Friday, November 30, 2012

Response to John Nugent: Part 7 - American Conservatism

I promise this will be my last post on this topic. Nugent has indicated he intends to post more on Daniel, which I'm also somewhat interested in of late so I may keep up with his blog and refer to it in the future. But this will be my final response to his series on Elections and Idolatry. Mostly, this is the happy, happy, joy, joy, I'm okay, you're okay, I love you, you love me, Kumbaya post. But before we get too warm and fuzzy let me briefly summarize my main objections to what Nugent has said before I get to areas of agreement.

1. I do not like it when people twist the Bible to support a point of view. I am sometimes guilty of this myself, but when I go to the Bible I constantly remind myself that I am asking a question of an authority and looking for an answer. I constantly keep in mind that the Bible is not necessarily there to answer all the questions that I could possibly ask, so the answer may not be there. The Bible doesn't exist to answer all my questions about life, the universe and everything. I grew up an evangelical, and I know very well the tendency we have to make the Bible support all sorts of things that the text was never intended to address. This is probably the source of my negative tone towards Nugent. I feel very strongly that this method of playing fast and loose with Scripture is dangerous and irresponsible. The Bible is primarily a historical document providing us with an accurate history of What Happened. It is a record and in most cases an eye-witness testimony of God's interaction with Man. It is dangerous to run all around the Bible taking all sorts of moral object lessons from texts that were not intended as such. It is dangerous to introduce outside information into the text that isn't there. I feel that Nugent did that all over the place especially in the third post and I reacted strongly against it. In a few cases he wrote exactly the opposite of some pretty unambiguous passages. I feel that anger is a perfectly appropriate response for a Christian to something like that.

2. I do not like Nugent's negative tone towards American Christians and conservatives. As I explained in my previous post, this is exactly the sort of narrative I have heard my entire life from secular sources trying to paint America, Christians, white people and men as the bad guys for their own political purposes. With many people, simply belonging to any of these categories elicits an automatic indictment. It is prejudice, pure and simple, and it is prejudice that dominates the public debate and academia. It disappoints me that this sort of knee-jerk emotional response has infected Christian academics as well, but it just goes to show us that Christians cannot abstain from cultural battles and expect the outcome not to matter. These battles matter, and it matters when Christians lose them. We cannot hide in our churches and other institutions and expect to be safe from the ideas and happenings of this world. Nugent's confusion about conservatism and American government and history is a case in point. Christian morals is all well and good, but the question of Truth is always prior to moral questions. Progressives know this, and they have been attacking the Truth for a long time. It saddens me to see many Christians unable to defend themselves against such attacks, even to the point of accepting a secular narrative designed specifically to undermine Christian resistance to their political program. Nugent even throws out general accusations of idolatry against Christians involved in politics when he should know full well that Christians are the least likely people to be idolizing government, especially conservative Christians. Do you think an atheist is concerned about idolizing government? Com' on. How is it that the people who are most in danger of idolizing government are left out of Nugent's analysis? I think it goes back to an ingrained prejudice, a trained response against Christians. It certainly doesn't make a whole lot of rational sense.

The discussion of idolatry is a good segue-way into conservative political ideology. As I argued previously, idolatry is the act of assigning authority to entities that don't have it, including to entities that may have some authority but not the particular authority that is being assigned to them. Despite some of the pitfalls I mentioned above, conservative evangelical Christians rightly place a large degree of importance in the Bible. If one goes to the Bible asking questions about what type of government is best, they are likely to come away with the same sense of legitimate but limited government authority that Nugent endorses. Nugent compared Christians to the Levitical priesthood in part because he recognized that ancient Israel didn't have near the amount of institutional structure that modern states do. He is right to believe that the only earthly government ever directly presided over by God tended towards less authoritarian institutions and offices. I believe he is wrong to tell us that Christians are to be compared with the Levitical priesthood, primarily because the book of Hebrews explicitly rejects that comparison. However I believe the comparison to government is legitimate. Christians are not limited when it comes to participation in government, but governments are limited in authority. This is American conservatism in a nutshell, and Nugent really only has a problem with the first part, not the second.

The idea of limited government is where all of American conservatism can heartily agree with Nugent. I heartily agree that exceeding the limits that God has placed on government often inspires idolatry, but Nugent is trying to paint American conservatives as the idolaters. In fact we are the ones trying to restrict an out of control government back within the limits placed on it not only by the original U.S. constitution but also by God. Nugent is uncomfortable with American conservatives precisely because we recognize that in the Bible the only area where God has made government authority legitimate is the use of force to punish the wrongdoer. Nugent doesn't like that, and he doesn't want Christians to participate in it, even as he is forced to recognize that God has made this a legitimate but limited area of authority for earthly governments. That is what doesn't make sense to me. But let's focus on areas of agreement. We can probably agree that the United States government has exceeded certain limits on its legitimate authority. We can also agree that when this or any government exceeds those limits, people tend to believe that government, having exceeded its God-given limits, has some power and authority outside God's chain of command. That borders on idolatry. American conservatives want to gain more power within the U.S. government precisely for the purpose of bringing government power back within its proper limits. We can hope that if we succeed in this project, the American people will be less likely to idolize the U.S. government and more likely to participate in other institutions like churches that, we agree, should have a larger role in American life.

Nugent is skeptical of this project, and I don't blame him. We live in a country where the government has been slowly and inexorably accumulating power almost since its inception. The trajectory really began with the switch from the Articles of Confederation of 1781 to the Constitution of 1789. The Articles were instituted informally during the American Revolutionary War as a sort of ad-hoc association of the state governments already in existence. Under the Articles, the central government couldn't even pay the army fighting for the country's independence. This problem was so bad that after the Revolutionary War was over and the United States had gained independence, the fledgling state nearly succumbed to a military coup. The soldiers who had won the war were not being paid the wages they had been promised, and they threatened to revolt. This same exact situation has played itself out in a great many countries around the world. A revolution occurs, after which the only real power is the army that won it. This army then takes power, often times in an attempt to transition to civilian government, but most of the time the army never releases that power and the country turns into a military dictatorship. Thankfully, this did not happen in the United States, mostly because of one man: George Washington.

I have sometimes seen polls of favorite presidents on conservative sites, and George Washington almost always wins. Washington was the epitome of what conservatives want from a leader. When the army threatened to revolt after the war, they looked to Washington for leadership. At this moment Washington could have crossed the Rubicon and become Caesar for life. He was the commanding general of the army who had won the war. His men were angry at the government and wanted to overthrow it. The power was his, and he despised it. He convinced the army to go home and let the civilian government work things out. His men had such respect for him that they obeyed without being paid and went home, and the United States was saved from military dictatorship. Washington was constantly being given power that he didn't want. In fact Washington nearly refused to be the first president. All he wanted was to go back to his farm and live out his life restfully. He felt he had served his country enough. But he became president anyway because he realized what everyone else did. He was the only one everyone trusted with the sort of power that a president under the constitution had. He refused to run for a third term, starting a tradition of voluntarily not running for third terms that held all the way until the progressive president FDR ran for and won four terms. After FDR, Washington's tradition of the two-term presidency was made law. Understand though that twenty-nine American presidents in a row covering a nearly one hundred and fifty year period never held more than two terms because of the precedent Washington set. Washington set many other important precedents for the executive branch that also held until the progressive movement destroyed them in the early 20th century. What conservatives in America are looking for today are leaders like Washington who disdain power and hold it lightly. It is a rare thing, but the precedent Washington set is powerful. We need to regain that vision, and not just for Presidents but all politicians and leaders. We need leaders who are willing and able to gain power within our system in order to use that power to ensure that no one can ever get it again. If Nugent disagrees with this, I can't for the life of me imagine why.

The Constitution of 1789 under which Washington became the first president replaced the Articles of Confederation that the army wanted to overthrow because the Articles weren't working. The Constitution gave the central, or federal, government just enough power to perform the duties that were required of it but also limited its power in important ways. Americans had just fought a war of independence from a government that they felt had abused its power. They were in no mood to create a new government that even had power able to be abused in the same way. This is a key point to be made about American exceptionalism. When most countries go through revolutions or civil wars, it's usually because one group, or nation, is being treated unfairly by another group. Regardless of who wins, the normal trajectory is to simply use the power thus won to continue the cycle of recriminations against the group that lost. This is basically what is happening in Egypt right now, as President Morsi has simply seized powers because the forces of the previous group in power dissolved parliament and prevented them from writing a constitution. Morsi seized power in order to fight them, and so it goes. There is probably no longer any hope that Egypt will turn out the way the United States did. Something different happened in America. The theme of the forming of the United States government under the Constitution was not a matter of factions jockeying for power against one another. The theme was one of a largely unified country hashing out the philosophical basis of government and how best to organize its structure to prevent abuses of authority like the ones which led to the revolution. The Federalist Papers are an excellent accounting of this process. In America the people and their leaders saw that the way to prevent abuses of power was to limit the power of the government entirely. If the government did not have the power to oppress the people, than it could not be used as a vehicle of oppression by anyone. In fact, the only error they made was in forming a government in the Articles that didn't have enough power. Again, I can't imagine Nugent disagreeing with strict limits on government power. This is what the conservative political movement stands for and is trying to accomplish.

