Sunday, December 31, 2006

President Ford and Rev. Ford

It was 1974 and I was graduating from Carolina and Mike Ford was graduating from Wake Forrest. We had talked about being roomates at Gordon-Conwell where we had both enrolled to go to seminary. He sent me a note in the summer saying it wasn't going to work out. Gordon-Conwell was the seminary that Billy Graham, a Charlottean had recommended, and his associate, my Charlotte neighbor Laden Ford, Billy's associate minister (no relation to the President) was my friend and encouraged me to go.

1974 was an interesting year. All of a sudden Gerald Ford became President, the only non-elected President we have ever had. Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace. I was once given a tour of the White House in 2003 and had a long chat with one of the pages or stewards there who had been there since the time of President Johnson. He had a huge booming voice and was a huge African American man. I asked him what were the hardest days he ever had in the White House. He said it was the day that Nixon resigned and flew off from the White House lawn. He said everyone wept and felt lost.

But the President had lied to us about Watergate, and then had to resign lest he be given his walking papers by Congress. And then a real Christian gentleman had his brief time of fame. It was Gerald Ford, and his son Mike was going off to seminary. No one had expected him to become President. And it changed not only his life, but mine as well, because suddenly Mike Ford was not going to be my roomate. In fact he was going to be followed around by Secret Servicemen all the time during his seminary education. He had decided to go ahead and marry his girl friend Gail, but what a life they were to have-- newly weds sleeping in a tiny apartment at GCTS with two hulking body guards sleeping in the next room and watching their every move. It could not be an easy way to begin a marriage. I was one of the librarians at the seminary library and I remember the day one of the secret service men came to the desk and forlornly asked me "Don't you have anything in this library but religious magazines and books? Not even Sports Illustrated?" I suddenly felt sorry for them, trapped at a seminary doing a thankless job.

And then Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. We all knew what that meant-- a pardon meant he had done something terribly wrong, like other pardoned criminals. Only Nixon was pardoned in advance of any trial. Gerald Ford was convinced it was the right thing to do, even though he took enormous heat for it. He thought it was the Christian thing to do. I remember hearing Mike talk about how hard that was. To pardon and forgive Nixon was not the hard part, and his Dad was sure it was the best way to help the country get beyond 'our long national nightmare'. He was right, but that did not make it easy. And then he had to do something else hard as well-- get the troops out of Vietnam. He believed that was the right decision as well, prayed hard about it-- and again he was right. It won him no prizes. In fact it probably lost him the election in 1976. You see, Gerald Ford was a kind, gentle, quiet, unassuming Christian man from Michigan. And he got hammered for acting on his convictions in both of those cases. It didn't matter he was going to do it anyway.

I remember the day Mike and I graduated in may 1977. President Ford had not been re-elected, but instead of simply going into retirement, he kept a promise he made to his son and others that when his son Mike graduated he would come give the graduation address to us at Gordon- Conwell. And so he did with two hilarious looking secret service men sitting with him in robes on the platform while he told us about what faith it took to be President, and especially to get through the hard times of his wife Betty's cancer which had led many of us to pray and pray. It was the only time I have met a President in person when I walked across the stage that day, and it was the last day I saw Mike Ford until this past week while watching the television presentation of President Ford's funeral. He has been a minister all these years like me, only serving different flocks. His blond hair had gone somewhat grey and thinned out, but he looked good. But he also looked sad and tired-- he loved his father a lot. During all those years of secret service men bird dogging him I never once heard Mike complain. He was like his Dad in that respect.

History will not like conclude that Gerald Ford was our best President ever, after all he served barely two years. But they were two crucial years and he made two crucial decisions-- the right decisions. I do often wish we had some real Christian statesmen like him to pick from in the next election. But ours is a different era where the political parties are much more polarized, and most of the interesting candidates running from either party, at least thus far, have very little experience in Washington, and even those who claim to be Christians, it doesn't much seem to affect their politics and behavior, only their rhetoric.

And so on this night I send out my best thoughts and prayers to Mike and his family, including his Mom. Gerald Ford deserved a better press, and a better historical assessment than he has thus far gotten. He was the very antithesis of Tricky Dick, who schemed and lied and got caught.

Shakespeare once said "some are born to greatness, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Gerald Ford was the latter sort of person, and the true measure of the man was shown when he was equal to the tasks and carried them out with dignity, honesty, and Christian character. May his tribe increase before 2008.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Self-Evident Truths: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

I remember the feeling very well. That deep anxiety or fear in the pit of my stomach. It happened when I went before the scholarship committee at Chapel Hill to win a full ride to Carolina. I thought I did o.k., but I didn't get the scholarship. I remember it again when I interviewed for a job at Wesley Theological Seminary. I was one of two finalists. The Dean called me and told me that I was the better candidate, had the better credentials, gave a better lecture, had a better publishing record, but somehow I couldn't scratch their affirmative action itch, so the other person got the job. I remember the day as well that I was laid off by Carolina Door after I had worked very hard for them. Seems the bosses' son had come home from partying through the summer and wanted a job. I got the axe. Life is often not fair, and when the moment of truth or decision comes, there is hardly anything worse than that feeling of helplessness knowing that in spite of how hard you have tried, you still could not control the outcome. This feeling of dread is perhaps only out striped by the equally horrible feeling of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Chris Gardner experiences all of this and more in the new movie "The Pursuit of Happyness".

Will Smith's new movie brings up all those sorts of feelings and so many more as well, as he tells the story of a man who made the mistake of taking all his life savings and investing them in a portable bone density scanners. Who knew this would be a step along the way to becoming a successful stick broker, after enduring poverty and desperation first? Along the way Chris Gardner loses his wife, his apartment, and nearly his sanity all the while holding on to his beautiful son (played very wonderfully by Will's very own son) for dear life. In fact this is a true story about one Chris Gardner who, while studying in the school of hard knocks, in fact got help along the way from Glide Memorial UMC.

Now I could tell you a lot about Glide Memorial. This is the church where J.C. McPheeters one of the great leaders of Methodism and one of the fine past Presidents of Asbury Seminary, was once a dynamic Evangelical pastor. This is also the church where Dr. Ed Robb gave his life to Christ and became an evangelist who was to found the John Wesley Fellowship and the Fund for Theological Education funding the doctoral work of Evangelical U.M.s like myself Today this church is one of the most liberal in the entire UM Church-- liberal in both the good and the not so good sense. They have an ongoing mission to street people, giving them shelter, food, clothing on a day by day basis. I have seen the lines lining up outside this church. Chris Gardner once stood in those lines on a daily basis with his son. And they took him in when he had nowhere else to go and sleep with his child. As John Wesley used to say, there is no spiritual Gospel without the social Gospel, but one could add, there is no social Gospel without the spiritual Gospel either.

In the middle of the movie Chris waxes philosophical. He talks about what Mr. Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence. You know the bit about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He figures that Jefferson was wise to talk about the pursuit of happiness, rather than having a right to happiness itself. Happiness is elusive, and in this movie it is not found in material success but rather in the moments of joy shared between Chris and his son Christopher, even though Chris goes on to be a millionaire broker between 1981 and 2006. It is as if that is the happy ending to the movie, the final validation of Chris Gardner and his sacrifices and hard work. But in fact, that is not the pay off of this movie. The payoff comes in the unrelenting love affair between a father and his son which is reciprocated. The performance of both Will Smith and his son is exceptional in this movie and hopefully will get some awards attention.

