Ironically, after centuries of rebelling against religious authority, the coming of Islam is also reviving political issues most thought extinct in Europe, including debates about the limits of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to proselytize. And in all these areas, controversies that originate in a Muslim context inexorably expand or limit the rights of Christians, too. If Muslim preachers who denounce gays must be silenced, then so must charismatic Christians. At the same time, any laws that limit blasphemous assaults on the image of Mohammed must take account of the sensibilities of those who venerate Jesus.
The result has been a rediscovery of the continent’s Christian roots, even among those who have long disregarded it, and a renewed sense of European cultural Christianity. Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Europe may be confronting the dilemmas of a truly multifaith society, but with Christianity poised for a comeback, it is hardly on the verge of becoming an Islamic colony.
Saturday is World Malaria Day, which each year draws attention to the scourge that malaria is to millions of people throughout the developing world. An estimated 1-3 million people die of malaria each year, and many of these are children. But even when people don’t die, malaria is debilitating. Malaria reduces the red blood cell count to low levels, which in addition to all of the other symptoms, drains energy and saps creativity. In response to this, the thing large multinational aid organizations have focused on are bed nets. Now bed nets can be helpful, but they are a short-term fix. Fortunately, after years of false ideology preventing the use of DDT, the world is starting to come back to its senses. Acton has been promoting this for several years.
Today, NRO’s The Corner quoted malaria expert Richard Tren, who argues that a bed net is a potentially useful but overemphasized tool in the war against malaria, with DDT and, surprisingly to some, economic freedom having greater promise for pushing back the scourge of malaria over the long run.
And if bed nets or any other foreign interventions are to do significant and lasting good, charitable enterprises will need to rediscover the importance of subsidiarity, of humans on the ground in relationship with other human beings, as opposed to government-to-government aid transfers that often do more harm than good.
One person who speaks forcefully to this issue is Rwandan Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana, a leading force in the reconciliation in Rwanda and a key partner in Bridge2Rwanda and the P.E.A.C.E Plan. In an interview we conducted with Bishop John near his orphanage in Rwanda last fall, he commented on why U.N. bed net programs often fail, and why the P.E.A.C.E. plan is succeeding:
We have a percentage of people, thank God, the number is getting less, but we have a great percentage of people who don’t read and write. And you give them a mosquito net; you scare them to death. You need to tell them that the mosquito net would prevent mosquitoes from biting them, and they need to trust you’re not telling them a lie. You’re not trapping them with that mosquito net. They’ve been deceived for too long. They need to have people who trust them, and they trust. And the people who love them; and the people they love. So Rick Warren has it deadly right to say that the church is needed to be employed into the economy, into the health and the social recovery of nations.
Churches have the life-giving hope of the Gospel, Bishop John explains, and they are embedded locally.
The church is out there with the people. You know I’m hugging and I’m shaking hands with every one of these children because I’m with them all the time. They know who I am, and they know I am there for them. During the aftermath of the genocide, many people ran away from here, and I stayed with them. All of these individuals giving the aid ran away from here. And I stayed. Churches are here. And we know how to approach them.
I recently received a request from a reporter to respond to the recent spate of studies and stories positing a decline in American Christianity. Here’s how I answered:
Broadly speaking, it is silly to think of secularization as a linear process. The prominence of the Christian faith waxes and wanes during different historical periods. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, the old golden age of faith picture of antiquity is not nearly as strong as many believe. There is, however, always a solid and motivated core.
What differs over time is the overall number of people who want to associate themselves with the basic project of the church. Sometimes, that seems advantageous and people do it for reasons of social respectability or advancement. At other times there is little to be gained from it and many turn to spending Sundays on the golf course or with the New York Times.
We happen to be in one of the periods when there is not a lot of social prestige or other benefit to being in the church and thus nominal members are dropping out. They have no desire to meet even modest demands of the church when they see no compensatory benefit.
The drop off in the number of nominal Christians also results from the ascendancy of conservative Christianity in the United States. The more intensely the church stands for something, the less likely it is that people with low commitment will associate themselves with the church. This has always been the church’s dilemma. Should it be a comprehensive church that baptizes babies and includes everyone in a Christendom model? Or should it concentrate on voluntary, adult decisions for a strict faith that actively excludes those not with the program. While mega-churches are often criticized for trying to be all things to all people, doctrinally speaking they are actually pretty orthodox and tilt more in the direction of believers with some commitment.
What has happened in the last fifty years is that the mainline churches which had seemed to prevail during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy actually lost by becoming increasingly liberal. They became so liberal that their membership had nothing to attach themselves too other than being against conservative Christianity. They can do that just as easily on their own as they can in a liberal church. They end up in the “other” or “none” category when religionists are counted.
