Let’s begin with some good news: a seventeen-year-old who was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at the age of eight and given a twenty percent chance of survival has been accepted at Harvard, where he will study medicine. Hanif Mouehla told People, “Watching the medical center as a whole, that was something I really wanted to emulate and caused me to want to [choose] medicine, specifically being a hematologist.”
His story caught my eye because of a Gallup survey released yesterday: Americans’ confidence in higher education has fallen to 36 percent, sharply lower than in 2015 (57 percent) and 2018 (48 percent). Confidence among Democrats has fallen by only 9 percent (68 to 59 percent), but it has fallen among Republicans by 37 percent (56 to 19 percent).
This report aligns with a larger trajectory in which historically low faith in US institutions continues. Partisan examples abound: only 15 percent of Democrats express confidence in the Supreme Court, contrasted with 43 percent of Republicans. However, only 8 percent of Republicans have confidence in the presidency, contrasted with 47 percent of Democrats.
Such disparities are not difficult to explain: higher education and the presidency are currently considered by conservatives to be bastions of liberalism, while the Supreme Court (especially after it overturned Roe v. Wade) is considered by liberals to be a bastion of conservatism.
Is America destined to become permanently the “Divided States of America”? As we face unprecedented threats from China, artificial intelligence, and climate and pandemic challenges, the question is truly urgent.
Hope for greater unity can be found in a place most people would not expect: organized religion.
“If you tell an inspiring story”
Tish Harrison Warren is an Anglican priest and brilliant opinion writer for the New York Times. In her latest column, she interviews Eboo Patel, an American Muslim and founder and president of Interfaith America, a Chicago-based nonprofit that seeks to promote cooperation across religious differences.
When she asked Patel what encourages him about the state of religious discourse in America, he responded: “Catholic sisters just keep on doing what Catholic sisters do, which is taking care of poor people. There are ten thousand migrants in Chicago that leadership recently welcomed into the city. But they had not adequately prepared for where those people would sleep. Well, guess who’s taking care of them? Largely Catholic Charities and other faith-based organizations.
“Our society relies on religious communities to take care of people, to do addiction counseling, to do job training, to do hunger and homeless work, to do refugee resettlement. We just don’t often tell the story of them doing that work. And I think that that’s a big problem.”
He added: “Few people truly recognize the role that religious communities play in America’s civic infrastructure—hospitals, social service agencies, our colleges, our K-through-12 schools.” How do we change this? Patel: “I’m a big believer in the stories that we tell. This is my understanding of religion, of pluralism, of social change: If you tell an inspiring story, people will want to move in that direction. If you only tell a terrible story about America, then people will think that terribleness is inevitable.”
Hanif Mouehla’s story is an example: whatever your confidence in American higher education, you may think more highly of Harvard after learning that the university accepted Mouehla and that he chose to go there.
UN advisor disparages evangelical religious freedom
However, there’s a part of the story Patel didn’t discuss: Americans’ ignorance of the good done by religion in America is not by coincidence or happenstance. He noted, “If you only tell a terrible story . . . people will think that terribleness is inevitable.” And some in centers of cultural influence are telling terrible stories about American religion to provoke just this outcome in society.
As I noted yesterday, many cultural leaders are convinced that biblical morality is outdated, irrelevant, and dangerous for society. For example, a key advisor for the United Nations claimed in a recent report that “discriminatory positions of prejudice,” such as evangelical beliefs on LGBTQ issues, are not protected by religious freedom rights. Why, then, would they want to promote any “good” its adherents accomplish? This would be like informing society that a KKK chapter built a local playground or a group of neo-Nazis donated to a homeless shelter.
I am not accusing our cultural opponents of intentional nefariousness: many don’t know what they don’t know. As the apostle Paul observed, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Many are genuinely convinced that they are serving the common good by ignoring the good done by religion and elevating the evils committed in its name.
What is the answer? Paul continued: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (v. 5). We are to continue serving others in Jesus’ name, whether they recognize such service or not. However, we can be strategic about being servants. The Apostle used every means at his disposal to reach the culture, from quoting the Hebrew Bible in synagogues and Greek philosophers in Athens to planting churches, writing letters, addressing crowds, and engaging individual leaders.
“When necessary, use words”
It is always too soon to give up on God. It is therefore too soon to give up on his ability to transform our post-Christian and even anti-Christian culture. So, let’s find a way today to be someone’s “servants for Jesus’ sake” today. Then let’s find ways to use our faith stories to “proclaim . . . not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Do the people who know you know that Jesus is your Lord? Will you explain that your acts of kindness and service are inspired by Jesus’ grace and empowered by his Spirit? Will you do good intentionally and publicly for God’s glory?
Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” He never made this statement, but here’s the larger problem with it: preaching the gospel always involves words. “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14).
The Irish poet Nick Laird noted, “Time is how you spend your love.”
How will you spend your love for your Lord and your neighbor today?