Wednesday, April 27, 2011

There's the Birth Certificate

For a while now, a large billboard just south of I-635 on US-75 in Dallas has asked the question, "Where's The Birth Certificate?" I'm curious whether the billboard is already down, now that President Obama has released his long-form birth certificate today (see article in the New York Times) and the question has been answered once-and-for-all.

I agree with Richard Land (see video) that, for a long time now, it has been irrational to maintain that President Obama is a Muslim (Christianity is obviously the religious faith that he has chosen as his to ignore) or was not born in Hawaii. Such theories belong in the same category as those alleging that President Bush plotted the 9/11 attacks or those alleging that President Clinton was the kingpin of a drug ring operating out of Mena, AR.

I disagree, on the other hand, with the suggestion from the White House that the topic itself is a trivial one or is somehow silly. That the White House would say so is, I think, evidence of what I consider to be one of the grave problems facing our system of governance today: A disregard for our Constitution.

Trivial and silly people involved in this? Absolutely. Trivial and silly theories concocted? You bet. A trivial and silly topic unworthy of discussion? Not on your life.

That the President of the United States be a natural-born citizen is a constitutional requirement. Most of us have presumed for a long time that President Obama meets that qualification, and that presumption has now been vindicated. Nevertheless, even for we citizens who did not doubt that President Obama is constitutionally qualified to serve in his office, this has been an eye-opening journey, revealing to us all that no clear procedure exists for making certain that presidential candidates meet this constitutional requirement.

Article II of the Constitution of the United States simply cannot be followed unless somebody somewhere inspects a candidate's birth certificate. This is true not only with regard to the Natural Born Citizen clause, but is also true with regard to the age requirement specified in Article II (in order to be president, a person must be at least thirty-five years old). I have to produce a birth certificate to get a passport or a Texas drivers license, but not to be elected President? Even the presentation of a birth certificate is not enough to demonstrate compliance with the residency requirement in Article II. In order to serve as President of the United States, a person must have resided within the United States for the preceding fourteen years. How, at present, is this constitutional requirement verified and enforced?

Shouldn't presidential candidates be vetted as having met the constitutional requirements for the office before they run? The Constitution stipulates clear requirements; we have no procedures in place—and no plan to create them—to implement these constitutional requirements. A candidate is not required to document status as a natural born citizen in order to run for President. You, as a citizen, do not have standing to request that any candidate demonstrate eligibility under Article II as a candidate for the office of President.

The Natural Born Citizen Clause of Article II occupies the same category as the Tenth Amendment—verbiage in our Constitution which our government has no interest in treating seriously. We pay lip-service to our Constitution, but we ignore it at will. Why did President Obama demonstrate that he is a natural born citizen? Not because he had to, but because he chose to. Have we complied with the Constitution, or have we not? To too many people in this country, that question is not important enough to ask if it gets in the way of the current mood in Washington. This entire "birther" debacle, which should never have been possible and could easily have been ended in 2008, has been enabled and fueled by that fact alone. That is the real problem, and it is not trivial or silly.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pastoral Paternity

"Was your dad a pastor?"

I have fielded that question more times than I care to count, and it surprises and slightly perplexes me to say so. It is not that the question is as troublesome as have been some of the more traumatic experiences—combatting rampant sexual misconduct and abuse, coming face-to-face with the pettiness and meanspiritedness that has infected some congregations, shepherding a congregation through devastating loss. These things have been very difficult along the way, but I anticipated those difficulties, having been warned about them. The question of whether my dad was a pastor was such an unexpected question and it so deeply—albeit unwittingly, I'm sure—undermined and trivialized the circumstances by which I entered this ministry.

