We have been following the case of Judge Ruth Neely, a Wyoming magistrate who lost her job for refusing to perform gay weddings because of her Christian convictions.  (She is a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.)  There was a similar case in North Carolina, in which Magistrate Gayle Myrick, a Baptist, was forced to resign for the same reason.  But a federal judge has ruled in her favor.

Bre Payton (a former student of mine!) wrote about the case in The Federalist in an article entitled Forced To Resign For Her Faith, This Magistrate Sued The State And Won.

Judge Myrick frequently performed weddings, but when gay marriage was legalized in North Carolina in 2014, she realized that she could not in good conscience, because of her faith, conduct court-house ceremonies for same-sex couples.

So she consulted with her colleagues and immediate supervisor and came up with a solution:  Weddings were held at certain regular times during the week.  She would alter her schedule so that she wouldn’t perform any weddings.

But not performing weddings at all, thereby not discriminating against anyone, was not good enough for her supervising judge.  So she was instructed to resign.  This happened just two months before she would have been eligible for retirement.

She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that her resignation was involuntary and that she was being discriminated against for her religious beliefs.  The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty took up the case.  Here is the outcome, according to Bre Payton (whose article goes into much more detail):

A federal judge, Michael Devine, ruled in Gayle’s favor. He found that the state of North Carolina broke the law when it rejected reasonable solutions to accommodate Gayle’s religious beliefs. He also found that Gayle’s subsequent resignation was not voluntary, as she was told she would face disciplinary action, civil penalties, or even criminal prosecution unless she agreed too perform same-sex marriages. She was awarded more than $300,000 from the state in lost pay, attorney’s fees, and her retirement benefits in an agreement finalized late last month.

That’s a very important point in religious liberty cases, as judicial precent makes clear:  Efforts must be made to accommodate religious beliefs, when possible.

In this instance, a simple schedule change would have prevented both the possibility of discrimination and the violation of religious liberty.

Such conflicts cannot always be resolved in a “win-win” fashion, but sometimes they can.  The court ruled that reasonable accommodations to religious belief should be pursued.

In Judge Neely’s case, the Wyoming Supreme Court censured her, but allowed her to keep her job as a municipal judge, though she will not be allowed to perform any weddings of any kind.

The indictment filed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller against 13 Russians and a Kremlin-connected organization shows that the Russian interference with the U.S. presidential election was no mere prank.  Its scale and tactics were such that it may well have contributed some votes to Donald Trump.  But even if it did, that by no means takes away the legitimacy of his election.

The Russian effort, according to the Mueller indictment, was a targeted, sophisticated attempt to prevent the election of Hillary Clinton and “establishment” Republicans.  In the primaries, this meant helping Bernie Sanders and helping Donald Trump by discrediting Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  In the general election, this meant helping Donald Trump.

This does not mean there was collusion with his campaign.  Trump had criticized American sanctions against Russia, which the Obama administration with the input of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had imposed because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.  So Russia had a motive for interfering on behalf of Trump.  He need not have known anything about it.

But the Russian investment in his campaign was considerable.  If the budget for the operation was $1,250,000 per month, as the indictment claims, that would come to $15,000,000 per year.  If the effort ran from 2014 to 2016, that would come to $45,000,000.

According to this breakdown of campaign funds, Trump raised $957.6 million for his election, including $543.4 million from the Republican party, $334.8 million from his own campaign, and $79.3 million from Super-PACS.

These figures do not include money spent by independent entities, such as the Russians, that did not give to the campaign as such.  While chicken feed compared to the total spending on the campaign (including Clinton’s much bigger purse of $1.4 billion), the Russian investment of $45,000,000 was nearly 58% as much as that of all of the Super-PACS.

Furthermore, according to the indictment, the Russians targeted the “purple states,” those with a closely-balanced mixture of Democrats and Republicans that could be tipped either way (the indictment mentioned specifically Florida, Virginia, and Colorado).