This is not a high budget, CG driven movie. It is all shot in San Francisco and Oakland, and has that gritty and grain feeling of life on the streets at times. If it is true that the real character of a nation is shown by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens then America has some serious character defects. This movie does not sugar coat what it is like to be down on your luck in urban America.

I would recommend all Christians go watch this movie about determination and perseverance. It is a moving account. But it raises a deeper question. What is real happiness? What creates and sustains it? John Wesley used to say that if you pursue holiness you will find happiness but if you pursue happiness you are likely to find neither, especially if you associate happiness with material prosperity and success. He was right, but this movie is certainly worth seeing anyway.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Rocky Balboa-- A Christmas Movie to Grow Old To

It is hard to believe it has been thirty years that we have been being regaled with the saga of Rocky Balboa. Loosely based on figure and character of the real life boxer Rocky Marcioni, we have now had six installments of this story, with the last one being by far the best, with the possible exception of the first one. Somehow Sylvester Stallone has breathed new life into this tale and it is refreshing, to say the least after the debacle that was Rocky V. Fortunately enough that movie is over a decade and a half old and forgettable, so this new episode will in fact garner many new viewers for the series of films who do not know the legacy, both good and bad.

Christianity Today, on its website has an interesting interview with Stallone, now 60 and a professed Christian. Much of the interview is about how art imitates life, specifically Stallone's own life with its ups and downs. We see Rocky crossing himself before his last fight, we see him praying, we see his friend and fellow former fighter reciting a Bible verse about relying on the Spirit rather than his own might, but this movie is mostly about heart and human determination. But even though the Christianity is only a small element in the story, it rings true to the character of Rocky, who is indeed a stand up guy with an iron chin.

Unlike some of the earlier Rocky films, this one has some genuine pathos for those who know about the special relationship between Rocky and Adrian (remember "Yo Adrian"). Adrian unfortunately has died of cancer, and Rocky is haunted by her memory. He lives mostly in the past and he visits his former wife's grave regularly. They had one son, who is uncomfortable living in the shadow of his father the former boxing legend. Rocky now owns and operates a restaraunt named Adrian's (of course), where he hosts and tells stories and poses for pictures for those who want them. But there is a deep sadness in Rocky and a restlessness that goes beyond his loneliness and loss of his wife. He believes, even at sixty, that he could still fight. Now before you say--- No Way! Stallone is 60 and he did fight in this movie a real world champ, Antonio Tarver, and he took some serious punches. Tarver says he was told not to simply pull his punches, like this movie which pulls no punches.

America of course loves the story of an underdog made good, we were raised on fairy tales like "The Little Engine that Could" after all. But there is something really winsome and compelling about this episode of the story, which is not mainly about boxing (there is only one exhibition fight at the end of the movie). Its more about life and moving forward even when life knocks you down. In a sense it is a parable about what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4.8-- "we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed." That's Rocky in a nutshell-- he is resilient and indefatigible, and many of us who are over 50 can identify especially well with this installment of the series. Rocky will not go quietly into that good night-- and we are glad he doesn't. He does not age gracefully, he ages vigorously grabbing for all the gusto he can get.

There are various subplots to the story which I will not spoil for you, but I will tell you that this is one of the better movies released this Christmas, and while it may not get an academy awards (unlike the first Rocky movie which beat out some superb films for best picture of the year in 1976), it certainly is a fitting conclusion to a heartwarming story and at less than two hours there is no filler, all substance.

What's next for Stallone? Well apparently since he has new cinematic life he is working on a conclusion to the Rambo series-- Rambo rescues Christian missionaries in a third world country, believe it or not. In the mean time, suspend your disbelief and go see this movie. It will make you smile quite a bit, and maybe even cheer as many did in the theater I saw it in, in Lexington. "We are but a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor".

Merry Christmas Rocky, we hardly knew ye.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'The Project'---A Christmas Sermon worth Pondering

Craig Hill is a fine NT scholar at Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C. and a fine preacher as well. We have been good friends for many years through the John Wesley Fellowship program. This is the sermon he preached in the Woodlands UMC a week ago. I found it so rich that I asked his permission to republish it here.


The Project Craig C. Hill
(or "All I want for Christmas")
Texts: Isa. 55:1-5; John 13:1-8

Advent, at least as most of us experience it, is a season of consumption, when waists grow wider and wallets thinner. One of the most powerful biblical texts on subject of consumption is Isaiah 55:1-5:

Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in richness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live...

These words from Isaiah are profoundly revealing and, in what they reveal, deeply challenging. "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" Let me try to deal with the prophet's questions by asking one of my own.

Beyond mere survival, to what goal are we most directed? With what do we most concern ourselves during the course of our waking hours? Certainly, a variety of things require our attention: what we'll eat, what we'll wear, how we'll accomplish the tasks before us. These all concern us, but none of them dominates our lives in quite the way that something else does. That thing is so central that it has been called "The Project."

I started working on my project when I was quite small, smaller than I can consciously remember. That time that I bought my mother a present for no special occasion with my allowance, the times I mowed the lawn or did other jobs without being asked–little did I know that I was hard at work on my project. The criticisms and childhood taunts that stung, the disappointment at not being chosen a part of the group, little did I understand that the hurt I felt was that of a project threatening to fail.

People have variously described the project. It is called the quest for meaning, the desire for competence. the need for self-esteem and purpose. Behind it all is the question "Who am I?"--or, more particularly, "Do I matter?"

I remember well my first girlfriend, Beth, and the tremendous, euphoric rush of feeling I had in those first dating experiences. Suddenly, here was another person--a girl--who considered me to be somebody. What joy! With apologies to Robin, my wife, whom I love dearly, there is still nothing quite like holding hands with a girl or boyfriend for the first time. But, you might recognize that in its own way, that sort of first love, for all of its emotional intensity, can be rather self-centered and small. In many respects, I was preoccupied with myself, with the sense of worth that came via Beth to me.

Nevertheless, that was one of the high points in the history of my project. (You can see what a tawdry affair this whole thing has been!) You can readily think of some of your own. Your winning team in high school, being elected to some office, closing a great deal, dazzling the company with your new house. You might also recall some of the low points -- the memories that sting to this day with a razor of recrimination. Just when you thought you were getting somewhere, that had to happen.

It's the pervasiveness of the project that is so interesting. It lurks around every corner; it's in the very prejudices, intentions, and dreams that guide our lives. What impression will I give by my dress, my speech, my possessions, my job? Will the others in the office think that I'm a good employee; am I a good mother or father; was I "being myself" when I behaved that way last night? How am I doing?

We thrive on recognition and other signs of personal value, be they claps or plaques or Cadillacs, and woe be unto those who do not sufficiently recognize us! I am certain that the majority of the whispers, pains, tensions and divisions that occur within any church have at their most basic level this dynamic of hurt feelings and wounded pride. Just forget to thank the host or the piano player, and you've got a potential schism on your hands!

