but there are Christians arguing that such rank immorality simply does not matter because the good of the nation is at stake, so they continue to vocally support him on that front.

In all of these cases, there is a demonstrated ethical relativism that has evolved. Previously, the sexual exploits of politicians were considered disqualifying for office, often by some of those now vocally supporting sexually immoral politicians. Now, there are people arguing that since David sinned and was used by God, so the most heinous immorality of a politician may be excused because it benefits the nation.

What is clear in these circumstances is that the ultimate good of these vocal supporters has shifted, or, perhaps, the ultimate good has been revealed. Instead of the ultimate good being God’s moral law, which is universally revealed, the ultimate good is whatever is supposed to best serves the nation.

Nationalism is a form of idolatry.

A Christian Nation?

A significant contributor to the subversion of orthodox Christianity and its replacement with nationalism tinged with Christian belief is the perpetuation of the myth that America is or was a fundamentally Christian nation.

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Clearly, the United States was not founded as a secular nation in the same sense that the French Revolution or the Soviet Union were. In both those cases, there is a virulent strain of anti-religious sentiment that led to unhealthy attacks against religious beliefs of various types. The ongoing harassment of Muslims by the French government is one symptom of that bigoted bias.

However, organizations like David Barton’s Wall Builders that attempt to argue that the founders were largely orthodox Christians with a view for an abashedly Judeo-Christian nation are unhelpfully imposing their desires onto the historical record. Though Barton, who has slim academic credentials in history, claims to have rediscovered historical truths that others have failed to understand for centuries, the reality is that he is doing hack history that distorts the reality of the history of the United States. Inadvertently, such romanticizing about a supposedly Christian United States significantly contributes to the problem of the conflation of Christianity and nationalism, with the usual result of a nationalism that trumps Christian ethics.

When one believes that Christianity is the only fully true religion--a reasonable belief for any orthodox Christian--and combines that with the mistaken idea that one nation in particular is a distinctly Christian nation, it can easily lead to switching the order of the old slogan “God and country” to “country and god.” Few would articulate it that way, but in light of the present secularism and cultural hostility to Christian ethics, it can be tempting to do whatever is necessary to “return” to a previous state of “greatness” in which a presumed Christian consensus existed. Though “God and country” might remain the order of the slogan, the closer one views a particular view of “country” to embody God’s own ideal for country, the more likely it is for nationalism to become the functional idol.

The Idolatry of Civil Religion

There is a popular song that embodies some of the most sentimental, but potentially dangerous attraction of the idolatry of nationalism.

Lee Greenwood’s song is played at many civic ceremonies as a tear-jerker that is meant to inspire patriotism. But the lyrics of the song reflect a tendency to misunderstand the purpose of Christianity lived out in the public square. The most egregious of the saccharine lines is, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

Human freedom is a good thing, in general. It is frequently misunderstood in our contemporary context as a freedom from all restraint rather than a freedom to do that which is good and right. However, that is an argument for another post.

However, a Christian should carefully consider what that line means. Is freedom the ultimate good? Is that, then, the main purpose of the nation? Is the United States primarily a vehicle for guaranteeing that good? And, if so, for whom?

Believers are called to seek the good of the city, even when we are not free. That is the message of Jeremiah 29. On the balance, it is better to have freedom to seek the good of the city in the way that is most consistent with one’s religiously formed conscience. However, it would be better to pursue justice and virtue as a prisoner than to promote an idolatrous quest for power in the name of Christianity, even if that power promised to promote a version of Christianity in the culture.

Civil religion is attractive, because it can be useful for generating cohesion and, especially in the West, often has a strong connection to the language of historical Christianity. The difficulty here is that civil religion in the United States often sounds an awful lot like Christianity. Like theological liberalism, such terminological similarity is simply a means of hiding doctrinal revision under the cloak of traditionalism.

However, civil religion is often merely the ideology that enables nationalism.

When one views one’s nation as divinely ordained, then the defense of that nation becomes an ultimate good. The logic runs something like this: America is a Christian nation. God has particularly blessed the United States to be a testimony of his goodness in the world. Therefore, whatever is good for the nation is glorifying for God. This is idolatry, even when it is pursued in more oblique language.