For the record, my Dad was not a pastor, although pastoral ministry is just about the only thing that my Dad did not pursue at some time or another. He applied to West Point, but the physical exam revealed a medical problem that barred him from entry. He was the youngest Comptroller in the history of Arkansas State University. He was an Administrative Assistant to our U. S. Congressman, running the home office. He ran for Mayor of Lake City, Arkansas, once…sort of. He started so many businesses that I lost count. As a child, when people asked me what my Dad did for a living, usually I really didn't know. Finally, when I was fifteen, Dad started a business that endures to this day, Ashley Lighting, Inc. (I try not to be offended that he named it after my younger sister rather than after me). Dad was a deacon and a Sunday School teacher, but he never was and never considered being a pastor.

Furthermore, although he had enough piety and fatherly wisdom never to tell me so, I don't think that pastoral ministry was what Dad had in mind for me. He wanted me to go to Harvard. He would have been delighted for me to remain with the family lamp-manufacturing business in Arkansas. He didn't oppose my being a pastor, but I think it was a long time after I announced my vocation before he took it quite a seriously as I did. In that respect, he was probably in the majority of those who knew me. God called me to preach when I was eleven years old, and that's pretty young. Looking back, I think there were very few people who were convinced from the very start, and I can understand why.

I began to preach when I was fifteen. I found myself in leadership of a small rural congregation as a high-school senior. During those years and then while I was at Baylor, I lost count of the number of people who, upon learning that I was serving as a pastor when able and training to spend my life serving as a pastor, would ask me if my father was a pastor.

I used to wonder about my fellow classmates at Baylor. The one majoring in Russian, did everybody ask him if his father was Russian? Did the friends of my pre-med cousin presume that his father was a nephrologist, too? I never heard anybody ask my bride whether her parents were elementary educators. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention to all of the times that these other people were asked the paternity-vocation question, but for now I'm proceeding based upon the assumption that people ask this question of young pastors-in-training but not of people bound for myriad other trades.

I can see some good in this phenomenon. It probably means that people presume that pastors don't enter the ministry for the easy money. When a college student says that he is pre-med, most people probably think, "Money!" That's probably true as well for the student in law school or the guy getting the Executive MBA. Poli-Sci major? Power! Art History? Dementia!

OK, my apologies to the Art History people out there. And to the demented people out there.

I expected that people learning for the first time that I was pastoring and working toward a seminary degree would automatically ask me about my experience of being called into the ministry by God. Certainly, some people did precisely that, but the surprisingly high number of people who asked if Dad was a pastor caught my attention.

I wonder?…

  1. Do we really have that much nepotism in the ministry? Maybe so. When I looked around at my fellow Baylor classmates, I saw several instances of guys whose fathers were indeed pastors. Some of them were the children of prominent pastors. Looking beyond Baylor at the Southern Baptist Convention, I saw a lot more of the sons of prominent SBC pastors receiving prominent placement in our convention.

    But it isn't as simple as calling it nepotism and then decrying it. Get to know some of these guys and you'll discover that they are passionate ministers of the gospel, very well qualified, doctrinally sound, and hard-working. These second-generation pastors are blessings to me and to our cooperative ministry. It would be evil of us to adopt a mindset that the son of a pastor must not enter the ministry.

    Instead of acting like we ought to be putting up barriers or removing enticements for sons of pastors to become pastors, maybe we ought to consider whether we ought to take down barriers or more strongly to entice other people's sons to become pastors. Maybe there is too high a proportion of pastoral dynasties because of a dearth of the other folks who ought to be in pastoral ministry.

    What I don't believe is that God, in His calling of people into the pastoral ministry, has a preference for the sons of pastors. I'm presuming that the proportion of pastors' sons entering pastoral ministry should, across the broader span, be very close to the proportion of pastors' sons within the collective membership of the churches.

  2. Are we failing to teach sufficiently the idea of vocational calling? I am a pastor today because I experienced a dramatic and unmistakeable calling from God in the Summer of 1981. I submit that every person who asked me, "Is your Dad a pastor?" is a person who has fundamentally misunderstood the idea of a call into ministry. My father's occupation simply is not relevant to God's calling.

