The double historical mistake-underestimating both the historical involvement of Christians in American government and the historical discrimination against Jews and Christians in Muslim society-creates a belief beloved to secularists: All religions are the same, and the particular one really doesn't matter. American Christians who insist that it does matter appear unreasonable, and those who claim discrimination against Christians in America look like whiners and complainers. That's exactly what secularists want, because then they do not need to contend with the validity of the critique but can merely echo historian Richard Hofstadter's generation-old screed about the paranoid tendencies of the religious right.
The best way for Christians and conservatives to approach such bigotry is to focus rationally on the questions at hand, starting with how to deal with the emergence of mass terrorism. We need to note that the problem on Sept. 11 wasn't strong religious belief; the problem was murder. The problem on our highways isn't the existence of drivers; it's reckless driving. The rational way to cut highway fatalities is not to demand that everyone ride bicycles; it's to prosecute drivers who kill. The rational way to deal with Mr. bin Laden's terrorism is not to decry strong religious belief; it's to keep the murderers from murdering again, and to ask whether Islamic history, unlike that of Judaism or Christianity, suggests that purists have a license to kill. (The murderers of three of the first four caliphs acted with the goal of keeping the faith pure. The Assassins also killed for that reason, as did Muslims who conquered Anatolia.) Journalists need to learn and explain the history.
But how do we deal with the bias of some journalists against biblical Christians? Biblically, even though we know how hard it is for reason to slay bigotry, we are called to try. Andrew Sullivan, for example, seems to believe that the Inquisition has booths on every corner, and that fundamentalists are trying to coerce others so as to build a world in which "sin is outlawed and punished and constantly purged-by force if necessary." But he evidently doesn't understand that Christianity is based on belief, not rites, and belief can't be forced. Nor does he recognize the way revelation and reason go together, and the deep respect Christians have for conscience. He doesn't seem to understand the basic Christian teaching that man cannot outlaw sin and build walls against it, because sin comes from within.
Mr. Sullivan and others view free religious faith as impossible unless politics and religion are totally separated, yet such a separation is logically impossible. That's because all political positions are based in views that some things are good and evil-and those are religious characterizations. As Don Feder, an Orthodox Jewish syndicated columnist, has explained, "It's said the religious right wants to force its faith on the public. But whose faith are we talking about? [All groups] in the political arena want to see their morals reflected in our laws and governmental institutions-including the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the American Civil Liberties Union, whether or not they are willing to admit it."
We should patiently reason with writers like Andrew Sullivan, and even diehards like The New York Times's Anthony Lewis. Complaining about fundamentalists, Mr. Lewis charged that people who are certain of their own views harm the world, yet the columnist idolized Nelson Mandela in 1990, calling him "a man of extraordinary conviction and strength." Does Mr. Lewis now believe that only wimps should be trusted? A careful study of history would have shown him that decency and humanity hold out against barbarism only when their defenders are certain that these principles are worth defending. Osama bin Laden, after all, argued that the United States could readily be defeated because Americans hold no moral convictions.
Christians should suggest to Mr. Lewis that the real enemies of humanity and decency are those in academia and media who ridicule faith in God. After all, if we dismiss the understanding that we are created in God's image and thus have an inalienable value, we are merely chance collections of atoms, and what decency and humanity do we then possess? Mr. Lewis's charge that critics of Darwin are anti-science should also be disproved by a showing that conservative Christians have been the foremost defenders of the scientific method, with its emphasis on laboratory experiments and careful observation. Proponents of "intelligent design" have been unwilling to accept on faith Darwin's conclusions, since they cannot be tested in a lab.
Conservative Christians, along with pointing out the trespasses of others, should show journalists whenever possible that we are aware of our own trespassing tendencies, and are committed to biblical understandings that also allow us to function as good citizens in a pluralistic society. To that end, I've drafted ways to respond to 10 accusations that liberal journalists frequently throw at conservative Christians. Some of these understandings may be controversial, and I list them as proposals, not commandments.
1. Conservative Christians are divisive.
No, we take to heart the commands transmitted in Jeremiah 29:4-7: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.'" God adds, "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.'" We are citizens of the United States and also citizens of God's kingdom. We try not to confuse the two by assuming too much about what we can accomplish societally in our American Babylon. Instead, we follow God's instructions by praying for America's peace and prosperity, and by building families, homes, and businesses.