The limiting of government power was accomplished in the Constitution by various mechanisms such as checks and balances, the three branches of government having various different defined powers over each other. It was limited by the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments that were passed as a group a few years after the Constitution was passed. It was also accomplished through democratic accountability, but problems have crept in through the democratic process during the last century. Nugent expresses difficulties with democracy, an interesting position that not many people have the cojones to take. Today "democracy" is a vacuous term synonymous with "the will of the people" meaning all that is right and good in America. By criticizing democracy, Nugent has stuck his neck out there and fingered something important. (I also criticize the overpowered democracy in American politics in my book.) Nugent writes: "We must ditch the simple choice between (a) making the world a better place by leveraging democratic power in which a 51% majority get to tell the 49% minority how to live, and (b) doing nothing at all to help the world." Excellent! The framers of the constitution also ditched that simple choice, but the progressive vision of the 20th century has returned to it. Nugent is right to see this as a false dichotomy, but he is wrong if he thinks this is the way conservatives think. This is the way progressives think, and if Nugent doesn't like that then he's of one mind with conservatives. Conservatives do want Christians to be involved in government and civic duties, but we do not want the 51% telling the other 49% how to live. The proper role of our democratic institutions is to keep our leaders accountable by providing yet another check against their power, not to grant them power that they do not have and should not try to take. We do not want a society where all our freedoms are subject to the winds of popular opinion or the whims of judges. Nugent is describing one of the kinds of abuses of power the Constitution was designed to prevent: tyranny of the majority.

The abuse of power which the colonists objected to and fought a war over was a tyranny of the minority, that is, the tyranny of a king. Most of the Declaration of Independence, not the famous part, is a long list of grievances against a king that reads very much like 1 Samuel 8. There was always a danger that, in our anti-monarchical enthusiasm, we would trade the tyranny of the minority for a tyranny of the majority. But the leaders of the founding generation wisely moderated this impulse and created a system designed to protect against both the tyranny of the minority and the tyranny of the majority by placing strict limits on government power. Thus we have rights that are not based on government but are proclaimed to be our God-given rights that no one, even a majority vote, can infringe upon. To try is to fail, and to prevent the government from failing they prevented the government from infringing upon our God-given rights. Thus neither type of tyranny could succeed because they declared tyranny itself to be an offense against God's created order and designed their government to respect that.

The first God-given right was freedom of opinion, covered in the First Amendment. It is a fact of human nature that we have freedom of opinion. You can torture a person, you can argue with them, you can threaten their family and everything they love, you can operate on their brain, but you cannot change what they believe for them. So the founding generations wisely decided to keep government out of the business of trying to keep people from believing what they want. Enforcing ideological conformity was not a legitimate function of the central government. In fact freedom of opinion was a God-given right. Unfortunately we moved away from that position because the progressive movement denies this right. They believe that human belief can and is manipulated directly by outside forces. Progressivism in America was supported originally by both atheists and Calvinists because neither group believed in human free will. Thus the government not only should not be limited from molding the opinions of the public, but they ought to be doing this in order to form a more perfect union. This has now gone so far that modern progressives have even suggested weakening the First Amendment. I don't care who you are or how you want to use the government: if you do not respect the first right you are not a conservative. Period. The second God-given right is the right of self-defense. Again, we know that human beings who wish to defend themselves are able to do so, and therefore the government should not try to prevent this. Progressives have been fighting the Second Amendment like their lives depended upon it. And on and on we go.

The framing of the U.S. Constitution is a story of radical limitation of government power the likes of which the world had never seen. You cannot fail to see this if you've studied the era and the arguments and history that went into it. In some ways, the Constitution limited government power even more severely than the Articles did, because the fear of government overreach was greater under the Constitution. As a result of these severe limits based on Judeo-Christian philosophy, the United States government has been one of the most successful models in human history. Our nation decided to limit the authority of government to its proper realm of authority under God and enthusiastically prevented it from going any further. What happened?

The first really transformative progressive president was Woodrow Wilson. Here is Wilson's opinion on the U.S. Constitution:

"All that progressives ask or desire is permission – in an era when 'development,' 'evolution' is the scientific word – to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle."

Here's Wilson on the role of the president:

"The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress is overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution … but only because the President has the nation behind him and Congress has not."

And Wilson on the character and nature of humanity in regards to freedom of opinion discussed earlier:

"Men are as clay in the hand of the consummate leader."

Wilson and the progressives believed the Constitution was a hindrance to progress precisely because it limited government power. Barack Obama expressed it this way:

"As radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it's been interpreted, and more important, interpreted in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf."

Interpreting the Constitution according to the "Darwinian principle"? The President should be as "big a man as he can" and it would be no particular problem "if Congress is overborne by him" because "the President has the nation behind him and the Congress has not"? And so we see how progressives at once championed the democratic principle and tyranny at the same time. The President is today the only official elected by the entire nation, and thus have progressives begun to claim that all of the nation's representative authority is vested in one man. This runs completely contrary to the view of the founders and of the precedent set by Washington that the locally elected representatives are the sole expression of the people's will within the government and the executive is merely representative of the government's will. Progressives sensed that the American people were not quite as guarded against the tyranny of the majority as they were against the tyranny of the minority, and began to use the tyranny of the majority to change the structure of the United States government. Their goal has always been to remove the restrictions the Constitution placed on government power, and they have won a great many battles in this direction by championing democracy and the "will of the people". Here I will simply quote from my book:

"The executive was originally elected by the Electoral College. The Constitution specified that the states could choose how their electors were chosen, and the early trend was toward more democratic means for choosing electors until all states today tie their electoral votes directly to the popular vote. As a result, the executive branch has bowed more and more to the public opinion..."

"[The judicial branch has become more democratic] not only by virtue of being chosen by executives more and more beholden to popular opinion, but also by the rise of activist judges and the loosening of judicial philosophy to include such irrational tenets as “empathy.” Instead of interpreting what laws mean, many justices have taken an active role in determining what they think laws should actually be. This is often called “legislating from the bench.” Thus the judicial branch has more and more taken on a role it was not designed to fill."

"The Senate originally was elected by state legislatures and only one third was up for election every two years, meaning it was the more stable body and less influenced by passion than the House. Changing the way Senators were elected required a constitutional amendment: the seventeenth. The movement to elect Senators via the popular vote was a product of the progressive movement and made the Senate far more beholden to public opinion..."

The Seventeenth Amendment required direct democratic election of senators and was ratified in 1913 during Wilson's administration. While progressives are discussing weakening our First Amendment protections, conservative are discussing repeal of the Seventeenth and fighting against attempts to remove the Electoral College. Into this room comes Mr. Nugent, and upon seeing the mice attempting to declaw the cat, chastises the mice, for the cat is his familiar and comfortable pet with whom he has made his peace, and the mice are intruders in his house. Thus Mr. Nugent's charges against conservative Christians are ignorant and insulting.

I rarely watch Sean Hannity, but either last night or the night before I happened to see mega-church pastor Rick Warren on his show. Warren is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and wrote the blockbuster bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. In 2008, Warren moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain designed to address Christian topics. In the short portion of the interview that I saw, Warren was saying that laws don't change people's behavior, and thus Christians shouldn't try to effect change in society by passing laws. He was expressing a position pretty close to what Mr. Nugent has expressed. /facepalm.


You are telling me that nobody changes how they drive their cars when the speed limit goes from 55 mph to 65 mph? You are telling me that people applied for Medicare before Medicare was made into law? You think that changes in tax law don't change how people use and invest their money?

I understand what Warren was trying to say, and I'll say it for him: You can't legislate morality. This is true, but to say that laws don't change behavior is obviously false. Laws are the rules which govern society and they are enforced by the God-given authority of the sword given to governments. They are not given authority over morality, but they are given limited authority over the behavior of their people. There is a difference. Governments cannot make people moral, but they can punish people for immoral behavior.

I have the feeling that Warren and Nugent are primarily interested in two issues: abortion and homosexuality. Their ad-hoc political philosophy, such as it is, only considers those two issues. But it is dishonest to paint social conservatives as primarily wanting to make laws even in these two cases. Yes, we try to pass various legislation, but the intent of these laws is not to make new law but to clarify the interpretation of existing law which no one, not even progressives, views as illegitimate. Thus the Defense of Marriage Act is primarily meant to define marriage as it was defined when laws governing marriage entered our legal code and as it always will be defined in the eyes of God. Thus the pro-life movement recognizes that if humans have God-given rights then it becomes necessary to define a human so that no one who fits the definition is denied those rights. We are not trying to change marriage law, nor are we trying to change the laws regarding human rights. We are trying to preserve them. I think we will probably lose the former and win the latter, and anyway the latter is far more important, so I personally advocate a political compromise on marriage and a new push forward on abortion. I have written my complete position on these two issues in my book, but right now I am moving on.

