Faith in God or Faith in Man?

Where does our faith reside as a nation? Simply putting “In God We Trust” on coins doesn’t really mean that we trust in God, does it? The god of America currently might be no more than a benevolent grandfather who isn’t really all that upset with what’s happening and who certainly wouldn’t want to damage anyone’s self-esteem.

However, that’s not the God of Scripture.

In my book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, I try to deal with the views of both men with respect to America’s spiritual perceptions and with the future of Western Civilization. Reagan and Chambers differed in their predictions for the future. What can we learn from both? Let me share some excerpts from the book:

Whittaker Chambers had no doubts with regard to the evil that resides within man. His affinity for writers and thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Niebuhr, and his own experiences in his dysfunctional upbringing, within the communist underground, at Time, and throughout the duress of the Hiss case, leave little room for debate on that point of doctrine.

Reagan, meanwhile, seemed to hold contradictory views with respect to the nature of man. As he himself noted, he tended to see the good in people. At the same time, he recognized evil in individuals and empires alike; most of his life after Hollywood was spent trying to expose and overthrow what he believed was an evil system.

Chambers helped balance Reagan’s natural tendency to see primarily the good. Witness provided Reagan with a sobering reality. He said that Witness helped him learn the bitter truth “of that great socialist revolution which in the name of liberalism has been inching its icecap over the nation for two decades.”

My book is an examination of the quintessential Reagan optimism balanced by the sometimes bleak pessimism of Chambers. Yet both built their worldview on the same cornerstone of spiritual reality:

Reagan’s optimism was based on his Christian understanding of redemption. He had experienced his own personal redemption, he spoke of Chambers’s redemption from his former life, and he fervently asserted that God was poised to redeem the world from totalitarian communism.

Chambers, from the same basic Christian worldview, could not express that degree of optimism. He believed, as Reagan did, that God redeems individuals, but had a much more pessimistic view of that redemption rippling throughout society. Chambers’s perspective can be likened to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who foretold disaster for ancient Judah because of its apostasy while simultaneously calling the people to repentance.

Reagan and Chambers held to the same faith, the same basics truths about life, yet they differed in their predictions of the future of freedom.

Shortly after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Did this mean that the communist threat was no more? One of Chambers’s closest friends commented as follows:

Ralph de Toledano noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.”

In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man?

One quote from Chambers’s classic Witness is a fitting ending for today:

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …

… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

Is America still open to Biblical truth? The jury is still out, in my view, but if you were to ask in which direction I lean, I would have to say that Chambers seems closer to the truth right now. We have made ourselves deaf, dumb, and blind to all the warnings God has sent us. Only a genuine reformation of thinking and practice can restore what we have lost.

Screwtape’s War Lesson

I’ve been teaching a Screwtape Letters class at a local church on Wednesday evenings. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Although I’ve read this wonderful C. S. Lewis book a number of times, this is the first time I’ve attempted to discuss it with a group paragraph by paragraph, and the interaction with members of the class over Lewis’s key points has been illuminating.

Nearly every paragraph offers some pearl of meditation that could conceivably fill up my blog posts every day, but I’ll go with this one today from letter #5 where Screwtape is warning Wormwood not to be too elated that a war is occurring. Wars don’t always lead one away from the Enemy [God]; rather, they can have results inimical to the purposes of Hell.

“Of course a war is entertaining. The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers,” Screwtape begins. “But what permanent good does it do us unless we make use of it for bringing souls to Our Father Below?”

Therefore, he continues, “Let us . . . think rather how to use, than how to enjoy, this European war. For it has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour.”

How can war not be a delightful thing for the devils in Hell? Men killing other men; constant anxiety and hatred for others. What could possibly be the down side of this for those who want to destroy the souls of men?

We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self.

The underlying truth here is that God uses everything, even very awful circumstances, to get our attention. Those awful circumstances make us think more seriously about our eternal condition.

Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared.

That’s not what Hell wants. Screwtape then instructs Wormwood about the “ideal” situation that Hell desires for each human:

How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!

Lewis nearly experienced that later. In July 1963, he went into a coma, and when he came out of it, neither the doctors nor the nurses would be honest about his condition. Walter Hooper had to fill him in on how serious it was, for which Lewis thanked him.

