Broadman & Holman
When my wife and I first married as college students, we were “po”—so poor that we couldn’t afford the second o and the r in the word, as the old joke goes.
We had nothing. Nothing, that is, except a couple of pieces of hand-me-down furniture. One was a couch that my mother had given us. She had earlier reupholstered it in a tan fabric, and it had three large cushions that were adorned with a series of orange squares set inside larger brown squares. It was hideous! Nevertheless, we were proud to have it. We kept that couch for several years.
Eventually, we both graduated from college and went from “po” to poor, and gradually we progressed to being merely broke. As we moved up the socioeconomic ladder, we began to acquire new furniture—first a coffee table, then a couple of bar stools, a dining room table, and a large floor lamp. Things were really looking up! However, the couch remained. I don’t know if it was the prohibitive cost of buying a new couch or the fact that my mother had recovered it herself before she gave it to us, but the couch lingered on.
Then it happened. The moment of truth arrived. We looked around and realized that there was a new theme in our home décor. The apartment had taken on a “poor-man’s modern” look. Everything was beginning to come together—everything, that is, except the couch. The couch stood out like a beggar at a black-tie dinner. Something had to be done! The couch had to go.
At first we didn’t have the heart to throw it out. Nor could we give it away. It had been a gift and a reminder of humble beginnings. So we decided to put it in an extra room. After a while, though, the couch was no longer good enough for that room, either. The time had come. It had to go. We did what was once unthinkable: we got up one morning and waited for the trash collector. When he arrived, I took the long walk out to _the curb, where I said my final good-byes. He threw it into the truck, and it was gone.
You may be thinking about the title of this book and asking yourself, “What does this little story have to do with living in a post-Christian world?” Our old couch is also a poignant illustration of the thesis of this book. You see, in many ways, Christianity has become to our culture what that couch became to my family.
There was a time when American culture looked favorably upon Christianity. In fact, Chief Justice John Jay once referred to America as a Christian nation. There is no doubt that the founders of this great nation built it upon biblical principles. But things have changed.
We now live in what has commonly been referred to as “post-Christian” America. In fact, there are many who wish to purge America of any Christian influence. It sometimes seems as though someone in power woke up one day and said, “Christianity was useful once, even important and comfortable for a while, but it doesn’t fit our needs anymore. It’s fine to practice your faith at church, but keep it out of the marketplace of ideas.” Some go further than wanting Christianity to be less _visible; they are openly antagonistic. Christians in America are finding themselves in an increasingly hostile environment.
This state of affairs is nothing new for the church. Throughout history Christians have been the targets of ridicule and persecution. While there are lessons to be learned from the suffering and endurance of our contemporaries, it is always best to begin with believers who have gone before us—those who are a part of the historical record and whose stories have been provided, protected, and preserved in the Bible.
One such story is that of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1–31). In their interrogation we can observe the onset of Christian persecution. In fact, the questioning of the two apostles takes a path similar to that of the persecution of Christians who have come after them. The Acts account _also gives us insight into the changeless spiritual conditions that make persecution an enduring reality in the Christian experience.
This book will consist of three sections. Section 1 examines cultural attitudes toward Christianity, with the actions and approach of the Sanhedrin serving as the first model for persecution. Section 2 draws a line in the sand, noting essentials where Christians must be in agreement if they are to keep their Christianity intact. Section 3 elaborates on two crucial issues in contemporary Christianity—belief in the Bible and the trend toward belief in an unbiblical Jesus—and how to respond to each of them.
The goal of this book is not to change America. Only God can do that. This book was written with a view toward changing the manner in which we as Christ’s followers respond to modern trends within our culture. I believe that attitudes we face are becoming more antagonistic because of our efforts to capitulate. In many ways the church has begun to look too much like the prevailing culture and is therefore unable to provide a viable alternative.