I got my driver's licence the day I turned sixteen. This was before the age of ubiquitous cell phones, and I remember what is was like to drive back then. When people saw other people pulled over on the side of the road, they stopped to help them. Now when I see someone pulled over on the side of the road, I often see them talking on a cell phone and know that even if I pulled over there is probably nothing I could do to help them. They likely will be staying there until the the tow truck arrives because they immediately called for help on their cell phone. However if I saw someone on the side of the road waving their arms I would certainly pull over. There is a difference between passing on the road someone who doesn't look as if they need help and someone who does.

Government cannot make people more moral, but it can make people less moral. Nugent and Warren argue that churches should be more involved in helping their communities. I happen to agree, but they also argue in effect that the actions and role of government in our society have no implications for this relationship. They are fooling themselves. We live in a society which has shoved off the responsibility of caring for the poor and needy to the government, and as a consequence we don't help our neighbors because they all have Obama phones now. They have the government on speed dial, and have become a nation of takers instead of nation of givers. And those of us with more feel that the government is taking our stuff and giving it away, so why should we be charitable? I personally don't feel this way of course, but I think it's obvious that the entitlement state has undermined the Christian impulse towards charity that has always been a hallmark of the American people. There are fewer good Samaritans around because the government has taken over that role. As Christians, do we believe that the government is in a better position to show Christ's love to the poor and destitute in our local communities than ourselves?

God never granted government authority over Christian charity the way he did grant them the authority of punishment and taxes. This is not an optional structure we can change whenever we want. To try to change it is idolatry, and we are paying the price. Governments will always have the authority to tax and to punish the wrongdoer. They will never have the authority to administer charity. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in for an unpleasant wake-up call. We have time to correct this mistake, to take upon ourselves as individuals and local communities the Christian responsibilities we have been given towards our neighbors, but it will be extremely difficult if we refuse to fight a government trying to take that responsibility for itself. Our government is out of order. It has disrespected God's created order of legitimate authority and responsibility. There will be consequences if we do not fix it, and those consequences will be visited upon the poor and needy most of all. In times of want, the weakest of these are always hurt the most.

God has his reasons, and we can already see what some of those reasons might be. A government which has both authority of the sword and charity will run roughshod over the God-given rights our system was designed to protect, all in the name of charity, even as they attack real charities. The first salvo has been fired. Under the authority vested in her by Obamacare, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has issued a mandate that all but the most narrowly defined religious organizations must provide insurance to their employees that covers contraception, in violation of Catholic religious freedom. The battle is ongoing, but conservatives have closed ranks with the Catholic Church over the issue. In my book I predicted Obamacare would be used to attack religious liberty months before the contraception mandate came down the pipe, a mandate not part of the original law and not voted into law by our elected representatives. It is a law based entirely on the massive expansion of executive power granted under Obamacare. I compared Obamacare to what has happened in our public schools, where prayer and other religious freedoms have been limited. This is only the beginning folks. So if Nugent and Warren think that conservatives can retreat to our churches and focus only on Christian charity they have another thing coming. A Christian's role in society is not limited to a single virtue. The government is moving to force charitable religious organizations into a dilemma of conscience. The battle over the contraception mandate is just a shot across the bow. It will not be the last time our God-given freedoms of conscience, opinion and religion are attacked. It is time for Christians to stand up for a Biblical view of society where government plays its limited but legitimate role and the people in local communities are allowed to play theirs. To do that we must fight progressives who are trying to usurp the authority of government to move American society away from that Biblical vision.

I hope this has promoted some understanding. As I said and will always maintain, Nugent and others are free to follow their conscience on this matter. But it is unfair, ignorant and insulting for him to characterize Christian conservatives involved in politics as acting outside of God's will and vision for a just society. He wants Christians out of politics, and part of his argument is that our government does not conform to that vision. How in the world does he expect that to change if Christians abandon it? I see no reason why Christ's example of kingship and the power of the Holy Spirit cannot be exercised within the governing structures of a republic such as ours, and I call all Christians to support such efforts, even if that only means voting. Follow the Holy Spirit and your conscience, and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Response to John Nugent: Part 6 - Brainwashing

I was eleven years old and it was December 1993. In just over a year the now legendary Nebraska Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne would win his first of three national championships. In just about exactly a year I would be baptized. Standing there in the foyer of our parent church, I could see no higher purpose for my life than to serve the living God, Creator of heaven and earth. I knew I could not know the future, but even at that young age I realized it would be no cakewalk, and that making a lifetime commitment was a serious thing since lives last so long. In that time I sought out challenges and knowing the challenges of being a Christian was more an attraction to me than a repellent. In about eight months I would go to a new school for sixth grade, a private Christian school instead of going on to the public middle school. I would learn for the first time that being really smart wasn't actually very cool and was not the best way to make friends. I learned how to be funny and a goofball in order to hide how smart I was and that I am not a normal person. To this day it is still necessary, but in the end people always find out, and I know now what to do when that happens. I move on before they start to hate me. I can't handle any more bad endings.

In about six months I would go with my family on a short term medical mission trip to Russia. I had been on another one of these before, to Haiti when I was three. I still have a scar on my left shoulder from failing to navigate a barbed wire fence in an attempt to feed the ducks on the other side. I remember watching through our screen door as my dad tried to kill a tarantula with bleach and a board. I remember being the only white people in a church full of dancing, singing Haitians, standing there like a flag pole cemented to the ground and feeling out of place for the first time in my short life. I remember a field of sugar cane and two puppies in an empty fountain. But I remember little else from Haiti. Russia was another matter. It was only three years after the fall of the Soviet Union. I remember everything from Russia, but what I remember most is standing on the balcony of our flat the last night we were there, crying and praying over these people. I desperately wanted to help them but I didn't know how. What I remember most is the crushing weight of despair and hopelessness hanging over the entire population like the clouds on an overcast day. I remember the way people were at restaurants and other public places, walking around with their heads down and shuffling their feet. I saw the burnt out kiosk at the open market by the metro station. My parents explained that the mafia had destroyed it because the owner didn't pay an extortion fee. No one was friendly in public like in the United States. Nobody smiled, and the people behind the counter helped you when they felt like it and not before. The best restaurant in all of Moscow was McDonald's, and the prices there reflected that. So did the cleanliness of the bathrooms. The tales of disgusting, horrible Russian public bathrooms would horrify even my college friends that I went to Mexico with. The toilets were holes in the ground which you could usually reach if you didn't mind stepping in all of the urine-soaked shit that missed it. Compared to that the bathrooms at McDonald's were like heaven. We even took a tour of the factory that made their cheese like it was some kind of tourist attraction. In just the six weeks we were there, the ruble inflated three hundred percent against the dollar. Kopecks were still around, but by that time they were worth less than the dirt under your feet, and that's where I usually found them. When we needed rubles we traded dollars for them in the morning and spent them as soon as possible. When the Russian people could get American dollars, they hid them away in a safe place like they were precious gems. It was about the only way to keep your money from becoming worthless in short order.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have stayed a conservative through college without this formative experience. I have seen the stark contrast between a society like America and another one that lived by a different philosophy for three generations. I have seen a great and proud nation brought low by simple economics, and it is not a pretty sight. It is terrible. It hurts. It makes people despair of life and love and happiness. Every last one of them knew their lives would never be any better than they were. Not only that, but they had seen things get much worse. Even in China there was at least some hope depending on whether or not you could succeed in the highly competitive school system, but their best restaurant was still McDonald's. In Russia there was no hope whatsoever. Everything was breaking down, both the physical buildings, all from the 60s, and institutions like schools and hospitals. And that was just Moscow and St. Petersburg, cities in which the communists had spent vast sums they couldn't afford to hide the even more severe effects of communism on the rest of the country. I saw a poor family kill the fattened calf for us and fill a room with smiles because the Americans were their guests. I had borscht for the first time and liked it. I hated the kvas, but all of us did. We never quite believed them when they said it was non-alcoholic. I now know that Russians drink beer to sober up. For them, kvas is as non-alcoholic as water. I heard one of the permanent missionaries tell us to eat some street vendor hot dogs before we went in case the food was inedible. It was actually pretty great, at least this time. They had to put their best foot forward for the Americans. The Russians are a prideful people. I saw the same thing playing out in that summer of 1994 as they spent large amounts of money to restore medieval castles with real gold and expensive amber artwork even as they hovered just above starvation. I understand why a people might accept a tyrant like Putin, who at least was able to preside over some measure of an economic rebound. This is what happens when a nation loses its pride. This is what happens when a country falls apart. I would do anything within my power to prevent that from happening to any people, but to see it in the future of my own nearly twenty years later is unbearable, especially when we of all people in the whole world ought to know better. I have been there. I know that road, and I know exactly where it ends. It doesn't help healthcare. It doesn't help education. It doesn't create jobs or help the economy. It doesn't help the poor and needy, the hungry or the homeless. It doesn't make people righteous or happy. It makes everything worse. For everybody. And no one can tell me otherwise with mere words. I have seen it with my own eyes. It sucks.

