Monday, December 1, 2014

A Christian Nation?

It’s a debate that may not ever go away.  Is America a Christian nation?  Christians tend to say yes, while secularists generally say no.

In previous writing I’ve made clear my position and understanding of the historical separation of church and state, and how in our modern era that idea has been corrupted.  I stand by that opinion.  Separation of church and state was an idea put forth by religious people, not by civil authorities who definitely did not embrace the idea.  Even with that in mind, or perhaps especially with that in mind, I think we need to be careful calling America a Christian nation.  

The phrase “separation of church and state” occurs nowhere in the Constitution.  The First Amendment, to which the phrase alludes, is meant to limit the state, not the church.  Indeed, the Constitution, in its entirety, should be understood as nothing more than a limit on the state.  We are free to worship as our consciences dictate.  With regard to religion, there are two limits enumerated by the First Amendment.  One, that there will be no official religion of the state (or endorsed by the state), and two, that we citizens can not be prohibited from worshipping as we see fit (including where we see fit - including in public or in a government building).  That second part is the part a lot of people forget.

A state established religion was what our forefathers (not our founding fathers, but their forefathers) were specifically escaping when they left England to come here.  These facts appear to bring us to an impasse.  I, and people of like minds as I, believe that the “separation of church and state” has become woefully corrupted and that we should be able to worship as we want and not be prohibited at all.  On the other hand, those of a more secular mindset point out the same facts and come to the conclusion that their way is the best way to avoid returning to what our forefathers escaped.  The error they make, though, is asserting that those forefathers were not Christian and did not want a Christian nation.  They were, and they did. They simply did not want the state to dictate that all the citizens are to be Catholic, or Anglican, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or whatever.  They were saying that that’s not the state’s job.  

So, does that mean we should not allow Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or anyone else to be here and worship as they see fit?  Of course not.  

I believe we are a Christian nation in two senses.  First, in the sense that (most of) our founding fathers were either active Christians or, at least, very well versed in Christian thought.  And secondly, our legal system and our system of government are modeled on that thought.  But I think it’s a stretch, and a potentially dangerous one, to say that our government was meant to be an extension of the church, or even of Christianity.  

I’ve said this before, but again, it’s a bit complicated.  Our ancestors were not as compartmentalizing with their religious beliefs as we are.  We tend to keep our religion in its own little box - partly out of a misunderstanding that’s been promulgated about the First Amendment, and partly out of convenience (meaning a lack of ethical fortitude).  They did not do that.  All of life - everything - was viewed through the filter of their religious beliefs.  However, their ability to see distinctions and nuance was far superior to ours.  They knew, in a much different way than we know, where the church and state converged and diverged; and knew from personal experience the danger of improperly mixing them.

If you want to know why there’s a New England, then study history.  Look to old England in the 1620’s and 1630’s.  Look at King James, and especially his son, King Charles I.  Look at William Laud, Alexander Leighton, Edward Coke, and all the vitriol between the Puritans on one side, the Catholics on the other, and the Church of England and the crown right in the middle.

All of the above wanted there to be an official state religion, as in fact every country in Europe had at the time.  Every one of those people and groups considered themselves Christian, and yet there was enormous bloodshed.

William Laud, one of my least favorite characters in that little passion play, actually articulated the thought process quite well.  Although there was great variance in the particulars amongst these men and groups, in general they all believed this.  Laud said that the spirit of God is one, and that whoever divides against the unity of the church practices against the unity of the spirit.  Without unity the church would disintegrate; without the church, the state would disintegrate: “It is impossible in any Christian commonwealth that the church should melt, and the state stand firm.”  

Do we really want to pursue this very same train of thought?  Do we believe that the Christian church(es) should take THAT active a role in the business of government?  Maybe the answer is yes, but we should know the potential dangers if we do answer yes.

Remember: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Don’t We Trust The Process?

Last night I was listening to Dana Loesch and, while I don’t yet fully embrace her style, the content of what she says is usually spot on.