And pastors are no different: "They didn't say anything about my sermon. Am I doing all right? Maybe I should have gone into insurance after all?" To put it rather satirically, we all have a propensity for enjoying the company of those who share our best estimate of ourselves. Even those who consider that they have matured beyond such things do so only because of the success of their internalized project. We are strong to resist what the crowd considers worthy only if we have found some other worthiness we can count our own.

It would be an inaccurate to conclude that the project is wrong. It is not in itself wrong; it is an unavoidable, an essential, part of what it means to be human. But that is not to say that the enterprise is without its problems. Indeed, the quest for fulfillment, meaning and purpose is treacherous. Among the problems are these:

1. The first is obvious, really. If I am deriving my sense of worth through some particular possession, skill or attribute, what happens when that thing is lost or taken away? What do you say to the person who loses his or her career, fortune, or looks? Investing in a project is a risky business. What place is there for failure in such a system? It is because of the project that love unrequited can so quickly turn to hate.

2. The second problem is like the first. If I consider myself to be valuable because I am the best answer guy at the company, what happens when someone else comes along with better answers? Competition, jealousy, suspicion, gossip. Most of our projects stand on shaky ground, and we meet the threat of a rival by throwing up a quick and sudden, even desperate, defense and counter-attack. So much is at stake.

3. Self-centeredness. The whole thing requires continual maintenance and constant self-evaluation. "What are they thinking of me. How am I doing?" It is so often impossible to be aware of others because we are so absorbed in ourselves. Even without malice, a project pushes self-consciousness strongly in the direction of selfishness.

4. The need to be a success often promotes in us illusions of our own goodness. We need to justify ourselves (to use biblical language), and in order to do so we lie about the kindness of our intentions, the extent of our innocence, and the purity of our cause. Someone has called, "Reputation: character minus what you get caught at." It's easy to forget the things we didn't get caught at.

5. None of this answers the question of whether the value we're deriving from something is even valid. Someone might be happy knowing that he has carved out the biggest drug ring in metropolitan Houston. What foundation is there for determining real meaning from pseudo-meaning -- or is there really any such distinction? When its all said and done, is it just about how I feel?

6. Finally every strictly human project must, in a most vital respect, fail. I may be a somebody, I may stay a somebody all my life, but the end of all of my striving, like it or not, is going to be the grave. As Tony Campolo says,

"They always tell you that so and so was worth 5 million dollars when he died. I want to tell you something: When you die, you ain't worth nothing. They'll take you out and drop you in a hole in the ground and go back to the church and eat potato salad."

Ten thousand years from now, ten million years from now, who is going to be around that is going to know that you existed, much less care? The whole thing, human endeavor and history as well as personal accomplishment, is alone finally "noise and fury signifying nothing."

Or is it? We have said that the question of meaning and purpose, the need for fulfillment and success, is at the very heart of human existence. Every one of us in some way is asking, "Do I matter?" And this is a religious question. William James wrote, "Religion in its most abstract expression may be defined as the affirmation that all is not vanity." Religion is not cake; it is bread. It is the warp and woof of daily living.

Salvation, that commonly mentioned benefit of religion, is, at least by one definition, the place where there is ultimate meaning, purpose and significance to these lives of ours, despite failure, despite limitations, even despite death. It is both finding and being given that for which we strive all the days of our lives, the meaning and value of our own existence. Talk about a great Christmas present.

God’s acceptance is given freely, graciously. Within such a system there is room for failure, room for the one who comes in second, room even for death. So, we can get off that treadmill; the verdict on the project has already been rendered. Self is no longer on the line, so we can stop worrying about self and be set free to start worrying about others.

Think of the disciples. Throughout the Gospel tradition, they jockey with each other for position, each trying to gain a little more prominence than the others. Undoubtedly they anticipated an eventual payoff, imagining a time in the near future when they would rule with Jesus in Jerusalem.

One day it happened that Jesus and his disciples came indoors, tired, hot, and dusty. No servant was present to wash their feet. The disciples eyed each other. They must have thought, "Well, I’m certainly not going to wash their feet. I’d look like the lowest slave." What does the scripture say?

Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father...Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up...and took a towel... [John 13]

Jesus was the only one in that room who knew who he was, and thus the only one free to serve. The disciples could not take on the role of a servant, because they assumed that such work meant taking on the status of a servant, being diminished, losing the status they had carved out for themselves.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Whether or not we know God, the question that dominates our lives remains the same. At issue is where we look for the answer. The easiest thing to do, the thing that probably most of us do most of the time, is to follow the world's lead, to buy (often literally) into a system of values that says, if only you could own this, or look like this, or do this, then you'd be happy, then your life would have meaning.

But it is not real bread, it is not the stuff that satisfies. We are made for God, and only in God will we discover the meaning for which we long, and which is our birthright as God's children.

Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.


Great and gracious God, apart from knowing you, we cannot know ourselves. And yet we spend our energies, time, and money looking everywhere else first, so much do we desire meaning, so little do we know where to find it. God, let that change now. Let us find in you the answer to our strongest yearning, bread that satisfies our souls’ deepest hunger. And, teaching us who we are, set us free to be who you have called us to be, light and salt, servants to the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Family Movies--- Charlotte's Web and Happy Feet

There are of course a plethora of movies out at Christmas, and the one must see movie for Christians is surely "the Nativity", but if there is time and interest in more what shall one do?

Well for sure don't take the children to "Apocalypto" its way too gory and violent even for some adults. But seriously, there are some options. My personal first choice would be the screen version of the much beloved children's story "Charlotte's Web". With a fine cast which includes Dakota Fanning, Beau Bridges, Julia Roberts as the voice of Charlotte and Robert Redford as the voice of Ike the horse, and a plethora of other celebrity voices, this is certainly the pick of the litter, so to speak.

Doing a screen version of a beloved children's story is tricky, and there has been some complaint that this wasn't done completely in CG, but in my estimation it is much better as it is with real human actors involved. The story has much more of a feeling of reality this way.

The story of course centers on one bright and cute little pig, and in this regard the director has taken some hints from movies like "Babe" in regard to comic turns and what works. Dakota Fanning is clearly excellent with animals (remember "Because of Winn Dixie") and she is even better in this movie than in her previous ones.

The movie version of Charlotte's Web is interesting and heart warming for a lot of reason, and it is interesting to contrast it with "Happy Feet" in the way it portrays Christianity. In Charlotte's Web the vicar affirms that miracles do indeed happen (all the while handing out candy-- 'divinity' naturally) whereas in "Happy Feet" the voice of the elders (penguins) sounds like a censorious holiness fundamentalist who can't tolerate dancing and associates it with sin. Religion in that movie is associated with narrow mindedness, false beliefs, and prejudice which stands foresquare against fun and love and romance and dancing.