But in that December of 1993 I had seen none of this. I was concerned primarily with the minute hand of the clock reaching six. The hour hand was already at three, and the last day of school before Christmas vacation was nearly over. My fifth grade teacher announced that she would be handing out Christmas presents. Pencils! In fifth grade we all collected pencils. I had my own collection. We all had the pencils for our favorite football teams. We had pencils for the designs we liked. We traded them, we bought them and we never, ever sharpened them. Our teacher knew this, so she had bought us some cheap Christmas themed ones. All we had to do was line up in front of her desk, approach one by one and say, "I believe in Santa Claus," and we were out the door for Christmas vacation with the pencil. One by one every one of my classmates approached her desk and said, "I believe in Santa Claus," got their pencil and left. When my turn came I apologized to my teacher and told her I couldn't say it. Surprised, she asked me why. I didn't quite understand the question. "Because I don't believe in Santa Claus," I said, matter-of-factly. I don't remember exactly how she responded, but I was dismissed without a pencil. I didn't care. I had no school for weeks ahead of me, and a pencil was a small price to pay for the Truth. As far as I know, I was the only one in my class who didn't get one.

Weeks or months later, I don't really remember how long, I casually told this story to my mom. I thought it was funny. She didn't. To replace the pencil I had eschewed, she went out and bought me a fancy looking pen which I kept safe in my miniature locker on my desk at home mostly because I felt it was expected of me. I liked the pen, don't get me wrong, and I appreciated the object lesson, but I have never needed object lessons when it came to pursuing the Truth. It's what I do. Anything else does not compute. I know this woman was completely incapable of having asked us to say we believed in Jesus Christ and not just for professional reasons either. It's a strange world we live in when falsities are the only allowable topics for discussion. This world of lies is only fit for young children, apparently, and in this country we like to keep them young for as long as possible. There is something holy about youth, we are told. I only wonder what sort of thing is holy next to the Truth, especially in a world where the Truth seems so completely set apart from our normal experience. Kids are the absolute last people in the world we should be lying to, since kids are far more likely to believe it. And yet we say things like, "Oh they are only kids." It's like we don't believe that lies are dangerous. That what kids believe doesn't matter. I fear we will reap what we have sown.

I was taught other lies in public elementary school which were not so easily vanquished. One of my favorites is the story of Christopher Columbus. In 1492 he sailed the ocean blue. Columbus was a brave explorer, the story goes, and he believed the earth was round. Did you know children that everyone else in that time believed the earth was flat? They were so silly! But Columbus knew the earth was round, and so when everyone else sailed east and kept close to land, he sailed west away from land. Everyone thought he was crazy! His sailors advised him to turn back before they fell off the edge of the earth. But hark! Columbus was right after all! Instead of sailing off into space Columbus discovered America!

Everyone knows this story because we were taught it, if not in school then in television or the press or college, those three being equally helpful when it comes to American history. In fact this little fable is the set-up for the supposed real "truth" that only college professors are allowed to tell you: that people believed the earth was flat because the Bible told them so. Gasp! The scandal! I wasn't told the truth as a child because people were afraid I would stop believing the Bible, and we need the Bible to teach us how to socialize with our classmates and not talk back to the teacher! But the Bible really isn't about the Truth at all is it? It's really a book whose only purpose is to teach us how to behave like the good little boys and girls we are. We should look for Truth elsewhere. So the story goes.

No one seems to ask the prior question of whether the above fable is actually true. In case you were wondering, it isn't. In case you were wondering, we know that western civilization has known the earth and the other heavenly spheres were round since about two thousand years before 1492. In other words, western civilization has known since the beginning of western civilization. In case you were wondering, the excuse for teaching us that the Bible says the earth is flat is vague references in Revelation to the "four corners of the earth," a clear poetic reference to the four cardinal directions which were in use even back then. And this is the same Bible that the vast majority of the Christians in Europe up to the time of Columbus were never allowed to read in their own language anyway. The only ones who could read the Latin Vulgate were also well aware the earth was a sphere. In case you were wondering, Christopher Columbus wasn't right about the earth and he wasn't in it just for the thrill of exploration. In contrast to most of the educated people of his time, he believed the earth was much smaller than it was. He also knew that if he could find a quicker route to India than the eastern trading routes currently available he could literally make boatloads of money. He even thought that when he landed at the island he named Hispaniola that he had found an island off the coast of India. Columbus continued to believe he had found India long after most knew better. That's why he called the natives of Hispaniola "Indians", a name that stuck. He was in it for profit from international trade and Christian proselytization, neither of which we can have our schoolchildren believing are good things if we want them to grow up into socialists. No, exploration was the real reason. The joy of discovery. That's it. We wouldn't want our children believing that the profit motive or Christianity leads to anything good. And even if they see through the fable, we'll simply tell them that it wasn't actually a good thing that Columbus found America. Now how could we accomplish that?

Another great elementary school fable is the tale of Thanksgiving. This one has the added irritation of guaranteed retelling every year in sync with the national holiday, and like the flat earth myth it has an element that is withheld until college (or television, movies, the press, etc.) so as to achieve maximum pathos. (Come to think of it, I seem to remember Columbus day celebrated every year in my public elementary school. Coincidence?) In this happy tale the Pilgrims of the Mayflower journey to the mysterious New World. Why? Well the same reason as Columbus did of course. When they got there life was hard and they had trouble growing enough food. But the Indians visited them and gave them food when they were hungry, even teaching them how to grow corn! So one day the Indians brought a bunch of food and sat down together with the Pilgrims and had a big happy feast together, which we now celebrate as Thanksgiving. Who were we giving thanks to? That part is left out. I wonder how many schoolchildren grow up thinking the thanks being given was to the Indians. The part of this fable we don't learn until we are older is that those nasty witch-hunting Pilgrims turned on their friends the Indians and killed them all to steal their land. The happy story has a tragic ending, and the noble Indians were killed for being nice and generous to strangers they should never have trusted. Children, we are the descendants of those very Pilgrims! Alas, the sins of the fathers pass on to the children! America is a tale of woe and we are the bad guys. Thus have entire generations of children been taught to hate themselves and their country. They are taught that adults know the real truth that we are the bad guys, and anyone who disagrees simply hasn't grown up yet or is simply embracing his inner evil American. They are taught the primary goal of all things American must be to pay penance for all her numerous sins. But why is this story told in picture books lining the shelves of our government elementary schools? What is the object of this Technicolor fable?

The childhood fable we learn about the Indians neglects to inform us of the rest of the Indian's part in this little morality play. In fact, even the adult version of the fable depends upon a system of apologetics defending their behavior. We will see what how this apologetic works in a minute. But first we need to remind ourselves of how ideological battles play out in the real world. In the Hollywood version there is a good guy and a bad guy. You can tell who the bad guy is because he's ugly and mean. Everything he does is automatically wrong because, well, he's the bad guy, just like the white Americans. We all know why he is there. He is there because if he wasn't there it wouldn't be much of a story. The good guy needs to exert moral superiority over somebody. This is the Hollywood version of morality, and most progressive propaganda is tailor-made to fit right into that framework.

In the real world ideological battles play out through the construction of opposing narratives. We tell stories to each other. There is no clear identification between which stories are good and which are bad, in fact all of these stories have their good guys and bad guys. But how do we differentiate between opposing stories? The word "ideology" has a bad connotation because these stories are often faulty. Notice I do not say they are often false. Why is that? Well, because a lie is easy to detect, and once detected the person who tells it ends up like Dan Rather, who got caught by a no-name blogger. Once a lie is detected, not only does the story lose its value for ideological purposes, but the one who told it loses credibility. So these types of stories do not usually contain clear falsehoods like the flat earth myth. The preferred method of ideological storytelling is to leave out important parts of the story. Thus the liberal media does not lie. Instead they choose not to report stories or even parts of stories that don't fit their narrative. They choose to leave out important parts of the Truth. And when a story does fit their narrative, they cover it like it's the only news in the world that matters. The enthusiasm of their coverage of a story directly correlates to that story's value to the liberal narrative. Thus people believed that Rodney King was an innocent victim of police brutality because no one, except for the jury that acquitted the officers, saw certain parts of the video. It was conveniently edited before it hit the airwaves, to say nothing of everything that happened before the bystander began taping. Thus no one knows that there were two other occupants in Rodney King's car, both black, who walked away from the incident completely unharmed because they weren't drunk and behaving violently and irrationally like King was. Etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum for one hundred years until we come to today, where the 90% of children who grow up spending eight hours a day in government owned and operated schools where the curriculum is literally controlled by politicians believe that the Indians never did anything wrong. And Nugent speaks to us of brainwashing. Ha!

