W Publishing Group
It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our
With God officially expunged from America’s public life, can guns be far behind?
. . . Without guts, guns become museum pieces, and God becomes a nostalgic
memory. In other words, lose one and you lose all three.
Rolling down one side of America’s cultural highway is a Lexus RX hybrid with a “Love Your Mother (Earth)” decal discreetly placed in the lower left of the rear window. Below, a bumper sticker features an illustration of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker, next to the quotation, “I think; therefore I am a liberal.” Headed in the opposite direction across the double yellow line is a Dodge Ram Hemi pickup truck with a gun rack mounted in the cab, a Confederate flag pasted across the back window, and a bumper sticker proclaiming, “God, Guns, ’n’ Guts Made America Free!”
On their way home to Blue and Red America, these two road warriors are unwitting adversaries in a titanic clash of conflicting worldviews—often called the culture wars.
What’s God got to do with America? The woman in the Lexus behind designer prescription sunglasses thinks God has nothing to do with America— past, present, or future. The dude in the Dodge wearing a Skoal ball cap thinks God has a lot—if not everything—to do with America.
Could they both be wrong? God may very well have more to do with America than liberals may think and less than conservatives often assume.
THROWING “RABBIT PUNCHES” AND LOW BLOWS LEFT AND RIGHT
America’s political divide has generated plenty of heat and hot air, and voices on both sides have been needlessly strident. The nonfiction best-seller lists in the last decade chart the partisan pendulum swings. Ten years ago liberal comedian Al Franken threw down the gauntlet with his crass-as-you-can Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (Delacorte, 1996). Conservative television host Bill O’Reilly hit the list a few years later with his pull-no-punches diatribe The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life (Broadway, 2000). Emmy-winning reporter Bernard Goldberg turned up the volume by blowing his shrill whistle Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (Regnery, 2001), recounting tale after tale of liberal censorship in the way the media control and shape the news.
Leftist muckraker Michael Moore—best known for his “documentaries,” such as Roger and Me and Fahrenheit 9/11—grabbed the book-shaped megaphone with Stupid White Men . . . and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! (ReganBooks, 2002), a screed about how “Thief-in-Chief” George W. Bush and his Republican power elite allegedly stole the 2000 election from Al Gore and the Democrats. Authors David Hardy and Jason Clarke countered with Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man (ReganBooks, 2004), which drew praise from conservatives (and not a few liberals who confessed they couldn’t stand Moore either).
Ann Coulter further lowered the level of “discourse” with Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right (Crown, 2002). Franken hit it big again with Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (Dutton, 2003). Not to be outdone, Bernard Goldberg encored on the bestseller list with 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken Is #37) (HarperCollins, 2005), which featured Michael Moore on the front cover, among other “America Bashers,” “Hollywood Blowhards,” “TV Schlockmeisters,” and “Intellectual Thugs.” Meanwhile, Ann Coulter kept up her best-selling attacks on the Left, including How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) (Crown, 2004) and Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Crown, 2006), swinging verbal punches in her books and in interviews with the articulate, yet no-holds-barred, abandon of a roller-derby queen. Talk show host Michael Savage continued to live down to his name with best-selling tirades, such as Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder: Savage Solutions (Nelson, 2005).
A little book that never made the best-seller lists employed a compendium of liberal pundits to take down all the voices on the Right in one volume, one target per chapter, in The I Hate Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity . . . Reader: The Hideous Truth about America’s Ugliest Conservatives. The back-cover copy hits the sneering tone of the political culture wars with pitch-perfect prose.
Sick to death of the right-wing blowhards and bullies who dominate our media? This collection exposes the hypocrisy and lies of the reactionary jerks, hatemongers, and sycophants who foul the public’s airwaves. Get the goods on hateful hatchet woman Ann Coulter, who disdains facts as much as she does ordinary Americans. Check out the titanic hypocrisy of talk-radio loudmouth Rush “drug users should go to jail—except in my case” Limbaugh. Stand amazed at the antics of pompous, rage-filled bully Bill O’Reilly as he stoops to new lows to serve his corporate masters and his own gigantic ego. Observe lunatic thugs Sean Hannity and Michael Savage as they drag our public discourse through the gutter for their own selfish ends.
The problem with nasty shouting matches is that eventually they get boring for all except the few principals juicing their adrenaline and the followers feeding off the vicarious thrill. The most thoughtful inevitably turn down the volume simply by turning away.
