Which is the “Christian Nation” Now?

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() - Emblems of belief available for placement...

() – Emblems of belief available for placement on USVA headstones and markers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the great ironies of recent history is that Russia, the quintessential atheistic society when it was the largest part of the Soviet Union, is returning to Eastern Orthodoxy. While much of its population retains its atheism, the government of Vladamir Putin strongly supports the Orthodox Church and has increasingly supported a traditionally Christian society. Like the African churches (outside of South Africa), the Russian Orthodox Church is theologically and morally conservative, much more so than mainline American churches.

Although the United States was originally more deist and agnostic than religious, after the Second Great Awakening in the late 1700s it, in effect, became a Protestant Christian nation. There was a general understanding held by the vast majority of Americans, including Roman Catholics and Jews, that a fairly conservative traditional morality was to be followed. This morality included opposition to abortion (abortion, over time, was made illegal in most states during the nineteenth century), opposition to premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual activity, and support of a traditional conception of male and female roles in the family. Going to church (or synagogue) was considered a commendable thing to do. Prayer and Bible lessons took place in both private–and public–schools. Although many people violated the common morality, even the violators, for the most part, believed they were committing morally wrong acts. Church attendance remained high. The last religious revival in the United States continued through 1965.

There were precursors to the destruction of the Protestant consensus before the 1960s, but it was after the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, that social change rapidly occurred. The intellectual classes, already quite liberal, did not have the intellectual nor the cultural resources to halt the tide of radical activism. David Horowitz, who participated in much of the activism, was a red diaper baby, a crusading Communist, and he points out that despite the claims of those reacting against the late Senator McCarthy, the radicals behind the 1960s revolution were openly Communist. As such, they were atheists who also opposed the Protestant consensus that included a common morality. The advent of artificial contraception was used as an excuse to defend “free love,” a movement that began as early as the Kennedy years. The late 1960s saw the apex of the debate over the morality of abortion that led to the January 1973 “Roe v. Wade” Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. With marriage effectively separated for childbirth combined with easy divorce (which had been a staple of some states since the late nineteenth century), marriage was seen as a way for someone to become happy rather than as a sacrament and a permanent commitment. Once marriage became separated from the right to have sexual intercourse, it became more and more a civil arrangement–and it was a small step to support same-sex marriage. Given that climate, one wonders how long it will take before American society supports incestuous marriage or pedophilic marriage. Once the foundations of a social order are destroyed, the house quickly follows.

Many of the Christian Churches, especially the mainline Protestant denominations, have more or less yielded completely to the new social norms. The Evangelicals, tied up for years in gimmicks rather than in Biblical teaching, development of Christian character, and the beauty of traditional worship, are rapidly given ground on traditional moral positions regarding sexual ethics. American Roman Catholics remain deeply divided after radical priests and bishops fundamentally changed many churches during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Fundamentalists remain faithful to traditional theology and morals, but too often focus on minutia rather than on the cultural war that they have, in effect, already lost. Stating traditional Christian positions, already a crime in the UK and in much of Western Europe, is becoming socially unacceptable in many American circles. Eventually, stating traditional positions on sexual morality or defending the exclusive nature of Christian claims will become hate crimes in the United States if current trends continue.

The United States is no longer a Christian nation. To claim that is is denies the obvious transvaluation of values that has taken place during the last 50 years. Russia is the last major superpower that can claim, at least at the level of government policy, to be a Christian nation. If the common people of Russian embrace the Orthodox faith again, it will be Russia that will be a shining light to the world, with the United States a decadent shell of its former self.

On the Pope’s Resignation

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Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church must look to the future for a long-term pope. It was good that after the papacy of John Paul II that the church chose to maintain stability with Joseph Ratzinger. Like his predecessor, Ratzinger is an excellent scholar, and I hope that he has some time during his last years to write more.

There is always talk in the West about the Roman Catholic Church appointing a more liberal Pope. This almost certainly will not take place. Roman Catholics in Western Europe and in the United States forget that they are not the only Roman Catholics on earth. Their ignoring other Roman Catholics in the world betrays the ethnocentrism of Western elitists. The church is growing fastest in South America and in Africa, where the bishops are more theologically and morally conservative than many American and European bishops. With more cardinals coming from those regions, the possibility of an African or South American pope is real. While I am not a Roman Catholic, I believe another conservative pope would help the church continue to root out heretical bishops in the U.S. and in Europe, and perhaps make sure that Roman Catholic institutions such as the University of Notre Dame are not openly opposing the teachings of the church. The damage done by the 1960s and 1970s to the Roman Catholic Church in the West was partially reversed by John Paul and by Benedict. Much more needs to be done. Africans and South American bishops in both the Anglican and Roman communions often think of themselves as missionaries to a secular, rebellious Western society. The Roman Catholic Church in Europe and in the United States needs missionaries, and a pope from South America or Africa who does not compromise on matters of faith and morals would be a good start.

