Religion and Presidents

My last blog, “Et tu Franklin Graham?” seems to have caused some head scratching among my faithful friends. Those of you who know me personally will also know where my sympathies lie in this election for President, but I was not trying to use the blog as a platform to campaign for one candidate or another. I was objecting to what I perceived to be politically motivated theological shifts by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and its leader, Franklin Graham. If the BGEA had said, “It’s OK to vote for a Mormon if you believe he is the best candidate, even though Mormonism is on our cult list,” I would be fine. But that’s not what they did.

This makes me ponder the religious expectations we Americans have for our Presidents. I can barely remember the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, but I do remember his time in office a little and certainly I remember the day he was assassinated. It is forgotten by folks now, but when JFK was running for President, many were afraid of him because he was a Roman Catholic. This was not motivated by a hatred of Catholics in general, but because some feared that he would be taking orders from the Roman Catholic Pope. In other words, America could be controlled by a foreign power, an Italian clergyman living in Europe.

Of course this seems preposterous now. Other barriers for a viable presidential candidacy have been crossed since then. Jimmy Carter was the first unapologetic, born-again Christian, allied with the neo-evangelicalism that came into being after World War II. Ronald Reagan was a divorced man, a moral barrier previously unbreached. Barack Obama was the first non-white President, although he did not share the heritage of most American blacks since he was not the descendant of American slaves. I think I will live to see the day when we have a woman as President, and probably a Latino President. Maybe that will be the same person, a Latina POTUS.

If Mitt Romney is elected, he would be the first Mormon President, and (in my opinion) the first President in a long time who was not a Christian. But many of the early Presidents were barely Christian, Thomas Jefferson being the most famous example. Jefferson was Christian in his outlook and heritage, but not really in his beliefs. It is difficult for me to see a person as Christian who denies the deity of Jesus Christ, which is at the core of Christian religious faith. William Howard Taft was a Unitarian who denied this doctrine, and would not qualify to be a Christian in my eyes. Jefferson, despite many suitcases of personal baggage (such as being a slave owner who had children by his slave mistresses) is generally considered one of the country’s greatest Presidents, rightly deserving a space on Mt. Rushmore. Taft, on the other hand, is remembered for being the weightiest President in personal size, not in the depth of his policies. Carter, perhaps the strongest Christian President of my generation (he continued to teach Sunday School while in office) was an ineffective President who only served one term in office.

So my friends, if you want to vote for Romney, you have my blessing. He will be informed by his Mormon faith, but he will not be taking orders from Salt Lake City. But don’t try to rewrite the tenets of Mormonism or of biblical Christianity to justify your vote.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Et Tu, Franklin Graham?

Something has been nagging at me for a couple of weeks now. After a visit to the North Carolina residence of Billy Graham by one of the presidential candidates, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association changed its web site to indicate that it no longer considered the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons) a “cult.” This has been chronicled in Christianity Today and Time Magazine. Billy Graham, now 93 years old, was quoted as telling this candidate, ““I will do all I can to help you,” seemingly giving Evangelicals the green light to vote for a Mormon.

I am not sure how much of this change to attribute to Billy Graham himself. It seems much more likely that this was orchestrated by his son, Franklin Graham, who has been less politically neutral than his father. But this seems to me to be a betrayal of what the BGEA stands for.

I am not trying tell anyone how to vote here. I am also not saying that Christians should reject a candidate because he is a Mormon, a Sikh, a Jew, or a Muslim. I have voted for Mormons and Jews before, although not for a Muslim (don’t remember having that opportunity). I do think we should vote for the best candidate in our estimation, and not because someone else has directed us to do so. So if Franklin Graham had come out and said, “I know we have the Mormon faith on our cult list, but I personally am voting for Candidate X,” I would have no problem.

Here is the problem: How did Mormonism change from being a cult to a “different kind of Christian” at this time? Was the BGEA wrong for 40 years? Has Mormonism changed to embrace orthodox, trinitarian Christianity? Or, is this an example of political opportunism? I think it is the later, and frankly, it reeks.

I know there are some LDS folks who read this blog, and I am not trying to bash your church here. I do think we are in the midst of a cultural shift when it comes to the Mormon Church in America. I don’t think this is so much the “mainstreaming” of the Mormon faith as it is a little bit of the Mormonization of America. We now have conservative folks who believe our Constitution is an inspired document (i.e., Scripture). We have an HBO show about a polygamous household (“Big Love”). We have folks telling us to stockpile groceries in the basement for the coming crisis. For a person like me who grew up in a heavily Mormon community, these are all familiar things that have a home in the Mormon faith.

Possible irony for the future: we might have a Mormon President whose arch-nemesis is the Majority Leader of the Senate and also a Mormon.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Giant Theology: God Works Through Prayer

There is a wrong way of thinking about prayer that has blossomed in the thinking and practice of many Christians, that “prayer works.” This leads to understanding prayer as some type of energy we can tap, even a power we can wield and control. Imagine if this were true, if it worked like this:

Every time we asked God for anything
and ended the prayer with “in Jesus name,”
we immediately received what we asked for.

How would we pray if this were true, if we really believed it?