The major media outlets in this country bear a significant responsibility for shaping the debate in these stark, most-extreme-position terms and then labeling it “balanced journalism.” Most Americans—unless they have been interviewed for a radio or television program—are not aware of a nefarious practice called the “pre-interview process.” In this screening procedure, the media interview potential candidates for their suitability in filling the preordained slots of extreme- Right and extreme-Left positions they have already identified. They often cull out the individuals who have balanced views and who try to discuss the issues in a reasonable way. Instead of bringing on two people with divergent views who are trying to forge some common ground, they feature adversarial opponents and try to maximize the distance between them. This strategy distorts the individual positions while misleading the country into thinking there is greater divisiveness and less common ground than actually exist.
I know this prescreening process like the back of my hand, because I have been culled out hundreds of times. I remember being questioned for an interview in which the producers wanted me, as an Evangelical, to say that Pope John Paul II—one of the greatest historical and religious figures of the twentieth century— was the head of a “false religion.” I was not prepared to say such a thing because I don’t believe it. Rather, I said, the pope is the head of a doctrinal understanding of the Christian faith with which I disagree—a position that disqualified me from participating.
During another pre-interview I was asked if I, as an Evangelical, believed that Islam was an evil religion. I said, “No, as a Christian, I believe that Islam is a wrong religion—Christianity is right about the truth, and Islam is wrong.” I described “evil religion” as somebody doing something evil in the name of religion, whether the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses to terrorize African-Americans in a blasphemous distortion of Christianity or terrorists recruiting children to be suicide bombers in the name of Islam. That response wasn’t what they had in mind. It was far too reasonable and not nearly extreme enough. “That’s not really what we’re looking for,” the producer said to me, “but thank you for your time.”
One of the primary reasons I am writing this book is to circumvent media prescreeners (and their “adversarial extreme” model of journalism), to penetrate the din generated by societal screamers, and to invite you, the reader, to a conversation concerning these critically important questions: What does God (or religion, if you prefer) have to do with America today? What has God had to do with our past? And what role should God play in our nation’s future?
Interestingly, it appears that the media themselves are aware of their tendency to distort religious issues. A Public Agenda study on American attitudes toward religion found that the media admit their coverage of religion is anything but evenhanded: “Of the 219 journalists surveyed—reporters who cover straight news stories, not those who exclusively work the religion beat—35% agree with the statement ‘On the whole, the news media do a very good job of covering religion and religion issues.’ Almost six in ten (59%) journalists express concern that ‘the news media are especially eager to report scandal and sensational news when the subject is religion.’”4
Current best-seller lists suggest that the liberal-versus-conservative screeching to the choir seems to be passing its peak of popularity, for which no doubt some of us will be thankful while others fidget impatiently for the next political smack-down contest. As the hot air drains out of the culture-war winds, however, the debate continues to shift over to the new tide of rising interest in religion. After ignoring this elephant in America’s living room, mainstream media have finally caught on that religion is a major force in American life, not a fringe curiosity of political fanaticism.
I have been called upon in media interviews as a conservative Christian countervoice to leftist ministry leader Jim Wallis, familiar for decades in Christian social justice networks through his Sojourners magazine and national Call to Renewal movement. Those who followed his antiwar activism during the Vietnam War era know that his critique of American capitalism and free-market economies is long-standing. When Vietnamese refugees fled their country in the 1970s in the wake of the newly victorious Communist regime, Wallis declared, “Many of today’s refugees were inoculated with a taste for a Western lifestyle during the war years and are fleeing to support their consumer habit in other lands.”5 Recently Wallis has become a fixture in mainstream media through his bestselling book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), which agitates for his left-leaning social and political agendas while critiquing positions espoused by conservative Evangelicals. The degree of regularity with which “God’s politics” seem to agree with Wallis’s politics is amazing.
The popularity of Wallis’s book has coincided with a rising tide of media attention to the greatly increased interest in religion in America. The attacks on our country on 9/11 were part of this impetus, thrusting questions about religious fanaticism and extremism into public consciousness. Added to such flash-point issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, already laden with religious content, have been controversies that pose the question in the most direct possible way of what role God should play in American public life: not just school prayer, but references to God in our Pledge of Allegiance, on our currency, in our public assemblies, and in the self-expressed faith convictions of candidates for public office.
Everywhere, it seems, the question is being raised, What’s God got to do with America? The question of whether, how, and why God is—or isn’t—involved with this country has been on the lips of our leaders and citizens since the very beginning of English settlement on this continent. However, the most recent versions of this question have roots in the enormous transformations that have taken place in this country since the cultural sea changes of the 1960s.