This fact has been disguised by the success of the megachurch. Many Christians believe that the existence of churches that boast memberships in the thousands is evidence of effective Christian outreach in our culture. Unfortunately, a closer look tells quite another story. In her book Worship Evangelism, Sally Morgenthaler examines the truth behind the trends and uncovers some disturbing realities. For example, church attendance has steadily declined in the United States over the past two decades. From 1991 to 1994, church attendance in America dropped from 49 percent to 42 percent.1 The consequence of declining attendance has been the death of an estimated one hundred thousand congregations in the decade of the 1990s.2 But what about the megachurch phenomenon? Megachurch attendance figures are large but deceiving. Eighty percent of the growth in the average megachurch is the result of the transfer of members from one place to another. Moms and dads are looking for someplace bigger, someplace with “facilities for the children” and all the bells and whistles. One congregation in Houston even has a McDonald’s franchise in the church! Hence, people pack up and leave the small church and head for the giant congregation with the new buildings and the menu full of options.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a large church. I am simply saying that the existence of large congregations does not negate the fact that church attendance in America is on the decline. We are not winning our culture. In fact, it can be argued that our culture is winning us. I cannot tell you how often _I receive calls from pastors who are trying to invite me to their church but have trouble finding a viable date because of football or baseball or band!
Much of this capitulation to secular culture’s demands stems from the fact that over the years Christianity in America has been more American than Christian. I am not speaking of a decline in morality here, though there is ample evidence that the lack of biblical morality in the modern American church has hampered our ability to communicate the gospel to our culture in a winsome and effective manner. I am talking about something deeper, something more fundamental. I am talking about one’s worldview. The fact is that what we believe determines how we behave. My goal is not to tell Christians what to do but to challenge what we believe. Currently, much of what we believe is shaped by our culture, and, unfortunately, much of what our culture believes on a fundamental level is diametrically opposed to biblical truth.
How belief should impact behavior is a question facing missionaries around the world. Many people hear the gospel and are more than willing to respond, but they do not always see the need to alter cultural practices that contradict their new faith. Imagine trying to convince a person steeped in the traditions of ancestral worship that he or she must dismantle an altar that has been in the family for generations! Or what does one do with a people-group whose former religion allowed the taking of multiple wives?
Our own questions may be somewhat different, but American Christianity is not immune to these difficulties. Anyone who has been to a business meeting in a Baptist church (I can talk about Baptists because I am one) will tell you that much of what goes on is a lot more American than it is Christian. In fact, the first time I ever saw Robert’s Rules of Order used outside of an academic setting was in a church business meeting. When I asked one of the deacons about the absence of such rules in the Bible, he looked at me like I was speaking in tongues! I was not trying to be coy. I didn’t grow up in church and didn’t know how things worked. All I knew were the principles I had gleaned from the Scriptures, and when I saw procedures that didn’t fit, I wanted clarification.
I understand that there are different expressions of Christianity in different cultures. Contextualization is essential for the growth and expansion of the church. But there is a difference between contextualization and compromise. Using goat’s milk for communion in a culture that has never heard of wine or grapes is contextualization; sacrificing the goat is compromise. Having a Saturday night service because we have run out of room in all four Sunday services is contextualization; having a Saturday night service to accommodate and/or appease people who are “too busy” on Sunday is compromise.
Peter and John did not change for the sake of their culture. They simply lived for Christ and preached the gospel. They did not adapt Christianity to the culture, nor did they seek to adapt the culture to Christianity. Their goal was to transform individuals by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. They realized that there were two incongruent kingdoms at work in the world, and they did not fight that reality. Rather, they embraced it.
I am not suggesting that believers completely withdraw from the culture. That would not be a biblical position. I am, however, suggesting that we be in the world but not of the world. The sad truth is that many of us live lives that have been so affected by our culture that we feel completely at home in a place that was not made for us and, quite honestly, does not welcome us. Many of us can’t remember the last time our Christian convictions cost us something.
This past soccer season, the league in which my son and daughter were playing had to make up two games due to rain (the price of living in Houston). The consensus in the league was that Sunday was the only available day, so the makeup games were scheduled for Sunday afternoon. My family and _I sat down to discuss the matter, but no discussion was really necessary. There was no way we were going to participate. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and playing youth soccer games on Sunday makes a definite statement about the priorities in a community.