    Really, if you ponder the matter for a while, I think you'll become more convinced of this problem. The evidence of it permeates this post. The fact that we presume the pre-med student to be in it for the money belies our failure to understand the idea of vocation. The fact that we presume the Art History major to be destined for his parents' basement apartment also demonstrates our failure to grasp the concept of Christian vocation. For every Christian college student, regardless of major or future plans, it seems that our beliefs would require us to ask universally, "How did you come to discern God's calling into this field? How does your service in this vocation execute your steward's responsibility to carry forward the Kingdom of God?"

  3. How will I interact with my own son's vocational choices, particularly if he announces that he plans to be a pastor? That's really a tough question for me. He has already announced that he wants to be a pastor like his dad (sandwiched in-between the vocational choices of gladiator and whatever it is that The Man in the Yellow Hat does for a living). I replied by telling him that his mother and I simply want him to do whatever God tells him to do. In fact, virtually every night since before he was old enough to understand, he has heard either his mother or myself (or both of us) tell him after prayers, "Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you, and Jesus loves you. Mommy and Daddy want you to grow up to love Jesus and to do what He wants you to do." At his present age, anything he says about wanting to be a pastor doesn't have to be taken all that seriously.

    But what about later? Perhaps the conversation won't arise later, but if it does, what should I do? Wanting to make certain that he is genuinely responding to a divine calling and not simply trying to please me, should I push back a little and try to discourage him? I can see how that approach might pass as wisdom, but I am glad that nobody took that approach with me. I generally try to avoid telling my son not to do what God is telling him to do. On the other hand, should I actively encourage my son to enter the pastoral ministry, running the risk that he feels that no other choice will please me?

    I'll cross those bridges if I come to them, but I think that I've settled on this much—I'm not going to give my son a job serving together with me on a church staff. I don't think that I'm going to lean on my friends or otherwise lobby for a position for him, either. To do so would diminish his opportunity to learn about depending upon God to provide an assignment to His servants. It would, I think, interfere with his ability to respect himself and for me to respect him fully as a man. I also think such actions breed among our congregants a confusion about the mechanics of calling into vocational pastoral ministry, distracting them from the sovereign calling of God and leading them to conclude that men come into the pastoral ministry at the behest and under the provision of their earthly daddies.

In conclusion, I think that I preach about this matter far too infrequently. My congregation needs to know forwards-and-backwards just how it is that I came to be a pastor in general and their pastor in specific. They need to know how to sort out their own questions of vocation. Qualified men need to be prepared to recognize and respond obediently should God call them into pastoral ministry. Among the other responsibilities that come with my calling is probably the responsibility to help them in that regard.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Stars, Bars, and Wars

Tuesday, April 12, 2011, will be the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Fort Sumter, the beginning of the War Between the States. The lingering effect of that war in the South is remarkable. Most people whom I've asked can name more battles from that war than from any other American conflict except World War II, which has the double benefit of being a much larger and more significant conflict and having taken place recently enough that a great many participants in World War II are still living.

Not only do we remember the War Between the States after all of this time, but we also continue to fight its battles. The Anderson County Courthouse in Palestine, TX, has been in the Dallas area news for the past week. First, the courthouse agreed to raise the Confederate Flag along with the flags of the United States of America and the State of Texas on the flagpole at the county courthouse. Then, the county decided to remove the Confederate Flag. For video coverage of the controversy by one of our local television stations, click this link.

The question of the war and the Confederate Flag continues to arise and to generate controversy because it stands at the intersection of three R's: Racial tension, Regional pride, and Remembering history.

  • Racial Tension: The Confederacy fought to preserve the institution of slavery. In saying so, I am not denying that other issues were involved (for example, the nature of the relationship between our federal government and our several states). Historians can quickly recite a list of reasons why the Confederacy went to war. I'm not, in this post, seeking to argue for the removal of anything from that list. I'm merely saying that, however long that list is, the continued enslavement of black Americans is on the list.

    I'm also not saying that the North was clearly fighting to end slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation came late in the war, and provoked angry demonstrations in Northern cities even then. I'm not saying that racism was then (or ever has been) the peculiar possession of Southerners. I'm merely saying that, among other people and institutions, the Southern government opposed the emancipation of the slaves.

