Monday, July 20, 2020

Found Families: A Christian Perspective

"Live Wrong and Prosper"

In June, Wired magazine published an article by Laurie Penny entitled "Live Wrong and Prosper: COVID-19 and the Future of Families." I thought that the article offered a fascinating insight into ways that changes in American family structure have made this pandemic different from the Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago.
Penny's article is a follow-up and expansion upon a Los Angeles Times article entitled "Coronavirus Quarantine Buddies Try to Lessen Isolation," a front-page article that featured a picture of Penny and her "pod"—what she calls the collection of "people [she was] neither related to nor sleeping with" with whom she was cohabitating and quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Penny argues that such an arrangement—a "found family"—has come of age and is the optimal arrangement for herself and for her generation. Her ancestors might disapprove and say that there is something wrong with anyone who would choose this sort of family arrangement over something more traditional, but in Penny's estimation, this is the only sort of arrangement in which she has any hope of finding relational fulfillment.

Critiquing the Traditional Family

An article like this one would be incomplete without some assessment of the shortcomings of traditional family structures. Penny's article does not disappoint. She borrows heavily (not in terms of word-count, but in terms of philosophical indebtedness) from David Brooks's March 2020 feature article in The Atlantic entitled "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake." Brooks's thesis, and Penny's, is that the traditional nuclear family was really only suited to the 1950s, and was only artificially suited even to that decade. As Brooks put it, the 1950s constituted "a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family."
It is a tendency of Marxism to reduce all of life to economics and a tendency of liberalism to reduce all of life to personal choice in search of independence and personal fulfillment. The critique of the nuclear family in these articles falls predictably along those lines. Traditional families lived and died by the sword of economics, and there's no going back, because doing so would curtail our individual freedoms too severely.
And yet, what struck me about Penny's article is that, although in it she spells out her critique and exclusion of traditional family life, the article contains no suggestion that she knows traditional family life apart from academic analyses like Brooks's or secondhand reports. Her family of origin was fractured by divorce in her childhood. Her adult life has consisted of living "in 35 places in five countries with, depending upon how you count them, over 200 housemates." The one time she decided to go all-in and "try to be normal" is represented by a brief cohabitation, sans marriage, with "a dear friend who had just become a romantic partner."
This is how far the family has fallen in Western culture (Penny is from London). The traditional family is so far over the horizon as to be out of view entirely for entire demographics.
Both Brooks's article and Penny's perform a strange feat of legerdemain. They narrate a tale of human family arrangements in which a longstanding arrangement of extended families gave way to the isolated nuclear family after World War II. Then they explain why the isolated nuclear family was unsustainable. Then, having knocked the legs out of the isolated nuclear family, they walk away from BOTH the isolated nuclear family of the 1950s AND the extended family of the centuries preceding the 1950s, but without having bothered to offer any serious explanation for why a serious rapprochement with the extended family might not be in order.
After all, Brooks's isolated nuclear family is not incompatible with the extended family. Brook's presents it as though it is some sort of replacement, but that's an inaccurate view. Nuclear families exist WITHIN extended families. Nuclear families are not the unsustainable thing; the stripping away of extended family is what makes the nuclear family, previously quite healthy and resilient, suddenly untenable. Brooks wants to leap right over the extended family to hunter-gatherer bands, which is a strange leap to make. After all, the story of the nuclear family within the extended family is well-documented in writing back as far as written human history extends. The Old Testament is not the only record of this phenomenon, but it certainly is a noteworthy one. The lengthy genealogies that frustrated your through-the-Bible-in-a-year effort stand as testimonies to the importance of nuclear families within extended families back as far as 5,000 years ago.
In contrast, what do we know about hunter-gatherer bands? Nothing much in the written record (unless we equate them with Native American tribes or other modern tribal societies). All we have are the speculations of people who dig up cemeteries, analyze DNA, and generate theories of what might have happened. It's not that these early clan groups have no part in the story of human families; it's the oddity of leaping over the oldest, best documented patterns of human living (the nuclear and extended family) to locate the future in a largely imagined, utterly undocumented past.
And yet, even though the critique has some flaws, from a Christian perspective, there are opportunities to nod a head in agreement. The New Testament envisions a multi-generational life that appears to be very difficult to sustain, even within churches, apart from healthy multi-generational family life. In a century we've moved from an expectation that children would establish their adult lives in the same community as their parents, through a period of thinking that children might do whatever they like in their adult lives, to an expectation (unless you live in a major city or a university town) that children must absolutely establish their adult lives somewhere other than the town of their upbringing. Extended family survives now, where it survives, on the backs of improved mobility among grandparents who are healthier and wealthier than their own grandparents were, and are therefore able and disposed to chase their grandchildren across the country in search of intergenerational relationships.
Even for Christians, nuclear families are not enough.
Also, Christians receive a needed education from Penny's article about what "traditional family life" means to the people who hear us speak about it. For Penny, that's two heterosexual lovers deciding to live together. Biblical ideas of lifelong monogamy, covenant marriage, and permanent family are fictions to her. For a preacher like myself, this sobering reality means that in my sermons, I have to be more careful to define terms that previously I assumed everyone understood.
One final critique of the critique of Penny's dismissal of the nuclear family is in order at this point. I've survived as long as I have preaching the way that I preach because the traditional family is a lot healthier, even among her own generation, than she seems to want to admit. Don't get me wrong; the statistical shifts away from marriage are unmistakeable. And yet, my facebook friend list is full of Millennials who are getting engaged, getting married, and building two-parent families that they expect to last a lifetime. I don't doubt Penny's assertion that "in LA, nearly half the adults are currently living with a nonpartner," but there's actually a world beyond New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Washington. Outside of those locations, quite a few young people are encountering no insurmountable obstacles at all to building stable two-parent homes. Either David Brooks or Julie Penny would have authored stronger articles if they had given a little space to telling just one of those stories.