Interestingly, the most flak from our decision came not from the irreligious people involved but from Christians! “You can go to church, then run home and change for the game,” one man said. One of my children’s coaches added, “I’d be glad to pick them up if there is somewhere you have to be.” Nobody seemed to get it. We weren’t making a decision based on the hectic nature of our Sunday schedule, nor was it a question of our adhering to a legalistic requirement handed down from our denomination. It was a matter of principle. Sunday is more than just another day. Youth sports leagues are great, but they are not sacred; Sunday is!
Again, I do not believe that there is a legalistic requirement not to play games on a Sunday. Nor do I believe that the policeman, fireman, or airline mechanic who goes in to work on Sunday is out of the will of God. I do, however, think that there is a huge difference between someone whose job requires working on Sunday and a soccer league that just doesn’t care.
This culture-accommodating attitude may not seem like much, but the implications are huge. There has been a gradual shift among many Christians in our culture—so much so that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between those who follow Christ and those who do not. The frog-in-the-kettle analogy is apropos to our situation. Place a frog in a kettle of boiling water, and he will fight to escape, or so the story goes. That same frog, if placed in tepid water, will not notice a gradual increase in temperature; he will simply lie still and be boiled alive. Friends, some of us are in hot water, and we don’t recognize the danger.
Churches often exercise forms of government that mirror secular governing bodies instead of the New Testament model. Young Christians get married and tell God how many children they are going to permit him to give them and when he is allowed to start. Christians walk in and out of marriages, citing not Scripture but “irreconcilable differences” as the grounds for their divorce. In many larger churches, the new criteria _for pastors is modeled after corporate CEO’s instead of the _descriptions in such Bible passages as 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. The temperature is rising, and if we don’t jump out before it boils, we will find ourselves following in the footsteps of our brethren in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. At one time there, churches stood as monuments of the reviving presence of God, but in many places they now serve as museums—or even pubs.
Have we forgotten who we are? We need to remember we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
The apostles were not embraced by their culture; a society at odds with their message hated them and put them to death. A central cultural governing body was the Sanhedrin, a sort of Jewish supreme court or senate that handled religious disputes and matters regarding local jurisdiction. It consisted of an austere group of seventy men, all overseen by the high priest. The court’s existence was an example of the Romans’ efforts to keep peace by allowing conquered nations to govern themselves under Roman supervision. The healing of the lame beggar, about which Peter and John were questioned, would have fallen squarely within their jurisdiction and was precisely the type of matter to which they would have given their full attention (see Acts 3:1–10).
In fact, it had been the Sanhedrin that had eventually brought charges against Jesus due to the furor over the miracles he performed and the audacious claims he made. They had feared the Roman response. Concerning the raising of Lazarus, for example, Robert Gundry notes: “The Sanhedrin was afraid that by reviving His popularity this latest miracle of Jesus would bring about a messianic revolt that would bring down harsh Roman reprisals.”3 How, then, did the Sanhedrin respond when Jesus’ followers began to do and teach the same things they had feared from Jesus? “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
And so the interrogation began. This opening statement sets the tone for the balance of the apostles’ encounter with the Sanhedrin. Everything that follows flows from the assumption that Peter and John were, in their understanding, not well-enough educated to speak and act as they had done.
A common mistake when reading this text is to interpret the phrase “uneducated and untrained men” to mean that Peter and John were illiterate country bumpkins. To do so would require quite a stretch. For instance, we would have to believe that these two illiterates gave us the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John, Revelation, and 1 and 2 Peter. In addition, we would have to believe that these two men did not receive the training that was part of a Jewish boy’s life in the first century. When all of their contemporaries were memorizing the Pentateuch or Torah, they would have to have somehow managed to skip out to go fishing.
A better explanation is that the governing council recognized the message Peter and John were preaching and, more specifically, the similarities between their words and those of Jesus. Hence the description in verse 13, “They were amazed and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.” In fact, the term “uneducated” (agrammatoi) was not exclusively used to refer to someone who was illiterate; it was also a description for those who had not been “trained in Greek rhetoric or public speaking as the priestly aristocracy would be.”4 The term may also suggest that they had not been trained by an officially recognized rabbi.
