Number 11: Don’t Read One Corinthians

Dwight Longenecker tries to walk Roman Catholic converts back from overly high expectations for the Roman Catholic Church in the manner of Joe Carter (where Carter produces 9 points, Father Dwight adds a tenth). That is a tad rich given the way some conversion stories go. But at least Longenecker acknowledges that Protestants who become Roman Catholic are in for a rough ride.

At the same time, he perpetuates a series of caricatures about Protestantism that again reinforce the point that no matter how bad Rome is, Protestant churches are worse:

Protestant congregations don’t really get together along doctrinal lines. They get together along socio-economic lines. The good, upper middle class white folks who go to the local Presbyterian church are all from the professional, affluent class. The working class folks who go to the Assembly of God live in the same lower income bracket. This is why they have warm fellowship.

Hasn’t Longenecker been reading Redeemer City to City Newsletter?

Or this:

Protestants are used to unity within their congregation. This is because Protestant churches are sects. They’ve split away from others for some doctrinal or moral teaching. Therefore there is an underlying unity of viewpoint. When this is combined with the socio economic factor that unity is a powerful and attractive force.

And Father Dwight just happened to go from Bob Jones and Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism for matters other than doctrine or morality? The music?

He does also say some revealing things about Roman Catholics that make you wonder what the difference is between them and mainline Protestants:

People blame “the church” for poor catechesis, and that is no doubt a problem, but the other half of the problem is that now we have a slew of excellent materials, resources, speakers, study course, books, videos, conferences and programs to catechize, encourage and assist, but the vast bulk of Catholics simply stay away. They can’t be bothered. If they practice the faith at all it looks like the Democratic party at prayer. Step around them and work with the people who do want to know more and love the faith.

But the most striking point in Longenecker’s list is the one about discipline or reform:

The really big problem for converts to the Catholic faith is to come to grips with the fact that in the Catholic Church the sinners and saints are all tumbled in together. The glorious church may be without spot or wrinkle in the final reckoning, but here and now, in human terms, it is spotty and wrinkled. It is dirty and soiled with sin. The heretics and the faithful sit side by side. The biggest problem many converts face is that the Catholic Church is soiled with sin. We want to purify the church. We want to weed the garden. We want to get rid of the rot. We want to clean the ship, patch the leaks and sail on with confidence and strength. The servants in the story of the wheat and tares wanted to do the same thing. Check out Matthew 13:24-30. Jesus says the wheat and tares grow together in the same field. The enemy has planted the weeds among the wheat. Live with it. God will sort it out in the end. That tension is uncomfortable.

Why do we want to sort out the weeds from the wheat? Because we long for the certainty and security of belonging to a pure religious sect. It’s human nature to want to belong to a group that is pure and has all the right answers and has everything all neat and tidy and in place. But that’s simply not the nature of Christ’s kingdom. That’s not the nature of reality.

So on Rome goes with whiskey priests, mafia dons, and even lecherous cardinals. What can you do? You certainly can’t play judgment day.

But there is church action somewhere between should-shrugging and bowdlerizing the saints (and the Vatican does not seem to be bashful about revealing the saints). This is actually a recurring theme in conversations with Roman Catholics about the waywardness that afflicts the communion (from renegade nuns to Roman Catholic universities that are hardly Wyoming Catholic College). Interlocutors repeatedly tell me that to hold church members to moral standards, with threats of discipline is Puritan or fundamentalist.

Is is Puritan or fundamentalist to punish a child for not coming home on time? Is it Puritan or fundamentalist to require spouses to be faithful to each other? Is it Puritan or fundamentalist for Roman Catholic politicians to use the church’s social teaching in pursuit of the “common good” or “human flourishing”?

Roman Catholics do lots of things to try to prod sinful humans to behave. They seem to think that society would work better if people actually followed church teaching.

But when it comes to priests and bishops’ sinfulness, Father Dwight says there’s nothing you can do because of the way wheat grows (he ignores what you do with dead branches on fruit trees)?