Not too long ago I was trying and failing to continue my education by taking classes where they teach you how to teach. Actually those classes were required by the government before I would be allowed to teach in government funded schools. If it were up to me I would never have gone, since they were mostly worthless, just as all my friends in college who got teaching degrees had told me. It amazes me that we can't figure out what the problem is with American education. Even teachers cannot be allowed to teach before they are forced to imbibe pedagogical propaganda. Anyway, one time we had a discussion on this very topic. I related facts that I had learned on my own from various books I have read (none of them assigned to me in school of course), such as the fact that the vast majority, roughly eighty percent, of American Indians died from European diseases that they had not developed any immunity to. Obviously that was a tragic but unintentional side effect of European colonization. But why, when eighty percent of the population of an entire continent was wiped out by diseases, is the dominant narrative today driven by stories like the massacre at Wounded Knee where a few hundred Indians were killed? But I continued to assert to my future teacher friends that of the remaining twenty percent or so, the vast majority of those were not forced onto reservations and or killed by the colonials. There was a Trail of Tears and the massacre at Wounded Knee did happen. But what happened to the rest of the Indians who were not among the few thousands killed in battle or reprisals or moved to reservations? They assimilated into the dominant culture, often by intermarriage. They joined the dominant culture of their own free will and left their original culture behind by choice. At this point one of the women got extremely offended and exclaimed to me that she was descended from American Indians and that because of this fact I was wrong to taint the mythology of her people's unjust suffering at the hands of their white oppressors with inconvenient facts. In other words, the proof against my assertions that most American Indians assimilated into a different dominant culture through intermarriage was that she, a fully assimilated member of that culture, was descended from Indians who assimilated into that culture through intermarriage. I was so dumbfounded by this that I simply gave up. From what I understand, this woman is now being paid by the government to read picture books to kindergartners who are forced to be there under threat of punishment by our legal system. This is the sort of person we are creating in our system, people who are unable to respond rationally when their deeply ingrained progressive mythology is challenged and whose deepest calling in life becomes proselytizing that myth to the next generation.

But, you'll notice, I still haven't answered my own question. Why this particular myth? Why lionize the Indians at the expense of American Christian culture? Have patience.

I mentioned before that progressives believe and teach that American Indians didn't do anything wrong. Well, did they? Of course they did, at least according to Judeo-Christian morality. American Indians often raided Christian European towns and farms, raping, pillaging and killing for seemingly no reason. In fact even Wounded Knee was a reprisal for such a raid. But, says the Wounded Knee narrative, they were justified in doing this because the Christian European settlers were stealing their land. Ah yes. The "white people took their land" motif. It is part of progressive anti-colonial myths everywhere around the world. But as it concerns American Indians it is particularly ridiculous. Anyone who has actually studied the various American Indian worldviews cannot help but being hit smack in the face with an undeniable theme: Most American Indians had no concept of land ownership.

Suppose an alien race came to earth from outer space and start asking us for our air. Supposing they offered us warp engines, replicators and phasers for small portions of our air. Supposing each individual country made a few deals with this alien race, trading a few cubic kilometers of air for a warp engine. Not knowing how to make these things ourselves, we let the aliens stick around. What good fortune! We can now travel at ludicrous speed in exchange for nothing but air! We can make food from energy! We can vanquish the Russians with our awesome new phasers, and all for nothing but a small portion of our atmosphere, which no one really owns anyway! SuhWEET! What a great deal! Only after a long period of time of trading the air away or allowing it to be taken without complaint, air which the earthlings considered to be intangible, would anyone start to care that the earth's atmosphere was dwindling to levels which could no longer sustain life on earth. Eventually the earthlings would realize that air can in fact be owned, and only after it was taken away would they understand that. By that time of course it would be far too late, at which point they have several options. Some might unite to fight the aliens and be inevitably defeated. Others might make deals with the aliens to create bio-domes where small amounts of air remain in enough of a quantity to sustain anyone who would actually want to live there. But by far the best option is to simply join the aliens, travel to the alien's planet and live there, where the air from earth was being used to make life better than it could ever have possibly been on earth. But the one thing that would be certain: life on earth as we knew it would be irretrievably lost, and the reason cannot be reduced to a Hollywood morality play of good guys and bad guys. The reality of the situation is that an inferior culture lost out to a superior one, and now like it or not everyone is better off for it, especially those from the inferior culture who assimilated into the superior one, which is why so many of them did it. It's only an analogy, but it's a far better one than Avatar, a perfect progressive fantasy of how it should have ended.

For the Indians, land was an intangible quality. It was an assumed part of life, and it would always be there. It was not viewed quantitatively. The idea that someone could own it was preposterous to them. So when modern progressives accuse the Christian European colonials of "stealing" the American Indians' land, they are falsely assuming that the Indians had claimed ownership of it in the first place. They hadn't. The concept of "stealing land" only existed in reference to the Christian European worldview. To the Indians, land was an unlimited resource that was to be shared with anyone who happened to be around. But even more important than that, Indian culture did not have a strong sense of private property in general. They certainly had some concept of private property, but it paled in comparison to other values, especially honor.

When a young American Indian brave wanted to gain honor for himself, he would gather other like-minded braves and go on a raiding party. It did not matter who they raided, as long as it was not their own tribe. The reason for the raid was the need to gain honor in battle. It had nothing to do with guilt being assigned to the victims of the raid. The stronger the target, the more honor to be gained from attacking it. The greatest honor was reserved for "counting coup", a practice where during a battle a warrior would approach a dangerous enemy close enough to take something from them without harming them and get away without being killed in return. Why did this grant the greatest honor? Because it was the most challenging thing to do in battle. Anyone could kill someone and take their stuff, but it was hard to take someone's stuff without killing them first. Thus the concept of honor far outweighed the concept of private property.

Enter the colonists and their Judeo-Christian moral code containing within it the concept of sacrosanct private property. Enter a concept of land ownership and a strict system of drawing boundaries, completely invisible, imaginary and utterly incomprehensible to the Indians, within which the owner of the land was the absolute master of it. And so the young Indian brave with his tomahawk approaches the Christian European farmer with his matchlock. He has heard that these white-skinned folk possess the power of the gods and are the most formidable enemies of all. He is happy. Live or die the coming battle will bring the greatest honor of all to him and his family. The farmer sees the Indian approach. He is scared. He has heard the tales of these savages raiding farms just like his, killing the men and carrying off the women. He raises his matchlock. The farmer says, "Get off my land or I'll shoot!" The brave doesn't understand, even if he could have understood the words. All he sees is a challenge being issued, and the battle commences. It doesn't matter who wins. Perhaps the farmer shoots the brave, and he dies an honorable death. Perhaps the Indian kills the farmer and carries away his wife to be his own wife, honorably won in battle, the mother of his future children. Perhaps some of the farmer's people attack the Indian village, seeking justice against the one who murdered an innocent man and kidnapped and raped his wife. Regardless of what happened, there was never any chance of some sort of compromise or middle ground being reached. The two world views were one hundred percent incompatible. Honor for the one meant injustice to the other. The engine of prosperity and the basis of individual rights, freedom and justice to the one meant the destruction of the other's way of life. There was no possibility for coexistence or a multicultural society. Either one or the other had to go.

I for one am glad the American Indians lost that particular culture war. Because they lost, I do not have to worry about my stuff constantly being stolen just because some person I've never met needs to increase his personal feelings of worth. I can travel across an entire continent and still be at home among people who will not attack me without provocation. I do not have to worry about the women in my family being in constant danger of kidnap and rape. I do not have to become a warrior and risk my life in battle for my life to have purpose and meaning. There are obvious advantages to Judeo-Christian morality. It is a superior system. Not only that, but I take pride in the way American Christians conducted themselves during this inevitable process. There were incidents, killings and injustices committed by both sides. But the overall narrative of history is that these people were mostly convinced peacefully that their ways were inferior. Person by person, bit by bit, they left those ways behind of their own free will. Against the backdrop of all human history, that is a victory for peaceful conflict resolution.

So why would this narrative be overcome with a different one a century or so later, one that ignores the broad trend and focuses on a few specific incidents? Why would a bunch of secular humanists, socialists, communists and progressives prefer the Indians over and against the colonists? Well, I have virtually already answered my own question. Like the Indians, communists do not believe in private property. To a communist and many socialists, private property is the source of all violence. Eliminating private property, so they say, would end all violence. It would also end inequality and make everyone equal. So the American Indians were right and the European Christians were wrong! Even if no one decides to reject private property, this fable is still worth it as long as everyone understands that Americans are the bad guys. They'll work on the private property thing later. On top of that, socialists and secular humanists believe that morality is measured by wealth and suffering, respectively. Who has the most wealth and material possessions? They must be the bad guys. Who has endured the most pain and suffering? Who was beaten in the end? Who was the underdog? They must be the good guys. What really happened isn't a high priority in comparison to these questions. The Indians must have been the good guys and the colonists must have been the bad guys, for how else could a Hollywood mind understand it? Since they must make this argument to a largely Christian society, they used Christian morals to do it, but they could not use a complete Judeo-Christian moral system. Rather they used only the bits and pieces of it that favored their point of view, and many Christians have swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The secular progressives have a foot in the door of the Christian heart, and their final aim is to destroy Judeo-Christian morality completely and replace it with secular humanism. But they cannot touch the Christian mind.