Thus, Peter and John were not being accused of stupidity or illiteracy but of nonconformity. It is as though the Sanhedrin were saying, “There is a way in which a teacher should conduct himself, and the two of you do not fit that mold. In fact, it’s worse—you sound as though Rabbi Jesus taught you!” All of these accusations came while a man who was once lame now frolicked in the streets.
John Calvin noted this irony when he commented: “Here we see an evil conscience. Devoid of reason, they launched an all-out attack. So Luke first mentions their astonishment to show how against God they were. They saw God’s work in the healing of this man, and yet they wickedly opposed him. They acknowledged that Peter and John were unschooled, ordinary men and that something more than boldness was with them. So they were astonished, whether they liked it or not. But they were so impudent that they opposed the truth like tyrants.”5
The ruling council was disconcerted by the manner in which Peter and John conducted themselves and constructed their defense. The priests and elders simply could not believe that men without their own level of training could be unafraid when brought before them to be questioned or that they could deliver such concise, cogent arguments.
The Sanhedrin’s reaction is similar to the indictment leveled against contemporary followers of Christ who do not fit into the mold of modern-day thinkers. Those of us who insist on believing and doing what the Bible says find ourselves labeled as _narrow-minded, unthinking, untrained, and uneducated babblers. We sound as though we have been following Jesus. And that, in many circles, is unthinkable.
And what is our greatest sin? We actually think we know the truth! We actually believe that we have met God. To top it off, we don’t believe that our encounter happened in some New Age, esoteric fashion; we actually believe that God has revealed himself and made himself knowable to everyone. We believe that this revelation is available to us in the Bible and that this revelation is the standard of all truth.
Truth is under attack in modern American culture. Rare is the person who believes that there are facts that correspond with reality (truths) and that those facts are true for all people in all places and at all times. Common, however, is the man or woman who believes that all religions are the same (religious relativism), that tolerance is the ultimate virtue, and that there is no absolute truth (philosophical pluralism).
Innocuous as these beliefs may seem, they are dangerous. They lead down a path filled with peril. If all religions are the same, then no religion is true. Moreover, if we believe there are no absolute truths, and all truths are equally valid, this will ultimately lead us to nihilism wherein all ideas lose their value. Ultimately, the only thing that will matter is who has sufficient power to exercise his or her will.
Imagine that you woke up today and saw this news flash: “All bills in American currency declared equal.” No longer is the $100 bill more valuable than the $1 bill. Under the new system the only thing that matters is who has the most bills of any kind. Thus, a person holding a hundred $1 bills now has the same purchasing power as a person holding a hundred $100 bills. The only question would be, “How many bills do you have?” Of course this would never fly. People would revolt and demand that the value of their bills be recognized.
While this scenario is highly unlikely, it is precisely what has happened in the marketplace of ideas. No longer does the value or validity of one’s ideas matter. All ideas are declared equal, or at least equally valid. Furthermore, it is very important that those with $100 ideas not attempt to argue against the validity of $1 ideas. Those who question are labeled intolerant, for _the act of discerning truth undermines the very core of _relativism.
These beliefs form the foundation upon which current thinking and philosophy are built. However, they are not being taught as classroom subjects. Teachers don’t stand up and say, “Today we are going to learn religious relativism.” In fact, many people are not aware of the presuppositions underlying their belief systems. These ideas have become so ingrained in today’s thinking that they simply persist without being questioned. Many people regard relativism, tolerance, and pluralism as basic courtesy.
Anyone wishing to understand the cause of the rapid spread of this post-Christian mind-set must examine our colleges and universities. One of my first religion professors made this concept very clear to me. I had just written my first paper in my Old Testament class, and he called me into his office to discuss some of the content. He told me that I was not being “academic” enough. I relied too much on the Bible, he said. Later in the semester he called me in after a statement I had made on a test that alluded to Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment and manifestation of one of the principles we were covering. This time, he was not as patient with me. The conversation occurred over thirteen years ago, but I will never forget it. He said, “You are not here to be an evangelist.” He went on to say that perhaps I was not suited for religious studies.