HOW THE REPUBLICAN PARTY GOT RELIGION (AGAIN)
Our political system is based on two major parties. Third parties formed around particular issues or individuals inevitably rise and fall as tangential to the two that are dominant. If a crisis occurs in which neither party will accommodate itself to a social movement that has reached critical mass, history shows we will not get a third party. Rather, what will happen is that the weaker of the two major parties will die, and it will be replaced by a new party. That has already occurred once before in our history, when both the Whig Party and the Democratic Party tried to be pro-choice on slavery. The antislavery movement had reached critical mass, and the weaker party—the Whigs—died and was replaced by the Republican Party, which became the party of the antislavery movement.
In the latter third of the twentieth century, the social issue reaching critical mass was the pro-life movement. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision changed our social, political, and moral landscape by declaring almost all restrictions on abortion unconstitutional. I am convinced that if the Republican Party—critically weakened in the wake of the Watergate scandals of the Nixon administration—had not accommodated itself to the prolife movement (which was reaching critical mass in the period between 1976 and 1980) and had not adopted a pro-life plank in its platform, it would have died and been replaced by a new party, formed in large part around the burgeoning resistance to abortion.
What happened in the period between Roe v. Wade and 1980 that contributed to the Republican Party’s revitalization? One of the things that happened was that an odd-looking little man named Francis Schaeffer began writing and speaking against abortion-on-demand. He became arguably the most influential conservative, religious activist of the modern era. He wielded enormous influence in getting Evangelical Christians involved in the political system, especially in response to Roe v. Wade.
Schaeffer believed in truth with a capital T—“true truth,” he called it. That meant it was true not just on Sunday, but also on Monday. It was true not just at home, but also at school and at work and in the public arena. Christians had an obligation to be “salt” and “light” as the Bible says (Matthew 5:13–16). Schaeffer helped Evangelicals jettison a deep strain of pietism that had misled them to believe they shouldn’t be involved in politics and other “worldly” activities. He helped an entire generation of Christians to understand their biblical responsibility to be salt and light in society—and, of course, salt has to touch what it preserves; light has to be close enough to the darkness that it can be seen. Among the questions that Schaeffer repeatedly posed (usually in the context of the abortion issue) in his books, such as How Shall We Then Live?, The God Who Is There, and A Christian Manifesto, were these: If not you, who? If not now, when? If not this, what?
Resistance to abortion is what brought about the phenomenal and unprecedented alliance between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics that marked the 1980s and beyond. This ecumenical cooperation did not happen just at the national level; it happened at the local level as well, in neighborhoods as Protestants and Catholics worked together in crisis pregnancy centers and walked side by side on protest lines. They began to get to know each other in new ways and discovered more common ground than differences in their worldviews on social issues.
Foundational to the common ground that Protestants and Catholics were discovering in each other was the belief that human beings are accountable to a transcendent moral authority. Therefore, individual choices are limited by divinely ordained moral imperatives regarding the beginning and end of life. There has always been a strong religious element in the conservative movement in the United States, and in the late 1970s the religious core of the Republican Party was galvanized in large part by the abortion issue. At the same time, the Democratic Party was becoming the party that believed in the Ten Suggestions rather than the Ten Commandments.
In recent decades, the conservative-liberal divide has widened over this very issue of moral authority. One of the foundational planks of conservatism is the belief in a transcendent moral order: in other words, there are—dare I mention the word?—absolutes. Some things are always right, and some things are always wrong, and truth is not always relative. In fact, truth is never relative. For liberals, however, personal autonomy and freedom of choice have been the highest values, along with a denial of transcendent moral authority—thus the pro-choice side of the abortion issue. In the absence of truth with a capital T, each individual is free to manufacture his or her own moral universe. In the absence of absolutes, personal freedom and individual rights become the highest values (though, as philosophers have observed, the moral grounds for any person to respect another’s freedom and rights are undermined eventually).
