What Prayer Really Accomplishes

All those essays by C. S. Lewis contain nuggets that can be missed when we focus only on his more famous works. For instance, in “The Efficacy of Prayer,” written in 1959, he provides many thoughtful insights:

Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person.

That’s a good starting place for any prayer: recognize who you really are in comparison to the One to whom you are praying.

Then there are the various aspects of our prayers:

Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.

There’s a lot going on in genuine prayer; it’s not just seeking God’s favor with petitions:

In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.

We are tempted at times to try to use God to get things. The temptation is to value Him as the One who provides us with what we need or want. Instead, we need to value Him just for who He is. The “things” will disappear in eternity, but the relationship with Him is what makes heaven truly heaven.

Breaking the Education Stranglehold

Republican congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky has introduced a bill to abolish the Department of Education. The bill is quite simple, consisting of one sentence: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

The probability of this bill going anywhere is nearly zero. The NEA and others who feed at the federal trough won’t allow it. All Democrats get money from the NEA, as do many Republicans. Beyond the funding, there’s also the undying belief that government-sponsored and -controlled education is necessary to the survival of the republic.

My view is the opposite: government-sponsored and -controlled education is the reason we are in such a mess educationally. One size does not fit all, and the federal government’s bureaucracy has no idea how to carry out real education, especially since it removes the Christian element.

Here’s the truth historically and constitutionally: there is no authority in the federal Constitution for the government at that level to be involved in education at all. The Department of Education is foundationally unconstitutional and should be scrapped.

But who pays attention to the Constitution anymore?

My view is that states, which have given themselves authority to delve into education, also make a mess of it, primarily because it’s not a proper function of government. No level of government should be telling citizens what education is and how it should be carried out.

Education is a function of the family, and parents should have complete liberty to decide how and where their children will be educated.

Pipe dream? Probably. But that doesn’t change the Scriptural mandate that puts parents in charge of their children. Neither does it negate the efforts of legislators like Rep. Massie to draw our attention to the basics and try to move the needle away from government oversight.

This latest effort to disengage government from education will fail. Yet it is worth making the attempt. Every time we do, we inform and educate the public about the proper role of government and the significance of parental choice.

Betsy DeVos is the new secretary of education. I’m sure she would rejoice if she were the last one because she grasps the importance of educational choice. It will be interesting to see if she can make any headway at all in breaking the stranglehold that the NEA has on education.

The Dismal State of American History Knowledge

Recently, I was asked to speak at a Lakeland Kiwanis meeting. The subject I was given was how much the younger generation knows about American history. The concern over reports of ignorance of America’s past was the impetus for this invitation.

I’ll give the gist of what I said.

I began with an anecdote from a teacher that appeared in Education Week a couple of years ago. She tutors in a poor section of Brooklyn and noted that of all the subjects her students have to pass to receive their high-school diploma, the one they fail most regularly is the American history exam.

A student she calls Tony is typical:

When we first started to study together, Tony, like all my students, had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled since we separated from England more than two centuries ago.

He knew the name Abraham Lincoln, but drew a blank when I asked him which war Lincoln was associated with. He was unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Segregation and civil rights were not concepts he could articulate.

Tony didn’t know how a person becomes the president, he was unaware of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion (he found it abhorrent, by the way), and didn’t know how the government spends its money.

Well, a lot of us are puzzled by that last one.

Another article, in the liberal Huffington Post, no less, highlighted the dismal history scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report. The NAEP regularly assesses knowledge in a number of subject areas; history always does poorly.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch summarized the history findings:

It’s worth noting that of the seven school subjects tested by NAEP, history has the smallest proportion of students who score Proficient or above in the most recent assessment available. The results of this assessment tell us that we as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history.

Last year the American Council of Trustees and Alumni studied the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions to see what is required by those higher education establishments with respect to learning American history. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: 7 require U.S. history
  • Top 25 National Universities: 4 require U.S. History
  • Top 25 Public Institutions: 14 require U.S. history
  • Of the 23 programs that do list a requirement for United States history, 11 allow courses so narrow in scope—such as “History of Sexualities” or “History of the FBI”—that it takes a leap of the imagination to see these as an adequate fulfillment of an undergraduate history requirement.

How’s that for dismal?

One example is George Washington University in Washington, DC, which now has decided that history majors are no longer required to take American history. That’s history majors, not just the run-of-the-mill students in other majors.

Even at my own institution, one that does value American history, most students are only required to take one history course overall, and it can be Western Civilization rather than American. It’s a trend nationwide.

One of our history professors decided to conduct a pre-test of his students’ knowledge of American history before taking his survey courses. What do they already know coming into the university?

Here are the results.

Pre-test results for American History I:

# of Students: 40

# of Passing Scores: 5 (60% or above)

Average Score: 37%

Pre-test results for American History II:

# of Students: 32

# of Passing Scores: 0 (60% or above)

Average Score: 25%

What surprised me most was the lower score for more recent American history. One would think that they would be more attuned to what has happened since the Civil War.