I started preaching during the summer before my junior year in college. Eventually, I transferred from prestigious liberal arts college to a Christian school in order to better prepare for my vocation. I progressed rapidly and eventually gained entry into Theta Alpha Kappa, a national honor society for theology students. At one of our banquets, a professor with whom I had become friends introduced me to the man who would be our speaker for the evening. We walked over and I stuck out my hand and said hello, and our guest almost choked! It was my old professor, the one who had told me that I was not well suited for religious studies. As my mother would say, “You could have bought him for a quarter!”
He was astonished! He honestly thought that an “evan-gelist” like me who believed that Jesus is the only way to God and that the Bible is the Word of God could never be a successful student of theology. I have thought of that man many times. _I thought of that professor when I went off to seminary, and the recollection motivated me to achieve. I thought of him when _I had the privilege of gathering with a group of religious leaders from around the country to advise Governor George W. Bush on religious issues as he pursued the presidency of the United States. I thought of him when my family and I were on the plane to England, and when I studied in the postgraduate program at the University of Oxford. I also thought of him when _I was hooded at my graduation ceremony at Southeastern Seminary upon earning my doctorate. And yes, he is on my mind as I write this book. Not just him, but what he represents—the notion that anyone who does not buy into the ideals of religious relativism, the new tolerance, and philosophical pluralism has checked his or her brain at the door and is essentially “uneducated and untrained.”
My motivation to succeed did not come from a desire to prove my professor wrong. On the contrary, my motivation came from the fact that in many ways he was right. He spoke for the culture at large. He represents the “informed intellectuals” and “academics” in our culture. He was not a voice crying in the wilderness. He was one of the cornerstones of an academic program at one of America’s top universities. His answers to religious questions would be considered learned and progressive to many people. One can find attitudes similar to his at many of our nation’s top secular schools and even at some “Christian” universities and seminaries.
In his book The Real Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson reflects on this trend that has become the norm in theological education. He states: “First-year students, who often come to seminary with deeply conservative convictions concerning the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scripture, are exposed at once to the ‘shock therapy’ of the historical critical method. They are told by eminent professors, often in tones of scarcely contained glee, that everything they ever believed is wrong, and that to be part of this new academic environment they must accept the ‘historical critical view’ of the Bible.”6
Johnson’s assessment rings true in far too many instances. _I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of mine who attended a seminary that fit Johnson’s analysis. At one of his lowest points during his second year of seminary, my friend said, “I’m not God, and I can’t judge a person’s heart, but if _I had to guess, I would say that no more than one or two of the professors I have had are saved.” Again, this was during his second year in seminary!
I realize that my comments may sound harsh, but many examples support both Johnson’s assessment and my friend’s experience. Bishop John Shelby Spong, retired from the Episcopal Church, spoke at the William Beldon Noble Lectures given at Harvard University Divinity School in March 2000, and his most recent book began its life there. Spong set out to identify the key components of traditional theology with which he disagrees. In the opening pages of his book he states, “I do not believe that Jesus could or did in any literal way raise the dead, overcome a medically diagnosed paralysis, or restore sight to a person born blind or to one in whom the ability to see had been physically destroyed.”7
I do not believe that Jesus entered this world by the miracle of a virgin birth or that virgin births occur anywhere except in mythology. I do not believe that a literal star guided literal wise men to bring Jesus gifts or that literal angels sang to hillside shepherds to announce his birth. I do not believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or that he fled into Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. . . . I do not believe that the experience Christians celebrate at Easter was the physical resuscitation of the three-days-dead body of Jesus, nor do I believe that anyone literally talked with Jesus after the resurrection moment, gave him food, touched his resurrected flesh, or walked in any physical manner with his risen body.8
These beliefs are understandable in light of Spong’s view of the Bible: “I do not believe that the Bible is the ‘word of God’ in any literal sense. I do not regard it as the primary source of divine revelation. I do not believe that God dictated it or even inspired its production in its entirety. I see the Bible as a human book mixing the profound wisdom of sages through the centuries with the limitations of human perceptions of reality at a particular time in human history.”9
While Spong is not a tenured professor, he had enough academic clout to lecture extensively at Harvard Divinity School, and he cannot be overlooked. Lest you think these are the rantings of some maniacal ivory-tower theologian out on the fringe, think again. Bishop Spong’s last book was a New York Times best seller! Views such as his are not limited to Harvard or the Ivy League schools. They are increasingly mainstream.