  • God, fix my car, immediately and permenantly
  • God, make my bank account like jar of oil for Elijah’s widow, never to run dry
  • God, remove cancer from our world

If prayer worked like this, it would be little more than rubbing Aladdin’s lamp, using God like a powerful genie. There is no evidence that prayer works like this for anyone (I think we would know if it did), and this is not what the Bible teaches about prayer.

Here is the right way of thinking about prayer: not a power we tap but a privilege we exercise. It is not “prayer works,” but “God works through prayer.” The early church father, Marius Victorinus, pagan philosopher who became a Christian very late in life, wrote this:

Have mercy on me, Lord! O Christ, have mercy on me!
Have mercy on me, Lord,
For I have believed in you,
Have mercy on me, Lord,
Because of your mercy, I have come to know you!
Have mercy on me, Lord! Christ, have mercy on me!

Mercy is something that can never be demanded, it must always be given. In this, the concept of mercy expresses our relationship to God in prayer like no other! We ask for God’s favor and mercy in prayer. God is merciful to us. This is not a cause and effect situation. It is rooted in the very nature of God. God works through prayer to meet all our needs, in ways we don’t fully understand or appreciate (sometimes even in hindsight). God works through prayer. And that, my friends, is Giant Theology.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

BTW: Interesting blog today from Alan Fadling on prayer.

Killer Children

Some times I don’t think I belong in the Midwest. I am in Oklahoma on college business right now.  I was in the breakfast room of the hotel quietly eating my Raisin Bran about 6:15 this morning when the TV blared a local new story about a 12-year old girl shooting a home intruder, a sad scary story. This was troubling enough, but what shocked me was an older man who was by the TV. He turned around to address the small group eating and said, “Good for her! I wish all our children could learn how to shoot and defend themselves.” Several of the men in the room affirmed this with a hearty “Yeah-boy” and other expressions of support. The older gentleman looked at me for some sort of support, but I just looked down at my cereal. I felt a chill in my heart.

I would rather have this girl shoot the intruder than be killed by him, but I cannot celebrate anything about this. She will surely be traumatized by this incident. Imagine if she had killed him. I think it would have changed, maybe ruined her life. It is maybe overused terminology, but she is surely a victim here. The man’s hope that all twelve year old girls in his state is not even confirmed here, for the news story indicates that she was not trained, she had never shot a gun before. Would this man celebrate if this had been his granddaughter, and she suffered life-long mental depression?

I was sharing this with one of the men here, and he told me about a police officer in his church who had shot and killed a man years before who was attacking him. He was justified in this killing in every way you could think of, but he was without peace. It ruined his life. He eventually left the church, quit his job, and his marriage failed.

In our sin-filled world, violence and killing is inevitable I guess. But for those of us who follow the Prince of Peace, may we never be happy when a shooting takes place.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Giant Theology: Always Yes in Christ

I watched most of the presidential debate last night. I have not used this blog in political ways, so I will not comment on whom I thought won, but I was taken aback by the nastiness on display, two men who at one point looked like there might be a fist fight. Actually a little MMA between candidates might have been more entertaining and less depressing. 🙂 How have we gotten to this point? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it will get better any time soon. Maybe the next debate should be in an iron cage.

I was recently told of a college president who was visited by a “friend” of his college and told that if the college hired a certain person to be a faculty member, he would do everything he could to “destroy” that faculty member, that president, and that college. The man was hired, and the friend/enemy is making good on his threat. This man seems to me to be so filled with anger that maybe he should abandon the church and go into politics. Those things I cannot control I must destroy? Hardly a Christian sentiment.

The way I read the New Testament, the Christian faith is a positive faith. We sometimes forget this. We have every reason to be optimistic. Does our Father love us? Yes. Should we be afraid for tomorrow? No. Do we know how we should live? Yes. Should we fear death? No. Do our lives have meaning and purpose? Yes. Will God ever abandon us? No.

Paul, in a moment of depression (maybe what we would call “clinical depression” today) was very worried about his beloved brothers and sisters in the city of Corinth. In his second letter to this church group, he admitted to a time when he “despaired of life itself.” I don’t think Paul was a naturally optimistic or sunny person. It was his faith in Christ that gave him hope for the future, so much so that he could say everything is “Yes in Christ.” What a great idea! That’s Giant Theology, friends, all blessings from the Lord are Yes in Christ.

I found a statement on this published in the newsletter of the Lincoln Heights Christian Church in Phoenix a few years ago. I don’t know the author, but it goes like this:

When we are given our rewards, I would prefer:
To be found to have erred on the side of grace rather than judgment;
To have loved too much rather than too little;
To have forgiven the undeserving rather
      than refused forgiveness to one who deserved it;
To have fed a parasite rather than to have neglected one who was truly hungry;
To have been taken advantage of rather than to have taken undue advantage;
To have believed too much in my brothers [and sisters] rather than too little;
Having been on the side of too much trust than too much cynicism;
To have believed the best and been wrong,
     than to have believed the worst and been right.

