Category Archives: Opinion

What Liz Cheney Can Teach American Evangelicals

Some people in her own party want Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to lose her membership on committees and even her place within her party’s conference in the United States House of Representatives because she won’t “move on” from her belief that the attempts to overturn the last election—leading up to last January’s attack on the Capitol—are a clear and present danger to democracy.

Whatever you think of Cheney (as you can imagine, I am a fan), there’s a larger point here—one that applies to many evangelical Christians in a thousand different situations in their churches and communities: At what point will you stop conserving your influence?

I thought about this conundrum last week while reading the transcripts of a New York Times podcast debate between Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark and Rich Lowry of National Review, both of whom are conservatives that admire Congresswoman Cheney’s integrity and conviction. Where they disagree is on whether Cheney has squandered her influence within her party in ways that will prevent her from solving these problems in the future.

“As a politician, you have to be aware of where your voters are,” Lowry said. “Doesn’t mean that you pander to them or play to their worst instincts or always say yes to anything they want. But to live is to maneuver. Especially if you’re a politician.” Lowry said that Cheney’s refusal to back down on these matters wouldn’t be helpful. After all, if you’re not at the table, you can’t have influence.

Sykes noted that this idea is a common rationalization and that it’s circular. People who want others to remain silent or to go along with any sort of craziness often “tell themselves that they need to stay in the room so they can sound the alarm, but they refuse to sound the alarm so they can stay in the room.”

When I read this, I immediately thought of how often I have sat in the surreal situation of a television debate where the person I was debating gave a sad shrug and agreed with me off camera but went right back to saying the opposite as soon as the lights and cameras came back on. I can think of people I’ve known in Christian ministry who told me, behind closed doors, how disgusted they were with a politician they deemed to be immoral but then, in public, praised the same politician as a man of integrity. The same thing is true all through the government.

The argument is that we need grownups in the room. As leadership expert John Maxwell once put it, “Being one step ahead makes you a leader. … Being fifty steps ahead could make you a martyr.” People in the vortex of craziness—whether in a workplace, a church, or a government—often tell themselves they have to play along with things they find insane to maintain their long-term ability to keep bad things from happening. “If I’m not here, someone worse will be,” they reason.

There’s a kernel of truth there, of course. I do a facepalm every time I hear of a young pastor, after just arriving at a church, removing the American flag from the sanctuary or trying to excommunicate everybody who hasn’t attended in a year. “Even if you are right, these are not your biggest problems right now,” I would tell that person. “And this is the wrong time to take them on.”

Daniel in Babylon was willing to go the lions’ den over the demand that he worship the king, but when it came to eating the rich delicacies of the king’s table, he prudently posed alternatives instead. Jesus didn’t believe he owed the temple tax but paid it “so that we may not cause offense” (Matt. 17:27). The apostle Paul circumcised Timothy so that the younger man’s Gentile heritage wouldn’t be a stumbling block to the mission (Acts 16:3).

The problem is that there comes a point where one moves from “choosing battles” to having one’s conscience seared. Peter’s refusal to eat with the Gentiles was, Paul wrote, “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Almost every time someone acts out of fear of getting kicked out of what C. S. Lewis called the “Inner Ring,” the person reasons that this is just “working within the system” or “living to fight another day.”

Whatever you think of Liz Cheney (did I mention that I’m a fan?), no one can seriously suggest that she was a radical revolutionary inattentive to maneuvering. She twice supported the president she now criticizes and voted with him over 95 percent of the time. She had the esteem of her colleagues such that she was elected to the third-highest rank in her party’s House hierarchy. She is a grownup. She was in all the rooms.

There came a line, though, that she could not cross—when she was asked to support things she believed to be contrary to her oath to the Constitution. What was she supposed to wait for? If attacking the Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes is not the moment she should speak out, what exactly is that moment?

Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was responding to a group of “white moderate” pastors who had criticized his nonviolent action in the city as doing more harm than good by pressing progress so fast that it caused backlash.

As I’ve mentioned here before, sociologist Peter Berger explained in the same time period how this happens. He showed that a key predictor of whether a pastor would speak out on the injustice of Jim Crow was whether that church was in a building program or a major church growth campaign.