Screwtape concluded his commentary on war with this:

How disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe he is going to live forever.

Lewis, in an essay appropriately titled “Learning in War-Time,” observed,

War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

This doesn’t mean we should eagerly anticipate a war, or any terrible circumstance, simply for spiritual gain. Yet we need to constantly be aware, as Lewis notes, of our mortality, and welcome all worldly trials that remind us of it.

Shall We Retire the Term “Evangelical”?

I call myself an evangelical. What does that mean? “Evangel” means good news; an evangelist is someone who spreads good news; evangelicals, therefore, are those who believe in spreading the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So I like the term.

Yet it has come under scrutiny lately within the church because it seems to be losing its original meaning. Some are questioning whether it ought to be dropped as a description of those who follow Christ.

Most of that questioning stems from political developments. Evangelicals are now considered one of the “interest” groups in elections. Commentators examine their political clout and try to figure out how they will vote.

The problem, however, is the number and type of people who are lumped together under the name “evangelical.” They include those were who raised in the church but aren’t really faithful Christians. Many simply relate to the word evangelical because it’s part of their family tradition.

The word, then, has lost its real definition.

Let’s look at history for some guidance.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the US experienced what historians describe as the Second Great Awakening. This revival of Christian faith spawned groups of believers who were tired of the division of Christians into denominations. They sought to get back to how they perceived the first-century church operated.

One group decided simply to call themselves Christians, as distinct from Congregationalist, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. Another took the name Disciples of Christ in an attempt to identify as Christians only, without any denominational tag.

They even said they would not become official denominations; they were merely movements of like-minded Christians. Well, no matter the original intent, they coalesced into identifiable denominations regardless; it was a natural development.

So the attempt to be just “Christian” without any further label wasn’t wholly successful.

Toward the end of that century, with the new higher criticism of Biblical authority threatening to undermine basic Biblical doctrines, those who rejected that criticism called themselves “fundamentalists” because they were declaring their allegiance to the fundamentals of the faith.

As theological liberals who denied Biblical teachings such as the virgin birth of Christ began taking over the seminaries, the fundamentalists set up their own Bible colleges and seminaries to counter that denigration of the true faith.

Unfortunately, too many of the fundamentalists became rather rigid in their practices while simultaneously withdrawing from meaningful interaction with the world, avoiding politics, education, etc., and thereby losing influence in the culture.

Those who agreed with the concept of maintaining the fundamentals but who didn’t wish to be viewed in the same light as those who claimed that label, migrated to a new term: evangelicals.

The shock of the cultural changes of the 1960s-1970s, spurred by events such as Supreme Court rulings relegating the Bible and prayer to the periphery of social life and opening the floodgates of abortion led these evangelicals to get involved in the political arena to hold back—and hopefully reverse—that cultural tide.

In my opinion, evangelicals have tried their best to carry out that endeavor without rancor and in the hope of drawing people to the Truth, not only about personal salvation, but also about how the Christian faith ought to impact all aspects of our society’s culture.

Evangelicals, in the last election, eventually attached themselves to Donald Trump. Some did so reluctantly, knowing his many flaws, but unable to countenance the alternative. Others did so with genuine fervor, seeing Trump as God’s anointed/political savior, not only minimizing his history of poor character but actually applauding his in-your-face persona.

I have to admit that’s when I started wondering whether the word evangelical had lost so much of its flavor that it needed to be retired.

Yet, despite the watering-down of the term, the original definition remains. An evangelical is someone who knows the truth of the Gospel message and is determined to see that truth disseminated so that the chasm between God and man, created by our own sins, can be bridged through repentance and faith in what Christ has done for us.

Therefore, I’m not retiring the word. I’ll continue to use it to describe who I am. The evangel of God is the good news; I’m to be an evangelist of that good news; I am an evangelical.

Unity, Union, & a Great Awakening

Today, I offer an excerpt from one of my books, If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government. The topic is the principle of Unity and Union and how imperative it is to first have internal unity before attempting an external union.