    Furthermore, I'm not saying that each individual Confederate soldier was motivated by a desire to preserve slavery. As Shelby Foote noted in the classic Ken Burns series The Civil War, a great many individual Confederate soldiers were fighting "because [the Yankees were] down here [, that is, invading the South]." Granting that the motivating factor for a great many Confederate soldiers was something other, I'm merely saying that the effect of their military services was (among whatever else) the defense of slavery.

    For these reasons, anything that has to do with the War Between the States necessarily has to do with race. Those who object to the display of the Confederate Flag in a venue like the Anderson County Courthouse generally make their objection on the basis of racial offensiveness. I know of no credible argument suggesting that the flying of the Confederate Flag does not offend great numbers of black Americans. All sides would acknowledge, I think, that an enormous percentage of black Americans will indeed be offended whenever the Confederate Flag is displayed by a governmental entity in this manner. Perhaps someone would argue that they should not be offended in these circumstances, but one hardly could (and consequently nobody really does) argue that blacks could not possibly be or are not offended by such displays. The topic of the War Between the States and the Confederacy is a racial issue.

  • Remembering History: In Palestine, TX, the offered defense of the display was partly historical in nature. Texas was part of the Confederacy. men from Anderson County died in the War Between the States. The Sons of the Confederacy argued that the display of the Confederate Flag would serve to honor those brave soldiers who died in the war and would commemorate a portion of Anderson County's history.

    Certainly they are accurate in their understanding of history, at least on this point. The Confederate States seceded. A war ensued. People died in the conflict. Then came Reconstruction. These events befell the Southwest when the development of the region was barely begun. Coming at just that moment, the historical significance of the War on the Southern States was so profound as to remain one and a half centuries later.

    And yet, I think something else is afoot here. Six flags have flown over Texas, after all, and yet I doubt seriously that the French flag will soon be hoisted in Palestine. The periods of French, Spanish, and Mexican rule are just as much a part of the history of Anderson County as is the Confederate period. Prior to the conquistadors, the area was generally the possession of various tribes of American Indians. So why is the Confederacy singled out for so much attention?

  • Regional Pride and Heroes: Some people support the display of the Confederate Flag because they are KKK-nutjobs—virulent racists who would gladly enforce racial discrimination as a function of their ideology of white supremacy. But this does not tell the whole story. Another broad category of people who either support the display of the Confederate Flag or do not oppose it are those who sympathize deeply with Southern Pride. They play Alabama and Bocephus, watch "Dukes of Hazzard" and display the Confederate Flag. In doing so, they're not so much trying to offend their black neighbors as they are trying to offend Yankees and Carpetbaggers. These are the Proud Southerners. They would not fly the French flag because, although Palestine, TX, was indeed once French, the French heritage of the region is nothing from which they derive their identity. Few symbols are iconically and universally Southern as is the Confederate Flag, and so even some people who are not racists either support or merely do not oppose the flying of the Stars & Bars from the Anderson County Courthouse.

    Seemingly unfettered expansion of the size, scope, and presumptive authority of the Federal Government fuels such sentiments, as some Texans discuss secession from the United States (most solely as an exercise in Texas Pride rather than as a serious domestic strategy) in rhetoric not dissimilar from that of the 1850s. Unionism, social liberalism, socialism in medicine, and other major contributors to our national debt crisis are generally perceived as Northern ideas either transplanted into or forced upon the South.

    In such contexts, some Southerners wish to assert the distinctiveness of the South as a region; to derive their identity more from their region than from their nationality, at least in some regards; and to resist Yankee encroachment and the resulting erosion of distinctively Southern culture. "Song of the South" and "A Country Boy Can Survive" pretty easily morph into "If the South Would've Won We'd Have Had it Made," and the Confederate Flag becomes as much a statement about North-South relations at present as it is any sort of a thoughtful interaction with the antebellum South.