In summary, the disappearance of the middle option of a semi-orthodox mainline Protestantism and the corresponding rise of conservative Protestantism is the best explanation for the results we see in the ARIS survey and other observances which claim a future of religious decline.
“Government budgets are moral documents,” is the often quoted line from Jim Wallis of Sojourners and other religious left leaders. Wallis also adds that “When politicians present their budgets, they are really presenting their priorities.” There is perhaps no better example of a spending bill lacking moral soundness than the current stimulus package being debated in the U.S. Senate.
In my commentary this week, “The Moral Bankruptcy Behind the Bailouts,” I offer clear reasons how spending more does not equate to morality, but quite the opposite in this case.
In fact, among many believers it seems that Christian thrift is lost as a value altogether. We forget how important financial responsibility and thrift was to the entire Christian tradition as important evidence of outward faith and devotion. Jordan Ballor offers some great words in his own commentary last year titled “The Fourth Pillar of the New Economy: Spend all you can:”
The eighteenth-century theologian and pastor John Wesley once preached that we should “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Productivity, frugality, and generosity are the core moral virtues that have animated prosperous and free economies in the West for centuries. But now the federal government seemingly wants to add a fourth and conflicting principle to these traditional values: “Spend all you can.”
As for Jim Wallis, not surprisingly he enthusiastically supports the stimulus package, and because of the enormous stakes involved for future generations, this shows a lack of moral judgment and courage on his part. It may also be that Wallis is hesitant to pull his support for this $1 trillion spending bill because he is afraid to go against a President that reminds him of the Prophet Nehemiah.
One of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read lately is Robert Louis Wilken’s “Christianity Face to Face with Islam,” in the January 2009 issue of First Things. It’s accessible online only to subscribers, but you can find the publication at academic and high-quality municipal libraries and it will be freely available online in a month or two.
Wilken makes so many interesting and informed observations that I don’t know where to start. Among the points to ponder:
“In the long view of history, and especially from a Christian perspective, the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was of far greater significance” than the Crusades. In the eleventh century, Wilken notes, the population of Asia Minor was virtually 100% Christian; by 1500, it was 92% Muslim.
“Set against the history of Islam, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and extinction as it is by growth and triumph.” The missionary impulse in Christianity is strong and its history impressive. But Wilken points out that Christians often view that history selectively and that Islam’s spread is equally impressive and seems at present to be more durable. (On two recent books about the early spread of Islam, see this review.)
Christianity’s fading in so many places undermines precisely those claims on which it prides itself: its catholicity, its capacity to embed itself in any culture, anywhere. “If Christianity continues to decline in Europe,” Wilken cautions, “and becomes a minority religion, its history will appear fragmentary and episodic and its claim to universality further diminished by the shifting patterns of geography.”
“By focusing on what went wrong, on Islamic terrorism, on Wahhabism, or on radical Islamists, we miss ways in which Islam is adapting constructively to a changing world.” The unparalleled success and staying power of Islam, Wilken insists, obligates us to take it more seriously–not merely as a threat, I take him to mean, but as a world view that is immensely powerful and attractive. “If we see Islam as a historical relic, incapable of change and betterment, inimical to reason and science, a form of religion that is disadvantaged in the modern world,” he writes, “we will never grasp the formidable challenge it presents to Christianity.”
For Christians, the article raises some uncomfortable questions. That’s not a bad thing. For its historical insight, for its analysis of the interaction of Christianity and Islam, and for its suggestive glance at the future, it is well worth reading.
In this week’s Acton commentary, I researched and wrote about the danger of speech codes and the limiting of free expression on college campuses. Like many conservatives in an academic atmosphere, I have also lived through the deceit and intimidation of out-of-control ideologues on campus. It has been an issue I have been extremely passionate about since I witnessed and spoke out against administrators trying to squelch free expression while in school myself.
An important reference, and recommended reading for anybody interested in this topic is The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. The authors Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silversgate offer some essential comments:
What remain of the 60s on our campuses are its worst sides: intolerance of dissent from regnant political orthodoxy, the self-appointed power of self-designated “progressives” to set everyone else’s moral agenda, and saddest of all, the belief that universities not only may but should suspend the rights of some in order to transform students, the culture, and the nation according to their ideological vision and desire.
The authors later add:
The theory of “repressive tolerance,” or, more precisely, its practice of “progressive intolerance,” still governs the extracurricular lives of nearly all of our students. It is easy, however, to identify the vulnerabilities of the bearers of this worst and, at the time, most marginal legacy of the 60s: They loathe the society that they believe should support them generously in their authority over its offspring; they are detached from the values of individual liberty, legal equality, privacy, and the sanctity of conscience toward which Americans essentially are drawn; and, for both those reasons, they cannot bear the light of public scrutiny. Let the sunlight in.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) offered a write up concerning my piece, and since they are the experts, it was nice to receive a positive endorsement from them. The research and action they have put forth on this issue is nothing short of remarkable.
