Posts Tagged With: America

Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame on Religious Liberty, Religion, Morality, and Civil Liberty

I am sharing these recent remarks by a sitting U. S. Attorney General, William F. Barr, who is a Roman Catholic. He gave them at a Roman Catholic University, the University of Notre Dame. No one should construe that there is any endorsement, promotion, or acceptance of Roman Catholicism intended by posting his remarks. I am posting them because he gives some insightful application of the lessons of history to our time regarding the relation of religion, morality, and liberty in a way that shows Protestants and some Roman Catholics do have some common views of civil morality, even though we differ on the basics of the gospel and many other important things. I dare say Mr. Barr seems to have been influenced heavily in his views on these topics by the distinctly Protestant culture, history, and political traditions of the United States of America.

You may also read it on the Department of justice website:

Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks to the Law School and the de
Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame

South Bend, IN
United States ~
Friday, October 11, 2019

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Tom, for your kind introduction. Bill and Roger, it’s great to be
with you.

Thank you to the Notre Dame Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and
Culture for graciously extending an invitation to address you today. I’d also
like to express gratitude to Tony de Nicola, whose generous support has shaped –
and continues to shape – countless minds through examination of the Catholic
moral and intellectual tradition.

Today, I would like to share some thoughts with you about religious liberty in
America. It’s an important priority in this Administration and for this
Department of Justice.

We have set up a task force within the Department with different components that
have equities in this area, including the Solicitor General’s Office, the Civil
Division, the Office of Legal Counsel, and other offices. We have regular
meetings. We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states
are misapplying the Establishment Clause in a way that discriminates against
people of faith, or cases where states adopt laws that impinge upon the free
exercise of religion.

From the Founding Era onward, there was strong consensus about the centrality of
religious liberty in the United States.

The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the
direction of piety. It reflects the Framers’ belief that religion was
indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.

In his renowned 1785 pamphlet, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious
Assessments,” James Madison described religious liberty as “a right towards men”
but “a duty towards the Creator,” and a “duty….precedent both in order of time
and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

It has been over 230 years since that small group of colonial lawyers led a
revolution and launched what they viewed as a great experiment, establishing a
society fundamentally different than those that had gone before.

They crafted a magnificent charter of freedom – the United States Constitution –
which provides for limited government, while leaving “the People” broadly at
liberty to pursue our lives both as individuals and through free associations.

This quantum leap in liberty has been the mainspring of unprecedented human
progress, not only for Americans, but for people around the world.

In the 20th century, our form of free society faced a severe test.

There had always been the question whether a democracy so solicitous of
individual freedom could stand up against a regimented totalitarian state.

That question was answered with a resounding “yes” as the United States stood up
against and defeated, first fascism, and then communism.

But in the 21st century, we face an entirely different kind of challenge.

The challenge we face is precisely what the Founding Fathers foresaw would be
our supreme test as a free society.

They never thought the main danger to the republic came from external foes. The
central question was whether, over the long haul, we could handle freedom. The
question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the
moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.

By and large, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the
classical Christian tradition.

These practical statesmen understood that individuals, while having the
potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil.

Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are
capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at

No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.

But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this
will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end
up with no liberty, just tyranny.

On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with
something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal
appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of
tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility
of any healthy community life crumbles.

Edmund Burke summed up this point in his typically colorful language:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition
to put chains upon their appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling
power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there
must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men
intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

So the Founders decided to take a gamble. They called it a great experiment.

They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the
government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the
American people.

In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us
to govern ourselves…”

This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily
the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred
to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.

But what was the source of this internal controlling power? In a free republic,
those restraints could not be handed down from above by philosopher kings.

Instead, social order must flow up from the people themselves – freely obeying
the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to
control willful human beings, with and infinite capacity to rationalize, those
moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow
from a transcendent Supreme Being.

In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and
sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a
transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who
had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.

As John Adams put it, “We have no government armed with the power which is
capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly
inadequate for the government of any other.”

As Father John Courtney Murray observed, the American tenet was not that:

“Free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its
possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly
governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral order.”

How does religion promote the moral discipline and virtue needed to support free

First, it gives us the right rules to live by. The Founding generation were
Christians. They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to
the true nature of man. Those moral precepts start with the two great
commandments – to Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind; and to Love
Thy Neighbor as Thyself.

