Most of us have heard it said that people should not bring their religious views into the public square. At first this seems reasonable, until you consider, say, our own history.
In his recently released book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2017), Michael Wear who advised candidate and President Obama on faith issues, quotes a speech his boss gave as a senator in 2006 to support his claim that Democrats and progressives should neither ignore nor seek to marginalize faith. The quote offers a compelling reason why we should not ask people to check their religion at the door of the public square – namely, because faith has impelled many to fight for some of the most important and desirable political and social changes in our nation. (Another reason is that there is no such thing as a morally “neutral” public square; everyone, religious or not, appeals to ultimate values and beliefs. The question then becomes: Whose values, whose morality, should dictate discourse at the public square?)
“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition” (18).
Read the full speech here.
In his book Reclaiming Politics: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2016), Michael Wear, who directed outreach to faith-based organizations for the White House, reminds Christians that their faith can motivate working with others who believe differently but who share common ground. He articulates this using the quote below from President Obama’s speech at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.
I like this quote because it is crucial for Christians to remember that our faith does not prescribe a particular political program. There is not a direct line from Scripture to either lower taxes, smaller government, and charter schools, or to higher taxes, a more active government, and more investment in public schools and other public enterprises. (Here I’m borrowing from Robert Benne’s superb book Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics – the best treatment of this topic I’ve come across.) When Christians forget this, it’s easier for any one party to “hijack” Christianity. This is why some people end up believing, sincerely, that if Jesus were alive today he would be a Republican, or a Democrat. (Admittedly, it is the Republican Party that has fallen into this pit more clearly in recent years and decades; Democrats, on the other hand, have too often belittled, ignored, or even maligned religion, to their fault and loss.) Moreover, whether or not Obama has consistently practiced what he said below, I believe his statement is absolutely correct and worth heeding as our nation grapples with intense division and mutual mistrust.
“Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C. S. Lewis, ‘Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.’
“Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. So instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other” (98).
In his just-released book Reclaiming Hope, Michael Wear writes about his time working in the Obama White House as Director of Faith Outreach (including for the 2012 reelection campaign), and the reasons people of faith should engage in politics. (We should get involved, says Wear, as a matter of fulfilling the command to love our neighbors and seek the well being of society.) In the excerpt below, Wear discusses how politics can affect (and has affected) the state of our souls to our detriment given the division and toxicity marking so much of our political discourse. This is the first in a series of posts featuring excerpts from the book I think are worth sharing.
“One lesson from my time working with the president and religious leaders is that politics is a central influencer of the cultural health of our nation. This book focuses on politics because political institutions create and drive culture, and we can no longer ignore this aspect of how politics functions. As I have talked to pastors around the country, I’ve come to understand that many of those who refrain from political engagement do so not because they believe it is unimportant, but because they know, for too many of their congregants, politics is important in all of the wrong ways. If we are to reclaim hope, we must understand our nation’s political life and our role in it. Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met.
“One dictionary defines ‘reclaim’ this way: “to bring (uncultivated areas or wasteland) into a condition for cultivation or other use.” This book takes that process quite literally” (xxix).
Who are the “celebrities” of Christendom?
We might think of important historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and Luther, and run up to the present day with people like C.S. Lewis, John Henry Newman, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and Pope Francis (who of this group probably comes closest to true celebrity status).
But we know the dangers of too highly exalting someone and forgetting that all they were and did was given by God, the Giver whom we dare not take our eyes off even as we thank and praise him for his gifts. And besides, it is appropriate and biblical to remember that true greatness usually lies where we least think to look – in the lives of suffering and weak saints whose childlike trusting and leaning on Christ for succor and comfort amid life’s troubles may seem unremarkable to us but is in God’s eyes precious. So look not to the famed preacher who’s written dozens of bestsellers and whose ministry reaches every corner of the world, but to the woman at church sitting in the back who feels socially disconnected and is struggling with depression but who comes to church anyways because she knows that God intends to use the preaching of his word and the fellowship of his people for her good, even when she doesn’t see immediate results. This is what Tony Reinke calls “gospel simplicity” in his book John Newton on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015):
“Newton supposes that if he could search out the world to award a man, woman, or child with a trophy for being the most godly Christian on the planet, the award would not go to an eminent Christian, or even to a public Christian—not to a pastor, seminary professor, or author. The greatest Christian in the world, Newton supposes, is most likely a man of faith who just barely survives in this world thanks to a homeless shelter and the meager employment he finds on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Or perhaps, Newton speculates, the greatest Christian is a bedridden old woman in a mud cottage who has learned through years of trials to adore Christ and trust him and his timing in everything. Low thoughts of self and high and admiring thoughts of Christ are the sure marks of the godliest Christian, even if such a Christian is likely unnoticed by the world and overlooked by most Christians. The best models of gospel simplicity are the poorest and the weakest Christians who have been emptied of all self-sufficiency, and who have learned to fully submit their lives to the lordship of Christ, his will, his wisdom, and his timing” (105).
