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Occasionally I start a book thinking, “I’m gonna need a crate of TUMS® to get through this.” I try to read at least 2-3 such books every year. And sometimes these books pleasantly surprise me.

The most recent such pleasant surprise: Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars. Granted, the book’s title and introduction are annoyingly triumphalistic. Prothero’s historical analogies — Jeffersonians, pro-Mormons and pro-Catholics as stand-ins for today’s “liberals”; Federalists, anti-Mormons and anti-Catholics as stand-ins for today’s “conservatives” — are rather forced. In his treatment of the current wave of culture wars, Prothero grossly understates the significance of the political mobilization of anti-religious Left within the Democratic Party in the 1970s. The historical “wins” Prothero cites are neither so clear nor so stable as he seems to think — I mean, how much of an “expansion of the American family” really occurred when theologically-heterodox, nominally-Christian Jefferson succeeded theologically-heterodox, nominally-Christian Washington and Adams as President? And Prothero’s shifts between his own idiosyncratic definitions of “liberals” and “conservatives” and the contemporary, colloquial definitions of those words are often a little too convenient.

Still, by the time I reached the book’s end I was glad I’d read it in full. On church-state relations, Prothero is basically a Jeffersonian — that is, he’s not hostile to religious free exercise, so long as it doesn’t come with de jure or de facto religious establishments or religious tests for public office. Granted, Prothero stands toward the left end of the Jeffersonian ground between Jacobin secularists and religious establishmentarians. But given the current increases in the numbers of both Jacobins and establishmentarians, I’m generally glad to see a man holding onto any corner of the middle ground set forth in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and the First Amendment.

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out.

Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 91 (1952).

I thought I was done writing about the Dr. Larycia Hawkins-Wheaton College controversy before Christmas. Alas, Mercer Professor David Gushee has now felt the need to add his extraordinary motive-parsing powers to those of Brian McLaren and Miroslav Volf. Specifically, Dr. Gushee charges that Wheaton was motivated by “fear,” the fear of offending a politically conservative constituency. Like Volf and McLaren before him, Gushee supports his charges with lots of conjecture and no evidence.

But there’s a deftly-executed shift between the penultimate paragraph of Dr. Gushee’s article and his closing lament which ought not pass unnoticed. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of the basketball player who throws sneaky elbows when the ref isn’t looking, and flops when he is.

Here is Dr. Gushee’s penultimate paragraph:

So Wheaton is essentially saying this: Tenure will not protect you if you too visibly offend the conservative political views of our constituency. Whatever conservative politics looks like right now, that also is mandatory for faculty.

False. That is what Gushee (like McLaren before him) is “essentially saying.” The paragraph, and the speculations which lead up to it, are Gushee conjecture. Wheaton has said nothing of the sort, and to the extent its representatives have made any public statement on the matter, they have said Dr. Hawkins’s leave is about a question of theology. And — contra Dr. Miroslav Volf — it isn’t as though there are no conceivable theological objections to the statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” Nabeel Qureshi, for example, has carefully described the theological issues in this most elegant, charitable essay, where he concludes that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.

No matter. Wheaton’s motives must be read as small, mean, and political. Tarring a college with accusations of bad motives — when it’s entirely possible that their motives were and are otherwise — is dirty work, but somebody has to do it. And that nasty attribution of craven, politically expedient motives to the Wheaton administrators makes Dr. Gushee’s closing lament all the more astounding:

That’s another victory for culture wars polarization and another loss for higher education — not to mention Christian witness in American culture.

Sorry, Dr. Gushee. You cannot charge a distinguished Christian institution with political cowardice and duplicity, and then lament “culture wars polarization” or “another loss for . . . Christian witness in America.”

Everybody knows that a few weeks ago, Jerry Falwell, Jr. made some rather controversial statements about gun ownership and self-defense to the students of Liberty University. A few people know that yesterday, John Piper responded with a lengthy nine-point rejoinder that comes within a hair’s breadth of absolute pacifism — although Dr. Piper did stop short of such a position by noting that the State at least bears the power of the sword, and by conceding the existence of (unspecified) “situational ambiguities.”