But they also include the guidance of natural law – a real, transcendent moral
order which flows from God’s eternal law – the divine wisdom by which the whole
of creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all
created things.

From the nature of things we can, through reason, experience, discern standards
of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.

Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition
imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the
ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.

They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the
here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man
and human society.

By the same token, violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world
consequences for man and society. We many not pay the price immediately, but
over time the harm is real.

Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen,
we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they
are good for us.

But religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. It
does not do this primarily by formal laws – that is, through coercion. It does
this through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules – its
customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.

In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills
and reinforces moral discipline.

I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years religion has been under
increasing attack.

On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional
Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the
public square.

On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine
of moral relativism.

By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been

Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.

In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last
Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our
large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.

Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression
and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing
numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence,
and a deadly drug epidemic.

As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more
casualities in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War.

I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. Suffice it to
say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it
immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism,
ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.

Among these militant secularists are many so-called “progressives.” But where is
the progress?

We are told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the
Judeo-Christian moral system? What is it that can fill the spiritual void in the
hearts of the individual person? And what is a system of values that can sustain
human social life?

The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of

Scholarship suggests that religion has been integral to the development and
thriving of Homo sapiens since we emerged roughly 50,000 years ago. It is just
for the past few hundred years we have experimented in living without religion.

We hear much today about our humane values. But, in the final analysis, what
undergirds these values? What commands our adherence to them?

What we call “values” today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality,
still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.

Now, there have been times and places where the traditional moral order has been

In the past, societies – like the human body – seem to have a self-healing
mechanism – a self-correcting mechanism that gets things back on course if
things go too far.

The consequences of moral chaos become too pressing. The opinion of decent
people rebels. They coalesce and rally against obvious excess. Periods of moral
entrenchment follow periods of excess.

This is the idea of the pendulum. We have all thought that after a while the
“pendulum will swing back.”

But today we face something different that may mean that we cannot count on the
pendulum swinging back.

First is the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we
are experiencing today. This is not decay; it is organized destruction.
Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the
force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and
academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.

These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy,
but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold
up to ridicule any dissenters.

One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project has
itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the
trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication.

Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake – social,
educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and
savage social media campaigns.

The pervasiveness and power of our high-tech popular culture fuels apostasy in
another way. It provides an unprecedented degree of distraction.

Part of the human condition is that there are big questions that should stare us
in the face. Are we created or are we purely material accidents? Does our life
have any meaning or purpose? But, as Blaise Pascal observed, instead of
grappling with these questions, humans can be easily distracted from thinking
about the “final things.”

Indeed, we now live in the age of distraction where we can envelop ourselves in
a world of digital stimulation and universal connectivity. And we have almost
limitless ways of indulging all our physical appetites.

There is another modern phenomenon that suppresses society’s self-corrective
mechanisms – that makes it harder for society to restore itself.

In the past, when societies are threatened by moral chaos, the overall social
costs of licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct becomes so high that
society ultimately recoils and reevaluates the path that it is on.

But today – in the face of all the increasing pathologies – instead of
addressing the underlying cause, we have the State in the role of alleviator of
bad fconsequences. We call on the State to mitigate the social costs of personal
misconduct and irresponsibility.

So the reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility, but

The reaction to drug addiction is safe injection sites.

The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the State to set itself up as
the ersatz husband for single mothers and the ersatz father to their children.

The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with the wreckage.
While we think we are solving problems, we are underwriting them.

We start with an untrammeled freedom and we end up as dependents of a coercive
state on which we depend.

Interestingly, this idea of the State as the alleviator of bad consequences has
given rise to a new moral system that goes hand-in-hand with the secularization
of society.  It can be called the system of “macro-morality.”  It is in some
ways an inversion of Christian morality.

Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our
own personal morality and transformation.

The new secular religion teaches macro-morality. One’s morality is not gauged by
their private conduct, but rather on their commitment to political causes and
collective action to address social problems.

This system allows us to not worry so much about the strictures on our private
lives, while we find salvation on the picket-line. We can signal our
finely-tuned moral sensibilities by demonstrating for this cause or that.