That the Russians concentrated their advertisements, rallies, and social media activity on those states that could actually swing the election demonstrates an actual intention to determine the election’s outcome.

Read this account of what the Russians did in Florida.  It concludes that “the operation in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, was in a class by itself.”  That includes organizing seemingly grass-roots “Florida Goes Trump” rallies.

The Florida Goes Trump rallies were held in more than 20 cities across the state on Aug. 20, 2016. News releases touting the event were rife with grammatical errors and used language ripped from a traditional Trump stump speech.

“We want to support our candidate and show the whole country that we must unite and make America great again!” read a posting about the rallies. “On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the start of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump!”

That slightly-non-idiomatic English characteristic of non-native speakers was also evident in the social media barrage.

“We want to support our candidate and show the whole country that we must unite and make America great again!” read a posting about the rallies. “On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the start of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump!”

Russian-linked Facebook group “Being Patriotic” sent messages to its followers as it was planning the rallies, stressing the importance of winning Florida.

“Florida is still a purple state and we need to appoint it red,” read the message, according to the indictment. “If we lose Florida, we lose America.”

These rallies included a stunt that would be picked up and repeated at other non-Russian sponsored Trump events:  having someone dress up like Hillary Clinton and putting her into a cage on a flat-bed truck, dramatizing the “Lock her up!” chant.

Also, the Russians used social media to put out false rumors to Florida voters:

Beyond the rallies, the Russian scheme also used its social media reach to falsely tie Clinton to voter fraud in South Florida, a region with a long history of voting abnormalities.

Russian-linked Twitter accounts on Nov. 2, well into the state’s early-voting period, blasted out a tweet saying voter fraud was occurring because “tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary voters are being reported in Broward County, Florida.”

Could such efforts flipped the always crucial battleground state of Florida with its 29 electoral votes into the Trump column?  Trump beat Clinton in Florida with a 1.2% margin, a difference of about 113,000 votes.  Could that many voters have changed their mind because of the rallies, advertising, social media commentary, and the false rumors put out by the Russians?

If campaign rallies, online advertising, and social media initiatives are not effective politically, why do the political parties and their candidates spend so much money on them?

Might the Russian operation, in such a close election, have tipped the balance in these battleground states to Trump?  Might the Russians have actually made Donald Trump our president?

First of all, this is highly unlikely.  Though Clinton won the popular vote, Trump won the Electoral College by a fairly large margin, 304-227.  In the 2000 election, the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore hinged on the outcome of Florida’s hanging chads.  But Florida was not critical to Trump, with his 77 electoral vote advantage. Of the purple states mentioned in the indictment, only Florida voted for Trump.  Virginia and Colorado voted for Clinton.  Trump won because he was able to turn Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states that had voted for the Democratic candidate for president since the 1990s.

More to the point, even if the Russians did influence the way some Americans cast their votes–in fact, even if they influenced enough voters to swing the election to Trump–that would not negate the legitimacy of Trump’s election.

We can never know the reasons why Americans chose to cast their vote for one candidate or the other.  Who influenced them, what arguments they found persuasive, what ads had an impact on their thinking–if any–is irrelevant, as long as the voter made a free decision at the ballot box.

The law states that foreign governments may not get materially involved in our elections.  Russian involvement was clearly not only a violation of American law, but a serious act of aggression against the United States of America, a sort of non-military invasion of our nation.

But unless the Mueller investigation can show that President Trump and his campaign knowingly conspired with the Russians–and there has been no evidence of that as far as anyone has shown–he has been duly elected to his office.


Illustration by Mike Licht, “Boris and Natasha Meet with Don Jr.” [after Rocky & Bulllwinkle Show] via Flickr, Creative Commons License

The main threat to religious liberty today is not the government.  Rather, it is the culture.  In the United States, the law is not likely to restrict your religious beliefs or practices.  Rather, the restrictions will come from the cultural pressure to conform.