Charlotte's Web is in a sense an old timey movie, though when it was written it would never have been possible to make this movie in this way. We have an affirmation of all sorts of traditional values: 1) the wholesome life on a farm; 2) the innocent fun of going to a fair, entering your animal in a contest, enjoying the rides; 3) life in small town and rural Maine, where a curiosity like words in a spider web will draw a crowd, just like seeing the image of Jesus in a shape on a barn. But the heart of the movie is all about sacrifice, friendship and love and it is carefully told. The pathos of the book has not been bleached out or left out in the movie (so take a few kleenexes when you go). In this movie, traditional values seem a natural part of the landscape, but what about the message of "Happy Feet"?

As much as I enjoy CG, and sometimes the humor of Robin Williams, and of course the cuteness of penguins and puffins, this movie is a mess in terms of plot and story telling. It is one part morality play (we must find the aliens who are stealing the penguins' fish and runing the eco-system of Antarctica), one part March of the Penguins revisted, one part Eight Below revisited, one part Broadway Musical and Conga line revisited (only with soul and rock music instead), one part romance (which gets lost along the way).

This movie doesn't know what it wants to be or say, or at least cannot stick to the subject. Some of the scenes of the puffins and Mumbles the Penguin with the puffins as Hispanic macho men (and here Robin Williams shines) are pretty funny. And some of the message about "its o.k. to be different" is fine and not too heavy handed, at least at first. But even at under two hours this movie trudges along from rejection by the penguins, to time with the puffins, to trip through the blizzard, to being captured and taken to some aquarium in the U.S. and then back to Antarctica once more. While I am as pro ecology as anyone, this movie is a bit too preachy in the wrong way for children.

So, go see a movie about a spring pig that manages not to become ham and bacon at Christmas, rather than about preachy penguins who sing and dance better than humans in 'A Chorus Line' or "Tommy: the Rock Opera". Why not get caught up in Charlotte's web rather than led on a cold wild goose chase with dancin fools?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Slaughter of the Innocents-- Rwanda Revisited

Athanase Seromba is a Roman Catholic priest who for years served in Rwanda. This past week he was sentenced by an international war criminal court to fifteen years in prison. His crime? He ordered the bulldozing of his own church in western Rwanda in 1994 when 2,000 Tutsis sought sanctuary there during the mass killings of that period so poignantly depicted in "Hotel Rwanda". He was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and certainly received a light sentence.

This was the first time ever a Catholic priest had ever been tried before an international war tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania. But that is not all. Two other Catholic priests are awaiting charges there, while three nuns and various other clergy have already been convicted in various courts for playing roles in the death of some 800,000 people! That's right, I said 800,000. If that happened in the U.S. we would have a revolution just like the one in Rwanda.

My now you know the horrible story of how Hutu extremists began in April 1994 stirring up themajority Hutu population against the Tutsis. Their plan was to wipe out the moderate Hutus and all the Tutsis. Rwanda has been and is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, and as the article by Marc Lacey in the NY Times says (which is the basis for this blog) some of the worst violence and genocide took place within the churches like that of Athanase Seromba. It is also true that there were great acts of heroism by clergy and other Christians as well. But you can still go to Rwanda today and see the horrible legacy of that period with some churches abandoned or turned into memorials with the remains of the dead stacked up like cordwood against the pews.

The testimony about and against Father Seromba is chilling. He was the priest in a village called Nyange, and the Tutsis hid out in his sanctuary on April 12 1994. The Hutu militia (called the Interahamwe) and also some Rwandan soliders were repelled at first when they descended upon the church. At this point however the assailants secured the assistance of Father Seromba who pointed out the weaker parts of the church so it could be bulldozed, and later he encouraged the fighters to finish off those refugees calling them 'cockroaches'. After the slaughter Father Seromba fled from Rwanda changed his name to Anastasio Sumba Bura and worked as a parish priest near Florence Italy. He surrended however to the tribunal in February 2002, and only now has been tried and convicted. Testifying against him in Tanazania were some of the few actually survivors, fifteen of them.

Only a week before Rev. Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, had been released by the tribunal having served ten years for his role in the killings. He stood by and watched and allowed his own parishioners to be slaughtered.

As we reflect on this sobering news, I would simply ask us to consider two questions" 1) Who would Jesus have identified with in this situation-- the ministers or the slaughtered Tutsis?; 2) Who acted more like King Herod, or his aids in this genocide? I am afraid once again we have here stories where a person's ethnic loyalties were allowed to trump their Christian beliefs and principles. It is not an unusual story, however tragic. It reminds us what God has said "you shall have no other gods before me" by which is also meant no other loyalties higher than loyalty to Christ and his ethnically inclusive Gospel. It was Chaucer who said of priests-- "if gold rusts, what then will iron do?" If ministers set this kind of example, what can we expect of the laity. Think on these things.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

God Save "The Queen"

Docu-dramas don't usually become frontline movies, and true to form "The Queen" is only available in limited release in most places in America. It is a great pity for this is a wonderfully crafted tale centered around the crisis the monarchy faced due to it truculant and inadequate response to the death of Diana. The movie has an admirably clear focus on one slice of time in 1997 from just before until, at the very end of the movie several months after the death and funeral of Diana. Splicing together actual footage from the period with first rate acting, especially by Helen Mirren who should certainly be crowned queen of the Oscars for this performance, this movie tells a story and tells it well. It is a story about how time had almost passed the British monoarchy by, when it came to judging the importance of public opinion, especially in a quasi-democracy. The movie also proves to be an excellent civics lesson for those who don't understand that the United Kingdom is not the same sort of democracy as we are-- they don't even have a Constitution like ours. Indeed, one could say they are caught between their rich past and the need for modernization, with Tony Blair being seen as a sensible voice for modernization yet one that has continued to have great respect for the monarchy and its traditions.

How then does one prod a queen into action? How does one make a queen see that times have changed and she needs to make a public response to Diana's tragic death? The inner workings of Downing Street and even more the inner life of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral are put on display here for all to see, and it is a very revealing tale indeed. The royals, living in isolation, being the guardians of ye olde monarchial tradition, think that public displays of emotion are gauche and inappropriate for a royal figure. They have been taught to be Stoic, and to let their own personal feelings be a private matter. They desire to live and grieve privately. They had not counted on a huge public outpouring of love and grief for Diana. Indeed, they had wanted only a private funeral with no cameras watching, as had the Spencers originally, Diana's family.

I must admit that neither had I. Diana died at almost exactly the same time as Mother Teresa, and I found it very odd that someone who devouted her whole life to charitable service could be eclipsed in the world imagination by a party girl who also did charitable work off and on for a few short years, all the while mimicking her unfaithful husband by being likewise unfaithful, finally precipitating divorce outright. Of course most public sentiment was with Diana. She was seen as one who was driven to bad behavior by the chilly reception she received within the royal circle. The Queen and the royal family, with the exception of Charles, are portrayed
as having been mightily annoyed by Diana's bad behavior and not surprisingly rather aloof when it came to grieving.

Throughout this movie I caught myself wondering what the real Queen would think of this film if she saw it. It is clear that Helen Mirren embodies what we can observe from the outside of what the Queen is like, right down to her small mannerisms and of course her royal arrogance. She really believes in the divine right of monarchs. What I could have wished for in this movie is a little less about being on holiday in Balmoral (where deer stalking is the big attraction) and a little more about the Queen's own spiritual and ethical life and convictions. She is after all not merely the defender of the monarchy but the defender of the faith. Charles in this movie is portrayed as someone who genuinely did love Diana, appreciated her love for and devotion to her children, but still has a hard time standing up to his mother when it comes to things like flying on a royal plane to be at the hospital where Diana died in Paris. His character is underdeveloped in this movie and it is a pity.