Something happened recently that crystalized the difference between these moral
systems. I was attending Mass at a parish I did not usually go to in Washington,
D.C.  At the end of Mass, the Chairman of the Social Justice Committee got up to
give his report to the parish. He pointed to the growing homeless problem in
D.C. and explained that more mobile soup kitchens were needed to feed them. This
being a Catholic church, I expected him to call for volunteers to go out and
provide this need. Instead, he recounted all the visits that the Committee had
made to the D.C. government to lobby for higher taxes and more spending to fund
mobile soup kitchen.

A third phenomenon which makes it difficult for the pendulum to swing back is
the way law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral
values and to establish moral relativism as a new orthodoxy.

Law is being used as weapon in a couple of ways.

First, either through legislation but more frequently through judicial
interpretation, secularists have been continually seeking to eliminate laws that
reflect traditional moral norms.

At first, this involved rolling back laws that prohibited certain kinds of
conduct. Thus, the watershed decision legalizing abortion. And since then, the
legalization of euthanasia. The list goes on.

More recently, we have seen the law used aggressively to force religious people
and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to
their faith.

The problem is not that religion is being forced on others. The problem is that
irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith.

This reminds me of how some Roman emperors could not leave their loyal Christian
subjects in peace but would mandate that they violate their conscience by
offering religious sacrifice to the emperor as a god.

Similarly, militant secularists today do not have a live and let live spirit –
they are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith.
Instead, they seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their

For example, the last Administration sought to force religious employers,
including Catholic religious orders, to violate their sincerely held religious
views by funding contraceptive and abortifacient coverage in their health plans.
Similarly, California has sought to require pro-life pregnancy centers to
provide notices of abortion rights.

This refusal to accommodate the free exercise of religion is relatively recent.
Just 25 years ago, there was broad consensus in our society that our laws should
accommodate religious belief.

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – RFRA. The
purpose of the statute was to promote maximum accommodation to religion when the
government adopted broad policies that could impinge on religious practice.

At the time, RFRA was not controversial. It was introduced by Chuck Schumer with
170 cosponsors in the House, and was introduced by Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch
with 59 additional cosponsors in the Senate. It passed by voice vote in the
House and by a vote of 97-3 in the Senate.

Recently, as the process of secularization has accelerated, RFRA has come under
assault, and the idea of religious accommodation has fallen out of favor.

Because this Administration firmly supports accommodation of religion, the
battleground has shifted to the states. Some state governments are now
attempting to compel religious individuals and entities to subscribe to
practices, or to espouse viewpoints, that are incompatible with their religion.

Ground zero for these attacks on religion are the schools. To me, this is the
most serious challenge to religious liberty.

For anyone who has a religious faith, by far the most important part of
exercising that faith is the teaching of that religion to our children. The
passing on of the faith. There is no greater gift we can give our children and
no greater expression of love.

For the government to interfere in that process is a monstrous invasion of
religious liberty.

Yet here is where the battle is being joined, and I see the secularists are
attacking on three fronts.

The first front relates to the content of public school curriculum. Many states
are adopting curriculum that is incompatible with traditional religious
principles according to which parents are attempting to raise their children.
They often do so without any opt out for religious families.

Thus, for example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to
adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional
Christian teaching. Similar laws have been passed in California and Illinois.
And the Orange County Board of Education in California issued an opinion that
“parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender
identity, gender expression and sexual orientation may not excuse their children
from this instruction.”

Indeed, in some cases, the schools may not even warn parents about lessons they
plan to teach on controversial subjects relating to sexual behavior and

This puts parents who dissent from the secular orthodoxy to a difficult choice:
Try to scrape together the money for private school or home schooling, or allow
their children to be inculcated with messages that they fundamentally reject.

A second axis of attack in the realm of education are state policies designed to
starve religious schools of generally-available funds and encouraging students
to choose secular options.  Montana, for example, created a program that
provided tax credits to those who donated to a scholarship program that
underprivileged students could use to attend private school.  The point of the
program was to provide greater parental and student choice in education and to
provide better educations to needy youth.

But Montana expressly excluded religiously-affiliated private schools from the
program.  And when that exclusion was challenged in court by parents who wanted
to use the scholarships to attend a nondenominational Christian school, the
Montana Supreme Court required the state to eliminate the program rather than
allow parents to use scholarships for religious schools.

It justified this action by pointing to a provision in Montana’s State
Constitution commonly referred to as a “Blaine Amendment.”  Blaine Amendments
were passed at a time of rampant anti-Catholic animus in this country, and
typically disqualify religious institutions from receiving any direct or
indirect payments from a state’s funds.