That is why men like John Nugent go to the Bible to find support for their confused point of view and end up mangling the Biblical narrative beyond all recognition. They are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. They have unconsciously accepted the progressive arguments tailored precisely to appeal to a Christian and are engaged in trying to smash together two points of view that are ultimately incompatible. But of course the secular progressive is not troubled by this. As soon as the Christians are on board with his political program, or at least not resisting it, his job is done. He leaves the Christians to their futile moral gymnastics and laughs all the way to the ballot box, which he uses to ensure that their children will hear the secular progressive point of view exclusively throughout their childhood and formative years when they are the most vulnerable. He aims to win the same sort of peaceful culture war in which the American Indians succumbed. Eventually, so he believes, Christians will come over to his side of their own accord. Only this time the story has a different ending. Why? Well what determined the ending before? Only the superiority of one point of view. So which is superior: secular progressivism or Christianity? Of course Christianity is superior. It will never be defeated. God cannot be mocked. The only question is whether or not Americans will continue to believe it or be stupid enough to abandon it for secular progressivism when they finally realize the two are incompatible. I believe the former. Christianity practically invented the game of peaceful persuasion. In the end, there can be no coherent universal system of morality but that which is imposed upon us by a higher authority. Morality cannot be measured by empirical means or gained by the human mind without God's revelation and assistance. It does not correspond to various levels of material wealth or human suffering. Christians alone have access to the one true God who has determined the moral standard for all mankind, one that makes sense and works. Secular progressives make moral arguments, but they have no moral system of their own that works, just bastardized, twisted and perverted facsimiles of some of the more earthly Judeo-Christian values. It cannot withstand sustained scrutiny. Like all evil, it is derivative of good. Like all falsehood, it has no substance of its own. It is nothing more than a denial of Truth, and the Truth is always out there for those who seek Him.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Response to John Nugent: Part 5 - Idolatry

Nugent has declared that he does not intend to draw legalistic lines on this issue or accuse anyone of anything. I suppose his continued accusations of idolatry, far greater and more detailed in his latest post than in any previous one in this series, depend upon a murkier definition or no definition at all, and he merely believes he is being helpful to his fellow Christians by warning them of possible danger. How thoughtful of him. I intend to build on his rock solid foundation by examining the sin of idolatry in further detail. Perhaps these details are "boring" to some, but I have personally found an exploration of details to be absolutely necessary in answering difficult questions. Hopefully this exercise will be helpful to Christians genuinely concerned about the issue. I decided the best way would be to run through a series of examples where we can come to intuitive conclusions and try to build a method which matches our intuition to reasoning.

Example 1: A person says he worships Satan.
Intuition: Yes, obviously this is idolatry. But why?

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: Yes. God is the rightful Lord of mankind and the rightful object of worship, and worshiping Satan artificially displaces Him from that position. From this example perhaps we may tentatively come to the conclusion that idolatry is an artificial displacement of God from his rightful position.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: Yes. In one sense we can assume the claim is true because the person is simply acting as a witness to his own action. But in another sense, we know that God is the rightful object of worship and that He cannot be moved. All glory and honor are His. So can a person really worship Satan? I suppose they can, but it will not change the fact that God is who He is. So in one sense the claim is true, but in another sense the claim is false in that the attempt to displace God from His position is futile. However this question reduces to the first question. Therefore whether a statement is true or not seems to have less bearing on whether or not something is idolatrous than Question 1 does.

Question 3: Is this person removing His allegiance from God?
Answer: No. Perhaps this person is a Hindu or believes in yin and yang. He sees Satan and God as equal and opposite forces, but there is no need to declare allegiance to one over the other. One could conceivably have allegiance to one, both or neither. So until we ask the person directly whether they have removed their allegiance from God we won't know the answer.

Question: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: Yes. Allegiance is identifying oneself with another thing, and we can probably assume that worship of Satan constitutes allegiance to Satan.

Conclusion: We answered "yes" to Question 1 and 4, but the answers to Questions 2 and 3 were either ambiguous or undetermined. From this example we can say that perhaps Questions 1 and 4 are more pertinent to our purpose. We can tentatively conclude that answering "yes" to both questions may constitute idolatry.

Example 2: A man marries a woman.
Intuition: No, this is obviously not idolatry, but why?

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: No. God's rightful position is not to be anyone's spouse.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: Yes. The question is somewhat meaningless in this context, but in general marriage is an institution established by God as a legitimate one.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No, obviously not.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: Yes. Allegiance is identifying oneself with another thing, and getting married most certainly means the man is identifying himself with his new wife. We know that getting married is not idolatry, therefore a positive result on this question is not the determining factor in whether something counts as idolatry or not.

Conclusion: We answered "no" to Question 1, "yes" to Question 4 and Questions 2 and 3 were again ambiguous or unknown. The conclusion we came to in Example 1 stands. A positive answer to both Question 1 and 4 is required to determine idolatry. However there is another possible conclusion. Since Question 1 corresponded exactly to the conclusion in each Example and Question 4 did not, we could theorize that Question 1 is sufficient by itself. Now we have two competing hypotheses, but it is quite clear that Question 4 by itself cannot determine a positive or negative result. Question 1 must be included or our method could generate false positives. Let's examine some more diverse types of questions to make sure the method holds true. We might perhaps think of dropping Questions 2 and 3, but I will continue to ask them because I consider at least Question 2 to be important for other examples.

Example 3: A person drops a ball off the leaning tower of Pisa and it falls to the ground. The person declares that the law of gravity is the reason the ball fell to the ground. 
Intuition: No, this is not idolatry, but why?

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: No. Christianity does not teach that God's rightful position is to be a "force directed toward centers of mass" or however one wishes to describe gravity.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: Yes...or is it? Suppose for purposes of discussion that the law of gravity is not self-existent. Suppose that what we call a law of physics is actually God's direct action upon the ball, and upon all other things which fit certain criteria. Scientists have correctly identified the criteria, but they still do not know what generates this force. What if there is no law of gravity and it is merely God's direct action and looks like a law? Would we then say that this claim is false? I submit that no, we wouldn't. A law may be something that is directly enforced by an authority. It may also be something which has been given force of its own and acts on its own. Either way, even if we believe God to be either directly, indirectly or even not responsible for the law of gravity, in no way is this claim false. We could make a further claim that God is behind the law of gravity, or that God has created the law of gravity, but neither of these claims negate the first claim that the law is responsible for the ball falling to the ground.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No, obviously.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: No. He is merely stating something he believes to be a fact, and it is a fact which does not require the giving of any allegiances. But suppose this person did declare his allegiance to the law of gravity. What then? Doubtless such a person would be considered quite strange, but it seems unlikely to be the cause for any moral concern. After all, he is merely acknowledging what all men must acknowledge. We are under the law of gravity whether we like it or not.

Conclusion: Here we have an example of "no" answers to Questions 1, 3 and 4 but a "yes" answer to Question 2. Our conclusion is that this is not idolatry just because the claim is true. Thank goodness! We are not put in the position of being called idolaters simply by making claims which are true. Ascribing actions to lesser powers than God is not automatically idolatry. We must ask the question: does this giving of credit remove God from His rightful position? Let's examine another claim about the law of gravity which appears to do just that.

Example 4:  A person declares that the law of gravity created the universe. 
Intuition: Yes. If I had to go in a particular direction here, I would say that this does indeed to be an idolatrous claim. But let's see what our method comes up with.

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: Yes, at first glance. God is the creator of the universe, not gravity, and therefore this claim puts the law of gravity in God's rightful place. Stephen Hawking intends just that. But supposing this person believed that God created the law of gravity first, and then the law of gravity created the rest of the universe on its own. What then? Is this belief still idolatrous even if we submit that God created the law of gravity? I would say no with some qualification. Supposing this person is a Deist and believes God had no care or concern for what happened after he created the law of gravity. Supposing he is a theistic evolutionist who believes that God did not really create life on earth, rather it just happened through blind chance and God is responsible to some degree because he created the universe in which life arose randomly? Such a case is more ambiguous. Yes, God is still the Creator, but He is not credited with the creation of life, which the Bible clearly gives Him credit for whatever one may think about the interpretation of Genesis. But a theistic evolutionist who says that God included His plan for all creation in the law of gravity, such that the law of gravity had no creative power except that which was given to it by God and merely was the vehicle of God's plan, a carrier of information that originated with God, than this is not in the least objectionable or idolatrous. It would be a bit dim, like saying a hammer created a house without reference to the carpenter, but with further qualification we would know what the person meant. However without such qualifications we can say that this statement by itself removes God from His position as Creator of the universe.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: No, I do not believe so. Even supposing Hawking is entirely correct in the scientific particulars, but one adds on that God created the law of gravity which did everything else, there are many reasons to believe that the law of gravity simply does not contain all the information necessary to create all of life, much less immaterial realities such as morality. I am not a physicist, so I won't comment on the possibility that he could be correct on other things like planets and galaxies, but there is simply no possibility that all of the information necessary for the generation of life can be carried by the relatively simple law of gravity. In biology we are talking about billions of DNA nucleotides arranged in precise order. Forget physics, even chemistry cannot explain how they simply self-organized into correct sequences. And if there was a particular sequence favored by chemistry and physics, why do we have so many different sequences instead of just one? (The Darwinist would answer that random chance has provided the variation, but this falls under removing God as the Creator in my book.) And why has it proved impossible to throw the ingredients together in a soup and produce a working sequence? Why have we been unable to observe and record, many times, the supposed universal common ancestor rising from the primordial soup? If the laws of physics and chemistry favored such a thing, we would know it by now. Some would say that we simply need more time, and arguing that such a thing is impossible is merely an argument from ignorance. They say we will find out in the future. That's certainly possible. It's also possible we will find out in the future that pigs fly. But according to our current knowledge they don't. Indeed, our current knowledge is enough to suggest that they never will for various reasons.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: No. There are no questions of allegiance in sight. The person is merely stating what he believes to be a fact.