Promoting the "Found Family"

Julie Penny's favored alternative to the unrealistic ideal of a traditional family is the "found family" or the "forged family." Her preferred defintion is borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut—family is "whoever is around to be loved." In her interview with the Times, Penny preferred to call it a "pod." There's no procreative bond here. There's no sexual bond here. Procreation is not acknowledged as an aspiration anyone would have in these articles, and although there's plenty of room for sex, this kind of sex doesn't create or require anything resembling a "bond." There are some people who happen to be, at this particular moment, in your vicinity. You love them and hope they love you back. That's family. No ongoing commitment expected or given.
Penny's personal narrative gives very little reason to conclude that this way is to be chosen because it is better. Loneliness is all around this essay, barely held at bay by temporary measures, but never farther away than a multi-page letter from the roommates who are booting you out of the house.
Yesterday I participated in an hour-long Zoom call with college roommates in celebration of a roommate's fiftienth birthday. It was a lot of fun. We told a lot of stories. If God is merciful to me, none of you will ever hear any of them. I love those guys. It was a blessing to see how God has blessed and used them down through the years. But ultimately (and I think each of those roommates would write exactly this), what came into our lives when my wife and I married is something so much deeper and more enduring as to make two years in the Baylor Plaza II Apartments spent with good friends an appendix tucked away into the back of the story of our lives. Tracy has shaped who I am. We have struggled together, cried together, served together, and aged together. There are bonds that have been forged, and that's a good thing. Loneliness will someday come by way of illness or death, but otherwise, there is no loneliness so long as there is Tracy. Roommates (nor lovers) just can't provide what a spouse does.
But I didn't sit down and write this article just to trash Penny's article. Why invest in writing a blog article just to say that I disagreed with Julie Penny? Thoughtless curmudgeoning is why God invented Twitter.
I've written this article because Penny's essay offers an unintentional critique of Evangelical Christianity that we need to consider. The idea of the "found family," though it may sound to us unhealthy and bizarre in the California-est way possible, is actually a Christian concept, fundamental to our faith, and yet largely beyond our grasp.

Somewhere Between Oneida and Palmyra

In the ninetheenth century, Evangelical Christianity in upstate New York spun off a number of experiments. Although all manner of Christian doctrine gave rise to one sect or another, many of these groups were searching for a new family model. Two sects are noteworthy for our consideration in this article.
In Oneida, NY, John Humphrey Noyes was trying to do away with the nuclear family. His vision was thoroughly communistic, although not atheistic. He wanted to bring together a community bound by spirituality, labor, and equality. The urge to claim possessions for oneself was, from Noyes's perspective, a principal divisive force within human community. For Noyes, monogamy was nothing more than a capitalist approach to relationships, provoking the same kind of possessive divisiveness.
So, Noyes scrapped the nuclear family, asserted his concept of "complex marriage," assigned the task of child-rearing to the community at-large, and even instituted a sort of human breeding program, attempting a spiritual eugenics (matching people in order to produce the most devout children possible).
The handwriting was on the wall for the Oneida Community by 1880. These sorts of arrangements never last.
The Oneida Community gives a picture of what a Christian version of Penny's new family order might resemble: Sex, relationship, and community without family.
About a hundred miles away from Oneida sits Palmyra, NY. There in the same milieu a young Joseph Smith was devising another, different heresy. Alongside claims about golden plates nobody ever saw written in a language nobody ever spoke delivered by an angel nobody ever mentioned before, Joseph Smith (and his successor Brigham Young) spelled out a vision of Christian family that was on the opposite end of the spectrum from that of Noyes.
Noyes wanted to disestablish the nuclear family; Smith wanted to embed it deeply into the Mormon concept of spiritual life. Marriage plays an important role in Mormon eschatology. Husbands and wives seeks to be married in the temple so that their family will endure forever. Mormon marriages offer the hope of eventual elevation through procreation (and devote spirituality) to an ultimately sublime nuclear family life. Even for those who don't manage to get married before they die, Mormon eschatology offers the hope of posthumous marriage. If you're Mormon, eternity is all about the nuclear family.
Everyone knows that the Christian vision of the family is NOT the partner-swapping communist vision of John Humphrey Noyes. Everyone NEEDS to know that it's also not the family-centric vision of Joseph Smith, either. According to New Testament Christianity, marriage is a holy institution to be honored and respected (Hebrews 13:4); divorce, premarital sex, and adultery are to be rejected (also Hebrews 13:4, as well as Matthew 19:1-12); marriage and sex are strictly heterosexual, grounded in the creation of all humankind within the binary gender space of male and female (Matthew 19:1-12); and marriage serves, in addition to the emotional, relational, and sexual purposes that are obvious, a spiritual purpose by which it mirrors the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Joseph Smith was right (contra John Humphrey Noyes) that the nuclear family is a big, big deal in Christianity.
And yet, the New Testament is also full of speed bumps and guardrails to keep us from overstating the importance of the nuclear family. Jesus denied that marriage is a part of Christian eschatology at all (Matthew 22:23-33), and for the apostles, this temporary nature of matrimony became an important teaching tool for explaining the nature of the gospel (Romans 7:1-6). It wasn't only about eschatology; even for Christian discipleship in this life, the apostles did not make marriage the default plan (1 Corinthians 7:25-35). Christianity endorses Christian marriage, but it endorses it as a temporary, imperfect, mundane institution.
What the New Testament lifts up as eternal, perfect, and spiritual is a "found family," the church. But there's a key difference between Penny's "found family" and this one. The modern idea is that the "found family" is the family that you find. It's a curated group, tailored to meet your individual proclivities with minimal interference. The New Testament "found family" is a family of those found by Someone Else. Assembled across racial, ethnic, national, economic, and preferential lines, the churches became the principal familial units for the earliest Christians.
After all, Christians in the early church were outcasts and vagabonds from their families of origin. Much like Penny's own story and Brooks's "AOC-DC" example, these were people against whom the doors of "traditional family" had been decisively shut. They called one another "brothers and sisters." They announced a theology of divine adoption into a family that was new, transcendent, and divine. Nuclear family existed. It was important. It was honored. It was respected. But it was secondary to the true family of the churches.
Rosaria Butterfield's observation that churches are "on a starvation diet of community," if true, constitutes a wake-up call in this environment. Brooks is right—a nuclear family can't survive without an extended family to prop it up. Even in a dispersed society like ours, churches who cultivate spiritual family can buttress nuclear families in the ways that they need. And for people like Penny for whom the Christian vision of family belongs in the same category as JK Rowling's vision of wizardry education, a true spiritual family environment is far more likely to lead her to the gospel (and to a Christian view of marriage) than is any nuclear family experience in her future to lead her to a Christian view of spiritual family. But although the spiritual family of the church can offer support to the nuclear family, to place too much emphasis upon this reality is to let the tail wag the dog. The nuclear family exists to serve the spiritual family, not the other way around.
If the "found family" seems as foreign and strange to us as the "traditional family" seems to Julie Penny, then that's a crying shame. We had it long before she did, and it meets basic human needs that nothing else can satisfy. I read her article and was tempted to shout out, "The nuclear family is not going away!" But it is, actually, in an eternal sense. And we already have among us the family that will outlast it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Follow Up about CARES Funding