The initial step in the formation of unity in the colonies came from God. It was called the Great Awakening. The Awakening was a revival of the Christian faith that began sporadically in the 1720s and extended into the 1740s. It began in local self-governing communities, as the Spirit of God reawakened people to their individual accountability for salvation.

The climax came in 1740 with the arrival of evangelist George Whitefield, who came ashore in Georgia and traversed the entire eastern seaboard, preaching the Word of God with powerful effect. Through Whitefield, the Awakening became a multi-colony experience. Whole cities came to a standstill to hear him.

Even Benjamin Franklin, who never became a Christian convert, was impressed with the results of Whitefield’s time in Philadelphia. Franklin commented, “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

Historians have disagreed over the actual results of this Awakening. Some point to denominational splits and conclude that it did not create unity. Yet I believe the general effect was positive. Many new colleges started, colleges dedicated to Christian scholarship and to applying the Christian faith to all walks of life. Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth all trace their beginnings to the Awakening.

Although some critiqued the Awakening’s external methods (British colonials were not used to emotional religion), many were shaken from their lethargy concerning the need for individual salvation. The message of personal response to God was preached in every colony and the Awakening became the first truly “American” event, shared by every colony. It created a sense of American unity of spirit that prepared the way for eventual political unity and union.

Where is our internal unity today as a nation? The lack of such unity is why we’re seeing the chasm culturally and politically. We need another Great Awakening.

An Appeal to Evangelicals

This post is not intended as a hit piece on Donald Trump. It’s simply a statement of a few facts and an appeal.

It’s now pretty well established (and I waited on this one) that Trump had a brief affair with a porn star (celebrity name: Stormy Daniels) after marrying Melania and four months after the birth of their son.

It’s also pretty well established—particularly by the abrupt silence of the woman in question after having given interviews earlier—that she was paid $130,000 in hush money.

Some will say, well, that affair was many years ago, so it doesn’t matter. But the hush money was paid during the presidential election campaign of 2016.

That’s not that long ago.

Evangelical leaders are, in effect, giving Trump a “mulligan” on his morality. That’s the term used by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Franklin Graham has come along and commented that Trump has never lied to him, so he believes the denials.

How does he know Trump has never lied to him? How does one confirm that, especially when Trump has shown a great penchant for lying throughout his life? All I have to do is think of things he said during the Republican primaries as he slandered his opponents.

But that’s Trump, right? We knew what we were getting. After all, I’m told repeatedly, we didn’t elect a pastor-in-chief. I agree. We didn’t.

Yet since when have evangelicals not thought it important to weigh in on the character of our elected officials? We thought it was of the utmost importance when Bill Clinton was dragging the Oval Office through the moral slime.

Now, we apparently don’t care.

As long as we get the policies we want, we will either look the other way (the passive approach) or go out of our way to provide excuses and rationalizations (the activist approach).

Lest you misunderstand me—which happens quite often—I am pleased with most of what the Trump administration is doing in public policy. My concern continues to be twofold: the damage being done to the Christian witness as we uncritically support immoral behavior; the damage being done long-term to American conservatism due to the Trump brand.

The pressing need among evangelicals (a term some have now chosen not to use because it has become so watered-down) is to be faithful to our higher calling as disciple-makers. We cannot fulfill that calling if we wink at sin in our society, whether it manifests itself in the media, on the campuses, or in the White House.

We need to be consistent with our message: sin separates from God; only through repentance and faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross can anyone be saved. And that applies to everyone.

If we fail to communicate that, we have failed in our primary mission. God is seeking those who will be faithful to that mission.

Leaving Ambition in the Dust

Ambition! We must be careful what we mean by it. If it means the desire to get ahead of other people—which is what I think it does mean—then it is bad.

If it means simply wanting to do a thing well, then it is good. It isn’t wrong for an actor to want to act his part as well as it can possibly be acted, but the wish to have his name in bigger type than the other actors is a bad one.

Thus wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1944 essay, “Answers to Questions on Christianity.” Written after the phenomenal success of The Screwtape Letters, his well-received novel Perelandra, and during his prominence with BBC broadcasts that were later turned into Mere Christianity, one might say that he was reminding himself not to get too proud of being recognized as a great writer.

