Saturday, February 9, 2013

Seeking validation

"They're not sure that what they believe is true at all. If it were I'd be no threat to them."

Those words came from the late atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair in an interview with conservative journalist Cal Thomas, who asked her why so many Christians hated her and which he quoted in the 1999 book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" that he wrote with the Rev. Ed Dobson. She, of course, has long been vilified for, among other things, having prayer removed from public schools. (Which is unfair, since what was actually banned was only sectarian -- in this case, Protestant-based -- prayer exercises conducted by agents of the state -- that is, teachers and principals. And the Supreme Court decision at the time was quite popular.)

But O'Hair's statement speaks to a larger point: It seems that we Christians, far from simply trying to engage the greater culture, have been seeking validation from the culture. Which is something we should never do or have ever done because, when that happens, we end up being swallowed up by it.

Christian "culture warriors," including Thomas at times, have long lamented the loss of a Christian consensus as to what's right and wrong, what's true and false. However, in the process -- and especially beginning in the late-1970s, with the rise of the "religious right" -- we neglected to include our own personal and corporate character, not realizing that part of today's opposition to "Christian values" has to do with the way some of us act in the public square.

I first heard that in early 1980, from the pulpit of a suburban Atlanta church; the pastor was consistently preaching against "secular humanism" and punctuated his rant with the phrase from Hebrews, "for our God is a consuming fire." Later on, and not by just that pastor, that list of targets was expanded to include abortionists, homosexuals, the American Civil Liberties Union, the national Democratic Party, Bill Clinton ... the list went on.

So what does this have to do with validation? Well, if you feel the need to force your values down everyone's throat, perhaps you don't really believe that it will win out in the end. It results from what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance," where folks with a strong commitment to a specific worldview encounter evidence that suggest that they just might be wrong and not only dismiss it outright but go to war against it.

This basically describes the conservative movement and much of the Republican Party today. In the wake of electoral losses they have suffered over the last two decades you might hear some of their apologists say, "If we can get back to Ronald Reagan ..., " with scholar Dinesh D'Souza insisting that he had "the winning agenda." Times were different then, however, and besides, they have never faced that the electorate voted for not so much what Reagan stood for but for Reagan himself.

Which is why they hated Clinton so much -- they saw, correctly in my view, that he threatened to undo everything they had worked for. Suddenly personal insults, gossip and innuendo, condemned in Scripture, became part and parcel of Christian political discourse, and the hypocrisy wasn't lost on a lot of non-believers, who began turning against them. (Then again, they still exhibit denial, blaming their loss in last year's general election on the media and other outside forces, never considering the reality that people simply aren't buying what they're selling.)

To me, this points to several things: 1) A practical atheism, a lack of trust in God that He will preserve His people in the midst of tribulation; 2) Self-absorption, in that life revolves around you and you alone and thus the lack of consideration of others, especially those that don't agree; and 3) Idolatry, in that His Kingdom isn't the supreme value.

I am not saying that Christians shouldn't be active or argue for our values in public life. I am saying, however, that we need to rethink our entanglements with non-believers who will cherry-pick what they want to curry favor with us lest we be perceived as just another interest group. Moreover, we also need to act with a certain humility, understanding that if the world doesn't get it, well, it didn't get the LORD Jesus either. He never sought validation from the powers of the world, and neither should we.

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