She was on a tear last night about the events in Ferguson, MO.  She’s from St. Louis, of which Ferguson is a suburb, so she has more than simply a passing interest in the goings on there.

She pointed out that in the recent election, in the greater St. Louis area, the polls had a 40% voter turn out.  So, people are supposedly angry enough to have a racially motivated protest (which many fear will turn into a violent riot), but they’re not angry enough to actually vote!

She informed the audience that the politicians in that area are a corrupt old boys network, and have been for quite some time.  If the people don’t like how things are, why didn’t they go out and vote them out of office?  But, no, while the people were out protesting these same politicians were re-elected back into office.

Now, I’ve always maintained that it is the right of Americans to revolt and overthrow the government if it becomes necessary (having the right and being able to carry it out are two entirely different things, obviously).  Dana’s rant made me re-evaluate my position on that, however.  I haven’t changed my basic position, but I have decided that, apparently, I need to add a qualifier for those who take too simplistic a view of it.  And yes, I know there are differences between  a protest, a riot, and a revolt, but one can certainly lead to the next.

It should be abundantly obvious, but it seems that may not be the case.  We the people should not even consider revolting if we can’t even be bothered to go out and vote.  I’ll stop short of saying we shouldn’t be allowed to revolt, but in good conscience, we should not.  We have a process in place that, if we all participate, should work.

A revolution should be reserved for when and if the system doesn’t work.  If, say, 75% or 80% of the people vote and their wishes are not carried out, then, perhaps, a revolution is in order.  But when a majority of the voters refuse to take part in the process, then it seems disingenuous at best to incite even a possibility of violence.  At worst it’s reckless and unpatriotic.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In Defense of Social Media

It seems that lately the new “in” thing is to denounce social media.  It’s argued by some that it’s a distraction from real life (which, for some, is undoubtedly its attraction).  Others go further and say that so-called “social” media is de-socializing people from actually interacting with each other, preferring instead to briefly touch base without actually having any meaningful human interaction.  Still others go so far as to decry it as evil.

For some time now, I’ve wanted to defend social media - not to the extreme that I think it’s the greatest thing man has ever come up with; but that it’s not evil, either.  It does serve a purpose and is good for some people. But I have been unable to adequately articulate my thoughts. 

Sometimes it’s the strangest things that spur thought. I recently took one of those silly tests on Facebook (thereby proving the distracting nature of it). This one was “Which mental disorder do you sort of have?”  Naturally, these things are not the least bit scientific and are meant mostly for entertainment. They are multiple choice and extremely general. Some of the questions seem to be irrelevant, while others just seem to not have any options that accurately express one’s best answer. This being the case, there were a few questions which I could have chosen one or another answer, so I took the quiz twice using the different answers.

The first result showed that I had Social Anxiety, and the second said Misanthropy. As unlikely as it sounds, these results are actually not far from being correct. Probably, some people I know would say that I’m a social person, but I do sometimes have social anxiety. As regards misanthropy . . . I sort of do hate people. Let me clarify: I love persons, but I hate people. I can deal one on one with people, or be part of a small group of people I know, but I’m very uncomfortable around crowds, especially if I don’t know anybody. I don’t like how people behave en masse. It frustrates me and, in extreme cases, it can frighten me. 

But I love the persons I know and interact with. I just don’t have a need to have constant interaction or contact. Even so, I feel that I make a pretty strong effort to not fall out of touch with people (persons). I will frequently reach out proactively with a text message or Facebook message if I haven’t heard from someone in a while. 

This is one of the things that social media is good for. It keeps us, who many people think are anti-social (or at least unsocial), in contact with those who are important to us, and does so in a way that we feel safe and not overwhelmed.

Another valuable use for social media comes into play with regard to family who are distant from one another. They get to share pictures instantly and thereby feel more connected, even though they might be hundreds or thousands of miles away. I was talking to a lady just today that remarked that she was the only person who had not seen her new grandchild and was thankful for Facebook that she could at least see pictures.

