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.

President Trump: One Year In

Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long.

But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. Jeremiah 20:8-9

I am not a prophet, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have the same mission as Jeremiah. It got to him at times, which led to the comment above. Jeremiah, all you ever talk about is the down side of things, his contemporaries complained. We’re tired of hearing that.

That’s my lead-in for assessing the first year of a Trump administration. Since most of you know my reservations about this man being in the Oval Office, you might be thinking you don’t want to continue reading this. Yet I hope you will.

Whenever I write about Trump, I know there will be two opposite reactions from those on the polar ends of the political spectrum. There are those who style themselves The Resistance who will not be happy with anything but a Trump impeachment. Unfortunately, the media is filled with Resistance types:

The other end of that spectrum is comprised of those for whom Trump can do no wrong, and even if he does, they readily provide an excuse or simply proclaim they don’t care.

I will never please either of those groups by what I write. However, I continue to try to help those caught in the middle to sort out what is good about the Trump administration and what is not. Those are the ones I’m addressing.

Last year, when Trump was inaugurated, I wrote this:

I will do my best to be an honest commentator as the Trump administration goes forward. I will not dump on Trump as a reflex action (I’m not a Democrat). I will give him credit where it is due.

If he follows through on his promises, I will say so. I truly hope he surprises me in new ways over the next four years, and my fervent prayer is that God will use him (whether or not he acknowledges that’s what’s happening) and those he has chosen to serve with him to help restore our spiritual and moral foundation.

When I do critique his actions, though, I also hope that my readers will realize I am doing so not out of personal pique but as a sober assessment of what he has done.

I have stayed true to that pledge, and as I assess what has transpired in the past year, I can definitely see some high points. Some of my fears have not been realized; I am relieved by a number of accomplishments of this administration.

What do I like?

First, I am heartened by the Trump administration’s support of the pro-life position.

Second, I appreciate that federal judicial appointments seem to be conservative, noting that the Federalist Society apparently is in charge of forwarding names of qualified people to be nominated.

Third, the economy is recovering from Obama-era doldrums, particularly the stock market, which indicates more confidence in the future.

Fourth, I already like the tax cuts passed by Congress; I see the result in my last paycheck.

Fifth, I’m encouraged by some members of the administration who can speak forthrightly. In particular, I’m impressed by Nikki Haley, our ambassador to the United Nations. The next president, anyone?

Those are the positives that stand out to me. I readily and gratefully acknowledge them.

You might have noticed, though, that I am crediting the Trump administration overall more than I am crediting the man at the top. There are good people in the administration that, I’m sure, are more responsible for these successes than the president himself.

Why do I say that? He is erratic. Just follow his tweets, if you can. One day he is in favor of a certain policy, then he reverses himself the next day. He publicly demeans anyone in his administration that he deems out of step with himself, apparently hoping they will resign.

In other words, Trump is still Trump. He’s the same man I couldn’t support in the first place.

Yet we must make do with what we have.

A number of commentators that I believe have integrity have offered assessments at this one-year anniversary. Let me share some of their thoughts. I’ll begin with Princeton professor Robert George, a staunch constitutionalist, who reminds us of this:

Social conservatives should be sober realists about DJT. His support for us, where he has given it (e.g. judges), is transactional. He does not share our principles nor has he lived (or aspired to live) by them. There is real danger of his discrediting them among persuadables.

Be clear-eyed, George counsels. Recognize foundational principles and realize the long-term danger of having none.

Erick Erickson, founder of The Resurgent website, has tried his best to be balanced, yet he remains concerned about those in the middle who will be turned off by Trump’s antics. He also is concerned about Christians tying themselves too closely to the president.

Along the way, conservatives are ceding moral arguments and policy arguments. There will always be partisans on the left who hate anything those on the right do. But they are not who conservatives have to worry about.

Conservatives have to worry about those in the middle who are persuadable. They have to worry about minority voters increasingly skeptical of the secular drift of the Democratic Party. They have to worry about younger voters. All of these people are not only increasingly alienated by Trump’s behavior but also by his defenders’ constant justifications for it.

At a time of growing hostility to people of faith in the United States and a collapse of morality, the evangelical embrace of Trump hurts their Christian witness and minimizes the number of sympathetic ears to their cause.

I have tried to make the case numerous times that our Christian witness is the most important aspect of our political involvement. We must be careful how closely we align ourselves with someone who may implode. We will lose by association.

Another writer, at Red State’s website, focuses on a similarity between Trump and Obama and offers this warning on the effects of “tribalism”:

There is not much thought that goes into such a worldview except blind allegiance to a person. It’s not as if we haven’t seen the same thing in years past. Barack Obama received undying adulation during his eight years in the White House. He was praised for every move he made, no matter if it was substantive or not.

That’s what idol worship looks like.

Now we’ve seen the same exaltation of Trump, a man whose questionable character and behavior would make his own MAGA disciples think twice about throwing their support his way but only if he was a member of that other political party. Again with the idol worship.

Let me conclude this survey of assessments with what I consider to be poignant words from commentator Susan Wright. For her, as for me, the primary concern is with Christians and our political alliances:

I’ve watched with a deep sorrow for this nation and the direction we’re heading, as over and over, even “Christian” supporters have said: I don’t care.