I have been thinking a lot about the phrase “they’ll know we are Christians by our means” lately. Are American Christians formed foremost by Americanism, or by the Way of Christ?

There is a caricature afoot of the history of how Islam spread: i.e. by the sword and nothing but the sword. That is a woefully incomplete picture. Islam spread by a combination of eloquent proclamation of the gospel according to Muhammad, shrewd diplomacy, and the sword — the three means used variously, as expedient.

You could say that the gospel of Liberty, United States Version (USV), has spread by a similarly expedient combination of means: proseletyzing (America as the “city on a hill,” anyone?); shrewdness (e.g. the purchases of Louisiana and Florida); and the sword (the armed displacement of First Nations at the beginning, numerous overseas interventions lately, in between and more controversially, the Civil War).

So even though Piper exceeds reason in a few places (especially the section about defense of family), I find it totally refreshing to see an American evangelical Christian carefully untangling American means of gospel-spreading from the Scriptural ones.

The early Church seems really to have been marked uniquely by its particular reliance on testimony — the testimony of words, mercies, and lives laid down literally and figuratively — occasionally on shrewd diplomacy; never the sword. The apostles spent much of the book of Acts in want and danger, and as targets of persecution, and they didn’t once get out the sword.

What clear, startling testimony that is. That is a kingdom not from the world.

A collaborative work

When American religious freedom — supported by the First Amendment pillars of free exercise and non-establishment — comes crashing down, it will not be the work of Muslims, LGBTs, New Atheists, or Marxists. It will be an unintentional collaborative work of those paranoid Christian conservatives who cannot distinguish religious non-establishment from persecution, and apostate Christian liberals whoring after the applause of the world.

Postscript on Wheaton

One final word on the Wheaton controversy: Increasingly, the controversy generated around this looks to me like an attack on the right of an evangelical college to define and maintain its doctrinal boundaries. Hence the consistent accusation that Wheaton College acted from a bad (and legally suspect) motive — “enmity toward Muslims” — rather than a consistent, honorable, and legally protected one — i.e. concern for doctrinal orthodoxy.

I have not yet seen actual evidence proffered that the Wheaton administrators acted from the legally suspect motive rather than the legally protected one. No matter. If you re-publish the narrative often enough, people will believe it. Evidence not necessary.

PPS. I am grateful that at least one major newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, gets it.

PPPS. I haven’t mentioned this, but it absolutely should be acknowledged and applauded: I have not seen or heard even a whiff of accusation against Wheaton College from Dr. Larycia Hawkins herself. On the proposition “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” I would argue the negative, Dr. Hawkins the affirmative — but she has shown kindness, consideration, and affection toward those with whom she disagrees:

A holy kiss to you who disavow the idea that Muslims & Christians worship the same God: I love you. Peace & respect.

Thank you, Dr. Hawkins. And the peace of Christ to you.

In my last post I took exception to Miroslav Volf’s unsupported accusation that Wheaton College’s action in placing Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave was “not about theology and orthodoxy,” but “enmity toward Muslims.”

Comes now Mr. Brian McLaren, who takes that accusation and gives it another run through the spin cycle:

The hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates – much of it spewed out to impress the “Evangelical base” of the Republican Party – seems to have swayed college administrators from their professed theology, which at Christmas should remind us all that God is in solidarity with all humanity, all creation …

Dr. Volf had set forth — with no evidence — an alleged motive for Wheaton’s action: enmity toward Muslims. Now Mr. McLaren sets forth the source of that enmity: the college administrators were “swayed . . . from their professed theology” by “the hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates.” I’m not holding my breath to see Mr. McLaren present actual evidence for that claim.

Is it so impossible to suppose that the Wheaton College administrators placed Dr. Hawkins on leave for saying “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” not because they were “swayed from . . . their professed theology,” but because — I dunno — they believed it? 

If Wheaton affirms the Incarnation — a mystery that Muslims flatly deny, and Christians adore — and then also affirms that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” Wheaton is equivocating about whether it believes in God’s supreme act of “solidarity with all humanity, all creation.”

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