2. Conservative Christians are gullible followers of potential dictators.
This is a spin-off from the decade-old Washington Post charge that Christians are poor and uneducated. Not true, the newspaper later acknowledged in an apology, nor is it true that Christians tend to bow down to any human authority: We obey a higher authority, and are taught not to put our trust in princes. We are political skeptics in relation to Washington orthodoxy. We are strict constructionists concerning both the Bible and the Constitution. We read the Bible to learn what God was saying, not what thoroughly modern millennialists wish He had said. We read the Constitution to see what the nation agreed to in 1787 and what the nation has changed in it through the amendment process. We know that more centralized power brings more reason for bribery and more bribes (or large payments for "access").
3. Conservative Christians are likely to fall for morality-legislating panaceas.
Actually, we are less likely than others to do that, because we believe that triumph will come only when Christ returns. We know that sin cannot be wiped out, because it is within everyone; we just don't want sin to gain governmental backing. We're not suckers for government-surplus stain removers that in practice grind the evil deeper into the social fabric. We believe that God instituted government for the prosecution of wrongdoers and not the promotion of evil. We are not trying to gain power to force change million by million from the top down, because (among other reasons) we know that does not work. We do not believe that by societal restructuring we can liberate the natural "goodness" of man, because we don't believe that natural goodness exists.
4. Conservative Christians are anti-choice.
No, we understand that the American Babylon is a pro-choice society. We ourselves are used to choice. We like our dozens or hundreds of TV choices, music choices, sports choices, food choices. We are pro-choice in not only shopping for goods but shopping for schools. We want private schools to be an option for everyone, not just the rich. We want theories of intelligent design to be taught alongside theories of evolution. We are pro-choice for unborn babies, who should not be killed before they have a chance to make any choices in life. We are pro-choice concerning social services, so we want addicts, alcoholics, and others among the poor to be offered faith-based along with conventional liberal programs. We don't want the poor or anyone to become dependent on government for biweekly bread, because when we are dependent we can no longer make free choices. We don't want judges to take away legislative choices.
5. Conservative Christians hate pragmatism.
No, we believe that a lot of politically correct activities are pragmatically incorrect. That's because God created the world and knows what works best for His creatures to live happily in it. Cruising homosexuals have a low life expectancy, even when AIDS is factored out. Abortion often has dire psychological consequences for mothers, along with even more dire consequences for babies. Pornography is based on taking advantage of others, but it pushes people to take advantage of themselves. Adultery leads people to act like children. We understand that politicians are often pragmatic, so we don't expect purity in politics. We do not compromise our own views, but we do compromise our expectations. Despite Washington frustrations, we haven't taken our ball and gone home, and we understand the difference between a .350 hitter and a .200 hitter.
6. Conservative Christians are discontent.
Actually, we are less likely than others to complain and demand more, because we believe in the importance of Christian contentment. We believe that to be discontent in the midst of God's mercies, because we don't have even more, is wrong. We remember how often God brings good out of hardship. We don't become discontent if we don't have as many goods as our neighbor, because we know that having more does not satisfy the soul. We don't feel pressed to buy more prestigious cars because we know our prestige doesn't come from cars. We remember that our internal state, not our external environment, is the chief determinant of our contentment or misery.
7. Conservative Christians are opposed to the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.
No, we want the First Amendment to be a protection for the free expression of religious beliefs, as it was intended to be. James Madison, its author, assured members of Congress that its purpose was to keep federal officials from placing on a pedestal one particular sect "to which they would compel others to conform." We believe that Congress should stay out of religious matters. We believe that Christians should not fear competition from other religions; we merely insist on a level playing field. We believe Christian good faith in this matter is shown by the way Christians have treated Muslims and mosques, before and after Sept. 11.
8. Conservative Christians are opposed to diversity.
No, we so truly believe in the importance of diversity that we do not want it to be only skin-deep. God created all kinds of people, all made in His image, so as we learn about and appreciate others we also appreciate God. Churches have often failed in such reaching out, but things are getting better. Because of Christianity's worldwide inclusiveness, many seminaries and Christian colleges are becoming very ethnically and nationally diverse. We would also like things to improve in media, academic, and governmental circles. We would like to see in the press fair treatment of a diversity of views, not just a stultifying extension of politically correct secular liberalism. We would like to reduce discrimination against Christians at colleges and universities. We would like to see welfare programs that honor religious diversity replace governmental one-size-fits-all approaches.
