Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Those Closest to Trump

Last week, I gave an overview of some of Trump’s picks for his cabinet, both the solid ones and ones I consider questionable. I omitted a few (hard to cover them all), but I should mention in passing the choice of Rick Perry for energy secretary (very good) and Elaine Chao for the Department of Transportation.

There are mixed reviews on Chao: she served as secretary of labor previously, where some said she did very well, but there is criticism that choosing the wife of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not exactly a prime example for the drain-the-swamp battle cry.

Many Trump supporters have high hopes for what he will accomplish, for sure:

That would be nice, but I’ll wait to see what kind of results we get.

Some of the jobs closest to Trump don’t require Senate confirmation. They tell you the most about who Trump trusts.

First on that list would be Stephen Bannon, formerly of the Breitbart website. All kinds of opinions have been offered about Bannon. My view of him is somewhere in between those who view him as the devil incarnate and those who see him as the policy savior.

With the lofty title of chief strategist, Bannon will apparently be responsible for guiding Trump in his decisions on what policies to push for and how to get the job done. Bannon is hard-driving, which can be good for such a position, but he also can alienate people very quickly.

My first acquaintance with Bannon was positive. He was one the writers/producers of a video that I use in my course on Ronald Reagan and modern American conservatism.

That video, In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, details Reagan’s decades-long fight against communism and the strategy he used to take down the Soviet Union. It is a powerful video, one that offers a clear corrective to the liberal interpretation of events that led to the Soviet downfall.

The quality of the video is outstanding, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has not yet seen it.

Bannon’s latest position at Breitbart, though, gives me pause. I don’t accept the cry of “racist” that some would level at him. I am concerned, though, that he allowed that site to be a provocative place where the so-called “alt-right” felt comfortable. I want nothing to do with them, as they are far too close to neo-nazism for me.

Bannon is no racist or Nazi, but when you play footsie with those who are, you tarnish yourself. Just so you know, I used to be a contributor to Breitbart’s Big Government site, so I have no axe to grind here. During the election, though, I stopped reading anything from Breitbart, as I saw it devolve into a Trump propaganda mouthpiece, willing to smear other candidates in its devotion to Trump.

I’m definitely wait-and-see with Bannon.

Another controversial appointment is former general Mike Flynn to serve as Trump’s national security advisor. I’ve watched Flynn being interviewed on news programs, and again, I’m a little torn.

Flynn’s positive is that he understands the Islamist threat. His negatives are that he is potentially too emotional, too open to conspiracy theories (like his boss), and perhaps far too friendly to Russia, which I continue to see as a threat to our national security, not an ally.

As with all of Trump’s questionable choices, I simply hope and pray for the best.

Finally, there is the very first decision on personnel that Trump made: installing Reince Priebus as his chief of staff. That decision was probably wise, as Trump needs someone who can work well with the Republican party overall.

Priebus, as chair of the Republican National Committee over the past years, has shown himself to be someone who can navigate the perils of politics. I’ve not always been a big fan of his, especially when he seemed to jump on Trump’s train much too soon and shut down any opposition to Trump at the national convention.

Yet if Trump is to succeed working with the party he so recently joined, he needs someone like Priebus to act as a guide.

I believe I’ve covered most of the key players in the upcoming Trump presidency. I hope the good ones can have a positive influence on him and his policies; I hope the questionable ones are either denied confirmation or will not detract too much from what this administration needs to be to reverse the political course of the nation.

Let me add this, though: reversing the political course is not enough; it’s the spiritual/moral foundation that is in need of the greatest repair, and that will never come through politics. Christian influence on the culture remains the top priority.

A Lewis “Scrap”

When I was preparing my paper for the C. S. Lewis Academic Roundtable at last summer’s Lewis Foundation conference, I came across a fun quote from Lewis that I hadn’t remembered reading before. It fit nicely into the theme of my paper, which touched on the role Christians should play in influencing the culture and politics.

I liked it so much that I used it as the introduction to the paper. It reads as follows:

“Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?”

“On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.”

“That’s quite different,” I protested.

“I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.”

That little “story” has stayed with me ever since and has encouraged me whenever I feel discouraged over the trends I see in the world and my perception of how little influence I have over them.

One never knows how much influence one might have on another. That verse in Galatians 6 comes to mind: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up [grow weary].”

For those interested in this Lewis quote today, it’s called “Scraps” and is found in the essay collection God in the Dock.