My post yesterday ("Why I Will Not Lead FBC Farmersville to Apply for CARES Funding") generated a lot more attention than I had anticipated. In my experience, heightened attention almost always creates heightened misunderstanding. This seemed to be true yesterday with regard to the original post. Today I'm providing this post to follow up the other one and offer some points of clarification.

The clarification I will provide will run along two lines. First, I will clarify the objective of the post. Second, I will clarify some specific arguments made within the post by myself and made against the post by others.

My Objective

It was not my intention in authoring yesterday's post to deny your church permission to seek CARES funding.

YOUR church doesn't need MY permission to do anything.

Rather (and I think I expressed this for those who were willing and capable of hearing it), I sought to offer my rationale for the way that I planned to lead FBC Farmersville. Even at that, I'm not giving your FBC Farmersville's decision, for that will come as the fruit of prayerful consideration by the congregation in search of the will of God. I'm very simply describing to you the pastoral leadership I plan to give to our congregation about this matter, and I'm offering you the reasons behind my decision to offer that leadership to our congregation.

This seemed to me a worthwhile thing to post because, although the pro-apply-for-CARES case has been made and made again online, it seemed to me that my line of thinking had been underrepresented online. Is your church planning to apply for CARES funding? You'll have no trouble finding articles explaining the line of thinking that can take you there. Some of us were thankful to have at least one careful explanation of the alternative point of view.

So, brothers and sisters, I beseech you not to get your knickers in a knot over yesterday's post. No knicker-knotting. Unless, that is, it offends you that anyone would DECLINE to apply for CARES funding—unless you think that all churches everywhere MUST apply for CARES funding. Otherwise, why should it trouble you that I have come to these particular conclusions about whether it is wise to accept this particular government handout?

Specific Questions

Are You Saying There Are No Occasions in the Bible When People Accepted Governmental Assistance?

I am NOT saying that. I DID not say that. There are occasions of nearly ANYTHING in the Bible. Many people have pointed out that Nehemiah accepted funding for the restoration of Jerusalem from Persia. Yes. I've read that part of the Bible, too.

First, please go back and read again the section about my objective. I was not trying to make a case describing why your church doesn't have my permission to apply for funding. If it seems to you that the case in my post for your not applying for CARES funding wasn't airtight, that's because I wasn't trying to make that case at all.

Second, I tried very clearly to say that I didn't think Abram's refusal to accept money from the King of Sodom represented any sort of binding or normative example for us whatsoever. It's not my hermeneutical practice at all to take something one of the patriarchs did in some Old Testament narrative and make it normative for New Testament Christians. Abram lied about who his wife was. Twice. Don't do that, no matter what Abram did.

I used Abram solely to this extent: Abram did something and gave his rationale for doing it. Was his choice a wise one, or not? If you believe that his choice was wise and good, then perhaps you ought to ask yourself whether the situation you now face is similar to that situation at all. If it is, perhaps there is something in Abram's story that is worthy of your consideration.

For my part, I believe that Abram's choice was wise, and I believe that our present situation is parallel in some significant ways to his own. This is why find this particular episode in his life to be instructive for me at present. But if you think there are no significant parallels—if you find it unimaginable that a post-Christian culture would resentfully conclude that our churches only survived this because the government bailed us out—then feel free to ignore what happened to Abram after the war. Certainly there are plenty of stories to choose from.

When I look at Nehemiah's situation, I see one government giving aid to another government for the rebuilding of their capital city. When I look at Abram's situation, I see one individual refusing money from a foreign king. Neither of these situations is precisely the one that a church faces when considering whether to apply for CARES funding. We'll have to decide which, if either, of these situations most closely applies. Obviously, I've made my choice.

