Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christianity

Dress Codes and the Naked Public Square

In some ways, the left’s overt hostility to religious liberty, as evidenced by the mob-shaming of defenders of basic and once-bipartisan religious freedom protections, is less dangerous than the erosions of liberty that fly under the radar. These usually take the form of advocating for freedom, though it’s an Orwellian game all the more disconcerting for its effectiveness, as evidenced by two recent stories–one on dress codes and the other on the unseen battles of the gay marriage debate.

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In some ways, the left’s overt hostility to religious liberty, as evidenced by the mob-shaming of defenders of basic and once-bipartisan religious freedom protections, is less dangerous than the erosions of liberty that fly under the radar. These usually take the form of advocating for freedom, though it’s an Orwellian game all the more disconcerting for its effectiveness, as evidenced by two recent stories–one on dress codes and the other on the unseen battles of the gay marriage debate.

Over at National Review, Katherine Timpf notes the latest in an ongoing story: the attempt to label school dress codes as part of “rape culture.” This particular incident has to do with a female student at Orangefield County High School in California who was sent home for wearing a shirt over knee-length leggings. But the issue isn’t new, and the branding of dress codes as “rape culture,” as strange as it may sound, is fairly mainstream in American liberalism today.

The idea is that it’s wrong to tell girls to dress in ways that would be less distracting to boys because teenage boys should just keep their eyes on the blackboard. (Teenage boys being famous for their studious self-control in the name of overthrowing an oppressive patriarchal order.) But of course, as Timpf writes, it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition: you can tell girls to dress appropriately while also telling boys to be respectful. (And, by the way, you should tell boys to be respectful.) Additionally, condemning dress codes as stigmatizing is one thing; blaming them for sexual violence is quite another.

And yet the left has made this leap. In 2013, a blog at the Center for American Progress’s ThinkProgress included the following paragraph:

When most Americans think about “rape culture,” they may think about the Steubenville boys’ defense arguing that an unconscious girl consented to her sexual assault because she “didn’t say no,” the school administrators who choose to protect their star athletes over those boys’ rape victims, or the bullying that led multiple victims of sexual assault to take their own lives. While those incidences of victim-blaming are certainly symptoms of a deeply-rooted rape culture in this country, they’re not the only examples of this dynamic at play. Rape culture is also evident in the attitudes that lead school administrators to treat young girls’ bodies as inherently “distracting” to the boys who simply can’t control themselves. That approach to gender roles simply encourages our youth to assume that sexual crimes must have something to do with women’s “suggestive” clothes or behavior, rather than teaching them that every individual is responsible for respecting others’ bodily autonomy.

Notice how the authors have to guide you gently away from reality. When you think of rape, the authors allow, you probably tend to think of rape. But have you considered thinking of things that are not rape, instead?

The more disquieting part of all this is this sentence: “Rape culture is also evident in the attitudes that lead school administrators to treat young girls’ bodies as inherently ‘distracting’ to the boys who simply can’t control themselves.”

And what attitudes recognize–sorry, just assume–that boys can be distracted by girls? Well, for one, religious belief. I attended Jewish schools that not only enforced dress codes but also educated boys and girls in separate classrooms. This is in part because, apparently unlike the Center for American Progress, my school administrators had met teenage boys. But it’s also because modesty in dress is part and parcel of a respectful religious atmosphere that recognizes and channels human nature instead of ignoring it.

But the truth is it doesn’t really matter as long as educational institutions can just go their own way. What the left is trying to do with the “rape culture” allegation is to drive those on the wrong end of the false accusation from polite society. Practicing observant Judaism is, according to the left, perpetuating “rape culture.”

The other troubling story is yesterday’s New York Times article on the fear that now governs the public actions of those opposed to same-sex marriage legalization. The left has come a long way from (correctly) pointing out that terrorism-related detainees at Gitmo deserve legal representation just like any other defendant:

Leading law firms are willing to represent tobacco companies accused of lying about their deadly products, factories that spew pollution, and corporations said to be complicit in torture and murder abroad. But standing up for traditional marriage has turned out to be too much for the elite bar. The arguments have been left to members of lower-profile firms.

In dozens of interviews, lawyers and law professors said the imbalance in legal firepower in the same-sex marriage cases resulted from a conviction among many lawyers that opposition to such unions is bigotry akin to racism. But there were economic calculations, too. Law firms that defend traditional marriage may lose clients and find themselves at a disadvantage in hiring new lawyers.

John Adams defended the British soldiers accused of massacring colonists. But now defending the position held by, among others, Barack Obama just a few years ago is untenable for a major law firm. Again, we’re not even talking necessarily about actually opposing gay marriage in principle. We’re talking about providing legal representation to those who hold that view.

There will be lawsuits stemming from the legalization of gay marriage because religious institutions will want to at least go on practicing their religion in private. But there’s no such thing, anymore. A church or a synagogue or a mosque will be ostracized just as will their legal representation. And traditional religions will be equated with the promotion or enabling of rape.

The future of the public square is bleak.

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Mob McCarthyism, Zaiavleniia, and the Corrosive Culture of Denunciation

Given the lazy, ignorant, and hostile reporting on Indiana’s religious-freedom law, we are left to wonder: Is there any conceivable situation in which the press would portray conservative Americans as anything other than the aggressor? Politico today reports “Conservatives go on the attack in religious freedom debate,” as if the story of the day –a story that should bring great shame to any culture capable of it–weren’t that a small-town Indiana pizza shop’s owners were harassed, threatened, and bullied until they closed for the crime of answering an asinine reporter’s hypothetical about catering a gay wedding. But at least the campaign of hate aimed at those the left considers thought criminals tells us something important about the role of law in the culture wars: minimal.

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Given the lazy, ignorant, and hostile reporting on Indiana’s religious-freedom law, we are left to wonder: Is there any conceivable situation in which the press would portray conservative Americans as anything other than the aggressor? Politico today reports “Conservatives go on the attack in religious freedom debate,” as if the story of the day –a story that should bring great shame to any culture capable of it–weren’t that a small-town Indiana pizza shop’s owners were harassed, threatened, and bullied until they closed for the crime of answering an asinine reporter’s hypothetical about catering a gay wedding. But at least the campaign of hate aimed at those the left considers thought criminals tells us something important about the role of law in the culture wars: minimal.

The campaign in favor of gay marriage has been remarkably successful, given how quickly opinions have changed. But what’s clear about the issue is that the pro-SSM side left points on the board: they should have been even more successful than they have been. That’s because winning hearts and minds is essential when trying to replace an existing set of social norms. Gay marriage was winning legislation but losing referendum after referendum, showing that while the momentum was on their side, they still had plenty of convincing to do.

That’s when liberal activists seem to have made a key choice: they decided to stop winning hearts and minds. The fact that they were winning on legislation paradoxically encouraged them to stop focusing on the rule of law as a tool in their campaign. That’s because they understood why they were winning on legislation: mob McCarthyism.

They also figured out that mob McCarthyism could be used not only on politicians who wanted the backing of business leaders and who were sensitive to being labeled a bigot. It could also be turned on their fellow private citizens. And so that’s what they did.

I would like to believe we can say we are seeing where this revolting campaign of violence-tinged demonization and hounding of heretics ends, but I fear what happened to Memories Pizza is only the beginning. In the Internet age, the zombified mob of malevolent lemmings has virtually no limits on its reach. Erick Erickson famously (and correctly) warned that “You will be made to care.” Indeed, and in 2015 you will be made to care by strangers living perhaps thousands of miles away from you. They will find you.

So why win hearts and minds when you can break a couple Christian eggs and get your omelet, all the while setting a public example pour encourager les autres? The answer, one would have hoped, is that it shouldn’t make leftists feel good to ruin people’s lives on a political whim. But apparently it does.

And it doesn’t have all that much to do with the law. It’s true that this latest bout of hysteria was touched off by Indiana passing a state version of a federal religious-protection law signed by Bill Clinton and once upon a time popular across party lines. But then reporters went looking for people to destroy because they might comply with the law, rather than focus exclusively on spooking politicians into going back on their word and throwing men and women of faith under the bus.

And it won’t stop at shutting down pizzerias because it has nothing to do with pizza. It’s about total conformity–or else. Nor will the mob long tolerate abstentions from mob action. In her book on ritual denunciation and mutual suspicion in the early Soviet Union, Inventing the Enemy, Wendy Goldman discusses the use of zaiavleniia, reports to officials on other citizens (emphasis added):

Charges made in zaiavleniia did not have to be substantiated by proof or evidence, and their authors were not even held responsible for their contents. Individual zaiavleniia might thus contain, along with party members’ supposed full revelations about themselves, a generous measure of rumor, gossip, slander, and lies about others. Moreover, whereas there were no penalties for writing a zaiavlenie without evidence, not writing one at all could invite serious consequences. Failure to report the arrest of a relative or to go on record with suspicions about a coworker who was subsequently arrested, for example, was grounds for expulsion from the Party. There was therefore a strong impetus to denounce others, if only to protect oneself against the charge of having failed to denounce them. Local party leaders, once able to exercise some discretion in their investigations, were now forced to investigate every zaiavlenie, no matter how nonsensical or malicious.

Just find someone to denounce. That’s the logical endpoint of the mob. It won’t be enough to simply do as they say. You must ensure others do so as well. Reeducate them.

This is not about passing laws approving of gay marriage or preventing the passage of laws which were uncontroversial a day ago, or an hour ago. In fact, once a degree of success before the law was reached, the law began working against The Cause. The mob thrives on enforcing standards that change on a dime and on a whim. This is emotion and instinct, not a rational program to achieve legislative balance. Rules, at this point, would only hurt The Cause.