Such passivity would appear to be at odds with Paul’s instructions in the fifth chapter of his first letter to the church at Corinth.

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Imagine a church that did not associate with sexually immoral people. So Pauline. So fundamentalist.

The Logic of Comfort

The folks who like to draw attention to obedience in the Christian life do not seem to consider the source of believer’s comfort. Consider the following:

Since the Bible doesn’t restrict the word “gospel” to a very precise meaning, we shouldn’t either. This is not to say that we can’t use the gospel in its narrow sense and distinguish between the gospel (what Jesus has done) and our response to the gospel (what we need to do). To do so is to distinguish between redemption accomplished and redemption applied, and that is a very helpful and necessary distinction. The point is that we shouldn’t oppose or separate them. The Bible binds them together and includes both under the term “gospel.”

Paul summarized the gospel he preached in terms of the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). But that is not all there is to the gospel, or even to the work of Christ. A summary of the gospel is just that—a summary—and it shouldn’t be set in direct opposition to its broader definition or fuller explanation.

There are some rather large problems that may arise when people limit the meaning of the gospel to its narrow sense. One potential problem is the unjust accusation of legalism or of mixing law and gospel. It is not necessarily legalistic to use phrases such as “living the gospel,” “obeying the gospel,” or “the conditions of the gospel.” But if you see what we do as only “law” and what Christ has done as only “gospel” then you will likely interpret the broad but biblical use of the term “gospel” as legalistic. Another potential problem is the minimization or outright denial of the conditions of the gospel, which is what the puritans called antinomianism.

If you confessed, however, the Heidelberg Catechism, what would its first answer do to efforts to make the gospel something you obey?

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together
for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

It’s not as if that assertion lacks good works. But the Holy Spirit is the one to produce good works. Obedience inevitably springs from a true faith that receives and rests on Christ. To speak of the gospel requiring good works places the burden on believers who thought they had comfort.

That may explain why in Paul’s short summary (too short for some) of the gospel in 1 Cor 15:1-5, he goes on to talk about the comfort that believers take from Christ’s finished work:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So glad Paul did not write, “if Christ has not been raised, your obedience is futile and your good works don’t count for anything.”

On Necessity, Inevitability, and Finding a Basis

The Belgic Confession (Art. 24) says this about good works:

Therefore,
far from making people cold
toward living in a pious and holy way,
this justifying faith,
quite to the contrary,
so works within them that
apart from it
they will never do a thing out of love for God
but only out of love for themselves
and fear of being condemned.

So then, it is impossible
for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being,
seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith
but of what Scripture calls
“faith working through love,”
which moves people to do by themselves
the works that God has commanded
in the Word.

Faith makes good works inevitable and in a sense necessary. Without faith, the motivation for works changes.

Faith also affects the way we view good works. It allows Christians to look to Christ’s righteousness as the basis for salvation even while pursuing good works, rather than asking, “have I done enough?”

Moreover,
although we do good works
we do not base our salvation on them;
for we cannot do any work
that is not defiled by our flesh
and also worthy of punishment.
And even if we could point to one,
memory of a single sin is enough
for God to reject that work.

So we would always be in doubt,
tossed back and forth
without any certainty,
and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly
if they did not rest on the merit
of the suffering and death of our Savior.

Even the language of saying works are necessary to, as opposed to for, salvation is to veer in the direction of making works one basis among others for our salvation.

Given the propensity of fallen human nature for self-righteousness, loose talk about good works is like what Mark Noll said about evangelicals and activism: “to urge activist evangelicals to get more active is like pointing an addict toward dope.”

To urge Christians to good works for final salvation, without lots of qualifications, is like encouraging a relapse.

There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

Constantine as Mr. Rogers

Remember when Presbyterians used to confess this about the civil magistrate?

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (Confession of Faith 23.3)

Of course, imagining Donald Trump presiding over the General Assembly of the PCA might prompt chuckles (moderating debate with Roberts’ Rules, winding up the woke commissioners, Trump supporters’ embarrassment). But even giving “good” presidents this kind of power is precisely why American Presbyterians revised the Confession (at least one reason). The Congregationalist, Barack Obama moderating a General Assembly? The United Methodist, George W. Bush? The Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy? I don’t think so!