I leave you in freedom to make your own. Only, when you read a description of my rationale, don't assume that I'm unaware of other stories in the Bible. Had I been trying to demonstrate that your church must never apply for CARES funding, I would've needed to show why no other story in the Bible could be used to justify such a thing. I didn't bother to do that because I wasn't trying to make that case.

Didn't Paul make use of his Roman citizenship?

Yes. And I've not tried to talk you out of taking your government handout that is coming to you as an individual by virtue of your being a taxpaying citizen. Were I trying to suggest that you never ought to exercise any of your rights as a citizen, then you'd have me.

Isn't this just a loan from a bank?

People only say it's just a loan from a bank when they're trying to rationalize taking the money. Generally speaking, if it takes an act of Congress to make it happen, there's more going on than just a loan from a bank.

Consider this text from an email I received just yesterday from my local Baptist association. It's a very honest email about what's going on:

The big picture is your church can qualify for a loan equal to 2.5 times your average monthly payroll costs. Because the loan is forgivable, it really is a grant!

Yes. It really is a grant. From Congress.

Conclusion

So, whatever decision you make, I'm just offering you more thoughts to consider as you make it. Weigh them however you will. Act as the Lord leads your autonomous church to act. Blessings.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Why I Will Not Lead FBC Farmersville to Apply for CARES Funding

One of the major reasons people sometimes give for churches to eschew governmental largesse when offered is the concern about "strings attached." With governmental funding comes governmental control. As the COVID-19 disease and associated restrictions impose a financial stress test upon the nation's churches, Congress has included churches as potential beneficiaries of the "Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act" (CARES Act). Our friends at the ERLC have promoted specific wording in the act to safeguard religious liberties for those who participate. This language in the act goes far to assuage the concerns that accepting the funding will bring about governmental control down the road.

The worry about "strings attached," however, is not the only reason why churches should think carefully before applying for CARES funding. For some, there are theological reasons, not just "slippery slope" concerns, for declining this sort of governmental assistance.

John Smythe, Baptist pioneer of 1609, argued that churches should not receive financial support from anyone other than the church's membership. No biblical commandment exists in this regard, but there is a rationale for this that is worthy of consideration.

Giving is an act of Christian worship. It is common, for those who incorporate giving as an act of corporate worship, to ask God's blessing upon those who have given as well as upon the impact of the gift and the ministries of those who will receive it. Some of us regard this not merely as one of the ways that the church should be funded but further as God's sole plan for the funding of the churches. To divorce the funding of the churches' ministries from these acts of worship and these blessings sought by prayer may not be explicitly forbidden in scripture, but that does not mean that it is a theologically insignificant act.

It is for this reason that I have never sought out bake sales and popcorn sales and other gimmicks for the funding of church ministries: I believe that it is God's design for the churches that the faithful worship of believers through their gifts be the mechanism by which God will bless the various ministries to which He leads His people. I would support nothing that would supplant this holy means of funding God's work; indeed, I wish to support nothing that would even de-emphasize it.

Second, when money from outside the family of faith comes to the rescue of God's people, the result can be the diminution of God's glory among men. Abram's rationale in Genesis 14 is instructive at this point. When he refused to receive spoils of war from the King of Sodom, "Abram said to the king of Sodom, 'I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, "I have made Abram rich."'" (Genesis 14:22-23, ESV). When our church emerges from this coronavirus crisis, I want us to know, as Abram did, that it is by God's goodness that we have made it through.

Not everyone will see it this way, and someone will say that God brought them through BY WAY OF government assistance like CARES. People of faith will know that God works in many ways, and that God-ordained government is an agent by which He often works to accomplish that partial, imperfect, temporary justice that we can experience here below. But please note that Abram's worry was not that Abram would think his riches had not come from God, but rather than the King of Sodom would entertain that thought. Abram wanted his material successes to be attributed even by the heathen to the hand of God.

It is not my hermeneutical conviction that we as New Testament churches are bound by the example of Abram in the narratives of Genesis, but that truth ought not to make us reluctant to learn from the patriarchs. I think unbelievers in our society will very likely remember any sort of "church bail-out," just as they remember the bail-outs of the automakers after the 2008 recession. The impression formed upon their minds will be that churches are weak and vulnerable entities who walk around with their hands out looking for assistance from the public dole.

Abram would try to avoid that outcome, and I think he has a point.

Third, I think we would do well to remember that "strings attached" aren't always external in their nature. Whether the government places external demands or not, the church that comes to rely upon governmental funding is a church that will be conspicuously solicitous toward the perceived likes and dislikes of the government. Those who emerged from the state-church regime of Europe were often very sensitive toward this reality. Part of the reason why Smythe rejected external funding of the churches was that he had seen the way that churches would tiptoe around the sins of their benefactors, and that without the benefactors' having to say a word. At the inquiry of his unhappily-wed benefactor Philip of Hesse, Martin Luther, contrary to his previously expressed theological views, endorsed polygamy. A whole bevy of English clerics found license for the divorce of Henry VIII. The radical reformers of the 1600s knew well the subtle and informal ways that outside money could influence the internal decisions of churches.

In conclusion, I am seeking to place no yoke upon any church nor any believer. I simply commend to your consideration these reasons to refuse financial assistance from the government. They will guide my actions in the coming days; perhaps they will give you as well some points to consider as your church prayerfully chooses your way forward.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Will the Free Exercise Clause Catch the Coronavirus?