    Consider the lyrics of the aforementioned Hank Williams Jr. song:

    If the South woulda won we'd a had it made.
    I'd probably run for President of the Southern States.
    The day Elvis passed away would be our national holiday.
    If the South woulda won we'd a had it made.

    I'd make my surpreme court down in Texas
    And we wouldn't have no killers getting off free.
    If they were proven guilty then they would swing quickly,
    Instead of writin' books and smilin' on T.V.

    We'd all learn cajun cookin' in Louisiana
    And I'd put that capital back in Alabama.
    We'd put Florida on the right track, 'cause we'd take Miami back
    And throw all them pushers in the slammer.

    Oh, if the South woulda won we'd a had it made.
    I'd probably run for President of the Southern States.
    The day young Skynyrd died, we'd show our southern pride.
    If the South woulda won we'd a had it made.

    I'd have all the whiskey made in Tennessee
    And all the horses raised in those Kentucky hills.
    The national treasury would be in Tupelo, Mississippi
    And I'd put Hank Williams picture on the one hundred dollar bill.

    I'd have all the cars made in the Carolinas
    And I'd ban all the ones made in China.
    I'd have every girl child sent to Georgia to learn to smile
    And talk with that southern accent that drives men wild.

    I'd have all the fiddles made in Virginia,
    'Cause they sure can make 'em sound so fine.
    I'm going up on Wolverton Mountain and see ole Clifton Clowers
    And have a sip of his good ole Arkansas wine.

    Hey, if the South woulda won we'd a had it made.
    I'd probably run for President of the Southern States.
    When Patsy Cline passed away that would be our national holiday.
    If the South woulda won we'd a had it made.

    I said if the south wouda won we would a had it made!

    Might even be better off!

    There's nothing in that song about slavery or race. The most significant implication of a victorious South (a different outcome for race relations) is entirely absent from a song speculating about the implications of a victorious South! Perhaps, one might argue, Williams is of the opinion that the South would have abandoned slavery by now even if it had been victorious. That's an interesting point for speculative discussion and debate, but I don't think it really has a thing to do with Williams's song.

    That's because Williams's song isn't about 1865 at all—it's about 1988. It reflects an opinion that, on the questions of music, law and order, cuisine, drug use, quality of whiskey (Hank apparently didn't see the contradiction between the preceding two items), horses, industrial quality and international trade policy, and the allure of women, Southern culture was superior to non-Southern culture in 1988. Southerners want to be proud of the South. Many Southerners are proud of the South. In order to accomplish this, the number one item of shame for the South—our history of violent racism—we expunge from the story of our region.

    Frankly, I believe that Williams is wrong about 1865 and right about 1988. The nadir of Southern cultural distinctiveness is corresponding with a decline in morality in the South, at least by my own perception of our region. National media are exporting Los Angeles and New York into Little Rock and Nacogdoches, and worse cultures for export would be difficult to find in this country.

    For multi-generational Southerners, entangled with this program of regional pride is the matter of family pride. Many Southerners have ancestors who wore the Gray and fought Mr. Lincoln. Many Southerners have ancestors who told them racial jokes or harbored racist views or participated in the defense of Jim Crow in their younger days. Will we vilify our own parents and grandparents for their sins? Clearly some have done so, but is this even the right thing to do?

The central tension here is between the racial and regional questions. What is the best way forward? I believe that regional pride, within limits, can be a valuable asset for the South, but it must be based upon more positive aspects of the South. If we are proud of the South, then what particular things about the South have made us proud? By the "we" I mean to signify those of us who are Southerners but are not racists. I think that we would do well to place greater emphasis upon a fourth R: Religious Faithfulness.

Were it not for the South, I believe that the United States of America would be as secular as Europe is today. Even the Christian health of the North is greater than it would otherwise be because of the influence of the South and the deliberate efforts of the South to evangelize and disciple the North through church planting in "pioneer areas." An enormous percentage of Christian ministries outside the South and possessing evangelical vitality have their roots, within two steps, in the South.

