Ice Cubes and a Slice of Lemon

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If we are talking about reading, writing, and ciphering, the state of government education in the United States is appalling. But if we reflect on what Hunter Baker points out in his The End of Secularism (p. 18), that more Americans believe in the virgin birth than believe in Darwinism, the failure of state education appears to be a cause for celebration. We still have a good deal to work with.

John Adams wrote somewhere that our Constitution presupposes a moral and a religious people, and that this very same Constitution is “wholly unfit” for any other kind of people. Amen. But . . .

Enter Glenn Beck. He began educating himself on what the Founders taught about the foundations of civil liberty, and discovered that they were not secularists. God was necessary, and so Beck started to teach that God was necessary. This is why his rally at the Washington Mall was a “restoring honor” rally, with God as the foundation, and not a partisan political rally. A lot of evangelicals were involved in this, and Russell Moore has some really good thoughts on what a farrago of confusion it all is.

But I would want to add something to Moore’s concerns (with which I fully agree). Remember that Beck is in motion. He is reading and learning as he goes. If he keeps on going, right out of Mormonism and into an orthodox form of the Christian faith, he wouldn’t be the first reformer this kind of thing happened to. If something like that happened, then I would be more than happy to keep cheering him on. But if it does not happen, then I am confident that what he is doing will be just one more flash-in-the-pan event, of the kind that our religious organizers are so good at.

Why? Because Beck is a Mormon, all his appeals to “God” will of necessity be appeals to a place-holder god, a thin, generic god, the god on our money. But the god of American civil religion is not a god who speaks. He has no opinions, no laws, no revelation. He has no son, and he sent no mediator. He can be safely appealed to by all parties, or blithely ignored by any party. As long as Beck is trying to convey constitutional content, he cannot support it with contentless theology. Just as King James once said, “No bishop, no king,” so I say, “No Creed, no Constitution.” If Beck wants to love the Constitution, he needs to learn to love the Creed. He needs to become a Christian. And instead of giving up in despair over the frightful muddle all this represents, orthodox believers need pray that he does become a Christian. Why not? God has a sense of humor.

 

At his rally, Beck referred to the “black regiment” that he had with him, referring to the many clergymen who were at the rally. This name came from Presbyterian preachers in the American War for Independence who were known as the black regiment because they preached in black Geneva gowns. But because Beck has gathered men who are okay with his Mormonism, at best he has a light gray regiment. But the need of the hour is not pearly gray Franciscans, but black robed Calvinists. We need thunder and lightning in our pulpits, and not a light drizzle.

A word “God” that encompasses both the deity of Mormonism, who used to be a man just like us, and the triune Creator of Heaven and earth, worshiped by orthodox Christians, is for all intents and purposes a worthless word. It is a thin word, not a thick one.

Salvation for nations is religious, and it needs to be religiously thick. We cannot be saved by thin religion. We cannot be saved by a religion the theological definitions of which will not stand up under five minutes of questioning.

And, as it turns out, this problem goes back to Adams. He rightly held that our republic was founded on “reason, morality, and the Christian religion” without “the monkery of priests.” But though this was right, Adams himself was beginning to move toward Unitarianism, the granddaddy of all the errors of American civil religion. Adams said that Christianity was necessary, while he was drifting out of it. But we need Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the Father, raised for our justification, and we most certainly do not need a Generic Fomenter of Uplift in the Sky.

The mistake we made was this. If we want and need a “mere Christendom,” then we need to keep that Christendom from becoming sectarian. But when you pour a diluting agent into your theology willy nilly, unless you take care, the dilution will affect the essential aspects of the Christian faith, like the death and resurrection of Jesus, and not just the relative unimportance of the debate between supralapsarians and infralapsarians.

Mere Christendom needs to be thin when it comes to the differences between Lutherans and Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists, and so on. But it needs to manage to do this without thinning out the contents of the Apostles Creed. It needs to be thick there.

The centuries old movement toward a thinner civil religion has moved us from a founding of Calvinistic Scotch to a glass of tepid water. Beck has put some ice cubes in the water, and a slice of lemon, and everybody is freaking out as though it were twenty-year-old Scotch.

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