Perhaps a more poignant example is Marcus Borg, the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. Speaking of his previous (read “orthodox”) beliefs concerning Jesus, he writes: “I believed in that Jesus without difficulty and without effort. I now understand why it was so easy: I received this image of Jesus in what I have since learned to call the state of precritical naiveté—that childhood state in which we take for granted that whatever the _significant authority figures in our lives tell us to be true is indeed true.”10
According to Borg, his seminary experience eventually liberated him from this “precritical naiveté” that characterized his former faith. He writes:
There I learned that the image of Jesus from my childhood—the popular image of Jesus as the divine savior who knew himself to be the Son of God and who offered up his life for the sins of the world—was not historically true. That, I learned was not what the historical Jesus was like. . . . I learned that the Gospels are neither divine documents nor straightforward historical records. They are not divine products inspired directly by God, whose contents therefore are to be believed (as I had thought prior to this). Nor are they eyewitness accounts written by people who had accompanied Jesus and simply sought to report what they had seen and heard.11
If Borg’s comments sound similar to Spong’s, it is no coincidence. Both men’s statements stem from the same philosophical presuppositions. Unfortunately, these statements are typical of scores of professors of religion and theology throughout the United States and the world. And many of these theologians disseminate their views in seminaries designed to train the pastors and professors of tomorrow.
This is not to say that the seminary is a bad place. On the contrary, I am disturbed by the increasing level of disdain for theological education among evangelicals, some of which stems from the presence of professors like Borg, but much of which stems from antiintellectualism in the church. However, I am also disturbed by the fact that seminaries and divinity schools are often judged by the degree to which they embrace the aforementioned views.
When people learn that I have degrees from two conservative Southern Baptist seminaries, they tend to receive the information with a yawn. However, when they discover that I also did postgraduate work at Oxford, their eyes light up, and _I almost expect them to kneel down before me and exclaim, “We’re not worthy!” Ironically, Marcus Borg is an Oxford product. Most of what I encountered there epitomized liberal, inclusivist, postmodern, and deconstructionist theology.
“So why did you go?” I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked that question. The answer is simple: “Because _I could.” OK, maybe it’s not that simple. First, I saw an opportunity to stretch myself. I knew I would be in enemy territory and that my views would be tested. Second, I wanted to see the other side up close. I wanted to hear the arguments being made from the ground up by people who sincerely held these beliefs. Third—and this is the subject for another book—as a black man, I am sick of the stigma that affirmative action has attached to my accomplishments. It is constantly assumed by some that every academic achievement in my life is at least to some degree the product of quotas or set-asides.
I tell people I went to Rice, and they assume, “You must have played football,” and I did. But that is not the point. Other football players from Rice—whose complexion is not as dark as mine—usually get a different response. They hear, “You must be pretty smart.” Granted, I have received my share of those comments, but they have been few. I saw Oxford as an opportunity to place myself in an environment free of the stigma of quotas, set-asides and lowered standards for black students. I saw it as an opportunity to remove even the perception that I was being judged by anything other than the “content of my character.” Affirmative action may seem out of place in this discussion, but it is not. Affirmative action in the name of diversity is at center stage in the pluralism/relativism discussion, as I will demonstrate in chapter 2.
I spend a great deal of time on college campuses, and some of the most common questions I face have to do with students desiring to defend their faith to their professors. I can’t tell you how many times students have asked me, “How can I respectfully engage a professor who insists on railing against Christianity?” Another popular question is, “What documentation can I use to refute evolution?” In recent days, in light of all of the statements about the “peaceful” nature of Islam, another question is, “Where can I go to get balanced information on the history and theology of Islam?”