Anti-Religious Bias in Medical Ethics

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English: Medicine

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A few of my medical ethics students (not by any means the majority) object to my including such a large component of religious ethics in my teaching. Such an attitude is not surprising–it is another instance of religion’s increasing exclusion from public life and debate (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus‘ “naked public square,” but it is nevertheless disturbing. The founders of the great Hippocratic tradition of medicine (and ethics) were Pythagoreans, and their thought cannot be understood apart from Pythagorean mysticism. Roman Catholic scholars were producing texts in medical ethics as early as the seventeenth century, and taught medical ethics as a university course long before the contemporary bioethics revolution began in 1966. Roman Catholic concepts such as the principle of double effect and the ordinary-extraordinary care distinction have become a part of the ethical vocabulary in medicine.

In addition, Protestant scholars, such as Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, have made important contributions to medical ethics. Jewish scholars, such as Hans Jonas and Leon Kass, have also contributed to the field, with Professor Kass serving as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. Muslim scholars are beginning to be published in both mainstream medical and in medical ethics journals. At a practical level, understanding diverse religions is important for any health care provider.

The terms of the debates over key bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia cannot be adequately understood without understanding the religious arguments involved in these debates. I am not denying the possibility of a consistent secular ethics; I am saying that, as a matter of fact, de-emphasizing the religious aspect of medical ethics is irresponsible, period, and would be more irresponsible for me from a scholarly/teaching point of view.

What is more disturbing than students’ attitudes, which may be as much due to lack of exposure to alternative views (especially for those students who are “rabidly secular”), is the increasing exclusion of religious points of view from medical ethical debates. This exclusion is not absolute; journals such as the Hastings Center Report occasionally publish articles from a religious perspective, as do some other journals in medical ethics, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The false Enlightenment assumption that religion is only a private, subjective matter is part of the problem. Such a view reveals utter ignorance of the function of religion in personal behavior and in society. As one of my teachers at UGA once said, “I would never be such a damned fool as to claim that religion is only a private matter.” He was a liberal Protestant and not a raging Fundamentalist, but he understood the function of religion to be inherently social. He also understood that religions make claims about reality, and such claims can be broadly tested against human experience in general, although there will always be an element of faith and of mystery in religion.

Increasingly, I find a small group of students who could be called “misotheists”–they hate God or at least the notion that any Creator exists. Since these are mostly science students, I would guess they were encouraged to believe such things by some of their science teachers, as well as by the strict methodological atheism of modern and contemporary science. Far too many science teachers make sweeping metaphysical claims regarding religion being a superstition and claim that such a view is “scientific.” Of course this is really the philosophy of “scientism,” the view that science can explain all reality and that any reality claims that go beyond a mythical “scientific method” are, by their very nature, not part of reality. Such a view needs to be justified by argumentation, but neither the scientists who accept scientism nor students are willing to present arguments–their hostility to religion is palpable. Other students (and atheists and agnostics in general) are angry ex-religious people who have rebelled against, perhaps, a harsh religious background (or maybe they just want to get laid and don’t want any religion to get in their way). Since misotheism is, like scientism, an emotionally-based position, there is no rational way to get most people who hold such views to think them through.

I admit I’m frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a religious believer who teaches in a college or university. They follow the logic of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, adopting not only its positive side (toleration for different points of view) but also its negative side (the total secularization of the academy). Even in religious schools, the logic of the Enlightenment leads many faculty be be atheists or agnostics and to minimize the role of religion in public life. It is sad that this attitude has spread to future health care providers.

The Health and Human Services Department’s Attack on Faith-Based Organizations

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The United States Department of Health and Human Services mandated that employers offer health care insurance to employees that includes payments not only for standard birth control, but also for abortificants. Faith-based organizations are not exempt from this mandate. The Roman Catholic Church is resisting this mandate, as well they should, and since abortificants are also paid for, all faith-based groups who oppose abortion are being forced to violate their beliefs. I have no doubt that the social democrats and socialists who read this post will disagree, which is their right. What about the right of a faith-based organization to establish employment benefits in line with its beliefs? H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., a bioethicist and physician at the Baylor College of Medicine, has argued for ideological pluralism in health care choices. That is, if someone accepts abortion, she can buy insurance through a company that accepts abortion. Roman Catholic groups could have what Engelhardt calls “Vaticare” or something like that. Now Engelhardt is a Classical Liberal who is consistent that pluralism be respected. What the government is doing is the equivalent of telling “Vaticare” or similar organizations that their beliefs be damned. The government will now tell you what to do, and if you don’t like it, suck it up. The result, if this rule is not overturned, will be a mass closing of faith-based organizations that help a significant number of people.

