Religion and Politics: Which Is Master? Which Is Servant?

Religion and politics keep intersecting, at home and abroad. Too often, of course, the combination raises questions…and hackles. It should instead raise hope.

It’s bad enough when people’s religion isn’t strong enough to overcome more basic drives: nationalism, for instance, or economic privilege, or sexism. Nigeria continues to fester and bleed, not only with Muslims and Christians fighting each other over what are clearly tribal grievances, despite their religions’ teachings not to do so, but also with Christians attacking Christians.

In fact, this past week a pastor of a church with roots in the Christian Reformed tradition was killed by members of the neighbouring tribe who also were evangelized and churched by…the Christian Reformed tradition.

Was the lethal dispute over religion? Of course not. It was over land and money and tribal solidarity.

Did their mutual Christian commitment restrain the antagonists’ age-old enmity and guide them to peaceful resolution? Not yet, alas.

Worse, however, is when religion reinforces any of those primal drives. Sociologist Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues have shown recently that white evangelical support for Donald Trump is best explained in terms of white evangelical support for Christian nationalism. In fact, surveys show that in the last election those people would have supported with equal fervour Mitt Romney, John McCain, or any other standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

As they did regarding Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, such self-identified evangelicals want from their presidents two things in particular: anti-abortion promises and conservative Supreme Court appointments. And if their leaders can also reinforce American exceptionalism—America’s sense of itself as a nation uniquely called and equipped by God to dominate the world for the world’s own good—along with the marks of a godly nation—sexual purity, male leadership, white supremacy, military power, and public piety—then it doesn’t seem to matter what else they do or don’t.

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The Big “What’s Next”

“I’ve been studying religion for years, and I’m still not confident I know what happens after we die.” This rueful admission comes from Dr. Henry McCord, the husband of Téa Leoni’s eponymous character on her recently concluded TV series Madam Secretary.

That show has been the only one in my experience to feature a professor of Christianity in a major role. Over its half-dozen seasons, it often had Henry draw from his studies in religion to offer wisdom on the crisis de jour facing his wife and the Dalton presidential administration (a blessed escape from the current political scene down there). But this admission of his, late in the series, was disappointing.

Henry McCord, Ph.D., for all his learning and practice of Christianity, doesn’t know for sure whether there’s a heaven and a hell awaiting us all?

Biblical scholar, bestselling author, and professional ex-evangelical Bart Ehrman continues his scholarly stroll through the doctrinal syllabus as he presents a new book on heaven and hell. Whatever one makes of his conclusions—and I suggest readers will find more help in Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth—we can affirm his choice of subject matter. Deciding what the Bible says, and what one believes, about life after death constantly crops up as crucial to the way we live life before death.

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Ravi Zacharias as Exemplary Apologist: A Demurral

Some have asked me why, particularly in the pages of The Washington Post, I have not shared in the adulation awarded Ravi Zacharias at his recent passing.

I am troubled by the report of his relationship with Lori Anne Thompson. I am dismayed by his career-long habit of inflating or simply fabricating academic credentials in a job regarding which academic credentials are key. See attorney Steve Baughman’s important work on both of these issues, available here.

These problems nothwithstanding, however, in general I have always thought RZ was a poor thinker and an often off-putting communicator, and by “always” I mean since I heard a recording of his first Veritas Lectures at Harvard almost thirty years ago.

So, friends and critics alike have asked me, what do you mean by this last charge, especially since RZ is being lauded as the C. S. Lewis of our time?

Let’s take a serious look at a typical case. It’s a question on a subject RZ himself says he has considered carefully, so he can be expected to deliver a carefully considered answer. Alas, the following video, with over four million views, is a fine example of RZ’s mystification-as-explanation, using “magic words” in place of actual analysis and argument. 

Let’s start with the “theonomy/heteronomy/autonomy” scheme in the first part of his answer. This scheme goes back to (of all people) Paul Tillich, who in his own discussion is making a good point about the origins of moral norms in the context of one’s relationship to God. It is not, however, a scheme obviously relevant to society and politics. (RZ’s own examples demonstrate his tenuous grasp of the concepts, not incidentally, since Iran would see itself, and most political science textbooks would see it, as a theocracy. And that’s not even the same language-game as theonomy.) And RZ’s use of this scheme makes no obvious room for liberal democracy, as it doesn’t obviously fit in any of the three categories as RZ uses them. So this threefold scheme is just the wrong tool for the job and nothing illuminating results.

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