So says David French in his essay This Is How Religious Liberty Really Dies.  He cites the recent news story about a teacher in a Catholic school in Miami who got married to her same-sex partner.  Whereupon she lost her job.  This put many of the school’s parents in an uproar, that the school would fire such a good teacher whom their children really liked.  Never mind that this is a Catholic school and that the Catholic church does not believe in gay marriage and considers homosexual behavior to be immoral.  Now the media is whipping up sympathy for the fired teacher and the school is enduring a public relations nightmare, as if the school is at fault for following its well-known beliefs.

If the parents are so outraged at the church’s teachings about sex, why did they send their kids to a church school?  Here French makes some observations that apply far beyond this particular case:

American churches and religious institutions are often laden with members who don’t truly share doctrinal beliefs. This is a particular problem in religious schools. They appreciate the good SAT scores, the safe environment, and the kind teachers. They love the service opportunities, the sense of community, and the small class sizes. They’re willing to tolerate chapel and Bible classes if it means a better childhood for their kids.

Until, that is, the going gets the least bit tough. Then, in spite of the fact that the school’s religious identity has been open and obvious from day one, they’ll claim to be shocked at the alleged intolerance.

French goes on:

There is a persistent belief among church-goers that a person should be able to get all the benefits of Christian community without any of the doctrines that make religion unpalatable to modern moral fashion. That’s in essence the mission statement of Mainline Protestantism.

And it simply doesn’t work. The Christian community and Christian service that people love are ultimately inseparable from the entirety of the Christian faith that spawned them. Carve out the doctrines that conflict with modern morals and you gut the faith. When you gut the faith, you ultimately gut the church.

French says that this phenomenon is occurring even within conservative churches.  Some liberal Christians flee the dying mainline churches for more satisfying orthodox congregations, but they still keep their liberal beliefs!  They then try to bring those beliefs–the very ones that killed their original church homes–into their new conservative congregations!

I don’t know that I’ve experienced that particular problem.  Have you?

At any rate, it is clear that culture, not government, as such, is the real threat to religious freedom (that is, the ability of religious people to follow the tenets of their religion freely, without being punished for it).  Similarly, in countries where Christians are being persecuted, the persecution is mostly coming from mobs and individual haters.  Persecution is not the official policy or law of India, Egypt, or Indonesia, despite the number of Christians who are being martyred in those countries.  (The exception is Communist countries–China, North Korea, Cuba–which do persecute religious people as a matter of law and policy.)

Not that American Christians are suffering on that scale, but we may have mobs of a different kind, trying to suppress what we believe and practice, and trying to punish us for our convictions.

The real danger for us is not that Christians will be harmed, but that Christians will give in.

Christians are part of the culture and feel the same cultural undertows.  The cultural threats to religious liberty comes not just from the outside, but from the inside, as church members–who are also card-carrying members of their culture–come to agree with the spirit of the age, as opposed to the Holy Spirit.


Illustration:  UK World War I poster (1915)  by Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Lithograph by David Allen & Sons Ld., Harrow, Middlesex [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

J. R. Arner, back in 1994, put together a daily devotional series for Lent that is now online called LenTree for George Herbert. It consists of a poem from George Herbert, arguably our greatest Christian lyric poet, for each day of Lent.

It starts here with the introductory poem “The Altar, ” followed by Herbert’s great poem of rebellion countered by God’s grace, “The Collar,” for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins.  Then comes Herbert’s poem Lent for Ash Wednesday.  After that, just keep hitting “next” for the next day’s devotional poem.

Here is a calendar for the whole series.  And if by chance you have already followed this LenTree in a previous year, there is also  a second series, using some of Herbert’s lesser known poems, entitled Church Ways:  The Face of Fire.

This is a project of a wonderful site devoted to Herbert, which also includes a Tenebrae service based on his long poem about Christ on the Cross, “The Sacrifice” (which, with other Herbert poems, is alluded to in the popular Lenten hymn “My Song Is Love Unknown“).