And contrary to the idea of biding one’s time and building one’s influence in order to do the right thing later, Berger found that the longer a pastor served at his church, the less likely that pastor was to challenge Jim Crow.

On the way up, we tell ourselves, “I don’t have the platform yet to speak; when I get one, I will.” After we arrive wherever we were heading, we tell ourselves, “I have too much to lose; if I am not at the table, they will lose my voice.” We think this is the voice of prudence inside us, but maybe more often than not, it’s just ambition mixed with fear.

Not only are the internal rationalizations circular, but so are the external circumstances. Whether in a church, a ministry, a workplace, a city council, or a neighborhood association, we tell ourselves, “I am going to live with this little bit of craziness so that I will be here to stop major craziness.”

Yet while those crazy things are happening, someone watching all this is wondering, “Am I the only one who sees that this is crazy?” When everyone else acts like the crazy situation is normal, that observer shrugs and concludes, “It must just be me.”

And then the craziness becomes the new normal. And folks “conserve their influence” for when it’s needed, for whatever is just a step crazier. I’ve been there, and that way leads to nowhere good.

Sooner or later, one’s influence isn’t conserved but hoarded. Sooner or later, one is operating not out of prudent patience but from a seared conscience.

Stop counting on the grownups in the room to solve the problems. Stop imagining that the crises erupting around us will settle down on their own.

Sometimes the grownup in the room is the only one who can point out that the room is on fire.

No, Religious Freedom Doesn’t Send People to Hell

Last week an old video resurfaced on Twitter in which John MacArthur, pastor of Los Angeles’s Grace Community Church, announced he did not support religious freedom. In the clip, MacArthur argued that supporting religious freedom promotes idolatry and enables the kingdom of darkness—that “religious freedom is what sends people to hell.”

Some reports contend that quote is out of context, fitting as it does in a larger argument. Even so, this kind of argument against religious freedom is a familiar one—usually in reference to somebody else’s religion.

Years ago, a pastor told me that religious freedom is essentially the affirmation of the words of the Serpent, “Ye shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). To grant religious freedom for false religions, this person contended, is the equivalent of allowing the prophets of Baal have a place of their own on Mount Carmel.

These are certainly statements of strong conviction—like propositions of biblical truth to which the only appropriate response should be a loud “Amen!” That is, until one actually listens to what is being said and hears it for what it is: theological liberalism.

Religious freedom, after all—whether as articulated by the early British Baptists, the persecuted Anabaptists of the Reformation era, or the colonial American evangelists and their allies—has never been a “You believe in Baal; I believe in God; what difference does it make?” kind of pluralism.

The question of religious freedom is who should have regulatory power over religion. If you believe religion shouldn’t be regulated by the state, then you believe in religious freedom.

That’s why denominations with “free” in their name (like the Free Methodists, for instance)—along with those who believe in the necessity of personal repentance and faith—have been the most dogged supporters of religious freedom for all.

These groups of people understand that the gospel according to Jesus is not an external affirmation of generic belief, from a heart still untransformed. It is not accepting Christianity as a ticket of admission into society.

Rather, the gospel according to Jesus means that there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). One can stand before God at judgment only by union with the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. And one can only come into union with Christ by grace through faith (Rom. 3:21–31).

That faith—as defined by Jesus and his apostles—does not come through the proxy of a nation or a ruler, or even a religious structure. If that were the case, John the Baptist would not have needed to preach repentance to the descendants of Abraham (Matt. 3:10). Moreover, the apostle Paul could have found no fault in those who served the false gods chosen for them by their national or family traditions (Acts 17:22–31).

Instead, the gospel addresses each person—one by one—as an individual who will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, who will give an account, and who is commanded to personally believe the gospel and repent of their sin (Rom. 10:9–17).

As Jesus said to Nicodemus by night: “Truly truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, ESV).