So, before you relegate social media to the status of an evil distraction, think about the people whose lives it actually enhances.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Great Commission

One of the ideas you run into a lot in Christian circles is that of The Great Commission - the idea that God commanded all believers to go out and spread the word, so to speak. In churches that maintain this there’s usually a strong support of missionary work. I always had the feeling that the assumption is that everyone should be a missionary - if not on the mission field, then at least in our own neighborhoods. 

We should be knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets. We should be doing everything in our power to convert “the lost”. If we fail to embrace that, we are ashamed of Christ and we should question our own salvation.

I’ve never felt this was right and, frankly, I think it does more to drive people away from Jesus than toward him. I’ve always held that we all have different gifts and different callings. To force somebody into a role (such as evangelizer) for which they are ill suited is inefficient at best, and contrary to God’s will at worst. After all, God has blessed us with our unique gifts. We should pursue them - not what other people think we should pursue.

The idea of The Great Commission comes most notably from Matthew 28:18-20. Other places are Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:44-49; and John 20:19-23. The passage in Matthew reads:

Matthew 28:18-20
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (NIV)

This raises two important questions. First (even though the word is never actually used), what is a commission? And second, what is a disciple? Before I answer these, I want to compare the NIV to the King James. The latter does not use the words “make disciples of all nations”, but rather, “teach all nations.” I accept the translations as roughly synonymous - the loosest definition of disciple being “learner”, but others elaborate.

The dictionary definitions for disciple are: a learner; a personal follower; one who accepts and helps spread the teachings of a famous person.

John Starke ( claims a disciple is, by definition, a multiplier. He uses Matt 13:23 to back up his assertion. But Jesus wasn’t speaking of disciples, per se, in that parable. He was speaking more generally about spiritual receptivity. Certainly Jesus expected his disciples to be receptive and to bear fruit - but that is beside the point he was actually making. 

So, while I agree with Mr. Starke’s sentiments, I find his particular argument wanting. For the sake of this posting, I’ll be using the definition of learner; which I think is closer to the King James idea of “teach all nations.”

Regarding the question of what is a commission, I first want to point out that most of the people I’ve heard talk about this have tended to emphasize that The Great Commission was a command(ment). As Mary Fairchild points out (, “As many have said, it’s not ‘The Great Suggestion’. No, the Lord has commanded us to put our faith in action.”

Not exactly. At least not the way I read it. First off, the word commission is not in any of the verses - it’s just what people call it. But assuming it’s an accurate word, a commission is not a command(ment). And it certainly wasn’t given to all of us. It was Jesus’ final instruction to his immediate disciples.

Matt Slick ( calls it “the final instructive word from Jesus to his church.” Again, not exactly. Not “the church” the way we usually define it, but a select group that, I would argue, preceded the church. He goes on to say, “This commission is mainly given to the disciples then present. But it applies to you as well.”

For a third time I say, not exactly. It applies to us only in the sense that the disciples of those disciples will/should teach the same things. But it’s a mistake to say that Jesus was giving this instruction to us. It was a clear delegation of responsibility. Jesus delegated to his disciples, who were then responsible for passing along the instruction. A fine-line distinction? Perhaps. But no more so than it being Adam’s responsibility to pass along the instruction to Eve. God held Adam primarily responsible for the failure, not Eve.

So, it is perfectly appropriate to call it The Great Commission. A specific group of people was commissioned with a task. But it was not a commandment. Jesus never uses a word as strong as “command” in these verses - at least not to describe this instruction. People may get confused because he says, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:...” 

Note that he didn’t say, “I command you to teach all nations.” Rather, he instructed them to teach all nations ABOUT the things he commanded! Note also the slight difference here in the King James from the NIV. The NIV, you’ll recall, said “Teaching them to obey...”, but that’s not what the King James says. No, it says “Teaching them to observe...”!  The word translated as observe means to guard from loss; or to keep an eye on - in other words, to remember. That’s a totally different connotation than the word obey. I think this misunderstanding of what was being said is the primary cause for people thinking of The Great Commission as a command. What else would you think from the word obey. Too bad that’s not what he said.