The core of the movie focuses on the relationship between Tony Blair, who has to serve as the gentle but persistent catalyst, and the Queen herself. All the other figures in the movie are peripheral to this central focus, and this allows for great clarity. What will the Queen finally decide? Will she indeed allow the flag to fly at half-mast over Buckingham palace, which had not even happened when her father died? Would she come down to London from Balmoral and make a public statement? Would she meet the people who were putting thousands of bouquets of flowers at the doorstep of Buckingham palace? Most of all, would she change, a little and 'modernize'?

I will not spoil the movie for you, which is less than two hours in length. I will only say, you will never see a more convincing acting job than Helen Mirren does in this film, and she deserves every award she wins for this performance. This by itself makes the movie worth watching. But we also have here a cautionary tale that raises the deeper question--- What is the cost of modernization on our cherished traditions, including our religious ones? Of course I could mention Christians and churches who are praying fervently that next year will be 1954 all over again, but it is so not happening. Culture and civilization is a living thing that is always in the process of change. So in this movie we are not only asked to ponder whether we want to say "God save the Queen", but whether indeed God at times must save the Queen from herself and her traditional instincts.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Timber!--- More Christmas trees felled

Looking fir and wide, since I know you are all 'pining' for more tree-mendous stories about the felling of Christmas traditions I have come up with a bonus.

My Canadian friend and fellow teacher and minister Ross Bailey sent me the article below which sort of gathers up some of the evidence as it has appeared in the Toronto Star. All I can say is-- they don't make Christmas like they used to. When we start having to write a law declaring that a Christmas tree is in fact appropriately called a Christmas tree we are all in deep trouble. Or better said we have gone way out on a limb and are sawing it off behind us.

Tree should stand: Premier
Since there is no policy, each ministry makes its own Xmas decisions
Dec. 14, 2006. 05:51 PM

Premier Dalton McGuinty says it's "unfortunate" that a Toronto judge banished a Christmas tree from the lobby of a downtown courthouse this week.

"I think it represents a misunderstanding of what we are working so hard to build here in Ontario," McGuinty said today, noting Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other faiths' celebrations are marked at Queen's Park.

"We enjoy the wonderful privilege of building a pluralistic, multicultural society," he said, adding no one should be "asked to abandon their traditions."

"What we're saying is let's share in those opportunities. Let's better understand those celebrations," he said.

Justice Marion Cohen who oversees administration for the Ontario Court of Justice at 311 Jarvis St., ordered a small artificial Christmas tree, decked out in lights and ornaments, moved to an administrative corridor on Monday. In a letter to staff, she said it is a Christian symbol that might alienate people of other creeds and cultures.

The premier said the judge's move "reflects a mistaken understanding of what we're trying to do here."

"It doesn't offend anyone when we celebrate Diwali at Queen's Park or celebrate Hannukah at Queen's Park," McGuinty said. "That's part and parcel of who we are."

A spokesperson for the attorney general's ministry said there's no ministry policy covering Christmas trees and that it's up to the discretion of each courthouse to decide how to handle the situation.

It's not the first Christmas tree to come under fire this season. Fourteen Christmas trees were removed from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport earlier this month after a rabbi threatened to sue for not displaying a menorah.

After a national outcry, the rabbi backed off and the Christmas trees were returned. The rabbi's lawyer said he wasn't asking for the trees to be removed, only the addition of a menorah.

Meanwhile, fierce public debate forced a Florida landlord yesterday to lift his ban on Christmas decorations that came with a threat of eviction for tenants who didn't comply. The landlord said he was merely trying to limit property damage and uphold lease provisions that prohibit tenants from attaching anything to the exterior of their units.

In 2002, Toronto bureaucrats were caught red-faced in the Christmas controversy when they sent out a news release dubbing the giant Christmas tree in Nathan Phillips Square a "holiday tree."

Then-mayor Mel Lastman, who is Jewish, ordered staff to restore the Christmas tree moniker and introduced a bylaw, that now prohibits the tree from being given any other name.

"It is - and forever will be - a Christmas tree," said city spokesperson Brad Ross today. Several Christmas trees from around the world are also on display in the city hall rotunda decorated according to local traditions.

"We celebrate the Christmas season. We celebrate Hanukka. We have a menorah on the square as well," Ross added.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Disruptive Grace

Shattering the smattering
Of calm I had created,
Grace, a gratuity
Disrupted my day.

Interrupting the ennui
I kept on feeling
An alien intruder
Stepped in my way.

Pacifying the pestering
Voice which kept nagging
I sought out a sanctuary
Any port in a storm.

Reluctantly resigned
To divine solicitation
The carols and bells
Beguiled me again.

Unbidden, unwanted
Joy overcame me
In spite of reluctance
Immersed once more.

Profoundly pregnant
Stuffed with the sacred
I wondered as I wandered
Out the back door

Who sent out the signal
That lured and allured me
Called me and caught me
On that cold day?

A Father frantically calling?
A Son prodigally prodding?
A Spirited homing device?
GPS grace?

Or was it the familiar
Plaintive lament
Of a newborn child
Who was Heaven sent?

Some calls must be answered
Some cries must be heard,
Some voices are insistent
Especially the Word's.


Dec 12 2006

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Grinch That Stole Christmas Trees

Just past the Homeland Insecurity Checkpoint there used to be a Christmas tree in Sea-Tac airport. Indeed there used to be several, fourteen to be exact. And since we have a rather conservative government at this juncture you might not expect the Grinch to be allowed on Federal Property. After all, they just put up the White House Christmas Tree. But nonetheless its all over the news today that Sea-Tac airport has taken down all its Christmas trees and decorations for fear of offending one Grinch or another. When the trees came down this past week it gave new meaning to the word over the door of the building--- Terminal! Seems Christmas in the public sphere has a terminal illness. Whereever it's displayed in a public space it leads to that virulent disease-- offendisimus grinchitis.

Now you might have expected in the Pacific-Northwest that trees would not be found offensive! After all, logging and Christmas trees are a major industry up there. And even if you take into account the pagan atmosphere of a good deal of that region, tree rituals have been a part of pagan religion forever. And what was that about Seattle being the most TOLERANT city in the U.S.? I guess they won't be listing that in the chamber of commerce's next brochure for that beautiful city.

Did it occur to anyone that Christmas trees are not a Biblical tradition but in fact a much later Christmas tradition? Did it occur to anyone that a vital part of our American tradition is the Judeo-Christian religious traditions which the vast majority of Americans subscribe to? What happened to democracy when it comes to holiday expressions in the public sphere? We could continue to enumerate questions like Christmas gifts one on top of another, but they all amount to asking --What's Wrong with This Picture? In fact you will find far more tolerance of the celebration of Christmas in some Moslem countries I frequent than in some places in America.