These questions arise out of an adversarial environment where Christianity in many cases has been deemed intolerant and narrow. The university campus is the front line in the battle for truth. It is here that the ideals and philosophies that characterize the age of relativism are shaped, packaged, and perpetuated. It is here that mature men and women challenge and often disrupt the flimsy foundations upon which the ideals of young students are built. Regrettably, the concepts with which the student’s ideals are replaced are not born out of sound academic research and clear logic; instead, they are birthed out of unfounded philosophical presuppositions. What’s worse, the university is not alone. The culture at large provides many allies in this battle for the student’s beliefs, not the least of which are our legal system and the media.
I do not mean to suggest that the American legal system is out to get Christians. That is simply not true. However, there are several legal issues that I believe shed light on the current post-Christian cultural climate. Each of these issues has remained at the forefront of recent legal battles, and none of them shows any signs of losing momentum anytime soon. While the following is not an exhaustive list, I think it will suffice to make the point.
The frequency with which this term is used causes some to marvel when they discover that the phrase “separation of church and state” cannot be found in the Constitution. That’s right, it’s not there! Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase in a letter he wrote to the Baptist Association in Danbury, Connecticut, in an effort to assure them that the rumors they had heard about the establishment of a state church were false. His letter reads as follows:
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association give me the highest satisfaction. . . . Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, _I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association assurances of my high respect and esteem.12
Jefferson’s sentiments become clearer when viewed in light of his many remarks and writings on the subject. In his second inaugural address, for example, he stated that in matters of religion, “its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general [federal] government.” David Barton, a leading advocate for the appropriate rendering of _the First Amendment as it relates to Christianity in American _culture, believes that “Jefferson had committed himself as President to pursuing the purpose of the First Amendment: _preventing the ‘establishment of a particular form of Christianity’ by the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, or any other denomination.”13
The First Amendment, which many cite as the source of the doctrine of the separation of church and state, reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These simple words are a far cry from the interpretation often expressed and discussed today. Due to a simple misreading or misapplication of the words of Thomas Jefferson written in a private letter, this issue has reached a point of crisis. Barton’s conclusion puts a fine enough point on the matter:
Therefore, if Jefferson’s letter is to be used today, let its context be clearly given—as in previous years. Furthermore, earlier courts had always viewed Jefferson’s Danbury letter for just what it was: a personal, private letter to a specific group. There is probably no other instance in America’s history where words spoken by a single individual in a private letter—words clearly divorced from their context—have become the sole authorization for a national policy. Finally, Jefferson’s Danbury letter should never be invoked as a stand-alone document. A proper analysis of Jefferson’s views must include his numerous other statements on the First Amendment.14
Jefferson’s own words, encapsulated on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, summarize his thought: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Jefferson’s goal was not to keep religion out of the halls of government; he wanted to keep government out of the halls of religion.
Whenever I raise this issue, people look at me like I am from the moon. “You are an African-American. How can you be suspicious of hate crimes legislation?” one man asked. After explaining to him that I am not an African-American (or any other kind of hyphenated quasi-American), I went on to raise several questions about hate crimes legislation that continually give me pause.
Hate is a difficult concept to quantify. Does a person who steals from a grocery store do so because he or she hates _the store? Does the drug addict destroy his or her body out of self-hatred? How about the serial killer who targets strangers? Can one hate a stranger? These are just a few of the questions that must be addressed if we are to define hate. Currently, hate seems to be defined by preferred minority groups who believe _a priori that those who commit crimes against members of their group must do so out of hate. I say “preferred minority groups” because hate crimes do not span the gamut of minority groups. Laotians, for example, are a racial and ethnic minority in America, but they are not protected by hate crimes legislation. Do we actually believe that no one hates Laotians? No! They simply do not have the political clout or a large enough voting block to exert the political pressure necessary to achieve preferred minority status. Therefore, they do not get to participate in defining hate in our society.
Do the DC-area snipers qualify for hate-crimes prosecution since there is evidence that they did what they did out of hatred for America? Of course, the answer to this question is no. There are only a few groups that are included in hate-crimes statutes. Most legislation targets crimes committed against individuals or groups because of their race, gender, sexual preference, national origin (actual or perceived), and religion.