The case is now in the Supreme Court, and we filed a brief explaining why
Montana’s Blaine Amendment violates the First Amendment.

A third kind of assault on religious freedom in education have been recent
efforts to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular
orthodoxy. For example, right here in Indiana, a teacher sued the Catholic
Archbishop of Indianapolis for directing the Catholic schools within his diocese
that they could not employ teachers in same-sex marriages because the example of
those same-sex marriages would undermine the schools’ teaching on the Catholic
view of marriage and complementarity between the sexes.

This lawsuit clearly infringes the First Amendment rights of the Archdiocese by
interfering both with its expressive association and with its church autonomy.
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the state court
making these points, and we hope that the state court will soon dismiss the

Taken together, these cases paint a disturbing picture. We see the State
requiring local public schools to insert themselves into contentious social
debates, without regard for the religious views of their students or parents. In
effect, these states are requiring local communities to make their public
schools inhospitable to families with traditional religious values; those
families are implicitly told that they should conform or leave.

At the same time, pressure is placed on religious schools to abandon their
religious convictions. Simply because of their religious character, they are
starved of funds – students who would otherwise choose to attend them are told
they may only receive scholarships if they turn their sights elsewhere.

Simultaneously, they are threatened in tort and, eventually, will undoubtedly be
threatened with denial of accreditation if they adhere to their religious
character.  If these measures are successful, those with religious convictions
will become still more marginalized.

I do not mean to suggest that there is no hope for moral renewal in our country.

But we cannot sit back and just hope the pendulum is going to swing back toward

As Catholics, we are committed to the Judeo-Christian values that have made this
country great.

And we know that the first thing we have to do to promote renewal is to ensure
that we are putting our principles into practice in our own personal private

We understand that only by transforming ourselves can we transform the world
beyond ourselves.

This is tough work. It is hard to resist the constant seductions of our
contemporary society. This is where we need grace, prayer, and the help of our

Beyond this, we must place greater emphasis on the moral education of our

Education is not vocational training. It is leading our children to the
recognition that there is truth and helping them develop the faculties to
discern and love the truth and the discipline to live by it.

We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next
generation our faith and values in full vigor.

The times are hostile to this. Public agencies, including public schools, are
becoming secularized and increasingly are actively promoting moral relativism.

If ever there was a need for a resurgence of Catholic education – and more
generally religiously-affiliated schools – it is today.

I think we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic
education at all levels.

Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is
being waged against religion on the legal plane.

We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forces of secularization to drive
religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the free
exercise of our faith.

I can assure you that, as long as I am Attorney General, the Department of
Justice will be at the forefront of this effort, ready to fight for the most
cherished of our liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today. And God bless you and
Notre Dame.
Attorney General William Barr

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On this day in 1837, the plan of Union ended

On this day in church history, 1837, the Plan of Union was abrogated by the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, meeting at the Central Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  The Plan of Union was made in 1801 as an agreement between the Presbyterian Church and Congregational Churches to work together for planting churches in the west.  The Baptists and Methodists were outrunning both, establishing churches among formerly Presbyterian or Congregational settlers at a wildfire pace.  For them, it was enough to find a man with gifts, give him a Bible and one or two other books, put him on a horse, and smack the horse’s rear, sending him forth to preach and plant churches!  With their emphasis on an educated ministry, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists just could not compete.  It took them years to churn out a minister.  But they felt that there could be synergistic gains by working together.  After all, both denominations were Reformed, Calvinist, and Paedo-baptizers, with an emphasis on simple and reverent worship.  It seemed like a good idea.  And the Presbyterians were badly in need of ministers.  The majority of Presbyterian pulpits in the west were vacant.  They did not have the institutional strength of the Congregational churches such as the seminaries Harvard and Yale, (to which many Presbyterian students already went), nor the amount of giving to home missions and pool of young candidates that New England had.  The Presbyterians needed Congregational money and young men!  Men licensed to preach would go out and establish congregations, whether Congregational or Presbyterian, and the church plants could decide later upon being duly constituted, whether they were going to be Presbyterian or Congregational.  Presbyterian ruling elders or Congregational committeemen could join together in the regional presbytery/association in the mission regions.