Georgetown professor and Brookings Institution senior fellow E. J. Dionne Jr., commenting on the new religious divide in this country between traditional religious believers and those with no religious faith or a more liberal, “modernist” faith (evidenced in the 2004 election, when regular churchgoers voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush and nonchurchgoers voted heavily for John Kerry), cites this underlying clash of worldviews: “James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who introduced the culture-war concept to a wide audience, defines the orthodox or traditionalist view as ‘the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority.’ In progressivism, on the other hand, ‘moral authority tends to be defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.’”6
This is a clear picture of the religious divide in this country: on the one side, those who are committed to a transcendent moral authority; on the other, those whose moral authority is defined by rationalism and subjectivism. Rationalism is the view that we know the world only through our rational faculties of reason and observation—something is true if you can understand it and measure it. Either there is no such thing as the supernatural, or it is irrelevant, and religious faith, which takes it seriously, is misguided and naïve. Subjectivism views reality through one lens: the self—it’s true if it’s true for you. There is no reality outside of your own experience. You can have religious faith or not, as long as it has nothing to do with some absolute reality beyond the self, because the self is the only ultimate or absolute reality.
Let’s illustrate the clash of these views on an obvious subject: sex. The traditionalist view says that how we think and behave about sex is defined by a moral authority transcendent to ourselves. We can’t simply do what feels good, because we are accountable to a higher being—God, who created sex for specific reasons and gave it to us as a gift. The progressive view says that sex is a personal experience, and anything is permissible as long as it involves no coercion or deception. Sex is simply an appetite that consenting adults can indulge at will as long as it doesn’t “hurt” anybody else.
Even liberals have begun to admit (mostly when their daughters reach the teenage years) that the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s has had unfortunate, unforeseen consequences. The ravages are there for all to see—the rising poverty rates among unwed mothers, the sexual abuse by nonbiologically related males living in the home, and the exponential spread of sexually transmitted diseases— just to name a few. A friend of mine, a practicing therapist who happens to be a liberal feminist, tells me of the steady stream of young women she sees from the university campus nearby who come into her office over and over again with the same basic lament: “I just want sex to mean something.” I don’t think there is any other area of human life as utterly and overwhelmingly demeaned by the do-your-own-thing subjectivism of our age as sexuality. And now, thanks to the Internet, no corner of our society, inside or outside the church, children or adults, is safe from the horrific plague of pornography that has descended upon us.
What God has to do with America starts with what Americans have to do with God. Is there a God or not? If there is a God, is He the God of the Bible, of the Torah, of the Qur’an, or a god we can “find within,” entirely defined by how we experience that god? Is there a source of moral authority beyond ourselves, or are we the supreme rulers of our own bodies and souls? Does sex really mean something absolutely or not?
Keep this in mind, because first we are going to plunge into the God-andcountry shouting match to see what each side is saying and what each side is missing. Only then can we dig down deep enough to identify what God should and shouldn’t have to do with America, why it matters so much, and how we can find a solution that honors our country and empowers each of us to serve faithfully and freely as citizens of this remarkable nation out of the deepest, God-honoring convictions of our lives.
AMERICA—SHOULD GOD LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT?
Steven Waldman of Beliefnet.com and John C. Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have identified what they call the “twelve tribes” of American politics, a configuration based on moral values, spiritual affinities, and religious affiliations. Their research yields intriguing insights into how and why people vote in particular ways on “moral values” issues and in relation to the religious convictions of political candidates.7 However, in the general clamor of the God-in-America debate, the noisiest voices seem to coalesce (predictably) around two opposing viewpoints, conservative and liberal.
Roughly speaking, the conservative view could be summarized as the traditional God-and-country position: “We’ve been taking God out of this country, and we need to put Him back in—where He’s always been before we headed down this godless road.” For example, here is a warning from radio talk show host and Christian minister Chuck Baldwin:
God (at least the God of the Bible) has been expelled from America’s schools and from America’s culture. “Merry Christmas” has been replaced with “Happy Holidays.” Major corporations and government entities are openly hostile to virtually any form of Christian expression. Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled the phrase “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance to be unconstitutional.
With God officially expunged from America’s public life, can guns be far behind? Well, the same Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals appears ready to rid our country of them, also. . . . Here is the point: the assault weapons ban signed by Bush the Elder is scheduled to expire during the next Congress unless Bush the Younger decides to extend it. This is why the timing of the Ninth Court’s decision is so important, which brings us to the third member of our triumphant trilogy: guts. . . .
Without guts, guns become museum pieces, and God becomes a nostalgic memory. In other words, lose one and you lose all three.