Christianity or Nationalism

American Christians, particularly those on the political right, are faced with a pretty clear decision: Will be put our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ or in our nation?

In Machen’s day the split occurred on the left, with the revisionist Christians attempting to make the United States into the Kingdom of God through comprehensive welfare policies. There was often an unnecessary conflation between a view of a welfare state as the Christian ideal and a Christianity that had little connection to the orthodox faith.

Now, the decision is on the political right, with people that go to congregations with orthodox faith statements needing to decide whether the ultimate good of the nation is synonymous with the goodness and justice intrinsic to God’s nature. In other words, will we be American Christians or Christians who reside in America? There is a fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked.

For those who desire to remain authentically Christian, we must remember that our allegiance is ultimately to the King of Kings and not to a political party. Good should be judged not by an upward trend in GDP or the number of cabinet members who attend evangelical churches, but by the unchanging Word of God.

The choice is clear, and our decision should be reflected in how we live our lives. Will we pursue holiness in the Christian tradition or a form of nationalistic idolatry?

Reclaiming Hope - A Review

Michael Wear’s recent book Reclaiming Hope is a call for Christians to remain hopeful about the future, despite the misuse and abuse of religion in politics in recent years. Although similar messages have been promoted and led to failure, Wear’s message is a worthwhile one: authentic Christian hope should lead to Christians continuing to participate in politics as Christians. This means that we need to seek the good of the city in which God has placed us and remain critical of both political parties.

Wear is one of the many in the millennial generation who believe that greater government participation in redistribution of wealth is a good thing. The front half of the book recounts his alignment with the Obama White House on the good of passing the Affordable Care Act, which has made purchasing medical insurance legally required with financial penalties for those who choose not to participate in the market. Wear recounts Obama’s use of religious language in supporting things as way that faith can influence policy. For those that oppose the seemingly ever increasing growth of the government through programs like the Affordable Care Act, the front end of the book seems like a bit of tedious hero worship of President Obama. Those who find themselves so frustrated should continue on through the volume. Wear is recording the events as he saw them at the time, though he appears to more critically examine those events later in the volume.

Aside from Wear’s bias toward the government as a means for achieving economic justice, a portrait of the President Obama’s faith begins to emerge. Wear, a socially conservative evangelical Christian, participated in both of Obama’s campaigns and in the first term White House Staff as part of the faith outreach. Part of Wear’s job was to counter the attacks on Obama’s faith, which came from more conservative Christians based on Obama’s apparent support of the continued legalization of abortion and other causes supported by the platform of the Democratic National Convention.

The portrait of Obama’s faith that emerges is of an authentically faithful, liberal Christianity. In this sense, I am not using liberal as a dismissive insult, but to qualify the form of Christianity that Obama appears to hold and to have held. That is, a Christianity that truly holds to certain tenets of the orthodox faith, but sees fit to accept other elements that do not accord with biblical Christianity when historical orthodoxy appears to conflict with modern understandings of the world. This is the sort of Christianity that sees the gospel as primarily a call to social justice rather than personal conversion that leads people to pursue true justice in society in response to God’s justice. Wear, whose doctrine appears to be more consistently orthodox than Obama’s, paints a portrait of a President who sees the impetus toward apparent goods from within Christianity and finds motivation from that, but who may not have accepted the authority of Scripture over all areas of life and practice.

The first half of the book recounts the Obama political machine’s pursuit of doctrinally conservative Christians and efforts to enact a unifying vision for politics. The second half of the volume, however, outlines the ways that the Obama White House subverted those processes, discarded efforts to meaningfully work for a common vision of the good. This failure to seek common cause is highlighted by the Obama Administration's refusal to drop the contraceptive mandate despite the large number of Roman Catholic Bishops who would have otherwise have supported the measure. Wear documents his frustration that the White House staffers were unable or unwilling to understand that prohibition of contraception is a longstanding, significant tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine and to unnecessarily impose a violation of conscience on Roman Catholics in the marketplace would result in alienation of a large base. Additionally, Wear recounts the instant amnesia sexual revolutionaries developed in their efforts to excoriate and persecute those who held a vision of marriage that even Obama held until 2011. Wear reveals a political machine that, at least in part, did not (and likely still does not) understand the place and power of faith in the lives of the faithful of many religions.