9. Conservative Christians are pessimistic.
Actually, we're long-term optimists, because we know that Christ will return some day, and many of us are short-term optimists as well. We believe in the dreams that our grandparents had. We love being in a country where we can freely worship and work, building families, churches, and businesses. In recent years we have seen the downfall of the Soviet empire, the containment of the welfare empire, and the advent of a faith-based initiative. We believe, with all the disappointments, that the involvement of Christians and conservatives in politics over the past two decades has made a big difference in containing abortion, defending Christian and home schooling, and stiffening our backs in the face of terrorism.
10. Conservative Christians are militants.
Yes, we are (or at least should be) Christian soldiers, but the Bible tells us our war is not against flesh and blood. We believe in trying to walk in Christ's steps, in fighting evil rather than acceding to it, in taking prudent risks rather than clinging to what is current for fear of any change. We want this nation, conceived in liberty with a respect for virtue, to long endure. We know that sin cannot be eradicated in this life, only contained. A religion that says the best people do not sin leads to pride and closed mouths: Christianity's understanding that all of us sin, and that sins can be covered by Christ's sacrifice, leads to self-criticism and openness.
That's the stance I'd propose. Some readers might disagree with some of these points, but here's one thing I hope all of us can agree on: that while we should turn the other cheek to personal attacks, for three reasons we cannot ignore the general and public attacks on fundamentalists and others.
- The first is self-preservation. Theologically conservative Christians fall into camps with names like evangelical, Reformed, charismatic, fundamentalist, and others. When those in many of these groups hear media attacks on "fundamentalists" and "Christian Taliban," the tendency is to think, "They're not talking about me," so why become involved? But in the eyes of many secular liberals, all Bible-believing Christians are fundamentalists, and we do the cause of Christ no good by saying, "I don't know those people." Pundits who pour boiling tar on fundamentalists today, and get away with it, will assault biblical evangelicals tomorrow. To paraphrase a well-known saying about Nazi tactics: They came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew; they came for the _____ but I was not one of them; finally they came for me, and there was no one left to defend me. We should know that if the enemies of Christianity undermine fundamentalists today, they will move on to other groups soon.
- The second reason is preservation of the downtrodden. Michael Horowitz, addressing himself to evangelicals in May 2001, wrote that "You have led the way in making international religious liberty a major element of American foreign policy.... You have led the way in taking on the slavery issue of our time-the annual trafficking of millions of women and children into lives of sexual bondage.... You have led the way in organizing a campaign to end a growing epidemic of prison rape.... As you define your human-rights successes as central to who you are and what you've done, it will no longer be possible for those who fear your faith to crudely caricature you or to ignore the virtue that Christian activism brings to American life and the world at large." Spoken too soon, for the caricaturing has intensified, but if Christians face verbal attack here, those in other parts of the world, such as in Indonesia or the southern part of Sudan, can expect sticks, stones, and more broken bones. Scorn of Christianity in the salons also hurts the poor domestically. When wars on poverty redline Christianity, they typically turn left toward soft-hearted automatic handouts or right toward hard-headed harshness. Christianity is a religion that emphasizes grace for those who have repented; those who do not understand living by grace prefer a works-oriented religion where we get out of our practice exactly what we put into it. That commonly leaves most of the poor, who have not put in enough, either in passive receptivity or active frustration.
- The third reason is national preservation. If it becomes generally accepted that any strong belief is a problem because those who have it are potential bin Ladens, America's spiritual reserves of strength will be depleted. We can live on the fumes of Sept. 11 anger for a while, but America's best defense against terrorism in the long run is a faith strong enough to stand against it. We can't beat something with nothing; in a war that could last for decades, the United States needs strong Bible-based belief.
Andrew Sullivan is right to note that Americans in the 19th century grabbed onto the possibility of freedom for all religious faiths. President John Tyler, in a letter dated July 10, 1843, wrote that "The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us, would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran.... The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid." But focus on what Tyler was proposing: not the equality of the graveyard, with all religious beliefs left six feet under, but equality in action, with all religions able to speak freely of their beliefs.
Religions that have ritual at their core and contend that others will be changed by the performance of those rites, regardless of mental state, are potentially dangerous-but Christianity is not a religion like that. The road to dictatorship in the United States is paved with lack of religious belief, for tens of millions with holes in their souls will be ready to follow a charismatic figure who promises relief. The best protectors of liberty are those who have strong beliefs along with a sense of coram deo-living in the presence of God-that keeps us from going to all lengths to accomplish goals.
We don't need to dominate the broadcast media to get our message out, because "the heavens declare the glory of God." We don't need to execute political enemies, because our Lord says vengeance is His. We don't dare to pretend to be gods, because we know that the true God of heaven and earth is not mocked.
All we need is a level playing field, and God's grace.