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Taking the Longer View
Monday, May 4, 2009, 6:52 PM

Matthew 1 is often and rightly noted for its references to the genealogy and birth of Jesus. I also take comfort, however, in a thrice repeated detail in that chapter: ie, the reference to the three periods of 14 generations between the time of Abraham and David, from David to the Exile, and from the Exile to the birth of Jesus the Messiah.

Current events do not encourage me. The worldwide economic downturn is just a symptom of what I think is a declining state of affairs in matters moral. I see numerous factual pointers that contribute to this sense of decline I feel, not the least of which is the decay surrounding issues that touch upon individual and family morals. The widespread evidence of indifference to the simplest of moral truths as understood by the church and religious people everywhere is discernible to even the casual observer. Widely accepted and culturally debasing practices touching upon marriage and sexual behavior, the honoring of contracts, and the often brutal grasping of power, whether by gangs, CEOs or politicians, are typically unlamented, if not happily condoned with an indifference that is demoralizing.

Indeed, I am supported in my current melancholy over the world's state by remembering my theological assumptions regarding the Fall, the fact of the cosmic struggle in which we are engaged against the powers of darkness, and the predictions of Scripture that persecution is the lot of the faithful, in the midst of moral decline within the church and the world.

But, a despondent state should not forever hold the upper hand. First, hope is a virtue, and it has solid biblical warrants when properly grounded. Which reminds me of Matthew 1. Though there was a lot of evil, pain, and suffering between the times of Abraham and David, David and the Exile, and the Exile and the birth of Jesus, Matthew reminds us that it all happened according to plan. The three-fold references to the 14 intervening generations serve as a reminder that God was still in control, that His view of history is larger, and His ways wiser and indeed more merciful, than our short sighted plans–and despairings–would allow or comprehend.

The symmetry itself of the three periods of 14 generations would certainly have gone unnoticed by the individuals and families that suffered as a part of the divine purposes. But, the things into which angels longed to look did finally come to pass. So the counsel of Paul to the Galatians is pertinent: "Therefore, let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap, if we do not grow weary." ( 6 :9).

The promise that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28) may have its small fulfillments in this life, but the martyrs have a different view of it than most of us, and thus its true end is in the age to come. But that is not a counsel of despair, for it is precisely because of the future triumph of God through Christ that we should "be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing  that your  work in the Lord is not in vain." ( 1 Corinthians 15:58)

Jon Meacham’s Unseemly Cheerfulness
Monday, April 27, 2009, 1:40 PM

What bothers me the most about Jon Meacham's piece, "The Decline and Fall of Christian America," is the cheerfulness with which he apparently welcomes the decline of Christian self-identification in the United States. 

After reading and re-reading the article, I really have little to disagree with regarding Meacham's description of America's identity as a community grounded not in the promulgation of Christianity, or any other religion, but in a commitment to liberty, expressed both as individual freedom and free enterprise.  Meacham is encouraged by the fact that "while we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character . . . ."  He adds, " I think this is a good thing — good for our political culture . . . ." 

Without describing all the features of Meacham's article with which I agree, especially his reminders about the nature of a social contract and the dangers long evidenced historically by the corruption of religion with the use of secular power, I am concerned about his simplistic distinctions between personal morality and a just social order.  What I fear Meacham and many others fail to realize is that it is precisely the formation of personal virtues — humility, a love of the other, truthfulness, and a desire to subordinate one's own individual interests in favor of the greater good of others — that prepare us for citizenship.  And these virtues, though not necessarily so, are nonetheless largely the cultural heritage of our Christian religious experience.

A society in which freedom prospers is one in which the will to power is both personally and corporately limited.  Furthermore, as many have shown and George Washington argued in his farewell address, it is very difficult to separate morality from religion and consequently religion from politics.  Productive liberty requires the voluntary restraint of its exercise.  This is almost invariably a moral and religious decision on the part of the citizen.  The faith and worship that taught me not to steal or to lie also teach me not to embezzle or to cheat on a contract.  It is the discipline enjoined by Christianity and other religions that encourages the self-restraint that promotes the respect that leads to a community of tolerance and justice. 

Meacham  welcomes  the decline in a robust kind of religious fervor that commits itself to partisan political change.  What he should not celebrate, though he leaves unmentioned and unconsidered, is the inevitable result of a decline of Christian and any other type of formalized worship and religious identification– i.e., the decline of virtue which is the very ground and seedbed of freedom and indeed the very kind of nation, such as ours, in which freedom is prized.  Meacham is far too sanguine about what the decline of religion may mean in terms of the virtues that make a just society possible.