Later chapters document the anti-religious influences in the White House overcoming the efforts of Wear and other faithful staffers. This was punctuated by the DNC’s overt pushing of social advocate, shock-value entertainer Lena Dunham’s video comparing voting for Obama in 2008 with her first sexual encounter. Also, the Obama campaign in 2012 used profanity laced e-mails to rally support. The shift into a post-religious White House (which is not to say a post-religious Obama) could be seen in the demonization of Louie Giglio prior to the 2013 inauguration, whose 20-year-old sermon expounding traditional sexual morality was sufficient to result in many public attacks and his ouster from praying at the inauguration. As Wear notes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel all dissent.” (pg 190) This is the reality that many have experienced, which has alienated many of the faithful from the Democratic National Convention, and has helped to push some to vote against Hillary Clinton in the most recent election.

Wear closes the volume with a constructive appeal to a biblical concept of hope, which Christians alone can bring to politics. Whatever policy disagreements I have with Wear, these chapters are helpful. The loss of real hope is detrimental to politics, it leads to fragmentation, hatefulness, and eventually a politics that must win at all cost for fear or retribution. If nothing else, this last section is worth the price of the book, since it reveals the reality of socially conservative, faithfully living evangelicals who have participated in politics with the Democratic National Convention and don’t hate orthodox Christianity. Wear’s willingness to communicate his basis of support for some of the DNC’s policies while seeking to effect change from within. He should be honored for such efforts.

This is a helpful book in many respects. It undermines the notion that being a faithful, socially conservative Christian prevents engaging in politics with the DNC. It provides a glimpse to some of the machinations of the political machine, which should cause both the right and left to question exactly who wrote and how sincerely are meant statements that seem faithful from politicians. It may be that people like Wear are, in good faith, helping politicians craft statements that allow them to seem rather than be truly faithful. Finally, and perhaps the most important lesson in this bleary eyed post-election season, Wear’s volume reminds the reader that we cannot cease participating in politics even when both parties hold positions repugnant to faithful Christians. We must, necessarily, seek to gracefully engage in politics for the common good as we best understand it. We must also seek to be gracious with those with whom we disagree and seek to critique their policy, not their faith.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume as part of the launch team for this book. There was no expectation of a positive review.

Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

One of the biggest problems facing Christians in the United States is a decreasing tolerance for religious viewpoints. More precisely, there is a decreasing tolerance for people actually living out the religious viewpoints that they claim to believe.

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio.  http://ow.ly/1ddp300xhpi

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio. http://ow.ly/1ddp300xhpi

Part of the growing pressure on religion is the fallacious assumption that religious thinking is somehow in a different category than non-religious thinking. This assumption is based on a naturalistic worldview that assumes that anything religious is inherently fictitious and therefore arbitrary.

The denigration of religious freedom because of a dismissal of religion as a category fails to recognize the significance of freedom of conscience. It threatens the ability to live in a pluralistic society because it values one totalizing worldview over all others. Opponents of religious freedom think that infringing on the conscience of believers will make the world a better place, but they fail to recognize that religious freedom is simply a subset of freedom of conscience.

The Unfounded Assumption

Making the unfounded assumption that religious thought is somehow inferior to supposedly non-religious thought allows people to argue there is no valid basis for declining to purchase potentially abortion inducing drugs or distribute them to others. When someone makes the assumption that religious thought is purely fiction, then there is no basis for not preferring the supposedly non-religious thought that is dominant in society.

By this way of thinking, religion is just make believe. Therefore, if someone bases a moral determination about a medicine which terminates a pregnancy on that religious foundation, there is no reason to honor that belief. After all, morality based on the make believe doesn’t really count, does it?