If you’d like some in depth commentary for each poem, may I modestly suggest one of my first books, recently back in print, Reformation Spirituality:  The Religion of George Herbert.

From George Herbert’s Lent:

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast

By starving sin and taking such repast

As may our faults control:

That ev’ry man may revel at his door,

Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,

And among those his soul.

Herbert, as he does so often, shows the internal meaning of external observances.  The point of Lenten fasts is not just to stop eating, but to “starve sin.”  And in Herbert’s characteristic paradoxes, he says that the best kind of fasting is eating!  We should take “repast” (that is, meals) that help control our faults; e.g., feeding on God’s Word; feeding on Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion.  In fact, he says, Lent should be a time of revelling–we would say, partying!–but of a special kind.

Everyone should “revel at his door.”  I’m pretty sure Herbert is alluding to Christ’s statement that “I am the door” (John 10:9).  But the picture Herbert gives, in one of his spatial metaphors, is revelling at the door (where the inside meets the outside) instead revelling in the parlor (inside the house).  He is saying here that our spiritual focus at Lent should not just be inside ourselves, but that we also should attend to those outside ourselves, that is, to our neighbors.

Thus, in Lent, we should be “banqueting the poor.”  But then, in one of Herbert’s typical surprising twists at the very last word of the poem, he internalizes, while affirming, even those external good works:  When you banquet the poor, remember that “among” the poor whom you do need to take care of, is your own soul.  

A Lenten exercise that consists in reading one Herbert poem a day will take hardly any time–the poems are very brief and simple, but they are rich with levels upon levels of meaning.  Poetry has been defined as “a trap for meditation.”  That is certainly true of Herbert, as each poem can become an occasion of meditating deeply on the conflict between your sin and God’s grace, the revelation of God’s Word, and the Gospel of Christ’s redeeming death and resurrection.

Join me in taking on the Herbert LenTree!

Photo:  The Imposition of Ashes at Bethany Lutheran Church by Melissa Pittenger – was sent to me personally, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53405983


Some of you may remember that in our predictions for 2018, I said that the “sexual counter-revolution”–that is, the reaction against the sexual mistreatment of women ignited by the #MeToo movement–would continue and that it would manifest itself in an “anti-pornography backlash.”  This is starting to happen.

I blogged about Great Britain forcing free porn sites to require users to register and give their contact information so that their age could be checked and how this loss of anonymity would likely have an inhibiting effect.

Now columnist Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, no less, has written a column entitled Let’s Ban Porn.

He says that women who are rebelling against sexual predators are realizing that many of them are acting out the fantasies that they learned from pornography.  In fact, pornography has become the major source of sex education, so that young men are using pornography as the model for their own sexuality, to the repulsion of their partners.  This is having serious repercussions on the family, on dating, on the treatment of women, and our moral climate as a whole, even considered in its most secular forms.

Douthat says that, contrary to the common assumptions, it is certainly possible to ban pornography.  There is plenty of legal precedent for that, even considering free speech issues.  And it is certainly possible to restrict it.

He doesn’t mention the British experiment, which doesn’t actually ban anything, just sets up a process to keep children away from it, and, in so doing, brings to bear the salutary feeling of shame–as in, “I would be ashamed to admit that I use this site by giving my name.”  It isn’t clear to me whether the British regulation, to which the multi-national pornographers have agreed to follow, will affect just Great Britain or other parts of the world too, such as the United States.  (If anyone knows, please say so in the comments.)  But there is no reason that the United States and other countries couldn’t impose a similar requirement.

Here is a sample from Douthat’s column:

You see a kind of female revulsion, not against Harvey Weinstein-style apex predators, but against the very different sort of male personality that a pornographic education seems to produce: a breed at once entitled and resentful, angry and undermotivated, “woke” and caddish, shaped by unprecedented possibilities for sexual gratification and frustrated that real women are less available and more complicated than the version on their screen.

