Post 33—At Risk of Repeating History, Part 3: Toward an America safe for freedom of religion and diversity
Part 3-A: Getting the log out
America has not always lived up to its public persona: “…liberty and justice for all.” “…the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Franklin Roosevelt’s iconic statement on fear—“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—is only partly true. Our country has always had things to fear, threats from within and without. We’ve always done a pretty good job at beating back external threats. It’s the internal ones that we have not always dealt with very well. I spent time in a previous essay looking at the McCarthy Era. When, in 1950, Joe McCarthy first presented a list of “commies” in government, I was two: too young to understand those events or the subtle threats made in the public square—but I certainly internalized the fear aroused by the prospects of communist cells functioning in my neighborhood and the reminders of impending nuclear Armageddon.
The messages we received about upholding America were everywhere. Even my favorite TV superhero, Superman, was dramatically introduced as standing for “truth, justice, and the American way.” How we thought and spoke of the American way back then was watched and listened to in a way that would make today’s political correctness feel almost libertarian. In the 1950s and early 60s, its institutionalized form would brook no question about what that “way” was. Those who did were often blacklisted, hunted, even jailed. The “land of the free” was not a safe place for different or independent thinking.
I’ve been listening to the ongoing debate about religious freedom and wondering if we are not in some way returning to the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950s. That discussion is often associated today with the so-called “religious right” (or, “Christian right”), even though historically, it has been the political left who has spoken up about this freedom. Freedom of religion is about so much more than outward manifestations of religion. It is about basic freedoms that underlay our Constitution, including freedom of conscience, freedom of belief (or not), freedom of association, and freedom of speech.
In this post, I want to address fellow Christians in a public way, such that others might listen in. Like it or not, the American Christian church is popularly perceived as standing more for a particular political and moral agenda than for being followers of Jesus. Realize it or not, we Christians are in some ways responsible for that perception. Hence my subtitle about “getting the log out.”
The popular perception, among other things, clouds any real discussion or debate on the merits of Christianity. I discovered this when I worked outside the Christian “bubble” we had lived in for about twenty years. I was a teacher in public schools. Adults who learned I was a Christian had certain presumptions about my political and social views. This was an automatic distracter when talking about Jesus as the Savior who came that we might know God: who he is, what he thinks, or understand his father heart—a message validated in history by the resurrection.
I’ve often heard it said that the greatest barrier to people becoming Christians is other Christians. Tim Keller said it, as did G. K. Chesterton. I’ve been haunted for years by a statement made by Mahatma Gandhi. One of the most revered figures in history, Gandhi famously studied Jesus as he planned how to effectively mobilize Indians to demand independence. At the time, he was living in Great Britain among British Christians. His experience led him to this observation: “I like your Jesus. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Jesus.”*
Another statement haunts me, this one concerning others who were supposed to be a light to the world for God. This statement was made by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Christians in Rome. Paul, himself a Jew, wanted his own people to understand that being the physical descendants of Abraham did not entitle them to a place in God’s kingdom—unless they were also his spiritual descendants: i.e., that they also had “the faith of Abraham.” Paul had to rebuke them because of their behavior toward those not of Israel: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24).
My fear, as I reflect on being known for a political agenda rather than a spiritual one, is that the way of Jesus and the name of God are shunned and blasphemed because of it. If persecution is to come, then I want to be hated or mistreated because I am follower of Jesus, not because I want to push “my” moral imperative on the American people. I want to be known for what I am for, not for what—or who—I am against. I fear we have forgotten that morality cannot be legislated. And, as Chuck Colson tried to remind us, “salvation does not come on Air Force One.”
Christians, as do all American citizens, have a right and an obligation to voice their political views. Colson’s statement, I think, would fit well on a refrigerator magnet. If we want our fellow Americans to see the light of Jesus and know God, then it would be useful to check out where the logs lie. It’s one thing to be wrongly perceived as carrying the torch for an unpopular political viewpoint. It’s quite another to actually allow the church to follow a political agenda and be deflected from following what I call “the agenda of Jesus,” (see the note below). If so, God’s enemy is alive and happy on planet earth.
*The Gandhi quote can be found at http://thinkexist.com/quotes/mahatma_gandhi/, accessed 2/19/11
NEXT: Part 3b will address how we understand freedom of religion as Americans and Christians, and how we can continue to survive as one nation. We’ll also look at the “speck” in those other eyes.
NOTE: The two essays posted after this one and labeled “The Lake Avenue essays,” were recently displayed for an arts celebration at our church. #2, “Whose agenda?…And whose pigeonhole?” contains thoughts similar to those expressed in journey post 33-a, above. But I would encourage you to read “Whose agenda?….” because it includes an historical note about the rise of the “religious right” and a brief explanation of what I call “Jesus’ agenda.”