Amen to that! Yes in Christ! Giant Theology.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Emergence Christianity: A Review of Phyllis Tickle’s New Book

If you have been following this blog, you will have read a couple of teasers about Phyllis Tickle’s new book, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Amazon.com currently ranks this book as #27 in sales among Christian books, so it is having an impact in the six weeks of its publication life.

What is this book like? Tickle has attempted to be an analyst of what she calls Emergence Christianity, so this book is neither polemic against or apology for (for the most part). Instead, Tickle positions Emergence Christianity within a pattern of world (at least Western) history that undergoes a major upheaval and transformation about every 500 years or so. These are “turnings” of history. The first was the rise of the church in the first century. The second was the combining of the church with the secular government that began with Constantine and continued for another 200-300 years. The third was the Great Schism of the 11th century, that parted Western (what Tickle calls “latinized”) Christianity with the Orthodoxy of the East over the filoque controversy. The fourth turning was the Protestant Reformation as championed by Martin Luther. Now we are at the fifth turning, the Great Emergence, which began in the 19th century and is now in full swing.

Out of each of these turnings came something new, but the old remained, too. For example, Protestant Christianity emerged from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, but the RC Church is still around. Tickle sees Emergent Christianity as coming from both the RC Church and the Protestant Church, although both of these remain. This is a historical, cultural, and sociological move within Christianity that is tied to larger shifts in culture: the rise of technological connectedness, economic globalization, the acceptance of the findings of science, the triumph of democracy, etc. To me, this Great Emergence is similar to what Francis Fukuyama called The End of History twenty years ago. This is not the place to describe the Great Emergence, but suffice it so say that living in 2012 is as far removed as living in 1950 as it was to live in Europe in 1500 (late medieval period)  as opposed to 1650 (after the Reformation, the Age of Discovery, and the dawn of the Age of Reason). If this is a turning of history (and I agree it is), it is not in slow motion.

Thus Tickle sees Emergence Christianity as a product of its age more than as a shift driven from within the church. Just as the religious landscape changed dramatically with each of these semi-millennial turnings, so it is today.

I would recommend this book if you want to know what is going on here. Don’t wait. Things are changing rapidly. I’m guessing that this book will seem dated in 12 months. For example,Tickle speaks of a major change in Emergence Christianity that took place in 2009. This means, effectively, that books about this subject that were written before 2009 are seriously out of date and describe a situation that no longer exists.

Let me give you some highlights. Tickle summarizes Emergence Christianity in seven points (pp. 164-66):

  1. Radically obeying the words and teachings of Christ.
  2. Insisting there is only one story in the Bible, not two.
  3. Being willingly susceptible to the power of story (as opposed to propositional truth).
  4. Viewing theology as an ongoing conversation that is a means rather than an end.
  5. Always opting for grace over morality.
  6. Believing orthopraxy (right actions) always trumps orthodoxy (right beliefs)
  7. Holding the church as part of the Kingdom of God and its citizens rather than an institution.

Tickle’s penultimate chapter is “Future Pressures,” where she walks through a number of challenges facing the Emergence movement(s). These include the catastrophic future for Protestant benevolent institutions, the power struggles within Emergence communities who want to claim there are no power struggles, the formative religious education for middle-schoolers in an adult-oriented community, and the most basic question of all: where is the locus of authority in this new type of Christianity?

So buy and read this book if you are interested in the Emergence version of the church and of the Christian faith. Tickle writes in a compact style that leaves you wanting more rather than skipping paragraphs to get to the chase. While I do not endorse all of her views, I recommend the book.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Giant Theology: If you believe a thing, live it!

Next week I will blogreview Phyllis Tickle’s new book Emergence Christianity. A Little Preview: this is a fascinating, well-written book backed with up-to-date analysis of the Emerging/Emergent church movement. I am even thinking about attending Tickle’s national conference in January. If you are interested, it is @ “Join Phyllis and Friends.”

Before I do a more full-blown review, though, I want to cherry-pick a piece of Giant Theology from the book, what Tickle calls an Emergence Christianity mantra,

If you believe a thing, live it!

I have just taught through the book of James, and there are certainly echoes here of James’s mantra, “Faith without works is dead.” But this is coming at the issue from the other end. James is saying you can evaluate your faith by how you live. A lively, true faith will have evidence. A dead, useless faith will have not impact on one’s life. This mantra from the Emergents is more direct: Quit messing around. This is serious. Live your faith. Good works start with faith.

I have always questioned the church’s strategy of teaching members what they must believe. It seems to me that doesn’t work very well anymore, and maybe it never did. I grew up with Catholic friends who had memorized large parts of their catechism (teaching) but did not believe it. I do think that church leaders teach what the Bible says and that people will incorporate that teaching into their belief systems on a personal level. This is true whether the teacher likes it or not. If the teacher is persuasive as a person and in his or her teachings, it is likely that persuasion will take place with his or her students = faith positions. But what good is faith that is not lived? If we say we believe that Jesus is Lord, that is more than a propositional statement or historical factoid. It should influence how we live. When we realize that Jesus, our acknowledged Lord, teaches that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven (i.e., freely), but we harbor grudges or resentment, we are not living what we say we believe.

If you believe a thing, live it! 

I like that, and that is Giant Theology.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College