At the other end of the spectrum is the liberal view, which we could basically summarize in this way: “Separation of church and state means that God shouldn’t have anything to do with American politics and public life, so we need to take God out of this country—and keep it that way.” Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, condemns any belief that is not subject to rational, evidence-based reasoning. Thus our religious traditions are “intellectually defunct and politically ruinous,” he maintains, and religion is “nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance.”9 It is not enough for Harris simply to denounce religious faith as irrational, however. Citing religious war as the inevitable consequence when opposing belief systems clash, he calls for an end not just to religious extremism, but to “the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God” as “one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”10
Harris would argue for more than simply taking God out of public debate in America; he calls for the literal marginalization of those who stubbornly persist in believing in God: “It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil. . . . Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.”11
Do you think Sam Harris is a lone voice crying in the wilderness of liberal extremism? His book has become a best seller, garnering accolades and winning awards such as the prestigious 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction. In the New York Times, reviewer Natalie Angier commended Harris’s depiction of “major religious systems like Judaism, Christianity and Islam as socially sanctioned forms of lunacy.” Further, she hailed his willingness to write “what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say in contemporary America.”12
What’s God got to do with America? The voices in today’s heated arguments provide wildly opposing answers. However, regardless of how any of us respond, the question itself immediately confronts us with a few realities preceding our individual opinions.
From the standpoint of the past, the answer to this question is unequivocally, “Quite a lot.” Any study of American history necessarily involves understanding what Americans thought God had to do with them. We will be exploring more of this legacy later on—what it meant then, what it means for us now, and why there’s so much controversy over America’s religious past.
From the perspective of the present, the answer also would seem to be, “God has a lot to do with America,” because that is the majority opinion according to numerous polls. Seven of every ten Americans say they want the influence of religion in our society to grow.13 It’s well documented that a majority of these individuals are referring to a religion centered on “God” as traditionally understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
And looking ahead, if trends hold, America’s future will continue to involve “God” prominently and publicly because more people are becoming more religious or “spiritual.”
But these realities don’t address the question of what God really does have to do with America—why, how, and in what forms and ways? And how can we possibly answer such a question when so many Americans differ so widely on their views of God (or no god), how their views influence their private and public lives, and how they feel others’ views about God ought to impinge on personal and public areas of their lives?
For understanding the nature and shape of American society past, present, and future, I can hardly think of a more relevant question to pursue—thus this book. But I also believe it is an important question to ask and seek to answer because there is currently so much confusion over this question. We must seek to answer this question because so much is at stake in what we determine the answer to be.
The conservatives too often assume that God is on America’s side, making patriotism idolatrous and the country an idol. That is the Right’s besetting error. Liberals too often don’t believe it matters whether God has a side in public policy debates, or they believe such questions are disqualified from consideration by a supposed constitutional mandate of church-state separation. That viewpoint makes a particular judicial interpretation of the Constitution an idol. That is the Left’s besetting error.14
What’s God got to do with America? The country needs a better way to think about this question, because both sides of the worldview wars are missing the mark in some very crucial respects. And while I confess that I enjoy a good round of verbal jousting, I don’t have much appetite for shouting matches. When neither side is interested in listening to the other, but each side responds by shouting so loudly that its opponents either can’t or won’t listen, both sides generate a lot of heat, but very little light.
Clearing the confusion is not just an exercise in getting policy right, having the “right” views, or trumping the other voices with a more clever solution. And neither do I presume to have the full-orbed biblical perspective on the question of what God has to do with America. Ultimately, only God knows what the complete “biblical” position is, but if Christians fully commit themselves to Him in Christ, I believe He will graciously lead us to a more complete understanding.
However, I am earnestly invested in proposing an appropriate and fruitful way of addressing this question because the future of our nation will be shaped by how each of us answers it. If we don’t identify what each side of this debate is missing and why, we’re going to waste precious time and resources on yet another shouting match that will take the place of the kind of moral and spiritual reformation we so desperately need. We can’t afford to get sidetracked in yet another screeching-to-the-choir wrangle that will only leave opponents more embittered and hostile to each other, with increasing numbers in the middle deciding, “This whole God thing is just a personal matter, and anyway, nobody really knows for sure.”
If we allow confusion or frustration to deflect our best efforts, we will miss what the underlying crisis truly is—a titanic clash of the worldviews masquerading as a political correctness debate about whether I have the right to impose my religious views on you, or whether you have the right to tell me what I can and can’t say or do when I step into the public square. My friends, underneath this debate are critical assumptions that will radically shape the future of this country for good or for ill, and it is high time we realize what they are and learn how to respond to them in ways that will cut through our cultural impasse and lead us to a better future for all Americans.
So let’s take a closer look. What’s God got to do with America? Well, not everything . . .
but far more than liberals may think,
and a lot less than conservatives may assume,
in much different ways than either side acknowledges,
and for far more important reasons than you might imagine.