Our constitutional right to religious liberty stands on two legs. One of them, the "Establishment Clause," is the opening phrase of the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The other leg, the "Free Exercise Clause," follows with, "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Because of the Establishment Clause, you don't have to pay taxes to support someone else's church, synagogue, ward, or mosque. This clause protects you from being forced by the state to adhere to someone else's religious belief. Because of the Free Exercise Clause, the government cannot prohibit you from worshipping (or not worshipping) as your conscience may dictate. This clause protects you from being arrested for going to church.

In 1990, religious liberty had an accident and broke one of the legs. The Supreme Court ruling Employment Division v Smith cut the guts out of the Free Exercise Clause, ruling that any law "of general applicability" was constitutional even if it should prevent someone from following sincerely held religious beliefs. Prior to this 1990 case, any law that penalized you for following the dictates of your faith was unconstitutional if it couldn't pass a test of "strict scrutiny" called the "Sherbert test" (after a 1963 Supreme Court case). By that test, the law, if it puts a burden upon your religious faith, would have to serve a "compelling interest" of the government's and would have to be "narrowly tailored" such that it placed no more burden upon your free exercise of religion than was absolutely necessary.

After 1990, this Supreme Court said that laws "of general applicability" do not have to meet the standard of strict scrutiny. For such laws, the government only needs to have a rational basis for the law, not a "compelling interest," and it need not find the least burdensome means of achieving its goals. Hard cases make bad laws, and in this case, the government's "War on Drugs" had come into conflict with the religious use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by certain Native American tribes. The Supreme Court ruled that, since drug laws weren't deliberately targeting any religion at all, but rather were targeting the recreational use of mushrooms, these weren't malicious laws, and even if they did wind up restricting someone's religious free exercise, such laws are constitutional.

The Free Exercise leg was broken.

Thankfully, it received some emergency first aid. An alarmed Congress immediately put on a cast to stabilize it. Two federal laws—The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) reinstated "strict scrutiny" for violations of religious free exercise. These laws, however, are not constitutional amendments. Congress can take them away as easily as they gave them.

Also, Free Exercise jurisprudence has been walking around on a crutch for 30 years. That crutch is called a "hybrid rights claim." The function of a crutch, as you know, is to keep the injured limb from bearing all of the weight of walking by transferring some of the weight to something else (the crutch). In this case, unable to count on the Free Exercise Clause to bear the weight of protecting religious free exercise in America, lawyers arguing on our behalf before the Supreme Court have had to say, "Look, this not only violates my client's right to free exercise of his religion, but it also violates his right to free speech. Even if you won't apply strict scrutiny to his religious liberty claim, you have to apply strict scrutiny to his free speech claim."

This kind of hybrid rights claim has won some impressive victories, including the recent vindication of Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado. Seeing those wins announced in the news might make you think that the Free Exercise Clause is on the mend. Don't be fooled; the crutch is bearing the weight.

Enter COVID-19

The Trump Administration's record on religious liberty has been, in my estimation, very good. The irony is that concerns about religious liberty were one of the major reasons why I did not vote for President Trump in 2016 (specifically, my concern that he would follow through on threats to ban Muslim immigration and to force American Muslims to register with the government as Muslims). As it turned out, Stephen Miller was against the immigration of everyone, not just Muslims (which is still a mindset that I oppose), no registration of American Muslims (nor anything like it) has been imposed, and the Trump Administration has taken the side of religious liberty with at least as much vigor as the Obama Administration demonstrated against religious liberty (e.g., the Obama EEOC argued that churches should have no exemptions whatsoever from anti-discrimination law, such that your Baptist church couldn't fire your pastor for becoming Mormon, for example—such an extreme anti-religious-liberty view that the Supreme Court slapped it down 9-0).

Exemplary of the wide berth the Trump Administration has given to religious liberty is the way that churches, synagogues, and mosques have been exempt from every Coronavirus-related restriction that has been imposed at the Federal level. At the state and county level also, largely following the White House's lead, churches have been technically exempt from most of the restrictions that our society has enacted to combat the spread of this virus.

Of course, a LOT of churches—maybe the majority of them—have complied with governmental guidance nonetheless. Voluntarily we have submitted ourselves to the implications of social distancing and then to the even harsher consequences of shelter-in-place orders. At least, most of us have.

Where we have not, we have captured the attention of the world. Churches in Arkansas and Kentucky (and probably elsewhere) have been responsible for the rapid and widespread transmission of the virus, having met before social distancing requirements were in place. Their examples demonstrate the kind of contagion that can be present at a worship service, and the population has this in mind when they see congregations gathering. It is not difficult to imagine that our government at some level might eventually respond by eliminating the exception for churches. After all, most churches are complying voluntarily, and no one can question that coronavirus laws are laws "of general applicability" of the kind that the Supreme Court had in mind in Employment Division v Smith. It is not hard at all to imagine a situation in which leaders of government imposed mandatory bans upon church gatherings.

It is also not difficult to imagine that some churches would defy such a ban. To tell you the truth, I myself would be far more likely to refuse to comply with a mandatory ban upon worship than to refuse to comply with a polite request that we not gather. It's not difficult to imagine civil disobedience against such a law.

Here's what IS difficult for me to imagine: I find it hard to imagine a worse test case to go before the Supreme Court than a church insisting upon meeting during a pandemic, resulting in the spread of a deadly pathogen. Public sentiment would be against us. Legislative sentiment would be against us. The law of the land would be against us.

So be it. We must obey God rather than men. Our first mission is not the protection of our religious liberty.

I get it.

But I also think that we ought to consider what might be the collateral damage of this sort of decision. There are already legislators who want to repeal RFRA. Would a show of public defiance on the part of churches against an effort to stem the tide of a biological plague be enough of a push to give them the upper hand? I think it is possible. Such a scenario could take the cast off of the broken leg. The crutch would remain, but would it be enough by itself? The answer to that question is doubtful—RFRA and RLUIPA are cited in a lot of these very important cases.