And The Cause will change too, which is what makes some supporters of same-sex marriage nervous about a country suddenly ruled by mindless mass vengeance. Surely enough Americans understand the danger here, right?

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Get Off Your High Horse, Mr. Obama

Part of the problem with President Obama’s recent National Prayer Breakfast speech, as Michael Rubin has pointed out, is that it provides a simplistic and incomplete understanding of the Crusades. (You might also read this First Things review, “Inventing the Crusades,” by Thomas F. Madden.)

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Part of the problem with President Obama’s recent National Prayer Breakfast speech, as Michael Rubin has pointed out, is that it provides a simplistic and incomplete understanding of the Crusades. (You might also read this First Things review, “Inventing the Crusades,” by Thomas F. Madden.)

But the president’s remarks also demonstrate a simplistic and incomplete understanding of Christianity. By that I mean when Mr. Obama, in warning Christians not to get on their “high horse” when talking about the problems in Islam, said, “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

True enough–but it’s also true that slavery and segregation were overthrown by those who justified their actions in the name of Christ. And if the president insists on making comparisons between Christianity and Islam, then it needs to be said that while Christianity has struggled with religious intolerance in its past, it has almost everywhere made its inner peace with religious tolerance and pluralism. On the other hand, true religious freedom has been quite rare in Muslim-majority communities throughout history. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It doesn’t mean that most Muslims embrace the version of Islam being practiced by ISIS. And it certainly doesn’t mean that individual Muslims can’t assimilate themselves in America. Millions do, and they are wonderful contributors to our nation.

But it does mean that in the here and now, the problems we see are emanating not from within Christianity but from within Islam. Even Islamic leaders, like Egypt’s General Sisi, admit as much. Yet the president of the United States, alas, does not. He continues to act as if he’s an Islamic scholar, declaring what is and what is not “true” Islam. Mr. Obama is clearly no theologian, so it’s best he drop the pretense. His core argument–that Islamism has nothing at all to do with Islam–is utterly detached from reality. Let’s just say it’s not happenstance that the Islamic State is not called the Reformed Presbyterian State. “Allahu Akbar” isn’t Yiddish.

Then there’s the matter of timing. The president went to the National Prayer Breakfast to call attention to the long-ago sins of Christianity in the aftermath of a particularly savage and brutal killing by the Islamic State, in which they doused a Jordanian pilot in flammable liquid and put him in a cage before burning him to death. Beheadings, it appears, are passé for jihadists. Decapitation isn’t vivid enough for them. Yet Barack Obama, being Barack Obama, decided it’s his job to insist on moral equivalence–or, to be more precise, to insist on immoral equivalence.

I do believe that if President Obama and his administration weren’t so clueless in his understanding of Islamism–remember that the Ft. Hood massacre was referred to as “workplace violence” and jihadist attacks were examples of “man-caused disasters”–and if he wasn’t so reticent in his fight against it, Mr. Obama’s slip-shod detours into the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition might have been more tolerable. As it is, the president was clearly using his speech to the National Prayer Breakfast not only to justify his own imaginary world, but to try to put those who are speaking the truth about militant Islam on the defensive. If that’s what Mr. Obama was hoping to achieve–well, he achieved the opposite. For goodness’s sake, even NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is criticizing him. Memo to Barack Obama: When you’ve lost Andrea Mitchell, you’re losing the debate.

One final observation: President Obama likes to portray himself as a man who is unusually self-reflective and self-critical. The contrary is the case. As Ross Douthat points out, Mr. Obama is a partisan and a progressive who takes to “highlighting crimes that he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in (how much theological guilt does our liberal Protestant president really feel about the Inquisition?) and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).” That is to say, Obama is engaging in a dishonest and cynical game in which he relishes putting himself above his country or his professed faith and then likes to peddle that as humility.

A friend wrote me and said that if Mr. Obama wanted to have performed a real act of humility and self-criticism during his National Prayer Breakfast speech, he could have said something like this:

Lest we get on our high horse, let’s be more honest about where we have allowed ourselves to be misled in the name of religion. I myself worshipped for years in a church that distorted the Gospel of Christ in the name of a racialist message of hatred and intolerance towards my brothers and sisters of other races. It was not until I started campaigning for President that I realized just how misguided Reverent Wright was, and how far he had distorted religion to serve his political purposes.

That statement would have been far more honest, far more self-reflective, and far less cynical. Which may explain why there was no chance Mr. Obama would utter these words.

It’s long past time Mr. Obama get off his high horse. Vanity is difficult to take in anyone–but it’s especially difficult to take in a person of such staggering incompetence and intellectual shallowness.

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The Crusades Weren’t the Grievance Pundits Believe

By injecting moral equivalency into the National Prayer Breakfast by comparing the violence of the Crusades with that of the Islamic State (ISIS), President Obama sparked a storm of controversy. Obama is hardly the first president to step into the mine field of the Crusades, however. President George W. Bush sparked both outrage and considerable self-flagellating in the West when he spoke of a “crusade” against terror.

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By injecting moral equivalency into the National Prayer Breakfast by comparing the violence of the Crusades with that of the Islamic State (ISIS), President Obama sparked a storm of controversy. Obama is hardly the first president to step into the mine field of the Crusades, however. President George W. Bush sparked both outrage and considerable self-flagellating in the West when he spoke of a “crusade” against terror.

The irony of the obsession with either apologizing for or avoiding mention of the Crusades is as important as they were to Christians at the time and perhaps even to broader European history, contemporary Muslims considered them little more than minor irritation.

For the Crusaders, the goal was Jerusalem. But for contemporary Muslims, while Jerusalem might have had some religious significance, Palestine—and, indeed, the entire Arab world—was a backwater. Less than three decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Umayyad dynasty shifted the seat of the Islamic empire to Damascus, and then less than nine decades later, the center of gravity for the Islamic world shifted further east to Baghdad with the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty. The great empires of the Islamic world, however, were non-Arab: The Safavids in Iran, the Ottomans in Anatolia, and the Mughals in India. It may be on the older side, but J.J. Saunders’ History of Medieval Islam is still probably the best-written, detailed, and accessible sketch of the earlier history of the Islamic world out there.

Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade in 1095, and the Crusaders managed to conquer Jerusalem four years later. The Second Crusade a few decades later failed to win Damascus. In 1187, Salahuddin—an ethnic Kurd, not an Arab—regained Jerusalem, leading European Christians to launch the Third Crusade with the aim of winning back the Holy City.

Contemporary Islamic historians, however, largely ignored this Christian campaign for a very simple reason: looming on the horizon was a far greater threat. A young Mongol tribesman—Temüjin—had already begun uniting Mongol tribes and would soon take the name Genghis Khan. As word spread of the Mongol hordes, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing ahead of his horsemen started migrating westward, slowly encroaching on the various Islamic entities that had risen up as the Abbasid dynasty. And the Muslims at the time were to be concerned, given how the Mongolian hordes swept through and conquered Baghdad just a few decades later, shortly after the Seventh Crusade.

Now, perception today is more important than reality. The more the West self-flagellates with regard to the Crusades, the more Islamists feign grievance and claim victimization. The historical truth, however, is different. If any group of people should walk on egg shells, they live in Ulan Bator, not Washington, Paris, London, or Berlin. And even those people–as well as their victims–are so many centuries removed that either outrage or guilt would be nonsense.

Context matters in other ways as well. Even if the Crusades have assumed heightened importance in the Islamist narrative only in recent decades, Many histories of the Islamic world begin in the sixth century when Muhammad was born, or the seventh century when Muhammad began receiving revelations. Arbitrarily starting a narrative with the rise of Islam, however, limits context. This is why Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, wrote The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. He consciously wanted to provide rather than ignore Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian context to the region. Islam did not arise upon a blank slate. To begin the narrative of grievance with the First Crusade—and depicting that episode as an unprovoked Christian attack on Islam which started tit-for-tat violence which continues to the present—is artificial and arbitrary. The initial Islamic invasions of Egypt and North Africa were an attack on the Byzantine Empire and other Christian communities. In the centuries before the Crusades, there was constant raiding from Islamic communities into Europe and vice versa. Muslim armies invaded Spain, briefly took Sicily, and tried to take Malta.

So Obama might wring his hands at the violence of the Crusades and might draw comparisons to downplay the malign exegesis which enables the Islamic State to enslave and rape Yezidi girls, burn churches, or burn alive captives. But when it comes to grievances over the Crusades, he and others should remember: Offense over the Crusades is more a modern phenomenon than based in the reality of Islamic history.

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What Obama Should Have Said at the Prayer Breakfast

At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

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At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

There are legitimate comparisons to be made. Indeed, just as Southern slaveowners once cited the Bible to defend slavery, so now ISIS cites Islamic law to defend its own form of slavery. Just as the Spanish Inquisition once burned heretics at the stake, so now ISIS burns alive a Jordanian pilot. More broadly the religious zealotry, bloodthirstiness, and intolerance of ISIS is indeed reminiscent in many ways, as Obama noted, of the Crusades.

But then I read the actual text of his speech and saw that his message wasn’t: Christianity was once intolerant but it has now reformed itself and Islam should do likewise. That’s an important message similar to the one that Egypt’s President Sisi recently delivered when he called for a “religious revolution” within Islam.

Alas, that’s not what President Obama said. What he actually said was: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

He also said: “From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.”

Neither statement is true or helpful.