Consider rates of church attendance. Of the top ten church-going states, only one lies outside the South, and that one (Utah) is only in the list because Gallup doesn't know the difference between a church and the institutions that people attend in Utah. Of the bottom ten church-going states, none of them lie within the South, and six are among the formerly-pious New England states. (See the statistics for yourself here.)

Christian Southerners, why not be proud of that? There is nothing in that reality that would be offensive racially. Black churches and white churches, their cultural dissimilarities notwithstanding, have been partners in preserving the relative spiritual health of the South. The spiritual vitality of the South is no opponent to racial reconciliation, for Christian theology provides the best foundation in the world for racial harmony and Christ is the major source of unity bringing together many black and white Southerners today. The Confederate Flag is not a very good icon of the spiritual South, permeated as it is with small congregations whose platforms are festooned with the American Flag and the Christian Flag, with the Stars & Bars nowhere to be seen. What we need is a flag decorated with a scene of a country vale with a white clapboard church meeting house nestled in the trees.

Emphasizing the legacy of leaders like J. M. Pendleton could help in this regard. Pendleton was the only member of the Great Triumvirate of Landmarkism who was a native Southerner, and yet he was also the only member who was vocally anti-slavery and who opposed secession. With many of our other ancestors or heroes, we will need to honor the good in them while refusing to preserve their weaknesses. The goal here is to continue to carry forward to completion our region's remarkable advance toward racial reconciliation without being absorbed into the secularism that dominates other regions of our nation.

I'm thankful to have been born in Arkansas. Count me as a Proud Southerner who sees our past sins all too clearly, but who also sees the unique positive contributions of the South to our nation and the world. To commemorate Tuesday's anniversary, I will soon dig out my VHS copies of the famous Ken Burns documentary, remembering where we have been and how far we have come, and hoping for the better angels of our nature to lead us forward, after all.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Resolution on Religious Liberty

Here is a draft of a resolution I plan to submit to this year's Committee on Resolutions for the Southern Baptist Convention:


WHEREAS, Jesus declared “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36), indicating that Jesus has not authorized any earthly realm to pursue aims related to His kingdom by resort to physical coercion; and,

WHEREAS, Jesus taught in Matthew 13 in the parable of the tares and the wheat that He has not authorized the removal of the tares from the field of the world until the end of the age, knowing that the persecution of men for cause of religious conscience always results in damage to the wheat as well as to the tares; and,

WHEREAS, the Apostle Paul has reminded us that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (II Corinthians 10:4), indicating both the wrongfulness and ineptitude of all attempts to win spiritual battles by resort to physical coercion, which is not “divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses”; and,

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists, along with other Baptizing churches and other members of the free church tradition have historically used our influence as citizens to advocate for complete religious liberty for all people; and,

WHEREAS, the United States of America is presently involved militarily in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the governments of which deny their citizens religious liberty; and,

WHEREAS, the government of the United States of America, through the United States Agency for International Development, campaigned on behalf of constitutional revisions in Kenya to implement Sharia law among Moslems in Kenya; and,

WHEREAS, Sharia law makes conversion away from Islam a civil crime subject to punishment as severe as capital punishment; and,

WHEREAS, Said Musa was convicted in Afghanistan of a crime and sentenced to death before being exiled from his country for his having converted to Christianity from Islam; and,

WHEREAS, the United States of America enjoys tremendous influence in world politics; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, that we, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting June 14-15, 2011, in Phoenix, Arizona, affirm complete religious liberty as God’s plan for all human beings; and, be it further

RESOLVED, that we believe that the military forces of the United States of America, whenever they place American soldiers into harm’s way, should number among their primary objectives the provision of complete religious liberty to all peoples; and, be it finally

RESOLVED, that Sharia law or any other separate system of legal jurisprudence is entirely incompatible with religious liberty and with the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

Friday, April 1, 2011

North American Missions: Laredo, TX

This is the season in which we emphasize North American missions as a part of our annual Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. As your church contemplates how to be involved in reaching North America for Christ, consider among your other options the needs of Laredo, TX.