But even in a secular United States, Americans have trouble abandoning the idea of a president’s moral authority. Even those who believe in total depravity struggle with expecting too much of POTUS. Here’s one fairly recent foray into the topic of presidents’ morality at National Public Radio. Surprise, it started with St. Abe:

While Americans often take the idea of the president as a moral leader for granted, Barbara Perry, a presidential historian in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says she has traced this concept back to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.

The North and South were divided in the middle of the Civil War, and Lincoln sought to bring the country together by pointing to our common heritage, Perry says.

“He points to the fact that our common heritage is that our forefathers came upon this continent and created a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Perry tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. “To me it is the ultimate presidential speech of unification, grief, calming — but also uplifting and inspirational.”

What exactly is moral about social unity, grief over soldiers’ deaths, calm reassurance, uplift, and inspiration? That’s a pretty low bar (not low enough for Trump).

“The president is not always successful in the persuasion, in terms of policy outcomes,” Perry says, “but if he can be successful in at least calming and soothing the nation and showing us a way forward — that someday perhaps we will reach the policy point, as we did with President Kennedy and the ’64 Civil Rights Act — he will have been successful.”

So what, ultimately, is the responsibility of a president in critical moments? Perry says the president primarily serves to comfort the American people in times of crisis. We look to the president as a father figure.

“The president is the very first symbol of American government that children comprehend,” she says. “The president, especially in the modern era, comes into our homes — first by radio, then television, now through all sorts of electronic gadgetry — and so we think of him as part of our life. And that’s why it’s so important for him to model the proper behavior for us.”

The only way this makes sense for Christians is to have two standards, one for Christians, another for citizens. The United States relies on conduct that is outwardly moral in some sense. But that is a far cry from the Confession:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. (Confession of Faith, 13.7)

A president’s moral authority, accordingly, should proceed from true faith, obedience to God’s word, and an aim to give God the glory.

And yet, we have many Americans who expect presidents to be moral at a time when Christians have been “engaged” in politics in a direct way for at least a generation. You might think that a Christian perspective would reduce expectations for a presidential morality. It is exactly the reverse. Many American who have made a living by flouting conventional standards (think Hollywood celebrities) now have no trouble echoing Jerry Falwell, Sr.

If only Mencken were alive to see this show.

A Federal Department of Sanctification?

Pastor Anyabwile is back to the pursuit of social justice with a series of posts, the most recent of which renders those not active in opposition to racism as complicit with previous generations’ sins:

The actual debate is about the extent to which the sins of previous generations still mark this generation, and, if so, whether people today will acknowledge and repent of it. What is in dispute is whether a mere claim to not being guilty of certain sins constitutes either repentance or innocence when the sins in view actually require active opposition and when we may be unaware of some sins (Ps. 19:12; 1 Cor. 4:4). The life the gospel produces ought to be actively anti-racist, anti-oppression, anti-family destruction, and so on.

How could Anyabwile leave out sexism and misogyny, or climate change? How can any American stand on that great day of judgment for sins covered in the national press?

One of his posts includes the point, not very controversial, that the gospel involves renovation of the Christian’s moral life:

…historically and at present we have an evangelical Christian church generally failing at the ethical half of the faith. That failure results from little teaching and inadequate understanding of gospel ethics, especially as it relates to the practice of justice on a range of issues.

The conservative and Reformed evangelical church receives a heavy dose of gospel doctrine (appropriately so) but not nearly enough discipleship in gospel duty. Its witness is being hurt by the latter (duty), not the former (doctrine). Or, to use Paul’s words to Timothy, there’s need for the church to “closely watch its life and doctrine.”