G.K. Chesterton once said that America was a nation with the soul of a church. Today it might be better to say that, in view of actions like the ones taken at Sea-Tac, we are acting more like an intolerant church with the soul of a pagan nation. And there is a world of difference. May the Christ child have mercy on us all, intolerant sinners.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Nativity-- The Birth of a Classic?

You know how it is when you really love a story. You want the adaptation on the screen to be right. I was holding my breath when I heard they were making the Lord of the Rings a few years ago and I was really holding my breath when I learned they were filming the nativity. This could be bad in so many ways-- think home movies of the birth of somebody else's first child. But in fact 'The Nativity' is not only not bad-- its actually pretty good.

I had some early clues, since my friend and fellow NT scholar Darrell Bock was consulted for this movie. I figured they would try hard to give it an authentic flavor. Well they did, and mostly to good effect. To be sure this movie is a bit melodramatic when it comes to the good vs. evil thing (Herod is of course the diabolical Lex Luthor of this movie), but if you look at a movie as a work of art rather than a documentary, then some poetic license has to be allowed. Think of the recurring Herod theme which frames the movie and intervenes from time to time as the dark backdrop to the light at the heart of the story which of course involves Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Think of this movie as like a Rembrandt painting where the extreme darkness around the edges highlights the light in the center of the frame.

The movie in the first place has only one actor or actress with a reasonably familiar name. Ms. Keisha Castle-Hughes who plays Mary has shown up before in a fine movie from down under (Whale-Rider). I was particularly pleased with her performance. She plays the young Mary who is both a person of faith and also quite naturally afraid of what has happened and is happening to her. But the young man who plays Joseph, Oscar Isaac does a fine job as well. It is good to see a good ensemble cast. In such a serious movie there is perhaps of course a bit of a need for some comic relief, and occasionally the wise men do their bit to produce some wry smiles in the audience. The gentleman who plays Herod is menacing and malevolent enough, but in fact the real Herod was himself a paranoid man who executed various of his own wives and offspring, so the portrayal here is believable, to the contrary of the recent scholarly attempts to rehaibilitate the man. He was a bad man, and there's no use in trying to say otherwise.

The movie is basically filmed in Italy and in Morocco (where Jesus of Nazareth was also filmed I believe-- or was it Tunisia?). There appear to have been a few scenes filmed at Nazareth village in Nazareth, a wonderful recreation village there, or at least there are scenes modeled on that village. In any case they got the scenes of daily life right. We see them grinding grain, stomping grapes, milking goats, making goat cheese, making olive paste and the like.

We have an issue as to what exactly was Joseph's trade. A teknis is a craftsman-- could be a stone mason, could be a carpenter. But wood was very scarce in ancient Israel, and so perhaps he did some of both. Homes were built of stone, and so were mangers-- which is a little gaff towards the end of the movie where we have a wooden manger. I was impressed with the scenes in the homes-- average families did indeed sleep together in one room (see Jesus' parable about the friend at midnight). I was also impressed with the Hebrew of Joseph-- he got the Kiddush prayer right, it even sounded right. It is clear that the director, Catherine Hardwicke cared about the details.

In regard to the CG (mainly of Jerusalem) this was something of a disappointment, as at points it did not look real, nor did the final scene of the pyramids look real either. But most of the effects including the light shining in the manger did not look hokey. The visual look of the film is about right. We get a sense of the arid regions around Galilee, and the rocky hill country of Judea, as well as the desert regions the Magi could have crossed if they came all the way from Persia. This brings me to the star-- or shall we say stars. This movie suggests the wise men followed a rare conjunction of three planets-- the conjunction climaxing when they reach Bethlehem. It is a possible theory, but of course Matthew says the star led them right to the manger. No stars or conjunctions of stars do that naturally. We may be meant to think it was an angel who led them to the locale, since the ancients believed the stars were beings, the heavenly host.

How then was Hardwicke to mesh the Matthean and Lukan very different story lines? Here she does a nice job of toggling back and forth, except at the point where we get both shepherds and wise men at the manger simultaneously in a nice little Christmas card tableau. This is not accurate. Mt. 2.1-2 tells us that "after Jesus was born in Bethlehem the Magi came to Herod in Jerusalem". We do not know how long after. And one more thing, Matthew says they were in a house when the Magi came to town, not in a cave (as is depicted in this movie). Now granted there were some houses built out front of some caves in Bethelehem, but 'oikos' means house which probably implies more than a cave. We could quibble as well about one of the wise men suddenly being as wise as the author of John 1-- he says "god has become flesh" when he sees Jesus.
This is a bit over the top.

One of the more interesting dimensions of this telling of the story is how once Mary hears from the angel that she is about to be pregnant, she goes to visit Elizabeth, and no one knows she is pregnant but Mary herself until she comes back several months later. Then we have the distraught parents, the non-plussed Joseph who has to be convinced by a dream to marry Mary and the rest. There are no major gaffs or omissions in the story line, only small missing bits like we do not have Mary's famous line 'I am the handmaiden of the Lord'. Joseph is portrayed as a good and gracious man who keeps trying to win Mary's heart, even though at first she is not happy about being betrothed by means of an arranged marriage to someone she hardly knows.

The soundtrack is interesting. It combines little snippets of Christmas carol phrases and vocals without words, with music much like what we heard in the Gospel of John film-- lutes and the like. It provides a nice undercurrent without becoming cheesy. Visually the film is fine and crisp, and it makes very clear the ordinariness and difficulties of life in that age in that world.

So what shall we say? It is a very difficult thing to tell the most familiar story in the world so well that most of those who know it are satisfied with the telling. But I for one was pleased, despite minor quibbles. Catherine Hardwicke obviously cared about getting the story right, and doing it in a way that did not offend the pious. Good for her. Where there was room for helpful embellishment or amplification, she used it, but it did not distort the pith of the story. Well done. We need more faithful movies like this one. The truth is, in a visually oriented generation of learners this may be the only Jesus, Mary and Joseph some people ever see. As such, at least it is a true to life portrait of 'How it All Began'. John Donne put it this way--- "'Twas much that man was made like God long before/ but that God should be made like man, much more."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Happy New Year!!

Christians are so weird. Jews of course celebrate Rosh Hashannah--- the Jewish New Year. Most Christians however hardly even notice the Christian New Year which happens to have just transpired. Instead, they prefer to celebrate the ancient Roman and modern secular New Year on the eve of January 1 (a month named after the two-faced Roman God Janus). This is on a par to celebrating the Chinese New Year when you are not Chinese. What a colossal bad witness we give when we celebrate the secular New Year but not the Christian one. Christians should keep their own calendar, not Caesar's whether the ancient or the modern Caesar.

Advent is the beginning of the Christian year. Today was the first Sunday in Advent. If we bothered to notice, there are a whole series of wonderful Christian New Year's celebrations we could undertake. On the first Sunday in Advent we are supposed to be focusing on the Second Coming, not the first. This tradition goes back many centuries and is encoded into the lectionary texts for today. Technically the first Sunday in Advent both ends the old year (by looking forward to Christ's return) and inaugurates the New One.