And how does this new birth, this personal receiving of Christ by faith, occur? It does not happen by the changing of a family crest or by a vote of the city council, but through the Spirit opening the heart—through an “open statement of the truth” commending itself to each conscience (2 Cor. 4:2).Article continues below

Some of the old liberalisms and social gospels of various sorts preferred a different message—a gospel that changed externals and did not demand personal repentance and faith. Under such a gospel, if a country was “Christian,” then its citizens were Christian too. As long as one’s ruler was “Christian,” then one could count themselves a part of the church. If one’s morality was adequately regulated, whether by law or by social custom, then one was a good Christian.

That’s all well and good—unless there’s a hell. If Jesus is telling the truth that there is a judgment to come, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6)—that “coming to him” means not just external behavior but faith in him (6:40)—then no legal edict or social pressure could regenerate a human heart. Such things cannot make a person into a real Christian. That is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Religious freedom is a restriction on the power of the state to set itself up as a mediator between God and humanity. It is not an affirmation of idolatry, just as saying, “The government shouldn’t take your baby away and raise your children” is not an affirmation of bad parenting. Saying parents should raise their children, instead of the government, does not mean everyone’s parenting is good. It just means that—except in very dire and unique situations—parents should raise their children, rather than the state.

Religious freedom does not mean that everyone’s religion is true. All it means is that God judges the heart and that people must really believe in their heart that Jesus is Lord, instead of saying, “Lord, Lord” merely because they are required to do so by law.

If there is no religious freedom, then ultimate matters aren’t up for consideration by persons—only by majorities. If you’re in 19th-century Denmark, it’s already decided for you that you are Lutheran. If you’re in the 20th-century Soviet Union, it’s already decided that you’re a Marxist atheist. If you’re in 21st-century Saudi Arabia, you’re a Muslim—no questions asked. That might be a way for the state to indoctrinate its citizens, but it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If religious freedom is wrong, not only do majorities decide religious affiliation, but they also dictate the scope of what’s permitted in deviating from that religious affiliation.

Does anyone really believe that Los Angeles would adopt Calvinistic dispensationalist Christianity? No one believes that, including, or maybe especially, John MacArthur—who just spent almost two years going back and forth in court with the state of California about the freedom of his church to meet in spite of COVID-19 regulations, arguments he made on the grounds of religious liberty.

If California were to decide that the official state religion is Zen Buddhism, I would be willing to wager that Grace Community Church would not stop preaching the gospel. Nor should they. That’s religious freedom. And I would further wager that if the state of California were to vote in its legislature that every citizen of the state is a good Christian, Grace Community Church would not stop calling their neighbors to repent and believe, personally, in Christ. That’s religious freedom.

We believe in religious freedom not because we believe in freedom on its own terms, but because we believe in the exclusivity of Christ and in the power of the gospel. We believe there is one name under heaven whereby we must be saved—and that name is not “Caesar” or “Ayatollah” or “assistant secretary for civic affairs.”

We believe in religious freedom because we know what Jesus has given us to fight against the kingdom of darkness—the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. We believe in religious freedom because there’s no civil substitute for the gospel of Christ.

We believe in religious freedom because we want to persuade our neighbors to be reconciled to God—not so they won’t be fined by the earthly government, but so they will find eternal life in the heavenly kingdom. So that they won’t end up in hell.

What would Jesus do? He’d never give up on the “deplorables”

As a Christian and former evangelical pastor who strongly opposes Donald Trump and the current leadership of the evangelical movement, I believe this: The blueprint for stopping them can be found in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, who devoted himself to strengthening the downtrodden and exposing the evils of religious leadership.

With many political experts predicting a pretty bad performance for the Democrats in 2022, and the possible or probable return of Trump two years later, it’s a dangerous time. I think that would be bad thing for this country, very bad for the Christian faith and very, very bad for anyone on the wrong side of advantage in America. 

If we look at the life of Christ, the central message was clear. Attacking Caesar and Rome — or, today, attacking Trump or anyone else who wields power — is not the path. 

The answer lies within the people that the church has typically ignored, while revealing the hypocrisy of the leadership and expose the modern-day Pharisees, a role now being played by evangelical leadership.  

I must admit, as a side note, that my faith in the Democratic Party is not strong. I believe we need more political parties in the U.S., as that large corporations seem to be controlling everything from a celebrity’s voice to the news media to politicians of both parties, the health care industry, the justice system and also, most certainly, the church.