It was an incident at my alma mater, Ole Miss, which ignited a free speech discussion on campus, that brought my attention back to this important issue. I explained in my commentary:
Just last month at the University of Mississippi, the campus newspaper The Daily Mississippian reported that the University Police interrupted a staged reading of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It was suggested that the readings be moved to a free speech zone or what the university calls “speakers corners.” An English instructor named Griffith Brownlee replied by reading the First Amendment and saying “The whole country is a free speech zone.” Once the university found out it was a department-sanctioned event they called the whole affair “a misunderstanding.” As Brownlee herself pointed out in the article, one suspects the irony of attempting to limit the words of an author who wrote against totalitarian tactics was lost on some school officials.
This week’s Birth of Freedom Video Short features Susan Wise Bauer, author of The History of the Ancient World. She addresses the question, “How did Christian slave owners justify slavery?”, describing how slave owners operated under a false (prescriptive instead of descriptive) understanding of the New Testament’s teaching concerning slavery.
Remember, if you haven’t seen the other 7 video shorts, you can check out the rest of the series, learn about premieres in your area, and discover more background information at www.thebirthoffreedom.com.
Writing a commentary for the United Methodist News Service, J. Richard Peck encourages readers to heed John Wesley’s advice on economic policy. “In short, Wesley called for higher taxes upon the wealthy and laws that would prohibit the wasting of natural products,” says Peck. He notes that the cure for economic troubles relating to the poor was to repress luxury.
While some of Wesley’s economc advice is certainly sound, especially his views on the danger of debt, his understanding of basic economic principles in a free economy is severely limited. Kenneth J. Collins, a premier scholar and admirer of Wesley in fact notes as much in his book The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace just how far Wesley actually misses the mark. Collins declares:
Arguing ostensibly from a larger theme of proper stewardship, Wesley posited a “zero sum” world in which the maxim, “if the poor have too little it must because the rich have too much,” by and large ruled the day. As such, not only did he fail to recognize how capitalism actually works in a growing economy, even in a mercantilist one, but also his concern for stewardship, of what he called robbing the poor,” often developed upon such petty matters as the size and shape of women’s bonnets (and he forgets that poor workers often made these accessories) or upon his favorite moral foibles of censure, the consumption of alcohol.
The Theology of John Wesley will be reviewed in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty.
Curiously, Peck also highlights Wesley’s advice for less reliance upon pharmaceuticals. However Peck does not add that Wesley was at war with some healers or physicians in his own time who were taking advantage of the poor with faulty and expensive cures. Wesley published Primitive Physic, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases in 1747. He generously distributed copies for free for the poor to fight back against those taking advantage of them. In Wesley’s account there are certainly improvements in medical suggestions, and his tips on healthy living are fairly standard even today. Wesley did not pull these cures and suggestions from thin air, much of his tips came from doctors he trusted. Still there were suggestions like rubbing your head with raw onions for curing baldness and holding a live puppy on the abdomen as a recommendation for intestinal obstruction. The point is that we would not take medical advice from Wesley over more advanced modern medicine, nor should we take economic advice from somebody with little economic understanding. It’s important to note that Wesley’s passionate assistance to the poor is certainly an effort to emulate.
The best advice Methodists can take from Wesley is to be rooted in the Good News he so passionately preached and spread across the globe. When United Methodism as a whole fully recaptures Wesley’s chief suggestion to his followers which was to “preach Jesus Christ and him crucified,” his followers will then again be aligned with the ancient truths.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I make the case that persecution of Chinese Christians has increased since the government’s preparation of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Freedom House is really leading the way in compiling a wealth of information to substantiate China’s recent crack down on freedom and human rights.
Jimmy Lai, who was featured in The Call of the Entrepreneur, has a great quote on the makeup of China’s moral failings and its relation to the Olympics. I included his words in my commentary. Lai says:
When the Olympic Games begin in Beijing, China will show the world its physical strength, but also its moral poverty. This is unavoidable because the Olympics are more than just a sporting event; they are an expression of the human drive for greatness in all pursuits.
I also cited an excellent piece in The Washington Post titled “Beijing Curbs Religious Rights.” This article offers a more detailed perspective on specific crackdowns by the government on house churches in China’s capital city.
In the July/August issue of Touchstone, which features a cover story by Acton research director Sam Gregg, “The European Disunion,” a bit of wisdom is passed along to us by senior editor Anthony Esolen in the magazine’s section, Quodlibet:
If you have a virtuous people, you don’t need quite so many laws, and the laws you do pass will have a lot less to do with restraint than with man’s creative participation in God’s governance of the world.
This statement captures well the sentiments I expressed regarding the relation of Christianity to political freedom, which appear in Kevin Schmiesing’s post, “Freedom and Christianity,” at American Creation.