Conservatives vindicated

January 31, 2012

I am not one to parrot conservative rhetoric about big government, and the health care controversy has elicited some of the most vociferous rhetoric to date. Well, I have to say that all the rhetoric about how the government, once given the power, will suppress religious liberty, not just economic liberty — all that rhetoric was correct! As you should know by now, Obama has refused after repeated appeals from the bishops to allow an exception for religious employers in the new health care law, which requires all insurance plans to supply contraceptives, along with sterilization procedures and the morning after pill. There are a lot of excellent commentaries on this legislation and what it means for religious liberty, but (not surprisingly) Ross Douthat in the New York Times has the clearest entry I’ve read thus far (ht: Matthew Lee Anderson):

Critics of the administration’s policy are framing this as a religious liberty issue, and rightly so. But what’s at stake here is bigger even than religious freedom. The Obama White House’s decision is a threat to any kind of voluntary community that doesn’t share the moral sensibilities of whichever party controls the health care bureaucracy.

The Catholic Church’s position on contraception is not widely appreciated, to put it mildly, and many liberals are inclined to see the White House’s decision as a blow for the progressive cause. They should think again. Once claimed, such powers tend to be used in ways that nobody quite anticipated, and the logic behind these regulations could be applied in equally punitive ways by administrations with very different values from this one.

The more the federal government becomes an instrument of culture war, the greater the incentive for both conservatives and liberals to expand its powers and turn them to ideological ends. It is Catholics hospitals today; it will be someone else tomorrow.

The White House attack on conscience is a vindication of health care reform’s critics, who saw exactly this kind of overreach coming. But it’s also an intimation of a darker American future, in which our voluntary communities wither away and government becomes the only word we have for the things we do together.


Below is an interview with Thomas Bergler on his forthcoming book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, April 2012), discerning how youth ministry has influenced the church at large. I like his definition of juvenilization:

The process by which things that might be normal and good for a teenage spiritually come to be accepted and even idealized for all ages.

He’s making a lot of the same observations that Reformed critics have been making for quite some time, though perhaps more tempered. He recognizes that some of these youth-targeted methods are appropriate for youth, yet they make a poor template for adults. His criticisms are sound — the immaturity and emotional baggage that has been wrought; yet, he claims that without this juvenilization the churches in America would be empty (hyperbole of course), because American culture at large has become adolescent and immature. The churches are tracking with this cultural shift. So, I’m interested to see if Bergler offers any proposals in the book for how to overcome this immaturity without emptying the churches (i.e., the fear among evangelicals of America becoming like Europe).

Unfortunately, the interviewer is not, ummm, my favorite.

I’ve heard very good things about Matt Chandler for a while, and I saw him speak online at some conference back when he was bald and weak from surgery for a brain tumor. He was impressive then, so I was intrigued to hear his recent guest sermon (embedded below) at Elevation Church, the super-trendy church here in Charlotte (I see Elevation bumper stickers all over the place, on the cars of young hipsters and young professionals or suburbia well-to-do’s). He is clearly directing his sermon at this highly insular culture of Elevation and similar very successful churches across the country, where worship is therapy and happiness is ours for the taking. Yet, there does seem to be a missing next step, that I’m sure our Barthian blogging friends will pick-up on.

The directing of attention away from self and toward God is necessary and good, but there is a next step of directing attention toward one’s neighbor, especially those who are not beloved. We are to imitate God’s calling of those who are not beloved, “beloved,” through a love that subverts the norms that give attention to the powerful, beautiful, and healthy. That’s the logical next step, if we are true to our Reformed convictions. That, in fact, is the thing that will most aid us in directing our attention away from ourselves. If we stop at the glory of God and don’t take this next step, we will invariably conflate God and self as the object of our attention and affections — which is perhaps more sinister than what the scribes and Pharisees were doing.

I’m sure this is not fair to the whole corpus of Chandler’s sermons. I’d be surprised if his teaching is completely void of this “next step.” Yet, this should be so ingrained in our thinking that it is impossible to give a sermon like the one at Elevation without making this next step. It is what they needed to hear, as a pastoral necessity, not just a dogmatic truth.

Even with this criticism in mind, I highly encourage you to watch the sermon. It is outstanding:

Women in Ministry

January 25, 2012

I have been a long-time reader of Sharon’s blog, She Worships, since her days at Duke Divinity School. Now she is getting her Phd at Trinity (TEDS) in Chicagoland. I really enjoyed her latest reflections on women in ministry, including some laudatory remarks for the egalitarian intelligentsia at Trinity.

[If you care to respond to this post, please read the whole thing.]

As someone considering ordination in the PCUSA, the latest developments in Orlando will likely have direct consequences for how (if) I pursue ordination in the PCUSA. Things just got complicated, yes, even more complicated. Similar to what Anglican groups have been doing for the last ten years (e.g., the ACNA), evangelicals within the mainline denomination have adopted a multi-tier polity for a new denomination: the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). In true Presbyterian fashion, they already have the pension plans set out! There will be three levels of membership:

  1. affiliate as a “ministry association,” which involves no change in PCUSA membership status and is apparently open to non-PCUSA churches
  2. pursue “union membership,” which involves a joint union with the PCUSA and ECO
  3. join ECO as a “full member,” which involves leaving the PCUSA

Update: They have decided on two levels of membership: (1) Fellowship of Presbyterians and (2)  ECO. As a member of the Fellowship, you can still remain in the PCUSA. As a member of ECO, you have joined the new denomination and left the PCUSA. So, the Fellowship will be a means for networking evangelicals within the PCUSA and with ECO members.

I’m really curious to see how the PCUSA responds. The Fellowship of Presbyterians (the body initiating all of this) is not to be taken lightly. 500 churches were represented in Orlando, with many more in sympathy, and these are some of the strongest churches in the PCUSA, such as First Presbyterian of Orlando (David Swanson) and Menlo Park Presbyterian (John Ortberg), plus my own Westminster Presbyterian of Charlotte. The Huffington Post, not surprisingly, has reduced everything to gay marriage and homophobia, in an ungracious and pathetic representation of Fellowship motives: “Cowardly Lions.” Don Sweeting, the president of RTS-Orlando and an EPC minister, has a far more helpful analysis of the Fellowship and ECO. As my pastor has emphasized over and over, there is no denying that the 10A amendment was a decisive moment for the networking and organizing of evangelicals in the PCUSA, but the amendment was simply a manifestation of something far more disconcerting: the nearly complete disregard for biblical authority in underwriting the amendment. To their credit, many scholars and leaders in the revisionist camp are not even claiming biblical warrant, instead focusing on supposed ambiguities in the text, contextual differences between the ANE and today, and the relative newness of homosexual monogamy and the need to “baptize” homosexual relationships with Christian marriage. To put it another way, would the apostles accept homosexual marriage? No, but that’s neither here nor there, according to the GLBT lobby. That’s where evangelicals fear to tread. I have lots of questions, and few certainties, about homosexuality, but I have to remain captive to the canonical norms, not the fallibility of my experience or wisdom, which is otherwise highly sympathetic and attracted to much that is written in favor of homosexual relationships…Sarah Coakley and Rowan Williams come to mind.

I love Joe Scarborough. He’s the only political commentator on television that I’ll actually identify with. His morning show on MSNBC has, far and away, the longest and most in-depth segments on cable news, often clocking-in at more than 10 minutes (which is remarkable for news networks).  Here is a segment with Cornel West this morning, discussing poverty [UPDATE: the link no longer works]. I appreciate Joe’s laudatory assessment of young evangelicals, a little past the 9 minute mark. The recent massive Passion conference is a good illustration of his point.