The Times story does a decent job summarizing the debate, in which the overarching question is posed by historian David Hollinger (interviewed by the Century last year): Did liberal Protestants of midcentury win the culture war but lose the church?
If Americans of a certain age know anything about Puritanism, it is probably because they read something by the (atheist) historian Edmund S. Morgan, the great Yale scholar who died July 8. His bookThe Puritan Dilemma—which used the life of John Winthrop to describe the Puritans’ religious and political project in America—was widely assigned in high schools and colleges.
I had the good fortune decades ago to take a graduate class from Morgan on American colonial history.
In the ancient city of Laodicea in western Turkey, site of the church reprimanded in the book of Revelation for being “neither cold nor hot,” our guide led us across the old agora to a pile of broken columns. One had a fascinating marking. A menorah had been scratched onto the stone, and next to it was inscribed a cross. What did this mean?
At a conference on theology and politics at Wheaton College earlier this month, a speaker described a world run by economic elites who pursue their own interests. These elites dominate both political parties in the United States, he noted.
In the question-and-answer period, a student at the evangelical college asked what then should be done, given such an oppressive system. The speaker advised the student not to put much hope in electoral politics.
In a recent editorial calling for same-sex marriage to be legal, the Century editors noted that if and when legalization happens at the national level, the First Amendment will protect religious groups that have their own position on the question. The government won’t, for example, be able to force a church or minister to perform a same-sex wedding against their will.
Yet as Mark Silk notes, a range of religious liberty questions will likely have to be addressed—and probably litigated.
Historians have argued for decades that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with the right to own a handgun nor even with the right to use a gun in self-defense. Nevertheless, a counternarrative—bolstered by the National Rifle Association—has triumphed in the popular mind and been codified to some extent in the Supreme Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which said that the Second Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm.”
Politicians in Washington invariably use the term “entitlements” to refer to programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. On the face of it, it’s a neutral term: citizens are entitled to certain benefits if they fit a certain category of need, hence the benefits might reasonably be called “entitlements.”
Yet the word carries ideological freight—an implication that people are lazy or self-indulgent to expect these things.
President Obama’s speech in Newtown on December 17 included this pivotal question: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” The president is bristling here at the way our political discourse reflexively leaps to claims about individual rights and freedoms.
Algebraic preaching—that’s Frederick Buechner’s term for preaching that may make sense on some abstract level but that depends on terms like “salvation,” “atonement,” “savior” and “died for your sins” that are likely to skim over people’s heads. Until the preacher connects such words to human experiences, to the “wretched and liberating moments” of life,” wrote Buechner,
The passage (Mark 12:41–44) about the poor widow who put “everything she had” in the temple treasury was among the lectionary readings a few weeks ago, and it’s a frequent text for stewardship sermons. The example of the widow’s generosity seems clear enough, and it’s part of the church’s standard repertoire about sacrificial giving.
But Fergus Kerr suggests that the story is about not generosity but exploitation.
Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, by Gerhard Lohfink. The attempt to distinguish the authentic words of Jesus from the inauthentic ones has the whiff of silliness, says Lohfink. The Gospel writers, drawing from numerous traditions about Jesus, put together a narrative interpretation of his life and ministry.
The presidential election revealed that the “God gap” in electoral politics remains as large as ever—and is much larger than the gender gap that was often touted during the campaign. Mark Silk summarizes it:
Those who said they attend worship weekly preferred Mitt Romney by 20 points, 59-39. Those who said they attend less frequently went for Obama by 25 points. That compares to a male preference for Romney of seven points and a female preference for Obama of 11.
How fervently one practices one’s religion is—apart from race—still the best predictor of how one votes.
Within the decided limits of a Hollywood blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln presents a nonheroic version of the 16th president. Though some iconic images are carefully polished—Lincoln as folksy storyteller and as lonely bearer of the ravages of war—the film focuses on Lincoln as wily politician, twisting arms and trading favors.
“The government that is closest to the people governs best.” That sentiment was expressed recently by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, and it’s long been a staple of conservative political philosophy and of candidates who want federal programs to be taken over by state and local governments. But liberals embrace it in their own way when they talk about “participatory democracy” and the need for people to be able to make decisions about the issues that directly affect them.
The question is: what does it mean for government to be “closer” to people?
A federal judge in Eastern Missouri has upheld the government mandate that insurance policies cover birth control. Judge Carol E. Jackson ruled that the mandate is not a violation of religious liberty. Religious freedom is “a shield, not a sword,” she said, and religious liberty claims cannot be used as a “means to force one’s religious practices upon others.” Her argument closely aligns with points that the Century made some months ago in an editorial and that I tried to make in a blog post.
A recent episode of PBS’s American Experience explored how the massive number of deaths in the Civil War sent the nation into shock. The catastrophe—750,000 dead—was equivalent to the U.S. suffering 7 million deaths today. Besides evoking this ghastly experience, Ric Burns’s film Death and the Civil War (reviewed here in the New York Times), which is based on Drew Gilpin’s book The Republic of Suffering, offers a fascinating perspective on current political debates over the size and scope of the federal government.