The social justice “debate” appears to me as a kind of spiritual and intellectual dissonance caused by some quarters of the church awakening to the ethical demands of God while other quarters resist that awakening or perceived excesses in it. From my vantage point, Christians pursuing justice are attempting to hold together evangel and ethic in renewed ways as they apply biblical texts and appropriate history. (I stress Christians here because I am not defending and am not a part of the large number of non-Christian things traveling beneath the banner of “social justice.”) To put it simply: Some Christians are trying to grow in their understanding and pursuit of Bible- and gospel-informed justice, while some other Christians are invested in protecting the gospel from threats they believe they see. My critique of the latter is that they appear to be severing evangel from ethic.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: ethics is not justice. Ethics may not even be sanctification. But if social justice and supporting reform of the criminal justice system (which is desirable) is a form of sanctification, the good pastor has engaged in some serious baiting and switching.

Truth be told, the United States has a Department of Justice that is involved in much more than ethics:

To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.

Of course, recent controversies, from Russia to Missouri, have shown how flawed the execution of justice can be. But that’s the nature of society and justice in a fallen world. Heck, not even sanctification is entire in this life for the individual Christian.

So why does Pastor Anyabwile continue to talk about social justice in ways that indicate he is a Christian nationalist, that is, someone who thinks the United States should meet, not Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon norms for social life, but Christian ones?

Why not separate the church from the federal government and talk about ways to eliminate racism from national institutions on political grounds, rather than trying to turn political reform into the third use of the law?

Hypocrites All

Has anyone wondered what Bible #woke Christians read?

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Phil 2)

It gets worse if you think that suffering is actually part and parcel of flourishing for Christians.

Have The Weak and Strong Turned into the Righteous and the Wicked?

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Lots of imperatives there, but substituting orthodoxy on race for conformity on political affiliation is hardly in keeping with what Paul commanded in Romans 14:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;

Maybe the way around this call to forbearance (even tolerance) is to say that Donald Trump is simply evil. If so, then it would be doubly odd to condemn a chief sinner when Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other deplorables. Since when does following Jesus mean imitating what he will do when he returns on Judgment Day?

One point to remember about the weak and the strong is that it allows for Christians to feel superior. Some are strong, others weak. Not sure how you turn that into some form of egalitarianism. The strong can handle more than the weak, and so have a better grasp of the gospel than those who form certain kinds of legalism.

So if the supremacy of the strong is a biblical idea, what is so bad with talking about some groups being better than others? Is it really so bad (when so many do it) to believe in the supremacy of the educated? American society in most middling to upper institutions runs on the premise that someone who is educated beyond high school will be a better employee, student, leader, manager than someone with less education. That is not hatred (though it can turn into it) of the uneducated. It is a recognition (perhaps debatable) that education is generally a good preparation for lots of human activities.

The point of the weak and the strong in Paul’s epistle seems to be to recognize difference but not let that be the basis for exclusion or cliques in the church.

I understand that people who moved in religious right circles did not handle their (self-understood) superiority very well. But I don’t think the social justice Protestants are setting a great example. If Paul can say “chill” about activities that some Christians deemed sinful, when did the new set of apostles arrive to declare that Paul’s instructions have hit their expiration date?

How to Bring Harmony between Woke Christians and Christian Nationalists

Find passages from Scripture that neither can preach while maintaining their social media postures.

Here are some examples:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Pet 2)

Even if Peter were not aware of intersectionality, he seems to allow that businesses, schools, governments, attitudes, even economic status function as restraints on our freedom. Either way, we’re supposed to submit and not rebel. That might also apply to Parliament and the British monarchy way back in 1776.

Paul at times set the bar higher than Peter:

9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12)

One lesson from that challenge is don’t kvetch! Don’t complain about taxes or the king. And don’t anathematize groups of people that you think have privilege or are bigoted.

In fact, how could you ever square such passages with a declaration of war against an existing government or with Twitter outrage that castigates entire classes of people based on the news cycle? In other words, how do American believers become so comfortable with an American exceptionalism that either idolizes or vilifies the United States and its government?