Conclusion: This statement taken by itself is idolatrous, but we must admit that qualifications exist and are made by some that would remove concern. This sort of thing sounds like a bit of a gray area, but I can still offer a clear guideline: Do not remove God from His rightful place as Creator. And I would be extremely careful speaking of Jesus and Darwin as if they were equal authorities. God is God. Jesus Christ is God. They are at the top of the heap. All other authorities are intermediate. The conclusion we can draw from the two examples involving gravity is that sometimes there are intermediate authorities between God and man, or between God and His Creation. To recognize these authorities is not idolatrous. To put them in God's position or set them against God is idolatrous, and this can serve as another good guideline we can draw from this exercise. We should also remember that single sentence statements often do not contain all the information necessary to answer these questions. Let's examine some other possible intermediate authorities.

Example 5: A person prays to the angel Michael.
Intuition: Ambiguous. Some Christians feel this is idolatrous. Others feel it is not. At this point we are examining issues without a clear or obvious answer. We are getting real.

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: No. The Bible contains several examples of the angel Michael fighting spiritual battles. There is no attempt to remove God from His position, to set any intermediate power against Him or to recognize any power outside God's chain of command. Michael is one of God's angels. He is clearly under God's authority, just like the law of gravity, and is capable of action under that authority. It is not idolatrous to recognize that and place hope in it.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: No. While it is true that Michael exists and apparently his purpose is to fight spiritual battles, the Bible offers no evidence that human beings can pray to him or any other angels. We are told to pray directly to God, who controls His angels. We are also informed that the Holy Spirit is a sort of intermediary between us and God the Father, bringing our requests to Him using "groans that words cannot express". However there is no evidence that Michael, Gabriel, the Virgin Mary or any spirits of dead Christians are in any position similar to the Holy Spirit. In fact when one such scenario is presented in Luke 16, Abraham is asked to do something which he refuses to do. Also when King Saul of Israel summons the ghost of the dead prophet Samuel he is harshly rebuked. The Bible does say that humans are greater than the angels, and that we will rule over them in heaven, but there's nothing to suggest that we can call upon them at will now. Jesus Christ could have called upon angels to help him, but He did not do so, and anyway He was God incarnate.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: No. This person is asking a being to do something. There is no question of allegiance involved.

Conclusion: Praying to Michael or the Virgin Mary may be wrong-headed, but it is not idolatrous unless one is placing these intermediate authorities in God's position or setting them against God. If for instance, one were to ascribe to Michael or Mary powers that only God has, such as the forgiveness of sins or the creation of the world, then we would have to answer "yes" to Question 1 and such an act would be idolatrous. But merely recognizing these beings as intermediary authorities within God's legitimate chain of command, whether the person has understood that chain of command rightly or not, does not by itself constitute idolatry. Perhaps their prayers are futile. Perhaps the Holy Spirit brings them to God in the spirit in which they were intended. Perhaps the Virgin Mary becomes slightly vexed at being asked to do a job she has not even applied for, preferring to remain at rest, but such things do not constitute idolatry.

Example 6: A person erects an Asherah pole.
Intuition: Yes, but why?

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: Yes. Asherah was an ancient fertility goddess outside Yahweh's chain of command. An appeal to her was an appeal to powers not beholden to God in a world where all power and authority belongs to Him. This is similar to Example 1 in that respect.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: No. Asherah does not exist. Fertility is a teleological quality determined by a large range of physical forces and factors that were created by God and exist like the law of gravity as intermediate authorities between God and His Creation.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: Yes, perhaps. By erecting an Asherah pole we could say this person is declaring some affinity with Asherah.

Conclusion: While an appeal to Asherah to increase one's fertility is idolatrous because Asherah is a power outside God's chain of command, a similar attempt to increase one's fertility by scientific means is not idolatrous because the physical laws surrounding fertility are within God's chain of command. God created fertility as a biological phenomenon. Is it not wrong to appeal to biology to recreate fertility where it has been broken or gone wrong somehow. It would be idolatrous to appeal to Asherah, Athena or any other false fertility goddess because this is not part of God's structure of authority in the world. Now I sense that perhaps we should have been asking a fifth question all along. We should also ask the question: Does this action, belief or saying attribute authority to something outside God's chain of command or not under His authority? For purposes of continuity, I will not openly ask the question, but it will be a part of my analysis as we continue.

Example 7: A person declares allegiance to the United States of America.
Intuition: No. The vast majority of Christians have never viewed this as an idolatrous act, however some do, creating a small window of ambiguity.

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: No. God's rightful position is the master of nations and states. A person declaring allegiance to a nation or state is placing himself under an intermediate authority that God has legitimized within His chain of command and within His structure of authority in the world. Declaring allegiance has nothing to do with placing God in this or that position. Declaring allegiance to a nation or state under God's authority does nothing to displace Him from that authority.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: Yes. Nations and states do exist, and they are a part of God's structure of authority in the world.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: Yes, obviously. This is similar to Example 2, and I will discuss the issue of allegiance further after we are done with these examples.

Conclusion: This I believe is the real point of contention between myself and Nugent, and so I will withhold further discussion until the end. Nugent does not say so in his posts, but I have sufficient experience with his point of view to know that his definition of idolatry depends upon questions of allegiance. The purpose of this exercise is to put questions of idolatry on their proper footing. Obviously I do not consider placing allegiance in a particular nation or state to be any more idolatrous than a marriage vow, church membership or being a fan of a particular sports team. The real question has nothing to do with allegiance. The real question is where is God in the equation? Is He still God? Does He still have all authority and power? Are we attributing power and authority that only God has and has not delegated into the hands of other authorities outside His proper chain of command? It is quite possible that some attempt to do just that with nations or states, just as it is possible to do with the law of gravity or the Virgin Mary.

Example 8: A person declares that the United States of America is the hope of the earth.
Intuition: Yes, with some ambiguity. This sort of statement ought to raise warning bells in the conscience of any Christian.

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: Yes. I am not familiar with the phrase "hope of the earth". I do not believe it occurs in the Bible, however it is reasonable to believe that the ultimate "hope of the earth" is Jesus Christ and not a particular nation or state, and therefore this statement is idolatrous because it puts the USA in the place of Jesus Christ. However, like Example 4 we should be aware that many, if not most, people who have said this or similar things would offer qualifications upon further questioning. For instance, supposing that the ultimate "hope" or "destiny" of all things was not what was intended by the phrase. Supposing for instance the phrase merely refers to the hope that Kuwaitis had that the United States would rescue them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein? I have personally met a Kuwaiti who was, to say the least, thankful that the United States intervened in 1991 to prevent his country from being taken over by the tyrant. Would it be idolatrous to suggest that other nations may look to that instance and hope that the United States would intervene on their behalf if something similar happened to them? I do not think so. Nations and states are, as I said before, a legitimate part of God's chain of command. It is not inappropriate to ask them to act in matters that are under their limited measure of authority, delegated to them by God. It is not inappropriate to "hope" that they will act rightly and with justice in the exercise of that authority on the earth. However the statement taken by itself with no further qualification must be taken as idolatrous, just like the statement in Example 4.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: No. If we are taking the statement with no further qualification than it is not true. The United States will one day fall as all other states have, and the earth will be just fine.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: No. The statement does not imply any sort of allegiance. The Kuwaiti in the answer to Question 1 may say and believe such a thing without placing his allegiance in the United States. One may place his allegiance in Kuwait or France or Zimbabwe and still be able to make this statement without any contradictions.