Some of the answers given to specific questions about basic American history facts were rather interesting.

Did you know that Great Britain was our ally in the American Revolution?

Or that the city that became the largest immigration center in the world was either Canada, Mexico, or Alabama?

How about the general whom Lincoln finally found to help end the Civil War? Who knew that was James Madison? I certainly didn’t.

I ended the talk by letting the attendees know they can send their children to me and the other history professors at Southeastern. We will be glad to get them up to speed.

The Left Going Crazy, Trump Being Trump

Watching the cultural/political Left go crazy the past few weeks should be instructive to many Americans. Although there’s nothing really surprising about the “progressive” reaction to Trump’s presidency, their out-of-control rage, whining, and actual destruction of property offers a valuable lesson about the dangers of Totalitarian Leftism.

The University of California Berkeley retains an iconic status in the minds of those on the Left. They believe it is the place where free speech was born in the 1960s. That image is imaginary. Free speech existed long before the presumed free speech movement at Berkeley.

Recently, Berkeley is again in the news as riots have broken out on campus, complete with attacks on local businesses. No one is allowed to have a different idea at Berkeley; genuine free speech is a rarity on many American campuses—all in the name of tolerance.

As a university professor myself, I think I can assign a grade:

Conservative voices are either silenced or harassed in many of our cultural venues. Calm, reasoned debate no longer is the norm; emotions rule all too often:

Stakeholders on the Left are all upset that a woman who fervently believes children need better educational options is now confirmed as the new secretary of education. Apparently, working for school choice (I thought the Left loved “choice”) and donating tons of personal funds toward helping children get the education they need is now a disqualification for being the education secretary. Their reaction has become typical:

And of course there are all the organized and funded protests over a travel executive order that has been characterized undeservedly as a “Muslim ban.” Never mind that it was in accordance with previous legislation and similar to what other presidents have done; rationality and constitutionality are not part of the Left’s thought process anymore.

The real problem with that particular EO was the way Trump handled it and how it was applied to people who should not have been targeted. What Trump should have done is make a short address to the American people about what he was going to do and explain the precise nature of the order ahead of time, thereby short-circuiting some of the hysteria that erupted.

Instead, he just dumped it out there without sufficient explanation. That’s one of Trump’s ongoing problems. He just does things and doesn’t take into account the possible reaction.

He also continues to have a brain-to-mouth issue. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, when asked about Putin, whom O’Reilly correctly called a killer, Trump came back with the quip that the US has done its share of killing as well.

That came across as Trump proclaiming a moral equivalency between an increasingly totalitarian Russia and the US. Putin finds ways to create suspicious deaths for those who criticize him; when has that been US policy?

Trump continues to harbor admiration for Putin and other strong dictators, and he somehow seems to think that America has been just as bad as other nations in how its citizens have been treated. Tell that to the 7 million Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin. Explain how the persecution and executions of Christians in communist countries compares favorably with how we treat our people.

This moral equivalence argument is fantasy land, and Trump needs to disavow it immediately. It reverses the realistic view that Reagan brought to policy in his day.

Donald Trump remains his own worst enemy. If he wishes to succeed as president, it’s going to take more than bluster and insults toward those who disagree with him. He’s going to have to learn some statesmanship. Will his basic character allow this?

The Confirmation Circus

Confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees have become quite a circus. It was to be expected, unfortunately. I remember when Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was putting forth his agenda a few years ago. Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature ran away to Illinois so there wouldn’t be a quorum to conduct business. Senate Democrats seem to be copying that strategy, refusing to show up to vote on whether to send nominees to the full Senate.

It’s a tried and true method used by toddlers, angry juveniles, and immature people everywhere.

Republicans had to alter the rules even to get the nominees out of committee. Perhaps it’s the only way to deal with temper tantrums.

In the Democrats’ crosshairs now is Betsy DeVos, slated to be the new education secretary. Since she’s an advocate for private schooling, the teachers’ unions are up in arms. They’ve been busy consolidating their support with the Democrats:

I’m always amused by cries of “influence” when aimed at various conservative groups who donate to Republicans. The National Education Association (NEA) and its allies practically own Democrats; they have more money to throw around than all conservative groups combined.

Soon we’ll be treated with the confirmation hearing for Neil Gorsuch, chosen to take Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. The circus will continue. Over a decade ago, Gorsuch received a unanimous vote for his current judicial position. That’s history.

I trust Gorsuch is prepared for what he is about to experience:

Will Republicans have to turn to what is called the “nuclear option,” not allowing a filibuster on the nomination?

What a shame that this scenario has turned into an unbridgeable political divide. Democrats have become unhinged over these nominees, using their outrage to raise even more funding for their theatrics.