The desire to succeed had been a driving force in Lewis’s life prior to his conversion. He desperately wanted to be known as an insightful poet. Yet his books of poetry never sold well.

In 1930, about the time God was getting hold of his life, he wrote a letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves that dealt with the subject of literary ambition. It seems to have been a response to Greeves’s hopes with his own writing. Lewis shared the dangers of making that ambition central to one’s life.

“From the age of sixteen onwards I had one single ambition [to succeed as a writer], from which I never wavered,” he told Greeves. He prosecuted that ambition with “every ounce” of himself, and upon its achievement he staked his entire “contentment.” His conclusion? “I recognise myself as having unmistakably failed in it.”

This is the pre-successful Lewis speaking, of course, but it shows that he had to get this part of his thinking straightened out before God was able to use him for His purposes.

“The side of me which longs, not to write, for no one can stop us doing that, but to be approved as a writer, is not the side of us that is really worth much,” he counseled.

And depend upon it, unless God has abandoned us, he will find means to cauterise that side somehow or other. If we can take the pain well and truly now and by it forever get over the wish to be distinguished beyond our fellows, well: if not we shall get it again in some other form.

Lewis, in this letter, is helping Greeves get to the point he has reached: set aside the goal of being well-known and “approved” by others. Only when we do that are we really free to be what God wants us to be.

And honestly, the being cured, with all the pain, has pleasure too: one creeps home, tired and bruised, into a state of mind that is really restful, when all one’s ambitions have been given up. Then one can really for the first time say “Thy Kingdom come”: for in that Kingdom there will be no pre-eminences and a man must have reached the stage of not caring two straws about his own status before he can enter it.

Lewis then projects into a possible future for someone who hasn’t learned this lesson early on. “Think how difficult that would be if one succeeded as a writer,” he mused, and then “how bitter this necessary purgation at the age of sixty, when literary success had made your whole life and you had then got to begin to go through the stage of seeing it all as dust and ashes.”

Far better to learn this lesson at an early age than to have to try to learn it when one is less open to such lessons later in life. He concludes his counsel to Greeves with these words:

I would have given almost anything—I shudder to think what I would have given if I had been allowed—to be a successful writer. . . . I am writing as I do simply & solely because I think the only thing for you to do is absolutely to kill the part of you that wants success.

Why do I focus on this particular topic today? Well, it’s because it hits home with me personally. While my early life was not one of seeking literary success, as I’ve progressed as a university professor and scholar, I’ve seen that desire Lewis talks about rise up in me.

I think I had too grandiose dreams about how something I’ve written would take the world by storm. Surely everyone who is anyone will want to know about Noah Webster. How could anyone with any political interest not want to read a book about the impeachment of Bill Clinton? Won’t all sincere Christians eagerly delve into a volume that provides guidance on the Biblical principles for political involvement?

More recently, I harbored the hope that an analysis of a famous president, Ronald Reagan, and a less-famous but highly influential man, Whittaker Chambers, would attract a large audience. And a book on C. S. Lewis? Why, it should be a national bestseller, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe with all my heart that God wanted me to write these books. But His idea of success may not be the same as mine. Was I faithful in my research and writing? Did I say what He wanted me to say? If so, I am to rest and find contentment in that.

Perhaps the things I have written (and continue to write in this blog) will help a number of individuals over time. If anything I write leads a person to consider more seriously one’s relationship with the Lord and others, I rejoice.

Here’s where my heart needs to be: may God be glorified in everything I do.

The Hallmark of Humility

Ronald Reagan, on his desk in the Oval Office, kept a small plaque with the following words:

“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

The first time I read those words, they struck a chord in me—not because I naturally lived those words, but because it was a striking reminder that too often I didn’t.

On one of my visits to the Reagan Library, I bought a paperweight with those very words. It’s now on my office desk. I find that I need such a reminder at critical times.

Reagan exemplified humility in his high station, something that is rare indeed. Yet it is a requirement from God that we live in humility and that it be a hallmark of our character. After all, it’s what Jesus exhibited when He voluntarily set aside all of His divine prerogatives and chose to suffer and die for us.

One of the most poignant Scriptural passages for me is found in Philippians, chapter 2:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

May that example be what inspires us today.