When we see ISIS beheading and burning hostages, and “selling, crucifying, burying children alive,” I’d say we have every right to get on our “high horse” about that–even if Christians in centuries past committed their share of atrocities. In fact we have an obligation to get on our “high horse”–to make clear that ISIS’s conduct violates every norm of civilized behavior and will not be tolerated. To shrug our shoulders and say “everybody does it” is untrue and immoral.

And it is no more likely to succeed as a rhetorical gambit than Obama’s previous forays into moral relativism, such as his 2009 Cairo speech (which I defended at the time), in which he equated Iranian “hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians” with the role the U.S. played in 1953 “in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Such comparisons do not win the U.S. any friends–they don’t make the Iranian mullahs (or even the Iranian people) think what a great guy Obama is for disowning the conduct of the Eisenhower administration, just as ISIS (or even the ordinary people of Syria and Iraq) won’t think he is a great guy for disowning the conduct of the Crusaders. They just think he’s weak, that he’s unwilling to stand up and defend the United States, that he can be taken advantage of.

As for Obama’s claim that ISIS’s actions “are betraying” Islam–a claim he has made in the past–that too is a dubious statement and a presumptuous one for a non-Muslim to make. More accurate would be to say that ISIS’s actions are a betrayal of what we want Islam to be–but just as Christianity could be interpreted in centuries past to justify slavery and burning at the stake, so too Islam can be interpreted today to justify beheading of hostages and the enslaving of children. It does no good to deny the fact–indeed it is hard to imagine us fighting and defeating these Islamist extremists if we don’t recognize that their conduct has some grounding in Muslim tradition and has some support in the Muslim world.

No, that doesn’t mean that most Muslims are jihadists; the vast majority are not. But we need to be honest enough to recognize that ISIS’s actions, however reprehensible, have some real appeal to a minority of the Muslim world (see, for example, this article about Tunisia, which is one of the most moderate and stable corners of the Middle East), and we won’t change that fact by denying it away.

Obama’s speech reveals the fuzzy thinking behind his strategy in what used to be called “the war on terror.” Little wonder that across the greater Middle East–in countries such as Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen–we are losing the struggle. If the president can’t even think clearly on these major issues, he certainly can’t act effectively.

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My Friend Steve Hayner

“I spent a couple of hours with Steve and Sharol Hayner today in Atlanta,” the senior pastor of a church I attended 15 years ago wrote me several weeks ago. “I thought about taking off my shoes since I was clearly on holy ground.”

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“I spent a couple of hours with Steve and Sharol Hayner today in Atlanta,” the senior pastor of a church I attended 15 years ago wrote me several weeks ago. “I thought about taking off my shoes since I was clearly on holy ground.”

Then, last Friday, I received a note from another friend, this one I first met in high school and with whom I attended college. “[My husband] and I just returned from being with the Hayners,” she wrote. “The whole time I felt as if I was standing on holy ground.”

So just what kind of couple would elicit this kind of response from others–spontaneous references from two people who have never met, who visited the Hayners at different times, both testifying that they had found themselves on holy ground?

If you knew Steve and Sharol Hayner, you’d understand.

Steve died on Saturday afternoon, at the age of 66, after having been stricken with pancreatic cancer last April. I first met Steve when he was associate pastor for University Ministries at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, which is where I worshipped while attending the University of Washington. Thus began one of the most significant and treasured relationships of my life.

To give you a sense of the effect Steve had on people, when he took over the ministry it consisted of 30 students; within five years, 900 students were attending the Tuesday night services. From there Steve, who received his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Hebrew and Semitic Studies, would eventually make his way to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where he served as president for 13 years, and president of Columbia Theological Seminary, where he served until shortly before his passing.

I can’t possibly do justice to his personal qualities in this post, though I will say two things. First, he was the greatest dispenser of grace of any person I have ever come across–and among the greatest blessings of my life is to have been the recipient of that grace. And second, Steve created a sense of loyalty and affection among his friends that has been ummatched in my life. His friends came from many different countries, ethnic backgrounds, races, ages, professions, political parties, and faiths and religious traditions. He had an amazing ability to listen well and to provide wise counsel when necessary, to connect to people and to make them feel valued. He placed enormous worth on relational integrity, which explains why his illness created such an outpouring of love for him. People wanted to give back to him just a measure of what they had received from him, and longed to give voice to their feelings for him. (His CaringBridge.org site includes reflections and updates by Steve and Sharol that has some 150,000 visits and literally thousands of comments from people sharing the ways Steve and Sharol have touched their lives over the decades. You would do yourself quite a favor by reading some of those posts.)

Which brings me to the final chapter in Steve’s life.

A man completely free of affectation, he spoke honestly and transparently about the effects of the disease–the “break through” pain and nausea, the times of discouragement, and the feelings of grief and loss surrounding his impending death. He kept us updated on the medical twists and turns and the efforts to manage the symptoms. But above all, he showed us how to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with remarkable dignity, courage, and faithfulness. I took to sharing some of Steve’s posts with people I thought might be touched by them, including one I sent to a friend who is an atheist. He wrote back saying, “It’s letters like this — the wisdom, the grace — that make me wish I weren’t an atheist.”

In a post written roughly seven weeks before he was to pass away, in speaking about the mixed signals about his health and going through times that are both encouraging and discouraging, Steve wrote this:

When our children were teenagers, and going through a stage where it seemed like every little thing took on immense proportions, I used to say to them, “So what do you think this is like in light of eternity?”  In other words, is this really worth the fuss? But I have realized that it’s not just kids who have a tough time with perspective. It’s all of us. We blow so many things out of proportion. Little things become huge issues. And even big things become issues that seem much bigger than they probably are. Whether it is a stressful circumstance, a difficult relationship, a confusing problem, or a shameful failure, there is so much in our lives that feels like it will overwhelm us.

But the fact of the matter is that “in light of eternity” most of what we face takes on a different proportion. Circumstances pass. Relationships can be healed. Even horrid failures are cut down to size by time and by God’s grace at work in our lives.

And then he added this:

Living with a life-threatening, terminal disease has a way of providing a different perspective. At least it can. Eternity is a little closer–a little more tangible. But I still feel confused from day to day about my situation. Am I really dying? How much longer can I expect to live? How do I stay encouraged when the evidence about my condition is mixed? What will the next stage of my disease be like? How do I live with consistency from day to day when my circumstances continue to vary?

What seems to be important now, as it has been throughout my illness, is that I keep my eyes on those things which remind me of eternity. There are loving relationships, for example, which call me back. And there is the centrality of joy, gratitude and service to be considered every day. All of these qualities keep my heart facing eternity rather than wallowing in inward confusion. It is the eternal focus that keeps me steady. Love embraces me. Joy uplifts me. Gratitude settles me. Service focuses me away from myself and back on the lives of others. When I lean into love, joy, gratitude and service, I worry less, because eternity surrounds me and God’s grace upholds me.

To live a life of integrity, faithfulness, and joy is one thing, and a very great thing; but to also walk to the finish line of this life demonstrating those qualities, even as your body is being ravaged by cancer, is even rarer and even greater. He and his amazing wife Sharol leaned into life and love right to the end of his earthly pilgrimage.

My visit to see Steve and Sharol for the last time was one of the more indelible moments of my life. We spoke about Steve’s life and our relationship, about things past and things present. Steve spoke about the “pre-eminence of love and grace.” The central character of God, he told me and the friend I was with, is love and grace, and the central mission of Christians is to extend His hand of grace to others.

Steve Hayner did that as well as anyone I have ever known, with as much joy as anyone I have ever known. He has now gone home to be with his Savior, where sickness and sorrow, pain and death are felt and feared no more.

But I will miss him so much.

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A Big Day for Craven Self-Censorship

One of the strangest reactions to today’s horrific terror attack in Paris has been the Western media’s collective freakout resulting in news organizations making a point of censoring their own work. I don’t mean having a policy of not showing certain images, although that’s part of the dispiriting response. But some news organizations seemed to have gone out of their way in order to demonstrate self-censorship. The result is major English-language media–organizations that are about as visible as it gets–trying to delete their own digital footprint.

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One of the strangest reactions to today’s horrific terror attack in Paris has been the Western media’s collective freakout resulting in news organizations making a point of censoring their own work. I don’t mean having a policy of not showing certain images, although that’s part of the dispiriting response. But some news organizations seemed to have gone out of their way in order to demonstrate self-censorship. The result is major English-language media–organizations that are about as visible as it gets–trying to delete their own digital footprint.

Now, I don’t subscribe to the notion that all visual media must show the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons that were at the center of Islamist terror today. I don’t really think freedom of the press means we should bully newspapers and magazines into publishing something. They should be permitted, of course, to offend: that’s press freedom. But they don’t have a responsibility to offend just because we want them to. That said, there was a bizarre trend today in which media organs seemed to go out of their way to show the world that they were censoring the very images that were rallying the West to France’s side, even (or especially) when no one would have noticed if they hadn’t.

The best examples of this are what the New York Daily News did, which mirrored what the UK Telegraph did. After twelve people were killed in the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices, with the murderers reportedly yelling that Muhammad had been “avenged” by the attack, the Telegraph posted a photo in which a copy of the paper appeared but blurred the “offensive” part of the cover. Why post the photo at all other than as some kind of preemptive and desperate capitulation?

The Daily News did the same, in an especially undignified manner. The paper ran a picture (still up as I write this, at this link) of Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier (known as Charb), who was killed in the attack. The photo shows Charb outside the wreckage of Charlie Hebdo’s offices after they were firebombed in 2011. Charb is holding up a copy of the paper, which the Daily News blurred. The symbolism of that particular picture, with the blurred cover, is perfectly on the nose.