Lewis: Reflections on a Post-Christian Culture

All of those letters C. S. Lewis wrote to innumerable people throughout his lifetime are a treasure trove. Some show the mark of his published works while others emphasize the personal side of the man.

cover-on-ws-pageWhen I researched my book on Lewis (caution: unashamed plug coming up), I read every letter in the collection that he wrote to Americans. It was a highlight of my sabbatical year when I could devote hours each day reading them and making notes for use in the book. Those letters were crucial to my theme: how did Lewis connect with Americans and what impact did he make on them (both in his lifetime and now).

But I read only the letters to Americans. The treasure trove of other letters still awaits me when I have the time to delve into them again. For instance, one of Lewis’s regular correspondents was Don Giovanni Calabria. Excerpts I’ve seen from those letters seem most interesting.

Here’s a sample from a 1953 letter in which Lewis ponders the loss of Christian faith in Europe:

Regarding the moral condition of our times (since you bid me prattle on) I think this. Older people, as we both are, are always “praisers of times past.” They always think the world is worse than it was in their young days. Therefore we ought to take care lest we go wrong.

But, with this proviso, certainly I feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence a worse state than the one we were in before we received the Faith.

For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress. For faith perfects nature but faith lost corrupts nature.

Notice how Lewis seeks to avoid the age-old complaint of everyone who has passed beyond middle age: everything is so much worse now than before. Yet he does have to acknowledge that when Christian faith is lost to a generation, there is truth to that complaint.

c-s-lewis-13What Lewis wrote in 1953 may perhaps be applied to what we see in our day. There is a kind of nostalgia in many for a time that seemed to be more outwardly accepting of Christian faith. Those of use who grew up in the 1950s-1960s didn’t witness all-out attacks on the faith in the same degree as we do now.

Yet Lewis goes on in that letter to offer this hope:

But God, who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. In younger people, although we may see much cruelty and lust, yet at the same time do we not see very many sparks of virtues which perhaps our own generation lacked?

How much courage, how much concern for the poor do we see! We must not despair. And (among us) a not inconsiderable number are now returning to the Faith.

One thing a frontal attack on the faith can do is to re-energize those who have fallen into a spiritual stupor. Times of crisis and denigration of Christianity may reawaken those sparks necessary to once again become a force in the culture.

May Lewis’s perception of what he saw in his day come to fruition in ours. I, for one, refuse to despair.

The Un-Christening of the Western World

c-s-lewis-15When C. S. Lewis moved from Oxford University to Cambridge University after nearly three decades at Oxford, it was a major event. Oxford never really appreciated what it had in Lewis, whereas Cambridge created a special Chair designed for him.

His inaugural lecture at Cambridge was a major event as well. In it, he outlined how Europe had become post-Christian, which was a fairly accurate description of Oxford. Lewis noted that nearly everyone thought the switch from pre-Christian to Christian was irreversible. Not so, he explained:

cambridge-inaugural-lectureThe un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three—the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.

This surely must make a momentous difference. . . . It appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first.

Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.

It was in that same lecture that he famously referred to himself as a dinosaur, and that since not many dinosaurs existed anymore, the world should learn from them while they are still around.

Joy Gresham, who would of course become his wife a couple of years later, was present at the lecture. She had a rather whimsical reaction to it, writing in a letter, “How that man loves being in a minority, even a lost-cause minority! Athanasius contra mundum, or Don Quixote against the windmills. . . . I sometimes wonder what he would do if Christianity really did triumph everywhere; I suppose he would have to invent a new heresy.”

Yet, as I survey the Western world sixty years after that inaugural lecture, I have to say that Lewis, as usual, was delivering truth.

Why I Quote C. S. Lewis

c-s-lewis-with-bookThere are probably some regular (or semi-regular) readers of my blog who wonder why I quote C. S. Lewis so much. One reason is that he has insights that make me think more deeply about what I believe and why. A second is the way he expresses those insights.

Here’s one example, taken from his essay “Is Theism Important?” Think about his perspective here:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.”

For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering to the Dryads.

If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin.

As I contemplate the state of affairs in our contemporary society, I can understand why Lewis would say that. A post-Christian culture closes its eyes, ears, and hearts to the genuine Christian message more adamantly than a culture that at least recognizes there is “something” beyond what we can see, hear, and feel. Our approach to this newer culture has to take paths that get around its biases toward the “old” Gospel message.

Lewis wrote those words in 1952, a year after I was born. Yet even 64 years later, they ring with truth.

That’s why I like to quote C. S. Lewis.

Lewis: A Christian Political Party

Historians have different emphases in their study of the past. Mine is the influence of Christian faith on a society and its outworking in government. I am a student of “governing,” not politics per se. While the two cannot be separated, I do think it’s important to keep the distinctions.

cross-flagGovernment is something God wants, if it follows His prescription for how to carry out its responsibilities. Politics is the often messy pathway for figuring out who does the governing, and it is sometimes rather discouraging to see its inner workings.