The Christian mandate to gather for worship is a matter of gravitas. There's no question about that. We cannot defer indefinitely the assembling of ourselves together and remain obedient to Christ (although I've yet to see a strong case demonstrating any biblical command that this absolutely must happen each and every seven days). How long will these COVID-19 restrictions remain in place? Too long? Nobody knows.

My tolerance for it may be shorter-lived than some of yours.

But while I'm making decisions, I'll also have in mind the damage that could be done to the already-wounded limb of the First Amendment, along with the very real harm that could come to people like Hobby Lobby, Connestoga Wood, Jack Phillips, and Barronelle Stutzman if we are not wise and careful stewards of the constitutional gifts that our forebears have passed down to us.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Thoughts about William J Northen's Article "The Negro Situation—One Way Out"

In the next few days I'll be publishing an episode of "The Plowshare Podcast" that features a conversation with Pastor Dwight McKissic about Race, Politics, and the SBC. In advance of publishing that episode, I wanted to make available this document. It's an essay written in 1907 by William J Northen. Northen had previously served as the Governor of the State of Georgia and separately as the President of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Northen wrote this essay in an effort to curtail the widespread lynching of black Georgians by white Georgians—that's a motive I think we all could affirm. In doing so, he gives the reader a full exposition of his views on race and politics.

I thought that this would be an interesting document to discuss with Dwight for a number of reasons. First, few Southern Baptists have read this document or anything like it. It is part of our history. Reading it gives an opportunity to have an accurate appraisal of our past. This is helpful both for those who would be tempted to deny that we have this history and for those who would be tempted to deny that we have changed and improved.

Second, the clearly articulated white supremacy in Northen's article is something that no prominent Southern Baptist would or could write today. Reading actual white supremacy might help us all to know what it is and be able to identify it. These ideas of white supremacy have waned in the SBC.

Third, the role of politics in the document is striking, and I think this is something that has NOT really changed. Sometimes it feels to me like our racial divides that sometimes emerge in the SBC are as much about politics as they are about theology, and that's exactly what Northen is describing in this article.

If you plan to listen to the podcast, you should probably acquaint yourself with this document.

The Negro Situation—One Way Out

William J. Northen
Ex-Governor of Georgia (1890-94)
Ex-President of the Southern Baptist Convention (1899-1901)

September 1907

The problem of the races is, at the same time, the most irritating in its conditions, the most unpopular for discussion and the most difficult of solution of all the problems that confront the American people.

Definitely the problem is the American adjustment of "the relations which should exist between the white people and the negro people of a common soil and whose welfare, in the last analysis, is a common weal." The Caucasian stands at one extreme and the African at the other extreme of the races. If, by any means, we can adjust the relations of the extremes, we shall settle, in a measure at least, all the problems of the races that come between.

Everywhere, whether together or separate, there seems to be on the part of us all, white and black, an inborn racial antagonism. The opportunity has come to the American people, as to no other, to adjust the relations that will harmonize the antagonisms of all the races. We cannot but believe that God has so intended with all the peoples of the earth, and it seems that he is using us for the uplift of our common humanity. We have the black men in large numbers. The red men we found here. The yellow men are clamoring and will finally get in. All these different ones are His creation and He wants each made complete and perfect in his place. Why may we not come to the task in willing and patient cooperation with all the higher forces that seek to bring joy and gladness out of sorrow and crime?

We have the spectacle of a weak race which lived for ages in wanton sin, in great incapacity and unpreparedness, placed in the dangerous environments of competition with what is strongest, and of association with and imitation of what is weakest and most criminal in the superior race. This is a severe test under the demands of a superior race, having centuries of civilization, in contrast with an inferior race, just beginning to know. "The negro must know that competition is becoming more and more intense and that the burden put upon him is growing heavier, in this advanced century, than he can bear. Unless these conditions are changed, slowly and silently the negro will be hemmed every way within straiter limits, his numbers will decrease and he will be steadily driven to the wall."

The people at the South have made great sacrifices to care for the negro. Vanquished, deep in debt, with a rural and scattered population, cursed with illiteracy, facing the gravest difficulties in every line, needing every available dollar, the South, in order to serve an alien people, severed from her in spirit, opposing her politically, irritating her socially, handicapping her industrially by their indolence and unreliability, arose in her poverty and gave them shelter, bread and educational training, with full opportunities for service that offered thrift and material accumulation.
In order that I may be altogether fair to the negro—I shall endeavor to be fair to the end—let me state some things fundamental and to be remembered, while we attempt the solution of this great problem.

First, the negro is in no sense responsible, as an original factor, for the ills that have come to the American people because of his residence in our community. He did not come to our shores of his own free will and of his own accord. He was abducted from his home, chained and dragged aboard slave-trading vessels and brought to our shores under his protest and through the greatest iniquity that has ever cursed the American people.

Second, we are paying the penalties that are consequent upon the negro's freedom, occurring at a time when the nation was stirred by war and blood and crime. At emancipation he was untutored and unguarded and allowed to roam the fields and country at large. Later, under reconstruction, he turned his liberty into license in crimes that entailed wholesale slaughter and violence. It is not his fault that he was left to the promptings and instincts of his wild and destructive nature without hindrance and without restraint.

Third, if in these conditions he was made a part of the body politic, with all the power of the ballot and the influence of a citizen, no charge can be laid at his door if evil and crime in abundance have resulted. He never sought such relations at the beginning. It was the act of the nation.