Other preemptive self-censorship followed, usually after the discovery of just regular old self-censorship. In a roundup of censorship, Rosie Gray revealed that the Associated Press was removing photos from its library showing Charlie Hebdo covers that satirized Muhammad. The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney posted that despite this censorship, the AP was still selling its photo of “Piss Christ.” Soon after that, the AP took that photo down as well.

That latter move is actually somewhat insulting to Christians, though they don’t need me to register outrage on their behalf or presume to know how they should react. But it strikes me as creating the impression of a false equivalence: they don’t have to censor images like that because Christians won’t take up violence against them. Their censorship of images critical of Islam is to prevent the very real threat of Muslim violence in response to speech.

So taking down “Piss Christ” suggests one of two narratives, both false. One, that there is a threat of violence from Christians in some way equal to the threat of violence from Muslims. Two, that Christians desire censorship of images they find offensive. The former is less damaging because it’s patently ridiculous: there is no threat of Christian violence for blasphemy in the media. The latter is more damaging, potentially: it reverses what Christian objectors actually wanted today, which was, by and large, less censorship of all things instead of equal censorship across the board.

Christians are not campaigning for the end of free speech in the West, and yet the AP acts as though they are. That’s deeply dishonest, and completely misses the point when Christians complain of the double standard. That’s why I used the word “freakout” earlier to describe the media’s behavior. The Associated Press appears to have lost its collective mind.

One bright spot in all this darkness is the behavior of the French public. They are pouring into the street to proclaim they are “not afraid” and the pictures are compelling. At one rally, they projected the cover of Charlie Hebdo onto a monument in the center of the gathering. The media should look carefully at it: they might notice it’s not been blurred, and neither has the message they’re sending.

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Europe Is Losing Its Soul

Last week the Wall Street Journal carried a fascinating piece about the uses European countries are finding for all their empty churches. Naftali Bendavid’s account of how historic church buildings are being transformed into skate parks, boutiques, and even a Frankenstein-themed bar may sound like an obscure and marginal story, but it actually points to a far more significant phenomenon of European secularization. This loss of religious belief is being accompanied by—and is intrinsically linked to—a similar loss of belief in national identity and even the liberal values that were once a core part of what Europe stood for. And as Europe descends into the quagmire of a post-identity relativism, its actions on the world stage will become increasingly problematic.

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Last week the Wall Street Journal carried a fascinating piece about the uses European countries are finding for all their empty churches. Naftali Bendavid’s account of how historic church buildings are being transformed into skate parks, boutiques, and even a Frankenstein-themed bar may sound like an obscure and marginal story, but it actually points to a far more significant phenomenon of European secularization. This loss of religious belief is being accompanied by—and is intrinsically linked to—a similar loss of belief in national identity and even the liberal values that were once a core part of what Europe stood for. And as Europe descends into the quagmire of a post-identity relativism, its actions on the world stage will become increasingly problematic.

As the Wall Street Journal piece explains, the growing number of unused churches are the fallout of a collapse in the number if Europeans affiliating with Christianity. So for instance in Holland, where 1,600 Roman Catholic churches are expected to be out of use within a decade, as will be 700 protestant churches within four years, 42 percent of the population is unaffiliated with any religion. Of those who are Christian, just 30 percent regularly attend church. In Germany, where some 515 Catholic churches have closed in the past ten years, almost 25 percent of the population is unaffiliated, and just over 10 percent of Christians regularly attend church. In Scandinavian countries religion is even more peripheral. A 2008 Gallup poll found that for 83 percent of Swedes, religion does not occupy an important place in their lives. And in Denmark, where 200 churches have been deemed nonviable, only around 6 percent of Christians attend church regularly.

This lack of religious belief may well also be related to why Europeans are choosing to have so few children. According to the CIA world factbook EU countries have an average birth rate of just 1.55 children per woman, and in countries such as Italy, Germany, Greece, and Austria that goes down to about 1.42 births per woman. And these are figures which are undoubtedly inflated by the higher birth rate of immigrant groups; among native Europeans the numbers are still lower.

For Europeans, it seems the absence of belief extends beyond religion into the realms of other traditional identities. As Annika Hernroth-Rothstein explains in a recent piece for Israel Hayom, Europeans have been increasingly choosing against national identities in general. Rothstein writes of how in Europe in the wake of the Holocaust: “nation-states and national identity have been deemed the culprit and the key to the dark European history that brought on such unparalleled suffering. The old was replaced with the new; a cultural relativism where no tradition, belief or state should stake a claim on any moral high ground. All ideas and cultures became equally unimportant compared to the globalist, multicultural ideal.”

As Rothstein alludes, the loss of belief in national identity, like the loss of belief in religious truth, has gone hand in hand with a relativism that no longer allows Europeans to champion the superiority of their own liberal values. Natan Sharansky observed as much in a piece for Mosaic in which he argued that Europe is now in the process of becoming post-liberal. Indeed, Sharansky quipped that once at the entrance to Europe were inscribed the words of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Now instead are found the glib lyrics of John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no countries. . . . Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”

In this Europe where there is nothing worth believing in, nothing worth dying for—and perhaps nothing worth living for, given the birth rate—it is little wonder that Europeans now take the view on foreign policy that they do. Yes, that means Europeans favor soft power diplomacy and UN resolutions over military intervention, but they have also become utterly relativist when determining who to side with. It was this relativism that allowed the EU’s foreign office to welcome a Palestinian unity government with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas. Similarly, this same relativism has seen Europeans back Palestinian unilateral statehood efforts, with numerous European parliaments voting in favor and a French-led effort to compose a more moderate statehood bid at the Security Council. And when the Palestinians abandoned the watered-down French resolution for their own more hardline text, France and Luxembourg went ahead and backed it at the Security Council anyway.

As Europeans struggle to find uses for their empty churches, perhaps they should be left just as they are, as monuments and mausoleums for Europe’s declining civilization.

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Who Will Listen to Pope’s Call on Middle East Christians?

During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

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During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

The Pope’s comments no doubt went some considerable way toward adding moral clarity to this matter, while President Erdogan—in previous statements—has already been busily muddying the waters. So while on his flight back to Rome the Pope called for Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism and specifically linked the plight of the Middle East’s Christians to the rise of ISIS, Erdogan breathtakingly blamed the rise of ISIS on alleged Islamophobia in the West–a demonstrably absurd claim that was no doubt in part a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Christian suffering and to instead reframe the conversation around Muslim victimhood and the wickedness of the West.

For a sense of just how outlandish the Turkish president’s rhetoric on the subject has now become, in his speech just prior to the pope’s arrival Erdogan stated “Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die.” It is worth noting that Turkey’s own Christian population has diminished considerably. A century ago 20 percent of those living in what is now Turkey were Christian; today that figure stands at a pitiful 0.2 percent. The Greek Orthodox population has been whittled down to fewer than 3,000 while what remains of the Armenian Christian community lives in almost constant fear. Just a few years back Hrant Dink–editor of a leading Armenian newspaper—was murdered by Turkish nationalists.

An unrepentant Erdogan can blame an Islamophobic West for the rise of ISIS all he wants, but his country stands accused of allowing ISIS fighters to flow freely into Iraq and Syria where they have carried out the most unspeakable crimes of murder, rape, and torture against the Christian communities that they find in their path. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of how unacceptable they find the prospect of a Middle East free of its native Christianity. And yet, if no one is willing to intervene seriously in the region, then that is precisely what is going to happen.

Knowing this, one has to wonder why Christian leaders have so far failed to create a serious campaign to pressure Western governments to back serious intervention on humanitarian grounds. After all, in the 1990s the West—led by the United States—intervened in Bosnia to stop the massacre of the Muslim population of the Balkans and thus prevent a genocide on Europe’s doorstep that most of Western Europe appeared ready to sit back and let happen. Shouldn’t Christians now be demanding the same kind of meaningful intervention on their behalf?

Christian groups have in recent years campaigned for all kinds of people and causes all around the world. Perhaps it is in some way an expression of the Christian virtue of selflessness that churches have promoted other causes over the welfare of their own coreligionists in the Middle East. Yet it is particularly striking how the denominations at the liberal end of Protestantism have so enthusiastically taken up the campaign against Israel, while almost ignoring the plight of Christians in the same region. From the American Presbyterians and the British Methodists with their boycotts to the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, it’s the same story. And then there is the Church of England’s flagship St. James’s church in London which, as Melanie Phillips recounted in COMMENTARY earlier this year, previously marked the Christmas festivities with their “Bethlehem Unwrapped” campaign featuring a nine meter high replica of Israel’s security barrier.

This Christmas can we expect to see “ISIS Unwrapped” at St. James’s? Of course not, just more events about the Palestinians. If these denominations focused even half the energy they put into demonizing Israel into instead campaigning in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East then we might see this issue receiving the kind of public attention it deserves. It was of course the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, who insinuated that the West was to blame for provoking the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians. And so while it is encouraging that the Pope has decried what ISIS is doing to Christian communities, one wonders how many Christians in the West will actually be more sympathetic to Erdogan’s claim that the real culprit here is Western Islamophobia for having “made ISIS do it” in the first place.

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Christians and the Loss of Cultural Influence

In an interview with Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, the theologian N.T. Wright spoke about the importance of narrative in understanding Scripture and the ways of God.

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In an interview with Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, the theologian N.T. Wright spoke about the importance of narrative in understanding Scripture and the ways of God.

What Wright emphasizes is the eschatological message that God is doing something in history; that the Jewish and Christian faiths aren’t simply about moral laws, abstract concepts, and disconnected canonical books but are rather about a grand story starting in Genesis and moving forward, “a project going somewhere,” in Wright’s words.