A few decades later, the agreement was ended.  The Presbyterians to this day lament the New Haven Theology that came into the western presbyteries through men educated at Yale, and the Congregationalists lament that so much of their own members’ treasure and sons, in the end, had planted in the west, not so many Congregational as Presbyterian churches.  As the Rev. Mr. Lawrence proclaimed (to laughter) at the General Convention of Congregational Churches in Albany, New York, 1852, “They have often come from the West to our New England, and ranged over our fat pastures, and borne away the fleeces from our flocks; they have milked our Congregational cows, but they have made nothing but Presbyterian butter and cheese.”


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A Response to “Engaging the Culture Doesn’t Work” by Dean Abbott

alamoDean Abbott recently made an insightful post on the patheos blog.

I would like to offer some agreement and some critique of his thesis. The theme is basically the title, “Engaging the Culture Doesn’t Work.”

“It has also been, largely, a failure. The evidence is plain. In spite of the resources poured into these efforts, American culture has increasingly embraced the cultural and sexual Left.”

By what measure, I would like to ask Mr. Abbott, has Christian cultural engagement in America been a failure? Brothers I have met in places like the United Kingdom, Germany, or Australia do not share that perspective about Christianity in America. They wonder speechlessly that Christianity in America is as successful yet, as it is, in permeating American society. They marvel at the boldness and freedom that we personify in talking about our faith in public, or to express views contrary to say, for example, “gay marriage”, because it is simply not possible for them to get by this way as we do in the United States of America. This is not by any means a reason to boast, or take pride in ourselves. It is a reason to give thanks to God. Where else in the developed world are Christians yet considered an important voting bloc, to whom even non-Christian politicians wish to ally themselves and make promises to appoint justices who will maintain their values, and pass laws to protect their religious liberty? This kind of recognition of strength is not happening in any other western nation that I am aware of. Where else in the world do Christians maintain the full liberty to preach the gospel on a bustling street corner, or to homeschool their kids in the Christian faith?

The benchmark to which a mutual fund is compared is not zero. It is to be expected that stocks will go up and down. It’s in comparison with indices like the S&P 500 or total market indices that the performance of a managed mutual fund is judged. Let us apply this technique to this topic. Christianity in America has had its losses, like Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court Decision that imposed “same-sex marriage” on all fifty states. (The final chapter in that national debate is yet unwritten.) But we have also had our successes. We scuttled the Equal Rights Amendment, deregulated home-schooling, banned late-term abortions, put hundreds of abortion clinics out of operation by putting onerous regulations on them, pushed back on recognition of transgenderism in the military, and achieved landmark precedent on the right of Christians to run a business in accordance with our Christian values. Where else in the modern western world do Christians enjoy the liberty that we do in America, and what would it be like today if Christians had not been engaging culture with the law and gospel, in all areas of life? Christians would be barred from approaching the bench as lawyers, getting any desirable jobs, or opening businesses, unless they hid their lights under bushels and pretended to be the opposite of what they are. Merely stating the unique claims of Jesus Christ as Savior in certain public settings would be considered criminal hate speech, as it now is in the United Kingdom. In most of the western world, a refusal to enroll ones children in government-approved schools is cause for arrest, but in America we have the freedom to educate our own children from the starting point of a Christian worldview. I am working in urban Southern California at a mid-sized corporation with offices nationwide, and have the privilege of attending a weekly Bible study at lunchtime in the office with co-workers, which is occurring at most of the corporate buildings, and is even recognized as an official employee activity. It is a small group, but nevertheless one that would not be tolerated in most of the secularized western world. We mourn at the decline of Christian values in America, but on the other hand, in comparison with the most culturally similar nations in the world, things are looking much better in America.  In America’s military and prisons you will still find a preponderance of paid staff chaplains generally conservative and evangelical in their view of Scripture. You can still get Christian radio stations on the radio in America. Churches can still rent (or even get free use of) public space or sign up to set up an evangelistic book table at a show or special market, or start a student group at a University. Things would certainly be a lot worse for Christians, and the progress of the gospel, if they had not been working hard at engaging the culture socially, evangelistically, politically, and even artistically over the last forty years. So, has Christian cultural engagement been a total failure? Not at all, and we have much to be thankful for.

Speaking of the post-World War II era, Abbott writes, “Millions of people still attended church.