The fatigue of constantly covering for the man, near-daily pronouncements of, “What he meant to say was…” and a lot of moral relativism have brought us here.

I would suggest that many didn’t care about the numerous reports of sexual misconduct and a litany of provable falsehoods before the election. It’s how he got in.

Before, however, his supporters at least cared enough to make excuses for him. Now, they don’t.

To have large swaths of the nation shrug off the odious behavior of a sitting president does not bode well for our trajectory.

I’ve heard them say, “What about Clinton?” as if a former president of the opposing party’s foul behavior means we should have our own version, just to keep things evened up.

THIS: If you ever complained or showed outrage over Bill Clinton’s adultery and alleged sexual assaults, but you’re giving Trump a pass, you are a partisan and a hypocrite.

I don’t say this to condemn you, but to urge you to think, and hopefully, begin some serious self-inventory.

When we die, our spirits are not taken to Mar-A-Lago.

And yes, I absolutely know what I’m saying is not popular. I do know I’m stepping on some toes. Those might be the very toes that need to be stepped on, however. It’s worth it if it causes even one believer who has defended the indefensible to stop and consider what is right in God’s eyes.

Those are strong words, but I personally add my “amen” to them.

I am well aware that what I’ve written today will not be accepted by some of my brethren on the conservative side (where I also reside philosophically), but I would appeal to them to at least consider these concerns and not just react emotionally. After all, isn’t that one of our main criticisms of those on the liberal side of politics?

Let’s be clear-eyed. Let’s recognize what is good and what is not so good about Trump and his administration. I leave you with another comment I made a year ago, and which still is my heartfelt cry:

What I’m concerned about now is another group that perhaps can be labeled AlwaysTrump. These are people who will defend Trump no matter what, who will find a rationalization for everything he does, regardless of how unconstitutional or offensive his decisions/actions may be.

Here’s my appeal: don’t allow yourselves to be AlwaysTrump; never surrender your reasoning powers and your conscience; stand instead for principle; keep your integrity.

Lewis: “Up into the Real World, the Real Waking”

I’ve begun teaching a class in a local church on The Screwtape Letters every Wednesday evening. What a delight it has been thus far. I’ll probably write some about that in future weeks, but for today, I will just refer to one comment made by an attendee. I don’t recall exactly what I said to elicit the comment, but her response was something about how I was still so young.

At age 66, it’s encouraging to hear someone say I’m young. I’ll take that and savor it. It reminds me, though, of letters Lewis wrote to an American woman named Mary Willis Shelburne. He wrote more letters to her than to any American primarily because she bombarded him with letters.

One of Shelburne’s concerns was the approach of old age and death. Lewis’s responses to her fears showcase both his humor and his wisdom. In my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, I give this account of how he counseled her. I trust using an excerpt today will be both acceptable and enlightening.

He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective. His letters become peppered with reminders that all humans have to face this ultimate test, but that Christians have a glorious eternity awaiting them.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

After Joy’s death and the realization that he would no longer be healthy in his final years, he wrote to Shelburne about the hope of the resurrection of the body. He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. In March 1963, he conveyed to Shelburne his lack of concern about moving from this world to the next.

A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

“Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal.”

Lewis’s final word to Shelburne on the subject of death came about two weeks before he fell into a brief coma, followed by his resignation from Cambridge and his death four months after that. This final word showcases once again his facility with phrases that are memorable, as he encouraged her one more time:

“I think the best way to cope with the mental debility and total inertia is to submit to it entirely. . . . Pretend you are a dormouse or even a turnip. . . . Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. . . . We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter.”

I’m not expecting an imminent death; most of us aren’t at that point yet. I’m still looking forward to many years of fruitful and productive activity. Yet not one of us can know that for sure. We need to be ready at all times for the final curtain on our earthly existence. Lewis shows us the proper attitude and reminds us that the real world awaits us still. The land of dreams will pass away and we will enter into an eternity that will far exceed our expectations.

Tax Cuts & the Poor: Reagan & Now

When Ronald Reagan took office back in 1981, he had three goals: a tax cut to stimulate the economy; cutting back on federal spending and regulations; and building up the American military to a state of preparedness after a post-Vietnam demise.

He accomplished all of those except for the cutback on federal spending. Some blamed his military buildup for that, but the bulk of the increased spending was on the domestic side—Democrats who controlled the House wouldn’t allow any sensible reductions.

The tax cuts were supposed to kill people, according to many Democrats. Reagan was excoriated as a tool of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. That was untrue. Look at these figures comparing how households fared in income during Reagan’s terms:

I won’t try to explain the entire chart (examine it at your leisure), but it shows that of those who were the poorest households in 1979, 85.8% of them were in a higher income bracket by 1988. The re-energized economy of the 1980s helped the poor significantly.

Congress recently passed more tax cuts. Dire predictions emanated once more from Democrats—but as in the 1980s, those predictions are proving to be demonstrably false.

History can show us what worked before and what didn’t. So why are some people so immune from learning those lessons? It has to do with their worldview and the false philosophies that they believe as a result.

This has been your history lesson for today. You’re welcome.