I know that theatrics have played a role throughout American political history, but I don’t believe we’ve ever witnessed the kind of role-playing that has come to the forefront ever since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, at least not on such a sustained basis. We are a nation that is verging on a complete cultural and political division not seen since the Civil War.

What will be the result?

The Lewis & Chambers Blessing

Two of the courses I’m teaching this semester are particularly gratifying: one is on C. S. Lewis and the other on Whittaker Chambers. I’ve taught on Chambers for many years; this is only the second time I’ve offered the Lewis course.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written books lately on both men. The added blessing is to be given the opportunity to then take what I’ve researched and written about and offer it to the students.

In the Lewis course, we started with his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, and will be completing most of Mere Christianity next week. Along with the latter, I’ve had the students read Paul McCusker’s C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity, which provides the historical background for his WWII BBC talks that eventually became the classic work.

Next we will turn to The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, The Last Battle, and A Grief Observed. Interspersed with those books will be a number of Lewis’s essays, thereby helping students get as broad an acquaintance with his thought as possible.

And of course I end with my book on how Lewis has impacted Americans. How could I omit that?

The discussion has been heartfelt as students reflect on not only what Lewis has said but how he has said it. The observations the students turn in to me after each reading assignment have been excellent; it warms a professor’s heart to see them interacting with what they are reading.

My Chambers course is small, but I like the coziness of a small class. I give them a history of communism in short doses, we read Chambers’s amazing autobiography Witness, along with some of his essays (kind of like the Lewis class), and mostly just sit and discuss what we have read.

Again, like Lewis, Chambers’s manner of writing is bracing and so personal that it stirs the mind and the heart simultaneously.

So, in the middle of a very busy schedule in which grading becomes a constant companion, I have oases that refresh and remind me why God has put me on this career path.

Being a professor can be discouraging at times, but what career doesn’t have those moments? I have been given a free hand over the years to develop unique courses that flow from what God has done for me; I offer them to the students in gratitude for His mercy (unmerited favor) and grace (strength to do His will).

Religious Liberty: A Crystal-Clear Message?

It would be wonderful if President Trump’s executive orders wouldn’t battle one another. As seems to be the case with everything our new president does, we get great news along with not-so-great.

I won’t diminish the great news. The latest in his series of executive orders is a win for religious liberty. Neither do I believe it attempts to write a new law or extend presidential authority beyond proper constitutional limitations. This EO merely establishes what already is ensconced in the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Let’s rejoice over the following assertions in the EO (H/T to Erick Erickson’s wording on his Resurgent website):

  • It tells the entire federal government to respect federal statutes and Supreme Court decisions that make clear the free exercise of religion applies to all people, of all faiths, in all places, and at all times—that it is not merely the freedom to worship.
  • It notes that religious organizations include all organizations operated by religious principles, not just houses of worship or charities. And it follows the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in saying that religious exercise “includes all aspects of religious observance and practice,” not just those absolutely required by a faith.
  • It instructs all agencies of the federal government, “to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law,” to reasonably accommodate the religion of federal employees, as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
  • It instructs the secretaries of health and human services, labor, and treasury to finally grant relief to the Little Sisters of the Poor and others who weren’t exempted from the Obamacare abortifacient and contraception mandate.
  • It instructs the secretary of health and human services to ensure that all citizens have the ability to purchase health care plans through Obamacare that do not cover abortion or subsidize plans that do.
  • It instructs the secretary of health and human services to ensure that the federal government does not discriminate against child-welfare providers, such as foster care and adoption services, based on the organization’s religious beliefs.
  • It adopts the Russell Amendment and instructs all agencies of the federal government to provide protections and exemptions consistent with the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act to all religious organizations that contract with the federal government or receive grants.

That’s a tremendous list of assurances. As I’ve said, I will give credit where it is due, and this deserves our entire approbation.

So then why did Trump, the day before, allow an Obama executive order to stand that prohibits “discrimination” against gays when giving out federal contracts? While that may sound good to many, what it did was discriminate instead against Christian organizations that seek to aid the poor via contracts with the federal government. Those organizations would have to deny their basic beliefs about sexual morality and marriage before they can have an equal place at the table.

How does allowing that Obama dictate to continue mesh with this new EO on religious liberty, in particular that last provision that supposedly protects religious organizations seeking a federal grant?

Of course, my argument is that Christians shouldn’t try to get federal money at all. Let’s not intertwine our faith with government authority. Let’s not become dependent on funding from government to accomplish what God has called us to do.

Yet, it would be nice if the new administration wouldn’t send out conflicting signals. The message needs to be crystal clear. This whole matter of liberty of conscience is kind of a mess right now in our society.

I’ve noted before that Trump doesn’t really grasp the problem most evangelicals have with the LGBT agenda. He has no real issue with that agenda. We need to continue to pray that his understanding of Christian morality will become sharper over time.