The story has a beginning, soon followed by disaster, which is followed by God’s effort to transform and renew the world, to redeem it and to make things right and whole. (Obviously the Jewish and Christian faiths, while sharing a common origin, differ in how they eventually unfold.)

I was reflecting on this insight, this important reminder, on both a macro and a micro level. The macro level has to do with the situation of Christianity in America today, as the dominant culture moves further and further away from traditional Christian beliefs, particularly in the area of sexual ethics. This is causing tremendous fear, uncertainty, and anxiety among many people of faith. They are struggling with how to deal with this loss of cultural influence. Christians are not all that familiar with being a minority faith, at least not in America. Yet in some important respects, that is what’s occurring. The reaction among some is to push back even harder, to tighten their grip during what they perceive as a tipping point. For others, the reaction is to warn of the impending wrath of God. And for still others, the reaction is resignation and giving way to the temptation to withdraw.

On an individual level, think about when life is marked by shattering experiences: the death of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, a failing marriage, being estranged from your child, a besetting sin, the loss of a job, a life-altering accident. We all know these stories of grief and loss and sadness; we all eventually travel through one valley or another. That is the nature of life in this fallen world. The question is how we process these things, how we make sense of it all. Which brings me back to Tom Wright and the power of narrative.

In my experience, the people who see their lives as part of a great drama tend to be the most liberated of all. That doesn’t mean individual chapters aren’t difficult and painful and confounding. But if you believe that your story has an Author and direction, that there is purpose even in suffering and that brokenness in our lives is ultimately repaired, it allows us to live less out of fear and more out of trust. That is true of us as individuals, and it’s true of us as citizens.

“We used to be the home team,” one person of the Christian faith said to me. “Now we’re the away team.” The challenge facing Christians in America is to remain deeply engaged in public matters even as they hold more lightly to the things of this world; to rest in our faith without becoming passive because of it; to react to the loss of influence not with a clenched fist but with equanimity and calm confidence; and to show how a life of faith can transform lives in ways that are characterized by joy and grace. How all this plays out in individual cases isn’t always clear and certainly isn’t easy. Some circumstances are more challenging than others. But it is something worth aiming for.

Engaging the culture in a very different manner than Christians have–persuading others rather than stridently condemning them–may eventually lead to greater influence. But whether it does or not isn’t really what is most important. Being faithful is. And part of being faithful is knowing that God is present in our midst even now; that anxiety and hysteria are inappropriate for people who are children of the King, as a pastor friend of mine recently told me; and that hope casts out fear.

A story is only as good as its author. It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that we have a pretty good one. That, I think, it what N.T. Wright is saying.

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Ted Cruz, IDC, and the Politics of Solidarity

Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

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Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

My instinctive response was based on the fact that Jews really don’t love being the reason Christians are angry with each other. And that remains true. But the fact that the Jewish state was in the middle of this has revealed some common ground that usually flies under the radar, and deserves more attention.

First, there is the issue of Cruz telling the crowd, which was there to support the oppressed Christians of the Middle East, that Israel was their best friend. Over at the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway takes issue with Cruz’s focus on Israel and David Harsanyi defends it, noting that Israel is the one country in the region where Christians can live safely and practice their faith, and are therefore thriving.

I would only add to Harsanyi’s point that not only is Israel a safe destination for Christians, but Israel is currently actively involved in saving Christians in the region. It is simply a fact that for the oppressed Christians of ISIS strongholds like Syria, Israel is their ally–in practice, not only in theory. It’s not particularly well known, thanks to the tangled politics of Christian Arab groups being supported by Israel. But it’s quite clear now that since this controversy broached the subject, it must be pointed out that Cruz was not merely engaging in hyperbole.

Second, while this issue has become extremely divisive, there might be a silver lining in terms of common ground between Christians and Jews. I have no desire–and more importantly, nothing approaching the knowledge level–to get involved in the intramural theological disputes here. (Though it’s clear that many of those understandably defending their fellow Christians are quite plainly unfamiliar with IDC.)

But one reason Jews have been such steadfast allies to the beleaguered Christians is that they understand exactly what Syrian, Iraqi, and other Christians are going through. And they also understand the need for interfaith help. To Jews, the concept of hakarat hatov is important; the term represents the need to display proper gratitude. And so earlier in the week, the Jerusalem Post reported on the wealthy Canadian Jewish philanthropist who has been dubbed the “Jewish Schindler.” His name is Yank Barry, and he “last week surpassed his goal of helping 1,200 Middle Eastern refugees, Muslim, Christian and Yazidi, from war-torn and oppressive countries, helping them rebuild their lives in Bulgaria.”

He took the number 1,200 from the number of Jews Oskar Schindler saved during the Holocaust. Think of this as the Jewish version of “Lafayette, we are here!” Jews don’t forget those who helped them, of whatever faith. And we have been commanded “you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Don’t forget where you come from or what you’ve been through, in other words.

And there is also something encouraging in the way Christians (on the right, anyway) have responded in fellowship and solidarity with their oppressed brothers and sisters elsewhere, with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry even calling on American Christians to rethink casting a vote for Cruz. Many of these Christian thinkers and writers are reliably pro-Israel and certainly consistent in their philosophical, political, and ideological outlook. (Gobry is a contributor to COMMENTARY.)

But for some of them this is far more interesting. One clearinghouse of pro-IDC anti-Cruz reaction has been the American Conservative magazine’s website. That’s appropriate, and it’s been quite heartening to watch the magazine’s writers call for putting Christian unity above American politics and to prioritize the fate of Christians in the Middle East.

I say it’s heartening because the magazine’s website has also been an easy place to find accusations of dual loyalty against Jews who express their displeasure with an American politician because of that politician’s perceived lack of understanding and sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the Middle East. Here is the charge leveled against Sheldon Adelson, for example, with the added bonus of saying he purchased Newt Gingrich’s candidacy to turn the Republican presidential candidate into an agent of the Israelis. Here is the site speculating about whether Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, lost his election because he was “Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman.” And of course, the magazine’s founder, Pat Buchanan, is famously of the opinion that pro-Israel Jewish Americans are an Israeli “Fifth Column” in America.

So the discovery that faithful solidarity and American loyalty are not mutually exclusive is a revelation (no pun intended) of common ground to some writers. The controversy surrounding Cruz’s speech might be divisive, but it’s also a reminder that Christian Americans and Jewish Americans are on the same side here.

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If the Yazidis Were Mainstream Muslims, Would the West Still Save Them?

The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

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The decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and airlift supplies to save the besieged Yazidis from their Islamist pursuers is the right thing to do. Never was a genocide so easily prevented, and the United States has an obvious stake not just in Iraq’s future and the (relative) stability of the region but in containing, wherever possible, the spread of ISIS terrorism and tyranny. And yet, there is something disquieting in the self-satisfaction and backslapping pride the West is taking in this supposedly most moral of doctrines.

The support for saving the Yazidis has brought the realist right and the humanitarian-interventionist left to join traditional interventionists in a broad call for action. It’s a heartening coalition, and it’s always encouraging to see what’s left of American realists assert the primacy of moral action, just as it is encouraging to see the remaining interventionist Democrats free themselves from the angry gaze of the antiwar left long enough to take a stand. Nonetheless, the rhetoric coming from some of these quarters, while meant well, does not reflect nearly as well on the Western conscience as it appears.

The Yazidis fit certain qualifications, according to this coalition of the willing. Foremost among them is that they are a persecuted community on the verge of being the victims of genocide. They are an ethnoreligious minority sect in Iraq (and elsewhere) whose theology has traces of Islamic and other influences, often mentioned alongside Zoroastrianism.

But what if they weren’t? What if they were mainstream Muslims indistinguishable from those around them, being persecuted because of a political rivalry gone violent? I think the answer is: the West wouldn’t lift a finger to save them. And this is not something to be proud of. Noninterventionists who support helping the Yazidis are certainly in the right here. But they also seem eager to check a box–to have something on their resume to dispute their characterization as heartless or borderline isolationist.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” President Obama said when announcing the airstrikes. Fair enough, and he described the plight of the Yazidis:

In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives.  And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs.  They’re without food, they’re without water.  People are starving.  And children are dying of thirst.  Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide.  So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice:  descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

Good for the president for going back to Iraq when the situation called for it, and certainly preventing genocide is an admirable, if obvious, red line. But the Yazidis are neither the first nor the last Iraqi minority to find itself in the ISIS crosshairs. “Most analysts agree there’s not a religious or ethnic minority in northern Iraq — Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians — that isn’t in danger,” the Washington Post reported last week. After the establishment of a self-styled ISIS caliphate, the Post went on, “one day in mid-July, Christian homes were marked.” While the Christians were being erased, “militants were hunting Shiite Turkmens, who speak a language that derives from Turkish and, according to Islamic State dogma, are apostates.” And on and on.

There’s another argument being deployed that I’m not particularly fond of. In an otherwise eloquent and forceful column, Ross Douthat writes that the case for action has three elements: “a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil,” and “a clear strategic plan”:

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

Yes, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Except the same good guys–the Kurds–and the same bad guys–ISIS–are in Syria too. The borders in this conflict have become essentially meaningless. There are enclaves we’d like to protect, minorities in the line of fire, and savage terrorists all throughout the region.

What’s the message to other groups, especially Sunni or Shiite Muslims, staring into the barrel of a gun? You’re not on the edge of extinction? You’re not being killed with certain kinds of chemical weapons, only other kinds of chemical weapons that aren’t on a random list, plus conventional weapons? You look or sound too much like the other guys for us to figure out who’s who?