But, even then, in elite circles, Christian belief was a mark of low status.” And “We have now arrived at a moment when this dynamic can no longer be hidden. The hostility of our elite institutions and those who run them is well documented.”

I think that Mr. Abbott makes the mistake of placing the cultural center of gravity of American life in the “elite circles.” In America, elites are more the object of derision than objects to emulate. The center of gravity in America is the great wide majority, the great middle class also known as the bourgeois. It is they that drive the culture and define it, unlike in many other countries like the United Kingdom or France. America has always had a very wide anti-establishment and even an anti-intellectual streak. America’s cultural center is more Hollywood than Opera, more hamburgers and pizza than coq au vin. This has had good and bad ramifications for Christianity in America. But, it is something that Abbott’s thesis fails to consider.

“Christianity has become marginalized because Christian belief has become an obstacle to getting what most people want: social status and the privileges which accompany it.”

Americans in general loathe and disdain the cultural elite. The American culture, or, if you prefer, cultures, are more popular than elitist. This is one of the distinctive things about America that is obvious to every European or Asian who visits. Our heroes are self-made businessmen, power-hitting baseball players, and compelling Hollywood actors, not blue-blooded politicians, impressionist visual artists, or aristocrats. In America, success is not generally measured by social status or fitting in the upper class, but by individual achievement, particularly pulling oneself up to wealth and fame by the bootstraps. The American Dream is the aspiration of the middle class. So, in the American context, Christianity as the anti-establishment faith of the people has flourished far more than the established mainline church social clubs. Note the demise of the mainline churches even as non-denominational churches have flourished. The latest Pew Research, indeed, shows that evangelicalism in America, in contrast with other developed western nations, is holding steady, not declining in numbers.

What is the alternative to cultural engagement? If, as Mr. Abbott describes, engagement has been a failure (which I have demonstrated to be false), what is his alternative? He proposes none. His reference to Rod Dreher makes me think it is hermitism, a retreat to introspective preservation. But, rationally speaking, that will only accelerate the current trends and bring the wrath of the world to bear upon the Church in America in more nasty ways more quickly. How could it not? The current political climate shows that just as it’s not enough for evangelicals to engage winsomely, it will not be enough for them to disengage, either. The unbelieving world will come after us in all their fury if we retreat. There is no shrinking from the cultural battle at hand. How did insular ghettos work for the Jews in Europe? They attracted pogroms and the Holocaust. Giving up on the creation mandate is tempting, because sometimes the result of our labor is disappointing or frustrating, but it is not a practical option. And let us be cheerful, because our God will prevail. To use a historical analogy, after the Alamo came San Jacinto.

Now a point of agreement: Abbott is spot on with his criticism of the stylistic attempts of evangelical churches to engage the culture by imitating it. As he notes,

“Many evangelicals sensed something was going on. They responded as though the problem were a matter of style rather than content. They created churches calculated to prove evangelicals could be as hip as anyone else. The result was churches that had rocking worship bands, superb lighting, a million cool programs and no cultural impact.”

The only lasting success to come from this trend was to make the hip pastor in a goatee and skinny jeans a universal object of derision.”

Very true. The mistake of evangelicalism has largely been emphasizing style over substance, as if the problem were that the church were not stylistically inviting enough to the world. This approach will never work, because the world has better style (in worldly terms) than the church ever will. Faced with the problem of social and cultural marginalization, evangelicalism on the whole has chosen the wrong remedy. Abbott insightfully describes that failure.

Now, I would like to propose another course of action. As we maintain and defend our faith, our families, our lives, and our heritage, let us focus on content over style, substance over sizzle, God-honoring worship over entertainment, and our confession of faith over results. Our churches must be historically confessional and biblical, not trendy. And let us not shrink from the battle, because we know that we are more than conquerors in our Lord Jesus Christ, that He is even now reigning as king, and that He will soon finish the conquest of all His and our enemies. What a privilege it is to be a part of that operation. Let us serve God in our occupations, with our businesses, in direct evangelism, in apologetical answers, in our schools, in our communities, in running for office and in making our political voice heard. Let our churches hold to our confession of faith and our pious practice, let us pray for a great awakening across our land, and let our families continue to lead and adhere to the fear and admonition of the Lord, because nations may come and go, but His kingdom reigns forever.