But this sort of argumentation—more often assumed than stated—begs the question.

In other words, instead of considering whether someone may have a legitimate basis for choosing not to purchase drugs that may end the life of a child, it merely states that any grounds that do not support unrestricted abortion are illegitimate because they have a religious foundation.

There are several problems with this sort of argumentation.

What’s Wrong With Discarding Religious Reasoning

First, it is incorrect to assume that only religious arguments can oppose abortion. For example, using a basic Kantian categorical imperative, an argument can be made that abortion is wrong because if everyone killed their children, then the human species would die out. Unless that is a desired end, then there is a case to be made in opposition to abortion on non-religious grounds.

There are other cases than abortion inducing drugs in which arguments made on religious grounds could be made on non-religious grounds. The fact that many irreligious people have accepted the dominant worldview that truth is merely a social construct limits the number of people making reasoned arguments contra the current societal consensus. However, unless one assumes that the dominant social construct is always correct, there is little reason to reject all other thinking (religious or otherwise) based on the popularity of post-foundational epistemological assumptions.

Second, simply because an argument has a religious foundation does not necessarily mean that is invalid. In order to rationally hold that belief, one would have to first prove that the religion itself is invalid. While some are convinced that all religion is false, the vast majority of humans in the history of the world (including most currently living) do not agree.

However, the invalidity of religion is exactly what so many contemporary moral arguments in the public square simply assume. This allows people to reject arguments they find inconvenient based on the genetic fallacy, without considering the merits of the opposing position or whether there may be legitimate grounds for dispute. In other words, religion is false, therefore any arguments based on religious principles must also be false, therefore do what popular opinion in society demands.

This is Too Important

If these were merely internet chatroom arguments about the existence of God or the eternal nature of the human soul, then the fallacious argumentation wouldn’t be as dangerous. But the problem is much more significant.

The coercive power of the United States government has grown to the point that it is impacting life or death decisions. The current administration’s regulations that require the purchase of drugs that may cause the termination of pregnancy make a huge moral statement and place a grave moral burden on many believers.

This issue is not one of trivial concern, since it is literally a life or death issue. Those that hold that terminating a pregnancy is a moral evil have reasons for objecting on the deepest level to purchasing or distributing the means by which a life is unjustly ended.

But arguments that hold that abortion is wrong are most often framed in religious terms. In the contemporary social milieu, the assumption is often made that religion is fiction, therefore religious arguments are unimportant. Therefore, any accommodation for faithful religious practice that excludes the purchase and distribution of abortion inducing drugs is invalid.

This sort of argumentation is narrowly circular and fails by being insufficiently self-reflective.

What if every religion isn’t false? What if every belief system isn’t merely a social construct? What if the question of life and death is so important that there needs to be room for dissent, especially in favor of not contributing to needless deaths? What if the social construct that assumes that religion cannot represent truth is incorrect? What if religious and supposedly non-religious thought are in the same category?

These questions are typically not asked, nor permitted to be asked in public debate. Supposedly non-religious thought has gained the ascendency in popular discussions and religious liberty has been pushed into the corner. And yet, religious liberty is nothing more than freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

Freedom of conscience requires that we do not coerce behaviors when there is a reasonable basis for objection. This is what allows someone who is a non-religious, consistent pacifist to be excused from military service. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the person’s thought, but freedom of conscience requires us to leave room for those who have reasonable objections to live consistently with their convictions. There are cases to be made for exceptional circumstances, where someone might need to be coerced, but those are exceptions to a general practice.

Freedom of religion is simply freedom of conscience built on a reasonable basis that is not purely naturalistic. Just as those who believe that eating meat is murder should not be forced to purchase meat for the office barbecue, those who believe terminating a pregnancy is murder should not be forced to buy abortion inducing drugs for their employees. Similarly, those who believe that some religious services denigrate their religion should be permitted to decline participation in those services.

Religion is not another category of thought from non-religious thinking. At least, it is not for those who actually believe what their religion teaches.