We should save the Yazidis. But we should do so because it’s the right call, not because they look and sound distinctive enough for us to tell the difference between them and their enemies.

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Why Grief Can Exist Alongside Hope

Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

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Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

The fact of death isn’t new to me, of course; but the subject has necessarily become less abstract.

How each person processes such a thing is highly and properly personal. But what I did want to touch on is how a person of faith–in my case the Christian faith–tries to make sense of things.

When I was still sorting through my belief system, there was something about Christianity that drew me to it. It was (among other things) that Christianity made sense of pain, loss, and sorrow in ways that nothing else quite did, at least to me, and in ways that seemed to me most true. That is, it didn’t deny suffering happens; it didn’t promise that good and faithful people wouldn’t suffer; and it didn’t pretend that suffering and the death of those whom we love won’t be searing. Jesus never told us that those things should be minimized in any way. He wept, after all.

And yet even in the midst of valleys and heartache, we believe God is present. The notion that joy and peace can transcend circumstances, that there is a reality beyond our senses and that there are blessings to be found even in mourning, were things that had resonance with me. I came to believe that the Lord can redeem and restore all things, including areas of brokenness. I was captivated, even then, by the thought that our life here on earth is intensely real–we’re not talking about shadows on the walls of caves–but also, in the full scheme of things, momentary. That it’s part of a very meaningful and authentic story, but it’s not the full story, and it’s not the end of the story.

This past weekend I was in the company of someone I’ve written about before, Steve Hayner, who earlier this year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and whose life on this earth is now likely to be counted in weeks or months. In struggling to find a way to express some of these sentiments, I found myself recalling the movie Shadowlands.

C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is shattered by the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Near the end of the movie he’s told he must talk to Douglas, the young son (by another marriage) of Davidman. “I don’t know what to say to him,” Lewis admits.

The next scene is of Lewis and Douglas talking.

“I don’t know why she had to get sick,” a grief-stricken Douglas says.

“No, nor me,” Lewis replies. But you can’t hold on to things, he says; you have to let them go.

“Do you believe in heaven,” Douglas asks Lewis.

“Yes, I do,” Lewis replies. (By this time Lewis’s faith, which had buckled a bit in the aftermath of Joy’s death, has recovered.)

Douglas, who at that point says he doesn’t believe in heaven, tells Lewis, with tears in his eyes, “I sure would like to see her again.”

“Me, too,” Lewis replies. And he and Douglas embrace, weeping.

One can believe, as Lewis wrote in The Last Battle (the last book in his Chronicles of Narnia series), that our lives in this world are only the cover and the title page; that with death we begin “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Yet when cancer struck down the person Lewis most loved, he understood that future chapters are not present ones; that covers and title pages matter, too; and that grief, to paraphrase the essayist Chad Walsh, is the price of the knowledge–the knowledge of love and affection, of intimacy and friendship. Those who live in the glow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. That’s the nature of things in this broken world, and why grief can exist alongside hope.

One final thought struck me in reflecting on this past weekend. Now and again there is in my estimation some confusion within Christianity on the relationship between the eternal and the temporal. They are hardly synonymous; but neither are they inverse or antithetical, which is how they are sometimes cast. Nor is the demarcation between the two quite what we might think. This world is surely a vale of tears. But it can also pre-shadow the glories and joy that awaits us. It is also home to people like Steve and his wife Sharol who are, in the words of St. Paul, “imitators of God.” They offer intimations not of immortality but of divine grace and love.

Death is not the way things were meant to be. But it is, for now, the way things are. That doesn’t make accepting it any easier. But here’s what does: Finding individuals who, in the face of a terrible ordeal, choose to trust God and offer their fears to God; who are dignified and transparent in recounting their journey; and who, when facing the prospect of death, can still say (and mean) that “everyday has always been an opportunity for attentiveness, gratitude, and living into God’s call” and admit to having much less of a desire to “seize the day” and a greater desire to welcome it with all it’s twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, moments of delight and sorrow. To live joyfully and faithfully, come what may.

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Why No One Cares About the Christians of Mosul

No one cares about the Christians of Mosul–or perhaps we should say the Christians formerly of Mosul. The reports in recent days suggest that the last Christians have now fled that city, forced out by Islamist militants who implemented a “convert or die” policy for Iraq’s ancient Christian community. The most assistance they have received thus far is an offer of asylum from France. If they can make it there, that is, since they have faced robbery, torture, and murder as they’ve made their exodus.

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No one cares about the Christians of Mosul–or perhaps we should say the Christians formerly of Mosul. The reports in recent days suggest that the last Christians have now fled that city, forced out by Islamist militants who implemented a “convert or die” policy for Iraq’s ancient Christian community. The most assistance they have received thus far is an offer of asylum from France. If they can make it there, that is, since they have faced robbery, torture, and murder as they’ve made their exodus.

None of this has gone entirely unreported. These events have been allotted some headlines and the kind of procedural news coverage that the persecution of Christians usually elicits. But if the last remnants of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian population were hoping for any real outrage or anguish from the West, then they were setting themselves up for disappointment. Not only has it long been apparent that no one was ever going to take any action on behalf of these people, but as we have seen, Western publics weren’t even going to trouble themselves to get too worked up about these atrocities.

Given the huge demonstrations, United Nations Security Council resolutions, and endless hours of reporting on events in Gaza, one is tempted to say that Iraq’s Christians had the misfortune of not being Palestinian. However, that suggestion would be unfair. The world has also neglected the suffering of thousands of Palestinians murdered and starved by the Assad regime in Syria. It is not being Palestinian that wins the world’s attention; it is the accusation that culpability rests with Israel that really provokes some strength of feeling. If only the Christians fleeing Mosul could somehow frame the Israelis for their plight, then they might stand a chance of seeing their cause championed by a host of tweeting celebrities, UN delegates, far-left radicals, and perhaps even the West’s Muslim immigrant populations who have turned out in huge numbers to passionately demonstrate on behalf of Gaza like they never did for their coreligionists in Syria or Libya.

With reports of how the doors of Christian homes were ominously marked by Islamists so as to streamline this campaign of ethnic cleansing, with incidents of Christians having been crucified–yes, crucified–you might have thought that some of those avid humanitarian activists attending the recent anti-Israel rallies could have at least organized a sub-contingent to highlight the terrible fate of the Iraqi Christians, but no, that might have risked detracting in some way from the anti-Israel political objectives of these protests.

There is always something distasteful about playing the numbers game with such situations. It is, however, the favorite pastime of Israel’s detractors. The body count in Gaza is endlessly wheeled out to justify the preeminent importance that so many attribute to this cause. You can almost feel the most hardline anti-Israel activists willing it upwards so as to better serve their campaign. Undoubtedly that is Hamas’s calculation. Yet if the liberal college kids and left-leaning journalists who refer to these figures as justification for their obsessive focus on the subject were being remotely honest with themselves, then they would have to find some way of explaining the utter disinterest that they have shown events in Iraq and Syria, where the death toll has been surpassing that in Gaza on almost a weekly basis.

The long-suffering Christians of Mosul are perhaps considered by the anti-Israel campaigners with the same suspicion with which they viewed the victims of MH17. When news of that attack broke, the first reaction of prominent British news anchor Jon Snow was to unguardedly tweet out: “Awful danger that the shooting down of flight MH17 will provide cover for an intensification of Israel’s ground war in Gaza.” Those attending demonstrations against Israel’s actions in Gaza essentially made the same complaint, that that incident was being awarded too much media attention. The only reason that they weren’t expressing the same accusation regarding the Iraqi Christians is because those atrocities have only been allotted the most token coverage.

The contrast between the world’s non-reaction to the decimation of Mosul’s once 60,000-strong Christian community and the hysterical hate-fueled frenzy being directed against Israel over the casualties in Gaza reminds us that in the liberal imagination, all human suffering is not considered equal. The determining factor here is not the identity of the victims, but rather who can be framed for the crimes. No one has protested Hamas’s execution of Gazan “collaborators” or the reports of the many Palestinian children killed during the construction of Hamas’s terror tunnels. Every misfiring rocket that kills Gazans is attributed to Israel if at all possible. The only Palestinian casualties that anyone has claimed to be concerned with are those that can be used as ammunition in the war to delegitimize Israel and its right to self-defense.

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Don’t Abet Academia’s Crackdown on Religious Liberty

By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

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By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

“It’s absurd,” said Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity, a national association of evangelical student groups, including the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship. “The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”

Some institutions, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have opted to exempt religious groups from nondiscrimination policies, according to the Christian Legal Society. But evangelical groups have lost official status at Tufts University, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rollins College in Florida, among others, and their advocates are worried that Cal State could be a tipping point.

The Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, mainline Protestant, and other non-evangelical groups that have signed this modern-day Civil Constitution of the Clergy probably think they are simply avoiding a fight that doesn’t pertain to them. That’s plain madness, and shameful to boot.

But it’s also counterproductive. When the left-liberal establishment seeks to infringe their own rights, they will have already acceded to this conformist fanaticism and surrendered any right to expect other religious groups to come to their aid. This is particularly careless for the Jewish community, which is such a demographic minority that in such cases they have no strength but in numbers–a lesson they bewilderingly seem intent on unlearning.

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It’s About Christianity, Not the Girls

Commentators from across the political spectrum have chimed in on the horror of Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 300 school girls. And, certainly, the fact that the victims were young school girls has made a difference in the Western world’s interest in the story. But, while #BringBackOurGirls has become a trending hashtag, it may be missing the point.

Reading the speech of Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau, it is clear that for him, the target may have been the girls, but the motivation was not simply to prevent girls from receiving education or a desire to attack Western education more broadly, but rather to launch a much broader attack on Christianity.