 It often feels like too much to take on, and truly living a life of integrity has become more and more difficult. What I do see clearly is that Trump’s form of leadership is dangerous for America. Stopping him is by no means the end of the battle, but it’s a start.  

To start off with, I think the tactic of attacking Trump and his followers is a mistake that only makes him and his movement stronger. Calling his followers a basket of “deplorables” only encourages many more people to jump into the basket. 

Hell, when I heard that comment from Hillary Clinton back in 2016, I felt much more “deplorable” than not. I not only voted for Clinton against Trump, I believe she would have been a more effective president than her husband, and perhaps than Barack Obama.

But the language of the downtrodden is the language of humility, and an understanding that we have failed in life in ways that makes us feel more deplorable than not. Trump was unapologetically deplorable and that felt good for the millions of Americans who have lost a hundred times over in their lives. So stop that approach, because it’s not working.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about reaching a certain type of Trump follower. I’m not quite that naive. For instance, during my last haircut I was advised to watch out for the Nazis who were trying to check my vaccination status. After a remarkable conversation not based on any understanding of history or anything logical, I can only conclude that person is unreachable. 

There are millions of others who are simply too far gone, lost in a system of control and manipulation. But those people do not represent all Trump voters any more than my liberal neighbors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speak for all Democrats. 

In the ministry of Jesus, his church and message welcomed all who were willing to improve themselves through humility, forgiveness and grace. It did not matter what was happening in their life, how much or little they owned, what sins they had committed in their life or what their social station might be. His followers until that time had no agency, no voice, no acceptance. 

In a sense, that is how liberal or progressive leaders should approach these next two years. Learn the stories of all those who have struggled with the American dream. Provide them a voice, embrace them as brothers and sisters, and show them a path that leads to their own success, whether materially, spiritually or otherwise. Do not speak from a place of arrogance, success and superior knowledge but a place of humility and empathy.

In the ministry of Jesus it was equally important to show the great divide between the religious leadership and the needs of their followers. The Pharisees presented themselves as the arbiters of God’s justice and as people of purity and goodness, while hoping to shield their misdeeds and hypocrisy in darkness.

Things are much the same today: Nothing the evangelical leaders do is for their followers. They only seek to lift themselves up, and to be seen as both righteous and powerful. They have set themselves up as the gatekeepers to God’s love, but in the words of Matthew 23, they have neglected “justice and mercy and faithfulness” and they serve the devil, making their followers “twice as much the children of hell” as they are.

In truth, I am no one and I am everyone. I am a liberal, a deplorable, a minister, a father. I am alone and a failure. In the end I am just a man with two coat hangers, trying to solve a problem much bigger than I am capable of solving. 

About a year ago, I was locked out of my car at night, in the winter, in a state park with a closed gate, a dying phone and no coat. AAA turned me down, and the cops wouldn’t open the gate. I had to run four miles back to my car, with no way of reaching anyone and with nothing more than two coat hangers, in an attempt to break into my car and get out of my jam. 

My best friend and soulmate, who has asthma and is massively allergic to dogs, was stuck in a car with my mom, who has a dog and wasn’t wearing her mask correctly. I needed to solve this issue with my two coat hangers and no phone signal. My friend was worried about me and told my mom, “Listen, Nate will die out there. He will not give up.” 

She knew me well. That struggling, relentless part of me is a part of every working person in this country. None of us quit. We keep fighting, in spite of the structures that let us down, in spite of the God that seems to ignore us and in spite of our own personal failings, armed with our two coat hangers and the hope — or the faith — that somehow we will find our way through.  

I say all this because I want those people who have power, voice and agency not to give up on the “deplorables.” This country is heading in the wrong direction and the only way through is to look to a very old formula: one that goes back 2,000 years or so: Expose the hypocrisy of the religious leadership, lift up the downtrodden and reclaim the American dream.

Our nation’s “greatness” is not found on a slogan, at a fancy hotel or on an exclusive golf course. It is not found in the top circles of the news media, the deep pockets of the Hollywood elites or in any political party. It is certainly not found in the church. It is found with the people who understand what it is like to take on some of life’s most difficult problems with a couple of coat hangers, your strength of will and a little hope.