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A French Huguenot minister in New York

A little family history. Here’s a letter written by a Dutch reformed minister in New York to the Classis of Amsterdam on September 30, 1696. His name is Domine Selyns. In the letter he mentions the French reformed minister who serves where my ancestors the Sicard family [bearing my paternal grandma’s maiden name] were settled in New Rochelle, New York. His name was Reverend (or Domine to use the Dutch title) Bondet, A Huguenot minister from France and a former professor at the famed Academy of Saumur. This was the pastor of some of our ancestors in of New York who had escaped France eight years before.  

Selyns writes, “Domine Brodet [Bondet], who was formerly professor at Saumur, and who lived among the Indians and preached to them for eight years, is at New Rochelle, 20 miles from here, and is very useful by his ministerial gifts and holy life.”

A History of the Reformed Church, Dutch in the United States by ET Corwin, 115.

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Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly speaks out against the secularization of public schools–affirms Christian America


Faced with the growing secularization of public schools in America, the PC(USA) defined the position of American Presbyterianism in the following pronouncement by her General Assembly in the year 1870:

“We should regard the successful attempt to expel all religious instruction and influence from our public schools as an evil of the first magnitude. Nor do we see how this can be done without inflicting a deadly wound upon the intellectual and moral life of the nation…We look upon the state as an ordinance of God, and not a mere creature of the popular will; and, under its high responsibility to the Supreme Ruler of the world, we hold it to be both its right and bound duty to educate its children in those elementary principles of knowledge and virtue which are essential to its own security and well-being. The union of church and state is indeed against our American theory and constitutions of government; but the most intimate union of the state with the saving and conservative forces of Christianity is one of the oldest customs of the country, and has always ranked a vital article of our political faith.”

General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 1870, quoted in A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States by Robert E. Thompson, 1895, p. 199.

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Presbyterians Pressured by President Lincoln

Illustration of the Bombardment of Fort SumterWhen the Confederate Army cannonaded Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, opening the Civil War, it turned out to be a moment that crystallized the patriotic feelings of many Americans in defense of the Union. Sumter awoke a sleeping giant. It was on of those “rally around the flag” moments that the South had probably not expected it to be, when people across the Union who were previously apathetic or ambivalent about the political disputes between North and South felt a rush of anger over what the South had done, and a desire to preserve the Union. Reading about this turn of events reminds me of the patriotic response many Americans exhibited during the First Gulf War, when Lee Greenwood soared to the top of the charts with his perennial favorite, “God Bless the USA”, and later, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 when Union flags seemed to fly on every car antenna in a surge of patriotic feeling.

Just one month after Sumter, in May 1861, Rev. Gardiner Spring introduced a resolution at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A. calling for a day of prayer and fasting, in light of the national trouble and warfare that had already broken out with the siege of Ft. Sumter and the secession of 8 states. He was an influential and respected conservative in the denomination, hand-picked to present the resolution by the pro-Union side. It made one small mention of prayer for the preservation of the Union, without including any denunciations of the Southern States that some had wanted to see in it. What many may not know, is that the Lincoln administration was pressuring the Presbyterian Church to pass a resolution supporting the Union. The Presbyterian Church was at that time one of the three largest church bodies in the Union, and the Lincoln administration, perhaps rightly, thought that the declared support of the Presbyterian Church toward the Union would help secure the loyalty of the Border States: New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri toward the federal cause. The vote went 156-66 in favor of the resolution*. A contingent protested the resolution led by Charles Hodge, but to no avail. Moderate-mindedness could not quell the spirit of patriotism or the desire to help preserve the Union.220px-abraham_lincoln_o-77_matte_collodion_print

In response, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States was promptly formed of the forty-seven presbyteries in the South. A schism of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches took place, which did not reunite for over one hundred twenty years. While it was sad that political concerns split the church, it was also a continuation of the Presbyterian tradition of a mutually helpful relationship between the church and the civil government.

*See: A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States by Robert Thompson, New York: 1895.

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Presbyterianism in America

The group of ecclesiastical bodies which co(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationnstitute the Presbyterian family in America hold a place of great importance in the religious life of the nation.  American Presbyterianism has been of weight beyond its numerical strength through the services it has rendered to theological science, the interest it has maintained in Christian doctrine, the high standard of intelligence it has set up for both its ministry and its people, its capacity to develop strength of character, its superior family discipline, and its conservative influence upon the national life.

Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States, 1.

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