He begins:

My brethren in Islam, I am greeting you in the name of Allah like he instructed we should among Muslims. Allah is great and has given us privilege and temerity above all people. If we meet infidels, if we meet those that become infidels according to Allah, there is no any talk except hitting of the neck; I hope you chosen people of Allah are hearing. This is an instruction from Allah. It is not a distorted interpretation it is from Allah himself. This is from Allah on the need for us to break down infidels, practitioners of democracy, and constitutionalism, voodoo and those that are doing western education, in which they are practicing paganism.

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Commentators from across the political spectrum have chimed in on the horror of Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 300 school girls. And, certainly, the fact that the victims were young school girls has made a difference in the Western world’s interest in the story. But, while #BringBackOurGirls has become a trending hashtag, it may be missing the point.

Reading the speech of Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau, it is clear that for him, the target may have been the girls, but the motivation was not simply to prevent girls from receiving education or a desire to attack Western education more broadly, but rather to launch a much broader attack on Christianity.

He begins:

My brethren in Islam, I am greeting you in the name of Allah like he instructed we should among Muslims. Allah is great and has given us privilege and temerity above all people. If we meet infidels, if we meet those that become infidels according to Allah, there is no any talk except hitting of the neck; I hope you chosen people of Allah are hearing. This is an instruction from Allah. It is not a distorted interpretation it is from Allah himself. This is from Allah on the need for us to break down infidels, practitioners of democracy, and constitutionalism, voodoo and those that are doing western education, in which they are practicing paganism.

He continues with a diatribe against tolerance and multiculturalism:

Suddenly you will hear somebody coming and be saying that there are no religious differences, where did you have that talk that there are no differences? Where did you get this talk because of Allah? Who told you there are no differences when Allah said there are differences in religion…?

Selling the girls—or better yet converting them—is but one part of the plan:

I am selling the girls like Allah said until we soak the ground of Nigeria with infidels blood and so called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed and get fatigue and wondering on what to do with smelling of their corpses, smelling of Obama, Bush, Putin and Jonathan worried us then we will open prison and be imprisoned the rest. Infidels have no value. It is [Nigerian President Goodluck] Jonathan’s daughter that I will imprison; nothing will stop this until you convert. If you turn to Islam then you will be saved. For me anyone that embraces Islam is my brother.

Indeed, he appears obsessed with the idea that Christians are simply unclean. “In fact, you are supposed to wash and re-wash a plate Christian eats food before you eat as Muslims,” he warns, and continues:

We are anti-Christians, and those that deviated from Islam, they are forming basis with prayers but infidels. All those with turbans looking for opportunities to smear us, they are all infidels. Betrayers and cheats like them. Like Israeli people, Rome, England– they are all Christians and homosexuals. People of Germany like Margret Thatcher. Ndume are all infidels.

As he concludes his speech, he leaves no room for doubt:

To the people of the world, everybody should know his status: it is either you are with us Mujahedeen or you are with the Christians… We know what is happening in this world, it is a Jihad war against Christians and Christianity. It is a war against western education, democracy and constitution. We have not started, next time we are going inside Abuja; we are going to refinery and town of Christians. Do you know me? I have no problem with Jonathan. This is what I know in Quran. This is a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution, Allah says we should finish them when we get them.

There can be very little doubt about what is motivating Shekau and his followers. What is truly amazing is the extent to which the focus on Boko Haram’s hostages has overshadowed a very clear statement about motivation. No, the problem is not simply girls going to school. It is much, much broader and the fact that Western journalists, diplomats, and the first lady of the United States are ignoring this aspect of the Boko Haram outrage really does suggest the extent to which the West simply does not understand the ideological motivations driving terrorism against it.

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Mozilla and the Prophet Isaiah

By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

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By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

The successful effort to force Eich out, then, is a significant cultural moment. It revealed an illiberalism and a level of intolerance within some quarters on the left that is chilling but not wholly surprising. And if this current of thought is not checked and challenged, it will create ruptures and divisions that will hurt everyone, those who favor gay rights no less than those who oppose it.

Let me speak from a perspective within my own faith community. Based on conversations and having written and taught classes on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality, my sense is that many evangelical Christians are working through how to approach the issues of their faith and the gay rights movement with a good deal of care and integrity. They are attempting to be faithful to Scripture in a way that is characterized by grace rather than stridency. Even as they continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they are asking whether their own attitudes have been distorted by their own cultural and political assumptions and that the focus on homosexuality is, as I’ve put it elsewhere, wildly disproportionate to what one finds in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Particularly among younger evangelicals, there’s a palpable discomfort with the approach taken by prominent figures over the last few decades – people like (but not exclusive to) Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. They are not the spokesmen they want to represent them or their faith. In terms of public policy, there’s discussion about shifting focus from opposing gay marriage to protecting religious liberties.  

I’ve had discussions with faithful Christians whom I deeply admire who wonder whether their approach needs to be refined – not completely jettisoned but refined — in light of a fuller and deeper understanding of the Christian faith. A thoughtful friend of mine, a pastor, wrote to me last week, asking, “How do you live in a broken world? How do you adapt in a way that maintains faith in God’s character, in ethical standards, and yet maintains an attitude of grace and mercy in a world in which there is a lot more gray than we’d like to admit? you are certainly correct when you suggest that in focusing on this issue [homosexuality], we ignore matters (like greed; like caring for the poor, etc.) that appear to be much more important to Jesus.  And these we blithely sweep under the rug because they are too uncomfortable, and we’ve learned to live with compromises and filter them out.”

The response of those who don’t share this view is that they’re standing for truth in an increasingly depraved time. The danger comes from those who are diluting Scripture to accommodate the world. And gray is just another word for capitulation. This isn’t an easy thing to sort through, then, as anyone who has honestly faced these issues can tell you.

What’s not reasonable or realistic to assume is that millions and millions of Christians will simply toss aside what they view as the clear teachings of the Bible because those who have contempt for their views and faith tell them to do so. And what won’t work is for the gay rights movement to try to intimidate into silence those with whom they disagree. To break their will. And to force religious organizations – including parachurch institutions and eventually churches – to embrace views they believe are at odds with the teachings in Scripture. A faith whose central symbol is the cross is not going to collapse or surrender in the face of pressure by progressives and secularists. (Historically the church has often thrived under persecution.)

This all could get pretty nasty pretty quickly, and intensifying the culture wars isn’t in anyone’s interest. Civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. There ought to be rules of etiquette, even (and perhaps especially) in public and political discourse. Asking for civility is quite different from insisting on agreement, and absence of agreement is a case for further (and better) debate, not putting an end to it.

When the dust finally settles, we still have to live together and occupy the same nation, the same airwaves, the same soccer fields and schools and workspaces. Surely treating others with a certain degree of dignity and respect shouldn’t be too much to ask of those who oppose gay marriage and those who support it. 

“Come now and let us reason together,” the prophet Isaiah said. That counsel beats a lot of alternatives, including targeting and destroying those who don’t conform to the beliefs of our new cultural commissars.  

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Speaking out Against Injustice

Last month I wrote a piece urging Christians to speak out against the rising persecution of gays overseas, including (but not limited to) harsh new laws that were recently passed in Nigeria.

I was glad, then, that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the ERLC, wrote an article for Canon & Culture in which, while reasserting the orthodox Christian belief that sexuality is to be expressed within the one-flesh union of the marriage of a man to a woman, they also wrote that they believe “laws criminalizing homosexual activity to be unjust and an affront to the image of God embedded in all persons.”

Governments that “single out persons for harassment and fear of their lives represent, in our view, a State that has overstepped its bounds drastically and unjustly. And in our view, repressive regimes that target homosexuals fall into this category.” Messrs. Moore and Walker go on to say that as Baptist Christians, “our own history has shown us what injustice can happen when a state applies the Old Testament Mosaic code … to the civil state.” And they insist the church “should stand faithful both to a biblical vision of sexuality and at the same time decry laws—whether in Africa or the Middle East or Russia—that would mistreat homosexual persons.”

Some Christians, I suppose, might have a viscerally negative reaction to what Moore and Walker are saying, though it’s hard to imagine how one could justify such a thing. To do so would be a disfigurement of the Christian faith. The more likely reaction is to ignore the issue, to let others worry about it, to assume that speaking out against the persecution of gays overseas is an implicit embrace of the gay rights agenda.

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Last month I wrote a piece urging Christians to speak out against the rising persecution of gays overseas, including (but not limited to) harsh new laws that were recently passed in Nigeria.

I was glad, then, that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the ERLC, wrote an article for Canon & Culture in which, while reasserting the orthodox Christian belief that sexuality is to be expressed within the one-flesh union of the marriage of a man to a woman, they also wrote that they believe “laws criminalizing homosexual activity to be unjust and an affront to the image of God embedded in all persons.”

Governments that “single out persons for harassment and fear of their lives represent, in our view, a State that has overstepped its bounds drastically and unjustly. And in our view, repressive regimes that target homosexuals fall into this category.” Messrs. Moore and Walker go on to say that as Baptist Christians, “our own history has shown us what injustice can happen when a state applies the Old Testament Mosaic code … to the civil state.” And they insist the church “should stand faithful both to a biblical vision of sexuality and at the same time decry laws—whether in Africa or the Middle East or Russia—that would mistreat homosexual persons.”

Some Christians, I suppose, might have a viscerally negative reaction to what Moore and Walker are saying, though it’s hard to imagine how one could justify such a thing. To do so would be a disfigurement of the Christian faith. The more likely reaction is to ignore the issue, to let others worry about it, to assume that speaking out against the persecution of gays overseas is an implicit embrace of the gay rights agenda.