Such men would exist without industrial-scale porn, but porn selects for them, as it selects for a romantic landscape like our own: ever-more-liberated and ever-less-erotic, trending Japan-ward in its gulf between the sexes, with marriage and children and sex itself in shared decline.

So if you want better men by any standard, there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle — and to suspect that between virtual reality and creepy forms of customization, its influence is only likely to get worse.

But unlike many structural forces with which moralists of the left and right contend, porn is also just a product — something made and distributed and sold, and therefore subject to regulation and restriction if we so desire.

The belief that it should not be restricted is a mistake; the belief that it cannot be censored is a superstition. Law and jurisprudence changed once and can change again, and while you can find anything somewhere on the internet, making hard-core porn something to be quested after in dark corners would dramatically reduce its pedagogical role, its cultural normalcy, its power over libidos everywhere.

[Keep reading. . .]

 Photo by Jeramey Jannene from Milwaukee, WI, United States of America (Laptop Time) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My granddaughter invited a friend to church yesterday.  She was nine years old and she had never gone to a church before!

I give her a lot of credit.  She worked hard to follow along with the service, she read out loud the creed and the Lord’s Prayer, she tried to find the pages in the hymn book.  My granddaughter helped her find her place, and I tried to explain what was going on.  She seemed somewhat in awe.  I hope she’ll come back.

But she reminded me of what I have blogged about before:  The biggest demographic of the “unchurched” is not Millennials, college educated urbanites, or affluent suburban families–the usual targets of church growth programs.  Most of the unchurched belong to the white working class.

The Millennials are young adults.  Most of them have been churched.  Many of them are in that stage of life when they stop going to church, but a good number of them will, once they get married and have children.

Most college educated folks do go to church.  Cities are full of church-goers.  African Americans are among the most active church members of any demographic.  Immigrants, whether first or second generation, tend to be church goers.

Affluent suburbanites, like most middle class families, tend to go to church.

But, as Robert Putnam has shown, it’s the blue collar class that has stopped going to church.  Not all, but this is the demographic in which the bottom has fallen out in church attendance, in marriage rates, in children raised with both parents, and other social markers.  This is the group that is now the most plagued by opioid abuse and heroin addiction.  These are the Americans hardest hit by closing factories, automation, and poor job prospects.  They never went to college, the social elite looks down on them, and the middle class often finds them embarrassing.  (Read Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Culture and a Family in Crisis by J. D. Vance.)

But these are the “unchurched.” This is where you can find most of the “nones.”  What is the church doing to reach them?

The typical church growth programs and strategies are not directed at these folks at all.  It doesn’t work to try to make church “cool.”  These folks are not cool.  Pop music doesn’t attract them.  These folks listen to country music.  Making the church more like Starbucks or brewpubs or upscale shopping centers doesn’t speak to the working class, which can’t afford to frequent these places.  Churches that reinvent themselves along these lines will just make most of the unchurched even more uncomfortable and make them feel even more out of place.

Ironically, blue collar workers used to be the backbone of American Christianity.  Whether Catholics in the big cities or fundamentalists in the countryside, the white working class tended to be devout, culturally conservative, and solid church members.  No more.  What happened?  I’m not sure.  We need much more research into what happened with the American working class.  And churches need to stop ignoring them in favor of the more upwardly mobile demographics.

The problem is not that these “nones” have big intellectual objections to Christianity.  They didn’t go to college, so they didn’t get exposed to postmodernist professors or an anti-religious social climate.  Their lack of education often means that they often don’t know what Christianity teaches, though they often claim to be Christians anyway, and despite never going to church.  But you can often get them to go, if you ask them.  They don’t object to it.  They tend to be cynical.  They often feel unworthy of going to church because of their sexual immorality, drug and alcohol use, and other fault.  (Again, they often don’t realize what Christianity teaches about the forgiveness of sins, and that the church is for sinners.)

The white working class is a field ripe for harvest.  What is the church doing to harvest them?


Photo by Jo Guldi from chicago, usa (Rust Belt Tour: Flint, Michigan: Decay) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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