This raises an important concern. Couldn’t someone falsely claim their conscience did not allow something simply because of personal dislike or bias? Yes. However, just as we must allow for some abuse of the welfare system to occur so that a necessary safety net is available for those that actually need it, we need to allow for some abuse of freedom of conscience due to irrational and unjust biases.

This is part of the tolerance needed to live in a pluralistic society. There needs to be room for people to disagree with us, even if we don’t like the basis of their disagreement. This is especially true when it comes to issues of prime significance, like desacralizing religious ceremonies and issues of life and death. If people are not free to disagree in those significant issues, then there really is no room for freedom of conscience.

We need to learn to disagree with respect, but there needs to be room for open disagreement if we are to have any legitimate freedom at all.

Immigration and Unbiblical Reasoning

Politics brings out the worst in people. It really does.

A picture of the Alabama Baptist newspaper taken from Twitter. The author's name was smudged intentionally.

Sometimes it also brings out the worst people, but that is another topic for another day.

At times, politics can cause people to speak up who shouldn’t because they haven’t given time to fully vet their ideas or allow someone else to help them think through the implications of their reasoning. This if forgivable when someone is at the open mic at a townhall meeting—we’ve all said things poorly when we were on the spot. However, when you write something for publication—perhaps in the state Baptist newspaper—it should really be carefully considered by some friends so you don’t say anything foolish.

Recently a pastor in Alabama wrote an ill-conceived letter to the editor of the Alabama Baptist newspaper where he demonstrated a ridiculous level of biblical ignorance.

The letter is a call to block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. I happen to disagree with a wholesale restriction of immigration based on religious grounds. However, I accept that other people can get to a different answer than I do within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. That question is not the point of this post.

It is the letter writer's reasoning that is both dangerous and questionable. It displays a blatant ignorance of clear Scriptural teaching.

The Position and Argument

The basic position: “I am against allowing the refugees the rights to America’s soil and my neighborhood.”

He uses several points to support his argument:

1.           The Old Testament called for putting the Canaanites under the ban because of the impact of intermingling with idol worshipers on the people of Israel.

2.           The Syrians are not the author's neighbors because they don’t “value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.”

3.           Allowing Syrians into the country will destroy our children’s future because (at least these) Muslims hate Christianity and America.

4.           The increase of an American Muslim population will not lead to a growth in or of Southern Baptist Churches.

I don’t think I am misrepresenting his arguments as they are written. See the article in the picture in this post.

America and Israel

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the position to exclude all Syrian refugees is acceptable. Even so, his basis for the argumentation is unbiblical and in danger of subtly conflating America with Israel, if it doesn’t do that overtly. This is bad hermeneutics.

With regard to God’s call for the Israelites to be the instrument of divine judgment on the Canaanites, and not to intermingle or intermarry with them, the letter writer gets the biblical facts right but the application wrong.

America is not Israel. Post-1948 Israel is not identical to the Israel of Scripture. The idea that God’s command to destroy the Canaanites or not to settle near them or make alliances with them applies to contemporary Christians in a religiously plural nation-state is unquestionably false.

I don’t think the author is calling for the extermination of non-Christians living nearby, but even seeking an underlying principle in the passage that there is a Christian mandate to pursue religious homogeneity through political means is unsupportable.

Christians should participate in the political system, but Christianity is not a political entity. Nowhere did Paul (for example) call for such an application of the OT law for contemporary believers because many of those commands were part of the civil law, which was given to the nation-state of Israel for a specific purpose at a specific time.

By introducing this as support for a ban on immigration of individuals from a particular religious tradition, the writer is introducing a strange hermeneutic that would be very difficult to apply consistently.

Are You My Neighbor?

The author didn’t have to make it all the way to the Bible to eradicate the error in his letter regarding who is his neighbor. VeggieTales would have sufficed. However, had Pastor the man chosen to consult his Bible before making a statement on politics in public, he would have discovered that Jesus already gave a pretty clear indication of what constitutes a neighbor.