If we were going to make meaningful Christian New Year's resolutions they should have to do with praying for, preparing for, teaching about, expecting the return of Christ. We would be remembering that everytime we pray the Lord's Prayer 'thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven' we are in fact praying for the return of Christ, very similar to the marana tha prayer found in 1 Cor. 16-- (Aramaic for 'Come O Lord'). Or perhaps as the medieval church did we would resolve to help the poor in more meaningful ways in the coming Christian year (instead of resolving merely to stop stuffing our own faces so often, and lose some weight). If you thought it was weird that Charles Wesley wrote a hymn entitled 'Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending' for this particular Sunday which is about Christ's visible return, you have just revealed that you did not know what the subject matter of the First Sunday of Advent has always been ever since we have had a Christian calendar.

Of course Christians seem with regularity not to have been very good at figuring out the proper timing for things. Take for instance the Roman monk from the sixth century I like to call Denny the Dwarf (aka Dionysius Exiguus). He is the one who saddled us with the B.C./A.D. divide we currently have. The only problem was he miscalulated the date of Jesus' birth. He was off by about-4-6 years. So weird as it may sound, Jesus was born 4-6 B.C. depending on exactly when Herod the Great died. This much we know for sure--- Herod died before the turn of the era as reckoned by Dionysius. In fact he seems to have died by at least 2 B.C. This then pushes the birth of Jesus back a ways, probably to about 4 B.C. since the flight into Egypt took place well before the death of Herod, and of course the birth of Jesus transpired before either of these events.

It is time for Christians to take back time (not to be confused with turn back the clock-- I know too many churches fervently praying that next year will be 1954 all over again). By this I mean that time is God's gift to us, and we need to live in a Christian way in relationship to time. We need to keep the Christian calendar of celebrations, including Christmas and Easter of course, not the secular one. Last year's huge snafu of canceling Christmas Sunday services so we could spend more time with the physical family rather than with the family of faith/ body of Christ was a good example of how to capitulate to non-Christian thinking about time.

Taking back time, which can also be called 'redeeming the time' (see Ephes. 5.16-- it does not refer to buying back time but rather making the most of it for the Lord and a good witness to Him), means for example we prioritize our time properly. For example, we don't go be soccer moms and dads on a Sunday morning unless there is some very special reason to do so. We don't rearrange church events to suit the schedule of sports events. Even worse was the church in Indiana who put TVs in the back of the sanctuary so people could watch I.U. basketball during the church Vesper's service and Board meeting. Talking about revealing where our real priorities lie. The Lord and his day and his business deserves more respect than that.

My suggestion to us all is to live in the Christian moment for the entire year to come--- Advent leads to Christmas, which leads to Epiphany which leads to Lent which leads to Easter which leads to Pentecost which leads to Kingdomtide and then we start the cycle over again. The cycle begins with the story of Christ, moves on to the story of the church, and returns once more to the story of Christ's Comings on the first Sunday in Advent. We are on a pilgrimage with Jesus and then on our own until he returns. His story is the story we must recite and retell until it becomes our story. My suggestion is that whenever we are in danger of getting caught up in the non-Christian moment with its own urgencies that we say to ourselves 'all in God's good time'. God's good time and timing is what we should be living by.

There is of course a famous text from Ecclesiastes which became a famous song-- 'to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven'. Just so, and the time is now for us to set back our mental clocks to Christian time. Its Advent (from the Latin Adventus-- 'to come'). Are you looking forward to the coming of Christ, or just the coming of an overly commerical celebration we increasingly call X-mas. It is up to you as to whether you put Christ back in Christmas or not in your life.

The term Christmas of course originally meant the mass for Christ. Will we be celebrating in a way that is commensurate with the meaning of that birth?
Paul reminds us that 'at the exactly right time, God sent forth his Son' (Gal. 4).
A medieval hymn written near the time the Christian calendar was set says this---

"Though Christ in Bethlehem, a thousand times be born,
Unless he's born in you, your heart is still forlorn."

During this Christmas season let's redeem the time, and so bear witness to the fact that we know our Redeemer lives and is the Lord of all time. Amen

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Evangelical-Republican Alliance begins to Crumble

The following is an interesting article sent to me by my friend Mark Jackson. It is republished here with permission from Strategic Forecasting, Inc. at While I do not necessarily agree with everything said here it certainly brings up some points we need to consider. What it suggests is that there is a growing split in the Christian Coalition between Evangelicals with a concern for the social Gospel, and Evangelicals whose interests lie elsewhere. BW3

The Widening Gaps in the Evangelical-Republican Coalition
By Bart Mongoven

The Christian Coalition of America announced Nov. 28 that it has asked its president-elect, Joel Hunter, to resign. The news came a week after Hunter told the coalition's board that he wanted the organization to take on a new set of issues, particularly poverty, AIDS and the environment. The board reportedly said it did not think the group's grassroots membership was ready for such a shift, and that Hunter would not be given an opportunity to follow through on these plans.

The story behind Hunter's forced resignation reveals far more than a difference of opinion over the organization's future direction. Membership in the Christian Coalition has plunged from the millions to the thousands, four state chapters have bolted and its budget is a fraction of what it used to be. However, while the group no longer stands as the political vanguard of the conservative Christian movement, its internal disagreements do represent in a nutshell a major problem faced by the religious right and, by extension, by the Republican Party in the coming two years. At the center of the conflict is the recognition that the religious views of evangelical Christians and the politics of the American right are diverging after two decades of confluence.

In essence, the overlap between the libertarian Republican point of view and that of religious conservatives has dissolved during the past decade of Republican control of government. Historically, the religious conservatives and secular libertarians justified their advocacy of a small federal government for very different reasons. For secular libertarians, a small government was the central objective; for the religious conservatives, small government was an element of a strategy to reduce the power -- or at least slow the growth -- of institutions purveying secular values. The growth of government over the past 10 years has suggested to evangelicals that the strategy does not work. The Faith-Based Initiative, for instance, is seen as a small move in a positive direction, but one that also has done nothing to displace secular federal government activity.

What comes next will be guided by three variables: First, whether Christian leaders together find a new path forward that balances politics and faith; second, whether the GOP changes its policies and approaches to accommodate the evangelicals' new direction; and third, whether the Democrats find a way to accommodate at least some of the evangelicals' wishes.

Libertarianism: A Goal or a Tool

The alliance between the Republican Party and evangelical Christians developed over two decades -- and the Christian Coalition was the most important player in creating this alliance. The Christian Coalition championed the argument that secular forces were degrading the moral underpinning of the United States and that the federal government -- through, for example, large and expensive welfare programs -- was the largest single instigator of the growth of these secular forces.

The Christian Coalition -- and the evangelical right in general -- argued that in addition to strengthening powerful secular organizations, federal government institutions are inherently hostile to religion. Particularly in the earlier years of the coalition, the evangelical opposition to the federal judiciary was as focused on countering a liberal reading of the Establishment Clause as it was on Roe v. Wade. Throughout the Reagan presidency, evangelicals battled judicial prohibitions against any government endorsement of religion -- whether federal, state or local -- which had come to mean any expression of religion in a government context (school Christmas plays, creches at city halls, religious groups meeting in schools, etc.). Evangelicals became driven by the idea that the federal government was not merely secular, but after the Warren Court, it was aggressively secular or even anti-religious.