If these three statements are true and make the resultant a problem, it must be the white man's problem, and not the problem of the negro. The negro is not responsible for its beginning.

Every free-born American citizen who is a lineal descendant of the original settlers of New Jersey or Georgia, Massachusetts or South Carolina, or any other of the thirteen original colonies, is, either directly or remotely, descended from people who endorsed and encouraged the iniquitous slave trade and the subsequent dealings in human beings as merchandise and chattels. From all these sins the negro is entirely free and the white men of the nation, the entire nation, are responsible.

The settlers in the thirteen original colonies have scattered the negroes into every state in the union. Wherever they go they carry the problem of the races, demanding solution, dependent in its difficulty, primarily, upon the relative number of each race in the community in question.

In Nevada there are thirty-five thousand white people and 134 negroes. In Georgia there are one million one hundred and eighty-one thousand white people and one million and thirty-five thousand negroes. Of all the states Nevada, having the least number of negroes, should have the least difficulty in the solution. As Georgia has a larger number of negroes than any other state in the union, it would seem that Georgia would have the greatest difficulty in effecting a solution. If this basis of solution is correct, Nevada would have only four-tenths of one per cent of difficulty, while Georgia would have eighty-eight per cent of trouble.

A close study of these figures and others like them would necessarily compel the conclusion that Nevada could not be expected to outline an acceptable policy for the adjustment of relations in Georgia, as the problem in Nevada is not at all the problem in Georgia. The same thing can be as forcefully said of all the states, North and South, if put in comparison. If such comparison is made as to race troubles in the states named and others, North and South, terminating in violence, bloodshed, criminal assaults and lynchings, the results, by comparison, would astonish many who are not now informed.

More important than the statements just made is the consideration that the white people and the negroes in Nevada did not undergo the violent shock that came to the white people and the negroes in Georgia immediately after the war. Antagonisms and bitterness and hate were then engendered in Georgia and at the South, which caused a separation of the races that has grown wider and wider apart.

After the war the negroes were promptly made citizens. Since that day the negro at the South has been determined to oppose, politically, everything he believes the white man wants. He is a Republican, an Independent or a what not, merely in order to oppose and fight against anything he knows the white man advocates. To this the white man will not submit in patient endurance without striking back in kind. The negro's polities has strained his relations and largely hindered his opportunities at the South.

In addition to this spirit of intense opposition, born in politics, as just stated, a greater element of our problem is that we find ourselves in the midst of large numbers of negroes who are ignorant and vicious, grossly immoral, self-assertive and almost entirely unrestrained. For these conditions the people at the South do not hold themselves altogether responsible.

It is a great mistake to believe that there is no kind of harmony between the better elements of the races in Georgia and at the South. Quite the contrary is true. The good class of negroes is intelligent, progressive and resourceful. Its religion is not a sham. Its education has not spoiled it and its devotion to duty is not inspired by the "loaves and fishes." Its ideals are good, its social standards high and its life wholesome and elevating. It has been lifted from heathen darkness to its present attainments by the power of the grace of God. If all American negroes were of this class, there would be no "negro problem."

It will be best for all parties if the white man, strong and dominant, will look seriously and sympathetically at the men of the weaker and the dependent race, and seeing them just as they are, intelligently set about aiding them. This is just what we have begun to do in Georgia upon a plan based entirely upon our local conditions, as, in my judgment, all other people must be allowed to do. Before we entered upon our plan in Georgia, there were some things fundamental that were necessary to be settled between the races, at the beginning.

There is a chemistry of humanity as there is a chemistry of fire, water, air and gunpowder, that may result in serious ex plosion if it is not properly understood and wisely handled. All history shows that no two races approaching in any degree equality in numbers, can live peaceably together unless intermarriage takes place or the one becomes dependent upon the other.

Miscegenation by law will never take place at the South. That may be accepted as an established fact and settled beyond question, and for all time to come. Intermarriage at the South need not be argued for a moment. Unless the South breaks the record of all history, there is only one alternative left and that is that the negro must be dependent, in a measure at least, upon the white man, as he cannot hope to dominate him. This basis of action was notably accepted in an address delivered in my city by Dr. Booker Washington and loudly applauded by the large number of negroes he was addressing.

The negro in Georgia has now put himself as a dependent upon the superior race by his own public, general and voluntary statement. The white people of Georgia would be grossly recreant to this acknowledged confidence and this trust if they did not give the assurance that every individual black man, with his family, shall be absolutely sure that he will receive justice, in his civil rights, his industrial relations, his educational opportunities and his moral and spiritual interests. This the people in Georgia have publicly proclaimed. All that we now need in order to work out our problem slowly and surely, is the sympathy and not the criticism of those who do not still understand the great hindrances that are yet in our way.

In Georgia we are free to announce that all men, irrespective of color, race or condition, shall be equally exempt from punishment until guilt has been duly ascertained and declared; and to announce further that nothing but authentic justice can be called public justice, or is public justice, either in law or in fact. Anything outside of authentic justice, as found in lynching and the riotous savagery of mobs, is as much condemned by the people in my state as in any state in the union or any section of the nation.

Lawlessness on the part of white men is as severely censured and condemned as lawlessness and violence by negroes. With us there can be no aristocracy of crime. A white fiend is as much to be dreaded as a black brute. In Georgia, we insist that the white man and the negro are to be always equal before the law.
Second, while we deny and disallow social equality, we are quite as free to grant and to defend the negro's fullest rights in industrial privileges and business opportunities.