Luke 10:25-37 is Jesus’ explanation, by way of a parable, of who someone’s neighbor is. Without going into full-blown exegesis, I can say with confidence that Jesus utterly rebuts the notion that, to use the words from the Baptist newspaper, “My neighbors are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.”

Now, it may be that the people who live in the geographical region surrounding the letter writer indeed fit his description. However, the ethical mandate to care for the neighbor applies to people that don’t look like us. Therefore, the author is dead wrong when when he says that helping refugees “is not a matter of loving your neighbor.”

Again, there are different ways of doing this that don’t involve allowing immigration to the U.S. But at no point can a Christian affirm the truthfulness of the Bible and and properly affirm such a statement as it stands.

The Hatred of Muslims

The third argument is that we shouldn’t let Syrians in because of their “unknown background but known hatred for Christianity and America.” Letting them in will be bad for future generation because they “will destroy any future our children may have.”

First, not all Syrians are Muslims. That may not be true in the long term, based on the reports of slaughter and persecution of Christians by ISIS. However, this assumption is just factually wrong.

Second, all Muslims do not hate Christianity and America. This is like saying that every Christian acts like a member of Westboro Baptist Church. Or like saying that every Christian (or any Christian) thinks that people should be stoned for adultery.

It is aggravating when atheists and others make stupid accusations about Christianity based on the actions of sub-Christian groups like Westboro Baptist Church. I argue that WBC’s actions are not representative of what the Bible teaches. And yet, the people at WBC believe they are doing what God wants them to do because they misread the Bible. Still, I deserve not to be judged for WBC's bad theology.

Similarly, when atheists ignore hermeneutics and argue that contemporary Christianity is bound to the OT civil law, it is frustrating. They often lack the nuance (or concern) to read Scripture through the lens of the Christian tradition. Their argument is annoying because it misrepresents my position due to their ignorance.

If this misrepresentation is unacceptable to us as Christians, we should be careful about similarly misrepresenting others, including Muslims.

I do not deny that acts of terrorism have been perpetrated by Muslims. I do not deny that those violent Muslims believe they are interpreting their holy writ properly. I do not deny that I can read pieces of their scriptures and come to the conclusion that Islam is an inherently violent religion. However, I am also not steeped in their tradition and hermeneutics, so I’m not qualified to adjudicate who are the normal Muslims and who are the crazy fringe. I am capable of discerning by comparing it with the Bible that it is a false religion that does not save, but for me to make absolute statements about the political nature of Islam in its present expressions is inappropriate.

In fact, many Muslims vocally decry the violence of the Muslim extremists.  To be fair to them (just as I’d like the atheist to be fair to me as a Christian) I should accept the fact that Islam has diverse manifestations and I should not, based on my inexpert Koranic hermeneutics, reject all Muslims from entering into the U.S. due to their religion.

A third rebuttal of this point is a simple call to common sense and a hope for religious liberty. We cannot have religious liberty for some and not for all. By arguing for excluding Muslims from American based on their religion, this pastor is feeding the anti-religious bias that is growing in the U.S.

All religions are not equally true, but if religion is to have a place in our society we cannot pick and choose who gets favors and who doesn’t. That is exactly what the non-establishment clause of the Constitution was designed to protect against.

Exclusion for Church Growth

The last argument in the letter is that allowing Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. will increase the number of mosques and not SBC churches.

He is likely correct here. If there are more Muslims in the U.S. (recognizing that many of the Syrian refugees are, in fact, likely to be Muslim) there will be more mosques. And, they are unlikely to build or plant new SBC churches.

So what?

The argument that we should expand immigration because it will bring the nations to hear the gospel in the U.S. is weak. It is likely true if Christians are living faithfully, but it is a shaky foundation for a political decision.

The refugees are likely to bring their religion with them to a new country. But that in and of itself is not a reason to ban them from entering.

This goes back to a fear of legitimate religious freedom, which necessarily results in plurality of (but not necessarily within) religions. It also points toward the misconception of America and a Christian nation analogous to Israel.

America is not a new covenant incarnation of old covenant Israel. Certainly there is a strong heritage of Judeo-Christian thought in the U.S. that we all benefit from. I do not deny that many of the Puritans intended to build a theocratic society and likened their settlement to Israel.