Selah

Bill Clinton: In Red, White, and Especially Blue

This is how objections to presidential immorality sounded twenty-one years ago (from the October 1998 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

Of the several disadvantages of growing up in a fundamentalist home, one was the ability of my father to detect off-color humor a mile away. (Sure, the promoters of family values would see this as a virtue. But, then again, they are the ones responsible for the Family Channel where firm parental guidance is little different from parental naivete.) I can remember those rare nights when for some reason my brother had been sufficiently well-behaved to merit staying up late – it also needs to be added that it was Friday night. And then around 11:30 we would gain access into the sophisticated adult world of “The Tonight Show” and hear the urbane (to us) humor of Johnny Carson. We would listen to Fred McMahon announce the evening’s guests and cherish the prospects of seeing Buddy Rich or Don Rickles.

BUT WE KNEW ONE OBSTACLE lay in the way of our making it past midnight. It was Carson’s monologue. If Johnny went blue – the showbiz vernacular for telling dirty jokes – then we knew dad would get up from his recliner and turn the TV off, thus forcing an abrupt end to the quality time around the tube. Sometimes Carson’s allusions to parts of the female anatomy would be tame enough to keep our father in his seat – he no doubt enjoyed Carson and wanted to see the same guests that we did. (By the way, it helped if dad fell asleep. But there would be hell to pay if he woke up to a dirty joke. And could you be really sure that he was asleep?) But in those cases where the jokes were only a shade blue, the pressure I felt was even greater than if Carson had gone ahead and told a crude one-liner. I couldn’t stand not knowing when my father would turn off the TV. And so, in some cases I would be the one to make the first move. It wasn’t because I objected to the humor, nor was it even a case of trying to protect my innocent dad from the dirty jokes that I had come to hear at school (often repeated from “The Tonight Show”). Instead, it was simply a desire to end my misery. I could not bear hearing off color jokes in my dad’s presence. If I laughed I would certainly disappoint if not anger him. If I didn’t then why bother watching?

MEMORIES OF MY YOUTHFUL late night discomfort have come back to me over the past eight months, first as a trickle, and now as a virtual geyser, as the sordid and tawdry details of our President and his intern have absorbed the nation and its media. Through it all I know that my aging fundamentalist parents sit glued to the TV, not because they are so interested in Bill Clinton’s sex life (though as registered Republicans these incidents have no doubt confirmed their prejudices). Rather, it is their habit to watch at least ninety minutes of news each night, first the local variety at 6:00, then the national edition at 6:30 – I think they still watch Peter Jennings, who has had his own intern problems, because their local news of choice comes from the ABC affiliate and they don’t have remote control. Then, they finish off the day with a dose of local news at 11:00, complete with that evening’s murders, fires, and woes of the Major League Baseball’s closest franchise.

THROUGH IT ALL, MY DEAR, devout conservative independent Baptist parents have had to hear about parts of the human body and sexual positions that had Johnny Carson ever mentioned my dad would have likely not only turned off the TV, but put it out by the curb for the next trash pick-up. I feel this obligation to go home at certain times of the evening so I can be there to turn off my parents’ TV. Many people have talked about how parents are going to explain the President’s actions to their children. But what about former fundamentalists like me? Who is going to explain it to our parents? I want to protect my parents from the evening news which is now pornographic. They don’t need to know about oral sex or stained cocktail dresses. Their lives, innocent though they may have been, would have been complete without such carnal knowledge. And this is the source of my complaint against our President. His sexual life is his business, though I can see its repercussions for the body politic and his ability to govern. But do my parents have to know? Couldn’t he have thought about all those fundamentalists out there who had never dreamed that sexual desire could take such bodily form?

Now, part of the problem may be mine. I could be suffering from the same naivete that Hamlet exhibited when he denied that his mother was a sexual creature. In other words, I may think my parents so sexually innocent that I can’t conceive of their sexual intimacy, let alone the fact that they did produce two sons. They both grew up on farms and probably know a lot more about sex than I can ever fathom. Still, if they felt the obligation to protect me from Johnny going blue, I feel a similar responsibility to protect them from Bill Clinton, who should be turning red.

Townsend Levitt