I do not believe that there are now twenty-five capable and trustworthy negroes in my state to-day out of employment, who could not get work in fifteen minutes if they wanted it. Negroes have access to all the trades and all the professions as barbers, mechanics, artisans, masons, lawyers, dentists, etc. They are not prevented from work by labor unions. Such distinctions between the races would not be approved by our people.

Third, while we demand and will always positively enforce the requirement that the negro shall have separate schools and separate educational institutions, we are quite willing to provide that they shall have equal advantages with the white people for primary education under our public-school system. Indeed, their educational opportunities are in advance of those of the white man, in that the white people pay by far the greater bulk of the taxes, while the schools for the races are the same in character and advantage.

Some would-be friends of the negroes, as it seems to me, have made mistakes in attempting to educate the negro outside of his environment and away from his opportunities.

If the negro is made industrially capable and industrially reliable, the people at the South would rather have his service than such as could be rendered by any other people upon the earth. But it is possible that the kind of education to which he has been encouraged in some quarters has given him a feeling of self-sufficiency that has lifted him entirely out of his place among the people who would be more than glad to use him, with profit to himself, if he were only willing to serve.

While the negro is in no way responsible for the beginning of the problem, he is most criminally responsible for its wicked continuance. There is not a single negro from among the one million in my state, who does not fully understand the villainy of the outrages that are sometimes committed by their people. This responsibility is upon them and upon them solely. We expect to hold them responsible until they are controlled, properly punished and made obedient to law. In this effort, the better negroes are now rendering most helpful service and counsel.

We have lawless whites as well as lawless negroes, as do all the other states. When these two elements mix in Georgia, as elsewhere, we have the spectacle of settling the race problem by blood.

Representing a body from the very best citizens of my city, I have personally canvassed nearly one hundred counties in my state. In these several counties we have organized into committees large numbers of the best white citizens, who will undertake locally the adjustment of the relations of the races and the proper control of the lawless and disorderly of both races. Later, these committees will associate with themselves numbers of the law-abiding, good negroes resident in the several communities. The very best citizens of my state are taking position with the committees and the spirit of all the people is more hopeful and the solution of the problem is beginning.

The secretive disposition of the better negroes is giving way before their sense of responsibility to the community, and they are doing well in the delivery of their criminals to the officers of the law.
During the present session of our legislature, we hope to see enacted stringent and wholesome laws against vagrancy and idleness, so that we can put to work all the indolent and vicious, the classes from which all our criminals now come.

The problem of the races involves "the relations of the Anglo-Saxon, as the people of power, to the negroes, who are a people of weakness." Therefore, the problem with us must be settled, if settled at all, by the superior wisdom and superior judgment of the superior race, in righteous and just consideration for the inferior race. The white man must take a masterful initiatory leadership and determine the course of conduct after the fullest, most painstaking and complete investigation and, in kindly conference with the best element of the negro race, reach the most equitable and just adjustment possible for the best interests of the two.

We shall not solve this great and vexing problem in a day nor a year, but it is our problem and we will handle it wisely, with purpose, with vigor and with results. We must save the negro or it is plain his wickedness and his crimes will destroy the state. Our patriotism, our humanity and our Christianity all compel us to righteous efforts for the solution of this problem.

Who saves his country saves himself; saves all things, and all things saved bless him. Who lets his country die, lets all things die; dies himself ignobly, and all things dying curse him.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Yellow and Proud of It

Recently on my Facebook wall someone accused me of being a coward.

I'm not beyond cowardice. I'm a fallen human being, prone to wander. I am also not beyond courage. Courage is when you are afraid but you act anyway. I do not agree that it is accurate to assess me, on the whole, to be a coward. Certainly the grounds of the accusation this person was making were spurious.

On a separate occasion a few months back, I became aware that someone had categorized me as yellow. To that, I actually wholeheartedly agree. Indeed, I aspire for this to be true.

Here's what happened. In 2019 I became aware that someone had discovered a list of the 2017-2018 trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I do not know who in the previous administration prepared this list, and I do not know who saw it. Every trustee on the list had received a color code.

Green
Could be counted on to vote for whatever the administration wanted.
Red
Could be expected to vote against whatever the administration wanted.
Yellow
Unpredictable as a trustee. Vote would depend upon the strength of the evidence presented.

They had me in the yellow category. It is my ambition to be yellow in this sense. I have never received any accolade in any way that I have served the SBC that is higher than this one. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, whoever made up this list and categorized me in this way.

Indeed, that's ultimately the reason why I was called a coward on social media. It is not my knee-jerk reaction to read someone's agenda-driven slander-post and just sign my name on the dotted line. This, of course, bothers agenda-driven slander-posters. Show me something other than guilt by association and the genetic fallacy. Make a sound, reasonable case to me and you stand a good chance of persuading me.

I'd have been deeply ashamed to have been labeled either red or green. We need more yellow in the Southern Baptist Convention. Let us move forward into this decade with that as our common resolve.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Reputation of the Church

I'm coming to believe that we ought to just stop it already with our efforts to "protect the reputation of the church." In saying this, I have in mind both the sex abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention and a Quick to Listen episode about NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements)" (Quick to Listen is a podcast by Christianity Today). Here are three quick thoughts about why I'm increasingly skeptical about efforts to protect the reputation of the church.

  1. It can be really hard to separate the reputation of the church from my reputation as pastor. The most nefarious things out there are the occasions when I use God or the church as an excuse to cover my own sinfulness.
  2. An awful lot of what is hurting the reputation of churches today consists of things people have done to protect the reputation of a church.
  3. Jesus built the church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it…what do you think you have to add to that level of protection?

Let's let Jesus worry about the reputation of His church. Let's worry about our personal holiness and our submission to Him, and then let's see if that doesn't work out better.