That strikes me as wrong on many levels. And while I am very wary of saying precisely what Jesus would do and say in the 21st century, we do know what he did say and do in the first century. Jesus was drawn to those in the shadows of society – the outcast, the despised, those who were powerless, wounded, reviled, and the object of scorn. And Jesus himself was a dispenser of grace, the healer of broken lives, an agent of reconciliation.

I understand that is not all Jesus was. Nor do I have any interest in pitting moral rectitude against love and welcome or turning faith into a crude instrument to advance a political agenda. And there are countless things that can lay claim on our moral attention – from aiding homeless shelters and crisis pregnancy centers to those rescuing orphans and restoring them to families and communities, from preventing religious persecution overseas to aiding those suffering from AIDS and malaria in Africa. There are worthy organizations like Best Friends, a school based character education program for girls that begins in the sixth grade and continues until high school; and the International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. And there are of course countless acts of decency and kindness that occur every day that are unpublicized and help those who are suffering and need encouragement.

Few of us do this as much as we should; our energies and interests are directed elsewhere, inward rather than outward, most often toward increasing our own comfort and wealth and station in life. My point is that if we were able to free ourselves from preconceptions that sometimes distort our vision; if we were to see things not through the prism of ideology but rather through the prism of mercy and compassion; if we would begin to love as we have been loved, we would find ourselves moved to act against all sorts of suffering and injustices we now overlook. When I’ve come across such individuals in my own life — they tend to be rare — they have shown me what lives touched by grace can be like.   

We shouldn’t kid ourselves; taking concrete steps to redress injustice is far better than simply speaking out about it. But speaking out about it is better than not, which is why what Messrs. Moore and Walker have done is commendable.

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Richard John Neuhaus, U.S. Jews, and the American Babylon

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

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Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

It is significant that, after the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church was formalizing its conversations with non-Christians, the Jewish interlocutors insisted that Jewish relations not be grouped under the Vatican office that deals with other religions, but instead included under the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That arrangement has much deeper implications than were perhaps realized at the time.

Now, this seems to me a pristine example of the kind of Christian theological activity that can be seen one of two ways. Promoting Christian unity with Jews quite obviously does not mean the Vatican has decided that all Catholics should convert to Judaism. So the conversion issue primarily cuts the other way. And it’s a sore subject for very good reasons. But it is also worth pointing out that this is a clear rejection of supersessionism. If the Jews are mere historical relics, after all, Christianity can be whole without them. Neuhaus was vehemently opposed to such a view.

Moreover, Neuhaus makes a very smart observation about this in the context of interfaith relations. He writes:

Christianity does indeed seek to engage culture, provide a guide for living, and propose the way to human flourishing, but, reduced to any of these undoubtedly good ends, it is not Christianity.

Liberal Protestant theology, taking its cue from the Enlightenment, was much preoccupied with the question of “the essence of Christianity,” and, not incidentally, was contemptuous of Jews and Judaism.

That is, liberal Christians, who center their lives more on the secular culture around them, can more easily discard the Jewish contribution to their own heritage precisely because their history is not what defines them. Instead, their own identity can be established by drawing on the here and now. It matters that Jesus was Jewish, ethically and theologically. But not to politicized liberal denominations of Christianity, who have no need for Jewish recognition.

That’s why, Neuhaus writes, “When we Christians do not walk together with Jews, we are in danger of regressing to the paganism from which we emerged.” But before we lock arms and sing Kumbaya, we need to take a closer look at what exactly it means for Christians to “walk together with Jews.” Got an itinerary, Fr. Neuhaus? He does:

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace.

But:

The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politeness of mutual respect for contradictory positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism, but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend.

However intertwined, the two belief systems are not one. So Neuhaus is up front: his distaste for political correctness extends to his opposition to the idea that Christians must be quietly apologetic for their belief that Jews should believe as they, Christians, believe. But he says something important about how that argument is less vocal and literal than an appreciation for living these different lives and pursuing these truths. He writes:

We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say, too, that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion, and that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing by demeaning the other. Friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in our shared love for the God of Israel; the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment, there is no avoiding the fact that we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which–for both Jew and Christian–conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God–a people of God for which there is no plural.

What he’s saying is, essentially: we can share the same bench at the bus stop even while we disagree over whose bus will arrive. Yes, it’s cheesy on some level–let’s wait together! But a Judaism confident that our bus is the one that will show up shouldn’t mind the company.

A final thought: this was arguably more important coming from a Catholic theologian like Neuhaus than from our no-less-appreciated neighbors in the Protestant-inflected evangelical Christian Zionist community, both because of the fraught history of Jewish-Catholic relations and because it is not tethered to a cause–Israel–that is essential but also relatively modern, and therefore comparably new.

Neuhaus, correctly, notes the crucial role that America plays in all this:

The percentage of Christians involved in any form of Jewish-Christian dialogue is minuscule. Minuscule, too, is the percentage of Jews involved. Moreover, serious dialogue is, for the most part, a North American phenomenon. It is one of the many things to which the familiar phrase applies, “Only in America.” In Europe, for tragically obvious reasons, there are not enough Jews; in Israel, for reasons of growing tragedy in the decline of ancient communities, there are not enough Christians. Only in America are there enough Jews and Christians in a relationship of mutual security and respect to make possible a dialogue that is unprecedented in our 2,000 years of history together.

Neuhaus’s work was a strong rejoinder to the temptation to assume ulterior motives on the part of Christians seeking conversation with Jews. Neuhaus was right, as well, that America has given us the security to have that conversation.

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Why Do Christians Tolerate Palestinian Historical Revisionism?

Christmas this year brought the usual spate of Palestinian historical revisionism, including the by-now routine claim that Jesus was a Palestinian. This, as Jonathan Tobin noted, tells us a lot about the Palestinian mindset and prospects for peace. But to me, the most striking aspect of this story is that objections to such historical revision come almost exclusively from Jews, whereas many Christian churches and organizations seem to have no problem with it. After all, it’s not only Jewish history and the Jewish religion Palestinians thereby erase; they are also erasing Christian history and the Christian religion.

What, for instance, becomes of the famous scene of Jesus evicting money-changers from the Temple if, as Palestinian officials claim, the Temple never existed? (They refer to it strictly as “the alleged Temple”; for examples, see here and here.) Or what becomes of Mary’s husband Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), if, as Palestinians claim, the Davidic kingdom never existed?

Even if you want to claim, in defiance of all the evidence, that Jesus himself wasn’t a Jew, his entire story as related in the Gospels takes place in a Jewish state with a largely autonomous Jewish political and religious leadership, albeit subject to some control from the Roman Empire. According to the Gospels, it is this Jewish leadership that arrests and tries Jesus, though the Romans ultimately crucify him. If no Jewish state with the power to arrest and try ever existed (as Palestinians, again, routinely claim; see here or here, for instance), how did this most foundational of all Christian stories ever occur?

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Christmas this year brought the usual spate of Palestinian historical revisionism, including the by-now routine claim that Jesus was a Palestinian. This, as Jonathan Tobin noted, tells us a lot about the Palestinian mindset and prospects for peace. But to me, the most striking aspect of this story is that objections to such historical revision come almost exclusively from Jews, whereas many Christian churches and organizations seem to have no problem with it. After all, it’s not only Jewish history and the Jewish religion Palestinians thereby erase; they are also erasing Christian history and the Christian religion.

What, for instance, becomes of the famous scene of Jesus evicting money-changers from the Temple if, as Palestinian officials claim, the Temple never existed? (They refer to it strictly as “the alleged Temple”; for examples, see here and here.) Or what becomes of Mary’s husband Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), if, as Palestinians claim, the Davidic kingdom never existed?

Even if you want to claim, in defiance of all the evidence, that Jesus himself wasn’t a Jew, his entire story as related in the Gospels takes place in a Jewish state with a largely autonomous Jewish political and religious leadership, albeit subject to some control from the Roman Empire. According to the Gospels, it is this Jewish leadership that arrests and tries Jesus, though the Romans ultimately crucify him. If no Jewish state with the power to arrest and try ever existed (as Palestinians, again, routinely claim; see here or here, for instance), how did this most foundational of all Christian stories ever occur?

Granted, the Christians most sympathetic to this Palestinian revisionism generally represent liberal churches that aren’t wedded to a literal reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, belief in Jesus is ostensibly fundamental even for liberal Christians–and absent the historic Jewish kingdom of the Gospels, there quite literally is no Jesus.

This ties in with a related issue: Many of these same liberal Christian groups have also turned a blind eye to the ongoing slaughter of Christians in Syria and Iraq, the worsening persecution of Christians in Egypt and various other anti-Christian atrocities worldwide, preferring to focus all their energies on vilifying the one Middle Eastern country where, to quote Israeli Arab priest Father Gabriel Nadaf, “We feel secure” as Christians. As I’ve noted before, this contrast between the terrible plight of other Middle Eastern Christians and the safety they enjoy in Israel is increasingly leading Israel’s Arab Christians to rethink their former identification with the state’s opponents; one result is that the number of Arab Christians volunteering for service in the IDF shot up more than 60 percent this year (though given the minuscule starting point, the absolute numbers remain small). But no such rethinking has occurred among anti-Israel Christians in the West.

In short, the leadership of groups like the Church of Scotland or the Presbyterian Church seem prepared to sacrifice both historical Christianity and real live Christians on the altar of their single-minded obsession with undermining the Jewish state. The million-dollar question is how long their rank-and-file memberships will continue tolerating this travesty.

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