Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Religious Cleansing by Illiberal Liberals? Why Not?

Imagine that you are a Jew in Germany in the 1930s. You are going about your business as you always do, but you start to notice that some people are protesting very loudly that you and your kind are the embodiment of evil and a grave threat to civilization. We have been hearing such shouts this past year from a spate of anti-religious authors who are most beside themselves with rage when fulminating against Christianity and the biblical God.

If it were up to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and several others,* Christian religion as well as the thinking it engenders would be illegal and vigorously suppressed. That, at any rate, is where their rhetoric leads. As they describe religion in general and Christianity in particular, it is simply institutionalized hatred. It is easy to imagine the Supreme Court one day exempting Christianity from the protections of the first amendment with statements like, "This cannot be dignified with the name of religion. This is nothing other than organized hatred: hatred toward religion and atheism alike; hatred toward neighbor and children alike. These doctrines and ways do not merit the protection of law. Rather, law itself was instituted to protect the public against evils such as this." Any legal mind that can find constitutional protection for murdering babies as they are being born is capable of embracing this kind of legal "reasoning" as well. It's not a stretch.

Of course, these writers are only saying overtly what we see portrayed on television all the time. In "Backward atheist soldiers!" (WORLD June 30/July 7, 2007; pp. 58-60), Marvin Olasky reports a New York Times writer saying, "Harris writes what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say." But the liberal media elite say it all the time. Christians, especially evangelicals, are regularly depicted as Dawkins et al. describe them: greedy, hateful and utterly miserable people who are just itching to overthrow liberal democracy and establish a new Age of Darkness...something like a Taliban regime, but more universal and without the international charm.

Alister & Joanna McGrath, in The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP), detect "a whiff of panic" in all of this. "Until recently, Western atheism has waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out." Thomas Jefferson, who took the liberty of editing the New Testament to include only the true parts, thus excluding the virgin birth and the resurrection, expected that by the 19th century, religion would have become so enlightened and rationalistic that everyone would be a Unitarian. He was disappointed. The rampant atheism represented in these books goes beyond disappointment to loathing, fear and open warfare.

Every Christmas and Easter, the major news magazines faithfully produce their cover stories asking who Jesus "was" and telling us, on the basis of respectable liberal scholarship, that he was not who the Bible and our pastors tell us he "is." Why do they do this, and so consistently? After the 2000 presidential election, I noticed a sharp increase in media efforts to enlighten the public on the evils of Christian religion. Christians (along with the Supreme Court and the dark arts) put George W. Bush in the White House. George W. Bush is a mortal threat to liberty, enlightenment and world peace. Therefore Christians are a mortal threat to liberty, enlightenment and world peace. As if Ronald Reagan weren't enough! Will and Grace started playing almost continuously. Law and Order started portraying Christians as something like Nazis in a bad mood.

So what are we to make of this? And where does this lead?

The "religious cleansing," shall we call it, to which this demagoguery leads has precedent. There were various persecutions in the early centuries of the church's life.

1. Persecution under Nero (c. 64-68).
2. Persecution under Domitian (r. 81-96).
3. Persecution under Trajan (112-117). Christianity is outlawed, but Christians are not sought out.
4. Persecution under Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180).
5. Persecution under Septimus Severus (202-210).
6. Persecution under Decius (250-251). Christians are actively sought out by requiring public sacrifice. Could buy certificates (libelli) instead of sacrificing. Bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch are martyred.
7. Persecution under Valerian (257-59).
8. Persecution under Maximinus the Thracian (235-38).
9. Persecution under Aurelian (r. 270–275).
10. Severe persecution under Diocletian and Galerius (303-324). ( also writes: "Pliny, a Roman governor writing circa 110 AD, called Christianity a "superstition taken to extravagant lengths." Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus called it "a deadly superstition." (Hitchens calls it poisonous.) Christians were accused of cannibalism (on account of the Eucharist) and sexual license (on the basis of rumor that they loved each other). They were also blamed for the fall of Rome, a charge in response to which Augustine of Hippo wrote his classic, The City of God.

But fear not little church!
1. We have the sovereign creator God on our side. His enemies may strike out in panic, but his children can respond with calm assurance of what we read in Psalm 2: "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?... He who sits in the heavens laughs... Blessed are all who take refuge in him." (vv. 1, 4, 12; ESV)

2. We have reason on our side. God made the world a rational place (that's why the sun comes up each morning and why the light goes on when you flip the switch), and so, in public debate, honest inquiry is on our side. Despite all the talk about post-modernity, a good argument still carries weight.

3. Even if God were to allow persecution (real, boot-in-the-face, let-goods-and-kindred-go persecution), it would only purify and strengthen the church, as it has done in times past and still does in many parts of the world today.

4. But even short of such seemingly fictional times (though they don't seem to fictional in places where Christians are pillaged and killed for their faith, places like Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, North Korea and, recently, Turkey), these volleys open opportunities for public discussion of the gospel, it's claims and consequences. This is an apologetic opportunity. ("Apologetics," from the Greek apologia, are the rational, public defense of the faith.) Thus we see several books published in response to these. I have mentioned the McGrath book, but there is also Doug Wilson's Letter from a Christian Citizen (American Vision) along with several others like it. As the war on Christianity moves into this overt stage, Christians will seize this opportunity to expose the fallacies, correct the record and proclaim the good news. And because Christ is risen and reigning, we can do with arresting charity.

* Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin); Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (Twelve); Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf); also Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press) and others.

1 comment:

John said...

Those are chillingly predictive words that the Supreme Court will hopefully never write. But then, if the Constitution can be twisted to allow Roe v. Wade or Gonzales v. Raich or Wickard v. Filburn, I suppose anything can happen.