So, the disciples were to teach people to remember all the things he commanded them. What did he command them? Some say he gave them quite a few commands. This website: ( lists 49 of them - but, while I won’t dispute them, they seem to me to have been presented as instruction - like a mentor teaching about life. The commands that were clearly commands - Jesus actually called them commands - are found in Matt 22:35-40: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These commandments are so important that Jesus said the whole Law and the Prophets depend on them. Then in John 13:34 he gives them a new command. Love one another. That, in essence, is what he was instructing them to teach. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love one another. These are things we can teach people to observe. Those should be the first things the disciples taught, to be followed, as believers mature, with the others in the list of 49. But it was his immediate disciples to whom he gave this commission.

Before closing I want to return briefly to the issue of what is a disciple - because it’s more than an academic question. A disciple is NOT a convert. Jesus did not say “go make converts.” He said (in the NIV) “go make disciples.” this is even more complicated because an argument can be made that his followers were disciples before they were converted!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Love of Place

Usually when I write these things I stand on one side or the other of a particular given issue. This time, though, I’m stuck in the thinking process and I’m not sure about my feelings.

As families sometimes do, we’ve been toying with the idea of moving - specifically to a warmer climate - and I find myself truly torn.

On the one hand, I like the idea. Even though I love the change in seasons, and actually don’t mind winter, there are limits. Every year around February it starts to get old. Yet every year winter lasts through February, through March, and sometimes into April. Seasonal Affective Disorder (which has the appropriate acronym of SAD) kicks in with an intensity that varies from year to year, and not just for me.

On the other hand, I genuinely love New England and have a very difficult time imagining leaving. I feel like I would be literally lost and out of place.

That last phrase, out of place, is the strongest fear. Most of my life I’ve felt that I didn’t belong. I always felt different from everyone around me and never felt like I was in the right place. 

I’m finally at a point in my life that I feel comfortable in my own skin. I seem to fit in with people I care about and my home finally feels like my home, rather than just the place I sleep and keep my stuff.

On the one hand, there’s a part of me that would love to have sun more often, and I suspect it would have a beneficial effect on my temperament. Also, my wife feels pretty strongly about wanting to be warmer and the fact of the matter is, she’s never been one to ask for a lot. We’ve lived in New England for more than 50 years. Maybe it’s time to warm up.

On the other hand, my passion for family history makes me want to stay. It goes back again to a feeling of belonging. My family have been in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for more than 375 years. We settled in New Hampshire before it WAS New Hampshire! For 13 generations we’ve been here and I guess I don’t want to be the one to leave. Maybe that’s silly, I don’t know.

The other day I was listening to John Denver, who had some wonderful songs about heritage and love of place (which was the inspiration for the title of this post). It got me thinking about all the songs by various artists about this subject and I realized that the feeling is somewhat universal.

Anyone who knows me well knows that music affects me in profoundly emotional ways. 

Just a short list of this type of songs includes: “Small Town” by John Mellencamp; “Where I Come From” by Montgomery Gentry; even, in a sense, “Calypso” by John Denver.

“Sunshine On My Shoulders”, while not specifically about a place, brings back memories of times and places when sunshine really did make me high - an experience and feeling made all the more powerful by living in a region where sunshine is at a premium.

Of course there’s “Massachusetts” by the Bee Gees, sung with such emotion, that has special meaning to someone from there. “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynard Skynard and “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel both make clear how much those places mean to them.

Then we have the cream of the crop of “love of place” songs. These songs are unequaled in their ability to provoke emotional attachment to a place: Ray Charles makes me want to live in Georgia when I hear “Georgia On My Mind”, and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, by the genius John Denver, makes me want to move to West Virginia. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Rocky Mountain High”.

I guess the top of the heap would have to be “Back Home Again” by, once again, John Denver. This song is so poignant partly because, in addition to a very specific place (“this old farm”), it’s really more a song about family and love, and makes the point that that’s what makes a home a home.

So, with this last in mind, I’m no closer to resolving my dilemma . . .