What about the Packers fan who beats up the Bears fan because he hates the Bears? Isn’t that a hate crime? What about the person who hates Swedes, Brits, Norwegians, Canadians, or Australians? Why is it that killing a black or Hispanic person is a hate crime, but killing an Australian is just a crime? Isn’t all murder motivated by hate? In fact, it could be argued that every violent crime is a crime of hate. But that is not the way the law works.
On the morning of November 6, 2002, two black students at the University of Alabama woke up to find racial epithets written on their dorm-room doors. The unspeakably vile words were accompanied by a stick figure drawing of a lynching. The entire campus was in an uproar. Eventually, civil rights activists joined the fray, calling for public condemnation of the actions by the university administration and a commitment to pursue both state and federal hate crimes charges against the perpetrators.
Why then was there no outrage when the perpetrators were not prosecuted? Why was there no appearance by black leaders protesting the fact that no arrests were made and no state or federal hate crime charges were filed? Why are most people completely unaware of the events that followed the capture of the criminals? Why? Because they were black! That’s right, three black students committed these hate crimes against two black fellow students.
Had three white students been caught committing these crimes, the NAACP, the ACLU, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton would have been on every national news program demanding justice! No sentence would have been sufficient, no apology from the university would have been satisfactory. However, the three black culprits will likely receive no more than a slap on the wrists, and that will bring no outrage.
The event’s significance devolved from another reminder of the ever-present racism in our culture to a prank pulled by immature, unthinking college students who should not have their futures ruined by a momentary lack of judgment. The irony is palpable. The newspaper headline, “Students at Ole Miss torment black students with racial epithets and get away with it,” sounds like one from the 1950s or 1960s. The crucial difference is that in the past someone would have been shouting about injustice from the rooftops.
I wish that the goal of hate crimes legislation was to end hate, but it is not. In fact, not only is that not the goal of hate crimes legislation, but it is not the goal of legislation in general. Legislation serves only to punish crimes, not to end them. Legislation against theft, burglary, assault, and other crimes does not end those crimes; it merely grants society the means by which those who commit the crimes are punished. Hate crimes legislation, though, is unique in that it does not seek to punish people for what they do but for what they feel and think.
For example, a person who paints a Nazi symbol on a Jewish temple is already guilty of vandalism. A person who burns down a black church is already guilty of arson, and a man who kills another man because of his race, national origin, or sexual preference is already guilty of murder. Each of these people would be punished for his crimes regardless of whether we had hate crimes statutes. The difference the new laws make is that now we are authorized to crawl inside the perpetrators’ heads to determine whether they have animosity toward a “preferred minority.” If so, we punish them more.
I fear hate crimes legislation may eventually make it a crime to preach sermons from parts of the Bible that address homosexuality, abortion, and other hot-button issues. Ultimately, this legislation can do nothing about the crimes themselves, only about the perceived source of these crimes, the so-called hate-speech. No doubt some of the statements in this book, such as salvation through Jesus alone, would be considered hate-speech by some!
One of the fiercest debates in our land in recent years has been over the issue of whether it is appropriate for copies of the Ten Commandments to hang in public places such as schools and courtrooms. The posting of the Ten Commandments is so prominent in the United States that there is actually a copy in the Supreme Court. They are viewed as a foundation upon which the very concept of law is built.
Opposition to the posting of the Ten Commandments is usually based on the aforementioned separation of church and state myth. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, explains their organization’s opposition as follows: “Opposition to state-sponsored posting of the Ten Commandments does not arise out of hostility to the timeless values conveyed in Exodus 20:1–17. Rather, it arises out of a profound respect for the diversity of religions in America today—those that embrace Biblical law and those that derive their ethics and values from other texts. By adhering to the principle of separation of church and state we best fulfill the Constitution’s legacy of religious liberty for all Americans.”15
That’s right. It matters not that the Ten Commandments serve as the backdrop of our nation’s legal heritage—the possibility that they may offend atheists is what is important.