However, the founding documents of the United States were not inspired by God. We do not have a charter to bring Christianity to the world through political means. In fact, to do so is to abuse our government and to seek the sort of Messianic kingdom that Christ expressly refused to establish during his sojourn on earth.

In short, the final argument is his weakest, but the most revealing. He displays a sub-Christian nationalism that conflates Christianity with America and misapplies the gospel to political rather than spiritual redemption.

Conclusion

As I have said, I think there are legitimate ways to arrive at an immigration policy that excludes victims of the ongoing violence in Syria. I recognize there are legitimate concerns for mass immigration based on recent events in Europe. (On the other hand, I think that Alan Noble’s recent article in Christianity Today helps to explain a way forward that accounts for those concerns.)

Arguing for restrictive immigration policies is one thing, but the writer shreds his Bible and puts himself in an untenable position with his reasoning. His conflation of American nationalism and Christianity is a more dangerous concern than potential religious influence of Syrian refugees.

Memorial Day

According to many, today is the beginning of the summer season. It marks the time when many people break out white shoes, begin grilling in earnest, and generally celebrate the changing seasons. For many people, the most significant thing about this weekend is that they get an extra day off.

For Memorial Day, by Storm Crypt. Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/NmW3Y

For Memorial Day, by Storm Crypt. Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/NmW3Y

That isn’t the point of Memorial Day. The holiday was originally invented as Decoration Day, a day to honor the many dead of the American Civil War by decorating their graves. After the devastation of Work War I, it was renamed Memorial Day and was shifted to honoring all American dead from all wars.

 This is the point in Memorial Day. The point is honoring the sacrifice of those who died in the service of the country. Thus, “happy Memorial Day” is something that should not be said.

 In many churches, the Sunday before Memorial Day is a time where churches publicly honor those who have served. Often they restructure their services toward patriotic themes and some sort of recognition of the holiday. In general, I am not a fan of this approach because I think it lends itself to blending Christianity with our political loyalties and risks forming, or giving the impression of, a sort of civil religion. While I am not opposed to using a portion of the service in a prayer of gratitude, it would be hard to preach an expositional sermon that is truly patriotic in theme. Additionally, singing traditionally patriotic-themed songs in church tends to point people’s minds outward instead of upward. I think there are better ways we can be faithful citizens than incorporating such elements into our services.

 However, it is another thing for Christians to participate in Memorial Day services. In reality, we have much to be thankful for. Especially as we remember the men and women who have served our country and died in that service. Although our nation is far from perfect, we do still have freedom to gather for worship together and, for the most part, to live out the convictions of our religious beliefs. Additionally, we have a degree of physical safety even today because men and women have been willing to die in service of their country.

 In short, while some people go to Memorial Day services to honor the dead through a form of civil religion, it is entirely appropriate, in my mind, to go to a community gathering to express thanksgiving to the One True God for his faithfulness and provision through those who died in our nation’s service. This isn’t syncretism; it’s community. There will be parts of the ceremony that will be more or less consistent with my worldview, but that’s okay. This is not an expression of my faith in particular, but of community remembrance.

 Additionally, this is an opportunity to illustrate to our children the cost of war. Armed conflict isn’t just a game or an adventure. When there is discussion of sending troops in to stabilize a region or as retribution, we should recognize the hellish cost of war and think many times over, counting the cost. War is hell. War is always the result of someone’s sin. War costs many people everything they have in this life and even those that return home safely often pay a steep price.

Solemnizing this day publicly teaches children something important, and can instill a sense of the deep tragedy of human sin.

My disappointment this year is that there isn't a ceremony at the local veteran's memorial, but we'll probably pass that way anyway to pay our respects.

 I hope you have an enjoyable Memorial Day. May you be productive, get a nap, and take pleasure in having time with your family. However, I hope you also take some time to contemplate what exactly is being memorialized on this day. I also hope you will pray for the coming time when such days of memorial will be no more, when suffering is at an end.