Although Mr. Obama has tended to be a friend of Wall Street and warmongers, his ideological roots are strongly Marxist, and, I would claim, totalitarian. The fact that he is no more totalitarian than Dubya does not change the fact that Obama desires as much power as did Mr. Bush. Regulatory agencies have been one way that government can gain power without legislative approval. Congress should establish a conscience clause in the health care bill in order to allow for faith-based organizations to offer insurance to their employees consistent with their own beliefs. To do otherwise would be another step toward a “social democratic benevolent” dictatorship that the most radical on the left wing desire. Although this is by now a tired cliche, it remains true that freedom of religion was never construed by the founding fathers to mean freedom from religion. I am pleased that Eastern Orthodox Bishops (The Council of Canonical Orthodox Bishops) as well as conservative Protestants have joined the effort to reverse this rule change. I hope they succeed.

Marriage between Cousins and Same-Sex Marriage: A False Analogy Fallacy

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US Map of Same Sex Marriage Laws

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Consanguineous marriage (marriage between people who are second cousins or closer) is common in some traditional societies. It used to be common in small farming communities in the United States when the number of men and women available for marriage was small. My grandparents on my mother’s side of the family were second cousins. There is a slight increase of risk for recessive gene disorders, but the goods of social cohesion are considered worth the risk in traditional societies. First cousin marriages are legal in twenty states.

Today I saw a poster on a colleague’s door with two maps of the United States. One map colored in the states allowing marriage between cousins. The other map colored in the states allowing homosexual marriage (five states). The import of the poster is that homosexual marriage between people in love is no more problematic, and most likely less problematic, than marriage between cousins–and that this is unfair.

However, this commits the fallacy of false analogy. Marriage, even in ancient Paganism that accepted homosexuality in general, was only between a man and a woman. Marriage between cousins is only thought to be problematic because of the slight risk for recessive gene disorders, and these can be serious. However, traditional societies prefer stronger social bonds in tight communities. There is nothing “unnatural” about cousins marrying–the number of “degrees of affinity” is great enough that even Catholic and Anglican canon law do not forbid first cousin marriages. It does forbid marriage between siblings, between a parent and his or her child, and between uncles and aunts and their nephews and nieces. Opposition to marriage between first cousins is primarily an American phenomenon resulting from the greater mobility of American society. Such marriages fulfill the proper ends of marriage for conjugal love and the procreation of children. Homosexual marriage is by nature barren, and one cannot change that by adoption or by cloning (that is, manufacturing) a child for a homosexual couple. It is not that love itself is bad–not even the love between homosexuals. What makes that love inordinate is that it is directed toward the wrong goal and does not fulfill the proper ends of a sexual relationship between man and woman. The fact that some couples are past childbearing age or some cannot produce children due to physical problems beyond their control does not change the usual order of nature.

The poster is more like a slogan, something to move people emotionally in a certain direction. It has no logical force, for the analogy it purports to find is false, making any “argument” implied by the poster a weak inductive argument. This is consistent with debate in the United States on both sides of controversial issues such as abortion or euthanasia–or homosexual marriage. There is an abundance of emotion but precious little reasoning about these issues. I realize that many people do not agree with the natural law perspective I espouse (in agreement with the Roman Catholic Church and with my own church, the Anglican Catholic Church). Opponents of natural law should put forth their best arguments from reason and experience rather than resorting to emotional screeds like the implied screed in that poster.

The Arrogance of Heresy

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Fighting Heresy

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Heresy” is a dirty word to many Americans. It brings forth images of heresy trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the burning of Michael Servetus. Yet the concept of heresy is essential for Christianity unless one waters down Christianity to the point that it merely means, “Be nice to one another.” As I heard Stanley Hauerwas once say, “If all Jesus said was that we should be nice to one another, why the hell was he crucified?”