Conclusion: The statement is idolatrous. However we recognize that it's meaning could be limited in such a way that it would no longer be idolatrous, similar to the statement that gravity created the universe. We also have a clear example of an idolatrous statement that is not a statement of allegiance. Once again allegiance seems to have nothing to do with whether or not something is idolatrous. I chose this statement because Mitt Romney made it in the third presidential debate this year, and Nugent specifically referred to it in his posts as an idolatrous statement. I am in agreement with Nugent on this, but I do not think he has sufficiently explained why and is therefore extending his suspect reasoning to other things which are not idolatrous.

Example 9: Manifest Destiny
Intuition: Ambiguous. Some might consider this idolatrous and others might not. It probably depends on a thorough definition. For simplicity's sake I will use the following definition: A belief that the United States is destined by God to physically expand its borders to include all of North America. It should be noted that this belief did not survive the passing of the 19th century. Some have suggested in a pejorative fashion that the belief still exists as the idea that the United States is destined to expand democracy and freedom in the world. I believe that is mostly hogwash, but let's just take the original definition and go with that.

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: No. In fact the belief affirms God's place as the authority over the United States.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: No. The United States is done expanding and neither Canada nor Mexico are part of it. Furthermore there is no evidence from any credible source whatsoever that God intended any state except Israel to have any specific borders.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No. This belief specifically affirms a nation's allegiance to God.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: No. The belief sort of implies allegiance to the United States, but it is not by itself a statement of allegiance. A French or British scholar may, and some probably did, ascribe to this view without declaring allegiance to the United States.

Conclusion: Here we have another example of a clearly false belief that is not automatically made idolatrous by virtue of its being untrue. This is similar to Example 5. Thus we can conclude that beliefs are not idolatrous simply by being false. Thank goodness! Otherwise every theologian who was wrong about something would be committing idolatry.

Example 10: American exceptionalism
Intuition: No. But again we have a question of definition, and here we run into the unfortunate habit of publicly educated Americans forgetting the meaning of words and substituting simplistic value judgments. Thus "exceptional" no longer means "an exception to a general rule or tendency" and now means "AWESOME! HUR!!! GOD THINKS WE ARE SO COOL!!!"  American exceptionalism neither means nor even implies any such thing. It means there are certain general truths about nations that the United States has in some way avoided. It is the exception to the rules, or stating another way, exceptional. There is much more to say here that will be said in the next post.

Question 1: Is this person putting something else in God's rightful position?
Answer: No. Claiming that a nation-state has not followed the general trend most other nation-states follow says absolutely nothing whatsoever about God's position.

Question 2: Is this true?
Answer: Yes. We are getting into the subject of the next post, but it certainly seems to be the case that in the history of nations the United States of America exhibits several unique features. One of the biggest features is its lack of any ethnic identity. We don't think twice of identifying people of any race as Americans. Go visit France sometime and see how the French people view French citizens and immigrants who are not ethnically French. The general rule among nations is to identify a nation by ethnicity, and perhaps to build a state upon that identity. The national identity of Americans is dependent upon a particular political ideology, and it was this way from the beginning, even before the actual governing institutions were created after the American Revolution. One can question this ideology if one wants, but it still makes America an exception to the general rule.

Question 3: Is this person removing his allegiance from God?
Answer: No. Once again this point of view has no particular bearing on allegiance or lack thereof.

Question 4: Is this person giving his allegiance to something other than God?
Answer: No. See above.

Final Conclusion:

Question 1 is clearly the question a Christian ought to be asking himself if he is worried he might be committing idolatry. Idolatry is above all a position taken on the question of God: who He is and where and how His authority extends. The question of secondary causality and intermediate authorities quickly comes to the fore. In such cases it seems reasonable to ask first whether one is denying God's authority, then to ask whether or not these secondary causes and intermediate authorities have been appointed by God or not. Here the Bible is an invaluable guide. It seems that the book of Genesis, as well as some esoteric statements in the New Testament support the notion that God has created the universe and established constraints upon it that we call "laws". It also seems to be the case that God has delegated authority to human institutions that we may call "governments" or perhaps "states". To recognize such authority is not in the least idolatrous, it is merely acknowledging God's established chain of command and delegation of authority. It is certainly possible to become idolatrous by placing in these entities powers which are not theirs, but no adult can reject these authorities and remain a sane person. God has established them. They exist. To deny their authority is folly.

Questions of Allegiance

The question of allegiance has little bearing on the question of idolatry in my opinion. Nugent did not even address allegiance in his posts, but I brought it up because I know it is an issue for those of his position. Their problem seems to be the question of multiple allegiances. How can one person have multiple allegiances? In reality, all of these people are adults and do in fact maintain multiple allegiances in their own lives. They have already resolved these difficulties. For some reason they have failed to consider the same solution in their theology, which is why I call their position childish.

The obvious resolution to questions of multiple allegiances is to prioritize them properly. Once one has prioritized their allegiances than any conflict which arises is instantly resolved. Indeed, since allegiance to God includes all of God's creation, including a large number of possibilities for our lives, then living in allegiance to God should not present a great deal of difficulty to a person living in a world He created and exercises authority over. Any adult Christian in possession of the Holy Spirit is capable of recognizing genuine conflict where it exists. I think in his latest post Nugent has acknowledged as much, saying that he does not believe voting or other political activity is always idolatrous in every situation. If I read him right, he is a pacifist. This is the primary issue he and others seem to have with acknowledging the authority of earthly human governments within God's legitimate chain of command. They believe that the use of force and coercion by earthly governments is in conflict with their allegiance to God. I find this view ridiculous on the face of it, since the very passage suggesting God's delegation of authority to earthly governments specifically delegates the use of force, but that is a subject for another post. Here I only wished to address the question of idolatry, an accusation thrown out half-heartedly because of an entirely different issue. The use of force is clearly permitted for governments. But there are other things that do go against God's will. What does that imply about allegiances?

Supposing the person or lesser authority in which I have placed my allegiance does something against God's will? Am I to immediately withdraw my allegiance? Am I to run around pointing fingers at every little offense and calling down fire from heaven? I shudder to think what sort of impact this sort of behavior would have on a marriage. Allegiance does not imply the automatic acceptance of anything the other party does or believes. It is merely an identification with them as a member of the same group. Certainly there may be extreme circumstances which may necessitate breaking the allegiance, but these are gray areas. In general though, adults accept the faults and mistakes of others, recognizing that they themselves would be in poor shape if everyone broke their ties to them for any minor offense they committed. We work within the group, within our circle of allegiances, to correct each others' faults. Without such allegiances there would be no correction. It is only those who break allegiances at the drop of a hat that threaten society and civilization and all the ties that bind humans together.

The Roles and Gifts of Christians in the World

There are three men. The first is a recovering alcoholic. The second a recovered alcoholic. The third a man who has never once in his life been drunk or even been tempted. These three men are friends. They come across a group of alcoholics and decide together they wish to take action to help these people end their addiction to alcohol. What is the best way to proceed? they ask. They go to a fourth man, a wise man, and ask him what to do.

The wise man asks, "Is it not a particular gifting of the one who has never been tempted to never be tempted?"

Yes, they reply.

"And is it not the particular gifting of the recovered alcoholic to have had the very same experience as current alcoholics, such that he knows the path which they might travel as one who has already traversed it himself?"

Of course, they reply.

"And is it not dangerous for a recovering alcoholic to be around alcohol, for he might be tempted beyond what he can bear?"

Quite so, say the men.

"Then I advise you as follows: The recovered alcoholic shall go to these alcoholics and become friends with them. He will talk to them about their problem and discuss the difficulties which he well knows. He will present to them the beginning of the path away from that life, and in so doing might convince many of them to enter upon that path and leave their alcoholism behind. The one who has never been tempted shall go with him to keep the recovered alcoholic accountable, for he may fall back into old habits without someone who is not himself in danger to remind him of his new path and hold him steady on it. But the recovering alcoholic shall stay away from these alcoholics, for he may not have the strength to resist these temptations. Let him not venture into their presence until he himself has fully recovered and gained enough strength and confidence in his new path that he will not be easily tempted."

The three friends acknowledge his good advice, but the one who has never been tempted was troubled. Sir, he asks of the wise man, what if none had ever recovered from alcoholism? What good would I be without a recovered alcoholic?

The wise man replied, "The one who has never been tempted may very well venture into the alcoholics' company without being tempted, but if he tries to preach to them the virtues of temperance he will be regarded with suspicion. The alcoholics will not believe his testimony, for it contains no knowledge of the challenges and failings common to them. They will recognize he is not like them. They may even recognize his way is better. But they will see no way out of their problem and will become bitter. The man will irritate them to no end, and the relationship will fail."

But sir, asked the one never had been tempted, how does anyone recover from alcoholism if what you say is true?

"Well," said the wise man, "that is the mystery. But perhaps when the man is gone some may on their own and in the quiet of their own mind recognize the wisdom of the other man and leave their alcoholic friends and attempt the journey on their own, unbeknownst to the man who was never tempted."

Then, said he, the question is of the recovered alcoholic finding the one who was never tempted and making common cause with him, even though he may have originally resented him and only later recognized his wisdom.

"Yes," said the wise man. "That is the question."