I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s rather pointed comment in the essay “Membership”:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.

To be obsessed with politics may, therefore, be an indication of a low state of society, if Lewis is correct.

Naturally, Christians who want their society to reflect Biblical values will want to get involved in politics to try to turn things in a Christian direction. There’s certainly nothing inconsistent in doing so; in fact, I believe we are called to do so. It has something to do with what Jesus said about being “light” and “salt.”

It’s also natural, at this time in America, for most of us who feel that call to align ourselves with the party that wants to curb abortion, to protect the Biblical concept of marriage, and that seeks, at least in its public pronouncements, to uphold the Christian moral standards overall.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But Lewis has this habit of making us think more carefully on how to proceed. In his day, back during WWII, there was a movement toward setting up a Christian political party. Here’s the caution he offered in another essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment”:

c-s-lewis-13From many letters to The Guardian, and from much that is printed elsewhere, we learn of the growing desire for a Christian “party,” a Christian “front,” or a Christian “platform” in politics. Nothing is so earnestly to be wished as a real assault by Christianity on the politics of the world: nothing, at first sight, so fitted to deliver this assault as a Christian party.

I have discovered, though, that even earnest Christians seeking to infuse the faith into politics can disagree over the specific means of doing so. This past election has made that abundantly clear. Lewis continues,

Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological.

I found myself this year at odds with those with whom I agree on the essentials of the faith. My concern was the person who was chosen to represent the Christian worldview; I believed he was more of a detriment to that worldview than a promoter of it. It pained me to be divided from many of my brethren over that. The party that was supposed to speak for my Christian views seemed to be rather schizophrenic, in my estimation.

Lewis saw the problem:

It [the party representing Christian faith] will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies.

But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal.

It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time—the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith.

There is one great difference, of course, between the politics of Lewis’s day and ours. No political party back in the 1940s was advocating abortion or same-sex marriage. Lewis was referring more to differences of opinion on more mundane policy positions.

Yet his caution remains, and rightly so. We must always be careful not to put politics on a pedestal. We must disengage ourselves from the temptation to make it an idol.

And we must never allow politics to come between believers who will spend eternity together.

Principled Conservatism

I teach a course on Ronald Reagan and modern American conservatism. I begin the course with definitions of those terms.

Conservatism: a predisposition to maintain existing institutions and practices.

American: a particular brand of conservatism unique to American institutions and practices.

Modern: the distinct development of a conservative philosophy since WWII.

I then explain the three strands of thought that have been weaved together to create modern American conservatism:

  • Economic individualism: limited government; free enterprise; the inviolability of property
  • Social traditionalism: primary concern for the spiritual and moral values of society
  • Anti-communism: even with the fall of the USSR, the communist mentality continues to dominate; a collectivist philosophy remains strong in our politics

While there are some differences in the emphases these three strands of thought bring to the coalition, there are enough similarities that a coherent modern American conservatism has been able to have an impact on our society. Common beliefs can be summarized in this way:

  • There are absolute moral standards
  • The individual is more important than the state
  • Suspicion of centralized government power

biblical-worldviewMy Christian faith is foundational to everything I believe. I discovered, as I learned about modern American conservatism, that this brand of conservatism accurately reflected the truths of my faith. As a result, I’ve attempted to mesh my Christianity with political conservatism.

The connection has worked well. The absolute moral standards of Christianity are essential for our society. The Biblical principle that we are all made in the image of God is consistent with the conservative belief that the individual is more important than the state/government. Centralized government power has often been used to tear down Christian faith and influence people into accepting the government as their provider, thereby setting up a false god, making the state into an idol.

These bedrock concepts are what I have always hoped would guide Christians, in particular, in their decisions when voting and advocating public policies. In this recent election, I’ve had my hopes shaken somewhat. I’m concerned about how grounded we are in principle. Are we allowing emotion to guide us now? Are we perhaps thinking that the state can create the type of society we want?

Where is our faith? In God or in politics?

I want us to be a principled people. I hope we won’t awake one day to discover we have placed our faith where it does not belong.

My pledge: I will pray for this nation, as God instructs me to do. I will pray for its political leaders even when I disagree with them, both in their personal morality and in their public policy.

Yet I know, in my heart, that the only real hope is a diffusion of a vibrant Christian faith throughout our society. Government is not our savior; it will always disappoint in some way.

We have only one Savior.