Seeing the end of his earthly life draw near, the great eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards spoke to his daughter Lucy, who attended him during his last days, the best last words I have ever seen come from a dying father. Edwards, who dedicated his life to studying and teaching about a God who is sovereign over all things, knew he could entrust his family to this same God as their heavenly father. A child may learn nothing else from his father (or mother!) but to love God and walk in his ways, but this is more valuable than the greatest earthly inheritance any parent can hope to leave his children. This is the best thing a father or mother can do for their children, and it’s sweet to see the great theologian of the Great Awakening be that kind of father. From John Piper’s God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2006):
“Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue for ever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you.”
In Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2013), Owen Strachan urges Christians to live a life of bold and joyful risk secure in the knowledge that no matter how tough things get or how much suffering there is, those who are in Christ are already “more than conquerors” and have gained everything one could ever need or want. In his chapter on building “risky vocation,” he discusses how we ought to approach our work and calls us to “work hard wherever you are.” I thought his words below were excellent advice, especially for younger people – whether Christian or not – trying to launch their careers in a culture that too often stresses finding fulfillment in “dream” jobs at the cost of the kind of commitment and stability that can really pay off.
“In different ways, we’ve been trained to think that our work isn’t important if it’s not the song of our hearts, the soundtrack to our souls. It’s great to connect your work to your passions…but let’s be honest: this is not always possible. Furthermore, it can be pretty tricky to pull this off while young. If you’re trying to get a career started, your best bet is to get started and work hard.
“It’s that simple.
“This may mean that you’re in a field you do not enjoy, frankly. But just working – especially a full-time salaried position if you can get it – will bring tremendous stability to your life. Find work where you can, and do it to the best of your ability. Don’t be like some today who set themselves up for disappointment by not really seeking anything definite, or by only lunging at their dream job” (127-128).
Which is more impressive: the man who observes, studies, and investigates a plant, knowing all its properties and contents and even uses for medicinal and other beneficent purposes, but who denies the existence of God, or the man who owns a plant and, while knowing little about it, eats from it and thanks God for creating it and giving it to him? Most of us moderns might more readily be impressed by the first man, whose scientific prowess and non-religious, humanitarian sensibility accords well with the spirit of our age. Yet as Augustine – that intensely religious thinker among the ancients – makes clear in his Confessions (Penguin, 1961), it is of no lasting benefit to know all about a created thing if one does not know the One who created it: the God of life-giving power, “whom all things serve.”
“A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all. It would be foolish to doubt that such a man, though he may not know the track of the Great Bear, is altogether better than another who measures the sky and counts the stars and weighs the elements, but neglects you who allot to all things their size, their number, and their weight” (95).
It’s easy to feel happy and be nice when life is going well, but how do you react when things get difficult? How do you treat others, how do you view life, and what do you think of God when affliction comes knocking? Perhaps it’s not even dramatic suffering, such as losing a loved one, but even mundane, ordinary inconveniences and difficulties. To use the metaphor below, do you begin to shake in the wind and lose your leaves at the first drop of temperature? And if you say you believe in God and his promises, does this faith flee at the first sign of misfortune?
In his classic work, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 1877), the Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), wrote the following about the power of affliction to reveal our true nature:
“The winds of winter soon show us which of the trees are evergreen and which are not. The storms of affliction and care are useful in the same way. They discover whose faith is real, and whose is nothing but profession and form.”
St. Augustine, a giant of the Church unrivaled in his brilliance, also wrote on the effect of affliction in City of God (Penguin, 2003), which he wrote following the fall of Rome:
“The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clear the grain…in the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayer and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends” (14).
Related to this topic, I encourage you to see my post about the failure of modern society to account for suffering here.
My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?'” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.
My most recent personal tussle with questions about the Christian faith thankfully led me to Michael Novak’s unusually thoughtful No One Sees God (Doubleday, 2008). In this book Novak, a Catholic scholar, posits that Atheists and Christians have more in common than they think, namely that both are in important respects “in the dark” about God. Here he tackles – with a thoughtfulness that is hard to find in most popular books about faith – some of the most formidable objections to faith in God, including the question of whether God is truly a God of “ultimate kindness” given the reality of suffering we see every day. He responds simply but profoundly, pointing to the universal phenomenon of gratefulness, and with it, mere existence, as a large sign pointing to the goodness of God:
“During my seventy-four years, I have met extremely few people who are not grateful for the very fact of life, fresh air, the taste of water on a dry day, the stars and moon at night. It may be surprising how often even people who are very poor, or who suffer mightily from cancer or other illness, give thanks for the good things they have received from the Almighty. There are not many people who think everything is bleak, that death is better than life, that nothingness is better than being. Just existing has a sweet taste to it, even in extremities” (115).