In addition, most conservative evangelicals also held that the traditional family should be the center of an individual's life, and saw a large active federal government as replacing traditional family roles in many ways. Evangelicals spoke out against welfare programs -- such as the WIC program that in early inceptions penalized unwed mothers for marrying -- as threatening to the traditional family structure.

In this context, an alliance with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party made perfect sense. Libertarian Republicans come in two major factions: ideological libertarians who are simply against large, active government, regulation and high taxes; and federalists who oppose a large federal government and see the most effective government as one that is closest to the people. Most members of the Christian Coalition fell into the latter group. They were not opposed to government helping people per se, but they wanted it to reflect local values, which in most of the South and Midwest were often quite different from the coasts. Further, the federalism approach to governance fit perfectly into the state-by-state approach to abortion that the Christian Coalition began to advance in the 1980s.

Libertarian Republicans were always uneasy with this alliance. Many libertarians see abortion, for instance, as part of that vast realm where government has no right to intrude. Others were opposed to abortion or ambivalent, but were upset by the evangelical drive against the Warren Court's position on the Establishment Clause. Finally, many libertarians saw Christian conservatives as desiring to inject religion into government wherever possible.

These are the hazards when one group's ideological ideal is another group's strategy.

The leaders of the two sides of this coalition, Newt Gingrich representing the libertarians and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, maintained the careful balance between the libertarian and evangelical approaches long enough to take power in 1995. With power came a sense of optimism on both the libertarian and the evangelical sides that the large, secular government would be reined in. In 2000, that sense was heightened when the last impediment -- a Democratic president -- was dislodged in favor of a pro-business, pro-federalism evangelical.

Problems with Power

The past six years have not offered as many bright spots as either side expected. Mostly, this is due to natural disappointment that more idealistic activists feel once in power (it is far more difficult to achieve ideals than it appears from outside of power). One example is a severe disenchantment with the Bush administration's ability to rein in government. From the libertarian perspective, the deficit is back, government is bigger and the programs that Republicans promised to abolish 10 years ago are still in place. Gingrich came to power talking about dismantling Cabinet departments; instead, Republicans have added one. Furthermore, libertarians increasingly argue that the Republican Party has been taken over by evangelicals, and they fret that the party no longer has a place for them.

For the evangelicals, the strategy has not worked as well as they had hoped either. Roe v. Wade still stands, the Establishment Clause is still read mostly as it was 20 years ago and secular federal government programs are growing. The victories that the evangelical right can account for have not satisfied the grassroots. In fact, three-quarters through George W. Bush's eight-year presidency, the only solid evangelical victories have been two Supreme Court appointments (one only modestly acceptable) and Bush's consistent opposition to federal funding of stem cell research. Not only do evangelicals have little to cheer for, but both victories relied on the president's support -- they have won nothing from Congress.

The sense among the evangelical grassroots is that the Republican Party has used them, but only paid lip service to their goals, aspirations and values. The scandal surrounding Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., hit at the same time as the release of a book by former White House aide David Kuo, who alleged that the nonreligious White House staff scoffed at the evangelicals, referring to them as "crazies" and treating them like a captive political group; on this last point akin to how Democrats treat African-American voters.

As the dispute at the leadership of the Christian Coalition shows, however, evangelicals are far less captive than many thought. A solid coalition within the evangelical movement appears to be moving toward a new political approach that adds poverty, environment and health care to the familiar Christian conservative issues of abortion, gay marriage and public decency.

The leadership of the evangelical movement is beginning to split on these issues. In addition to Hunter, influential evangelicals such as conservative Wheaton College President Duane Litfin and the more liberal Jim Wallis are increasingly pressing for a new issue set. At the core of this new political outlook is a growing sense that the libertarian battle is lost, but the Christian mission of helping the poor remains. Evangelicals argue that by shunning aggressively secular government involvement in issues relating to poverty and other things, libertarian approaches were preferable, but they now add that failing in the libertarian mission is not an excuse to stop helping the poor or working toward other Christian missions such as environmental stewardship.

The Republican Perspective

As evangelical support for the libertarian approach erodes, the ball is in the Republicans' court to determine whether to try to keep the evangelicals in the fold, or to hope the party can win enough religious conservatives by sticking with its current ideological approach that champions traditional values without changing course on issues such as environment or poverty policy.

The evangelicals' emerging interest in government poverty programs, for instance, represents an acceptance of what they see as the new reality. Evangelicals no longer view American culture as responsive to propositional truths and preaching. Instead, they see a culture that responds to attractive lifestyles and communities. As a result, successful evangelical churches are de-emphasizing sin and issues of personal responsibility, and emphasizing compassion, open-mindedness and values that open Christians to progressive ideals and solutions.

The Christian Coalition's decision to move away from these issues is indicative of the Republican Party's instinctive response to stay with the current approach. The Christian Coalition is a shadow of its former self for a reason, however. In addition to no longer seeing the libertarian approach as the best strategic path, evangelicals are starting to change their minds about some policy issues. Climate change has emerged as the clearest symbol of this changing position. Evangelical leaders, including Pat Robertson, have publicly said they were wrong on the issue of climate change and that they now believe human activity is changing the climate. If Republicans want to hold the evangelical block, they will have to adjust to these shifting positions. The question is whether the evangelical leaders and the Republican Party leadership find themselves on the same page, or whether the relationship between the evangelicals and the political system continues to evolve outside the bounds of one political party. If the evangelicals take the initiative and begin to follow voices like Hunter's, the GOP will be hard-pressed not to follow. The party faces two conflicting problems: Many moderates and libertarians are moving away from the party due to the perception that the religious right has too much power, and at the same time the evangelicals have found that the party has little to offer them.

Before evangelicals give up on the Republican Party, they would have to conclude that the GOP has not delivered on abortion (which will remain a key issue no matter what) -- and that it will not deliver. Democrats are not as unsympathetic on the issue as they once were. For example, in the last congressional elections, Democrats offered anti-abortion candidates such as Bob Casey -- whose father was denied a chance to speak at the Democratic Convention because of his anti-abortion stance 14 years ago. Previously, some in the religious right might have shunned such candidates just because a vote for Democratic candidates meant contributing to the creation of a Democratic Congress and dealing a blow to the federal anti-abortion campaign. However, if evangelicals no longer believe the Republicans are truly committed to evangelical goals, such larger national strategies will no longer influence local voting.

With these cross-currents in place, the Republicans will follow the evangelicals because the party has started down a path that is difficult to leave. Other than in the new "solid South," support for Republicans is eroding nationwide. The mountain states are increasingly being settled by wealthy retirees from the coasts, who bring with them more liberal, less-individualist political views. In shunning almost all pro-choice candidates, such as Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and then Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, R-R.I., the Republican Party has lost most of the Northeast and the West Coast. Without the evangelicals, the Republicans have no geographic base of support and a hold on few major ideological constituencies besides the pro-business libertarians. The evangelicals, therefore, hold the power to steer the party, and it appears that, despite the Christian Coalition's position, the evangelical community is headed toward the middle -- and on some particular issues, toward what used to be considered the left.