Monday, January 6, 2014

On Being Well Informed

Someone recently commented to me that he can’t understand how people could still be so ill informed with all the available information outlets there are today. I replied that I don’t understand how anybody can be well informed for the same reason.
We truly live in a wondrous age. With the advent and phenomenal growth of the internet almost every bit of information is seemingly at our fingertips at the touch of a button. But it’s not the quantity of information that I question, but the quality. 

For example, in politics we can find opinion pieces and “news” pieces (which are more and more becoming the same thing) in abundant supply for both sides of any issue. Some people will say that Ronald Reagan was the best president of our time, while others will just as fervently contend that Barak Obama is. And both sides will have no trouble coming up with evidence on which they base their opinions. Politics clearly comes down to philosophical ideals, and facts really don’t enter into it on either side - so why we even try to use facts to convince others is beyond me. It simply will never work unless you’re able to change their philosophical ideals.

In nutrition, it’s a similar story, but more insidious because one should be able to reasonably expect that science and facts would carry the day. Not so. Science tells us that eggs are good for you. Five years later, science tells us they’re bad for you. Eight years of further study turns it back again and it never ends. 

Likewise, medicine should be all about science and facts. Still, we have people who embrace what has become the conventional western model of medicine (basically drugs and surgery), while others eschew this in favor of a more holistic “natural” approach to health. Both sides can come up with copious citations to back up their preferred position. What makes it worse is the unceasing feuding that goes on between the two. The conventionalists claiming that the holistic group has no valid scientific studies to support it, and the holistics claiming conspiracy and cover-ups on the part of their adversaries, all the while touting how anything natural is good for you and drugs are always bad. On the one hand, poison ivy is natural, but I’ll pass, thank you. On the other hand, the FDA recalls hundreds of drugs every year. It needs to be borne in mind that 100% of these recalled drugs were once sold as safe. (And why it’s legal for a pharmaceutical company to market directly to an uneducated consumer is beyond me).

In the non-science arena we have religion. And this topic, perhaps more than any other besides politics (with which it seems irrevocably linked), demonstrates just how polarized all this information accessibility has made us.

Moderate Muslims claim that Islam is a religion of peace. Some in the Christian and Jewish communities disagree. In fact, they claim that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim - one either follows the Quran or not. Firstly, I question how many Muslims these Christians and Jews actually know personally. If they don’t know any, then how can they possibly hope to support their claims? They would likely tell you that all you have to do is read the Quran and it will prove their point. Maybe, maybe not. Admittedly, I have not read it. MY point is that the same can be said of nearly every religion. There are a lot of Orthodox Jews who believe differently than other sects of Judaism. Yet they all have the same Tanakh. There are over 200 different denominations within Christianity and you’d be hard pressed to find universal agreement on many topics. Yet they all have the same Bible. I know Catholics who believe in a woman’s right to have an abortion, despite the clear teaching of the Catholic church to the contrary.

What I’m trying to say is, regardless of the semantics involved with “moderate Muslim vs you believe in the Quran or you don’t”, the fact of the matter is, just like with every other faith, there are probably many Muslims who live their life in a very peaceful way regardless of what some claim the Quran teaches. 

The distinction is, do we judge a religion on its teachings alone, or do we accept people or not based on their actions. If you go with the former, then it would be correct (in my opinion) to say that anyone who believes in the right to abort is simply not Catholic - because they don’t follow the Catholic teaching, regardless of how they were raised. Likewise, if the Quran teaches hatred, intolerance, and violence, as some claim, then anybody who doesn’t follow these teachings is not Muslim. So what are we fighting about? They may, and probably do, identify themselves as Muslim for the same reason the questionable Catholic, or Methodist, or Baptist identifies themselves those ways - because it’s the tradition they understand. 

All of this “information” and opinion is widely disseminated everywhere we look. How are we to truly be well informed? It would be a full time job to wade through all the stuff. The fact of the matter is that most of us make our choices and base our opinions on our preset belief systems, world view, and prejudices. That’s not really being well informed.