The word “heresy” has to do with division–a heretical doctrine is any false doctrine that, if taught, leads to division in the church. Heresy is dangerous in that heretical doctrines, if followed, can oppose teachings essential for salvation. For example, teaching that Christ was not raised from the dead implies, as St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 15, that “we are of all men most miserable…. and we are yet in our sins.” To deny the Virgin Birth leads to adoptionism and denies the full divinity of Christ. If Christ was not divine, how could He save people from sin and death?

The true source of heresy is arrogance, human pride, the primal sin. It is man wanting to go his own path instead of following St. Vincent of Lerin’s formula, “what all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true.” It can be an intellectual arrogance–“I am too sophisticated and modern to accept miracles.” It can be an anti-authoritarian arrogance–“I am not going to accept what a bunch of church politicians said at a council 1500 years ago.” It can be an arrogance of someone wanting to live a life in opposition to traditional moral standards: “I know the church condemns abortion, but I think it’s okay in certain situations, and the church is just wrong on that issue.”

Now if a Christian holds heretical opinions but keeps them to himself, he is not a heretic–a person becomes a heretic when he teaches false doctrine. If that person, once warned, does not stop teaching false doctrine, the Bishop, if he so chooses, can excommunicate that individual. A heretical priest or bishop might be defrocked. One of my huge problems with the Roman Catholic Church is that it allows too often heretical teachers and churches to prosper. Why is John Dominik Crossan still a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church even though he denies the bodily resurrection of Christ? Hans Kuhn is a raving fundamentalist compared to Crossan. Why are priests who openly support practicing homosexuality allowed to remain as active priests? Why are Roman Catholics who openly espouse abortion allowed to take communion? That is for the Roman Catholic Church leadership to answer–they may have Jesus’ attitude that God will separate the wheat and the tares at the end of time. But what about the present when heretical teachers are leading sheep astray from the truth?

Mainline Protestantism, especially in its seminaries, is doing better than in the past–many younger professors are quite orthodox. It is oftentimes the older teachers who deny fundamental doctrines of the faith such as the bodily resurrection of Christ. Renewal movements in the United Methodist Church have worked wonders in taking it away from the liberal Protestant theology it had adopted from the 1950s through the 1980s. Thomas Oden of Drew University has been a leading voice for restoring a “catholic” (in a broad sense) orthodoxy to the Methodist Church. There are orthodox voices at some mainline Presbyterian seminaries now, something that was nearly unheard outside of Union in Virginia years ago. To his credit, Pope John Paul II did a great deal to reverse the radical trends asserted in “the spirit of Vatican II.”

I pray that these renewal movements will continue and that Christians will be humble enough to accept the wisdom of men and women over the centuries whose collective voice is wiser (and reflects the influence of the Holy Spirit) than anyone’s individual notions of what Christianity is. Only with humility toward God, toward Christ and His apostles, and toward Holy Tradition can one overcome the sinful pride that results in heresy.

Mixed Feelings about “The Exorcist Files”

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The Discovery Channel will be premiering a series, The Exorcist Files, which will consist of dramatizations of actual exorcisms conducted by the Roman Catholic Church as well as commentaries from both exorcists and theologians. Depending on how the program is presented, such a series can have both good and bad aspects. On the good side, the series may convince some people that a spiritual world exists. Open-minded agnostics may read further about the phenomenon of exorcism and come to believe in God, a necessary preamble to the Christian faith. This is probably the motivation the Vatican had in cooperating with the series producers. In a radically secular society, it is sometimes necessary to convince people that the world is more than a space time matter-energy framework.  Also, if the exorcists are shown to be successful, this will reveal the Roman Catholic Church’s ability through those in Holy Orders to expel demons in the name of Jesus Christ.  People curious about the ancient churches’ (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican) use of exorcism may be converted to those bodies–and others may find conservative Protestant groups more amenable. Another positive effect could be that people believe in the reality of evil and will take its threat more seriously.

Overall I believe that the positives outweigh the negatives, but there are negatives. Some people who watch the series may falsely believe that Satan‘s influence or demonic influence in temptation lessens one’s responsibility for sin. This is false; even if one source of temptation is demonic influence, an individual always has free will to resist the temptation and is responsible for the sin if he doesn’t resist. Another danger is that individuals will become so fascinated by demonology that they will make it an idol that dominates their lives and interferes with their relationship with God. Others may be so attracted to demonology that they are drawn into the darker aspects of the occult. However, these dangers pale in light of the massive secularization, first of Europe from the 1789 French Revolution onward, and the United States today, where regular church attendance has dropped into the high 30% range and where there is a growing movement toward agnosticism and toward outright atheism. If The Exorcist Files can do anything to reverse such secularization, then more power to it.

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