A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

As we approach the anniversary of a certain election, I have chosen another column to reprint.

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

by

An Alien Visitor

As told to

G. Scott Huggins

Dear Sirs, Mesdames, Glooquot[1],and  Mechaniqa[2]:

I submit herewith my xenological report on the most curious culture to inhabit planet 73SXB1089, called in the major local language, Dirt. The most powerful economic and military culture on the planet is that of the Acirema, who have evolved a religio-political system that I believe to be unprecedented in the known galaxy.

The institution of the God-King is, of course, well documented and known to us all, the hallmark of a thousand primitive cultures. What sets the Acirema apart is their particular variant upon this theme: in their common religion, the central ceremony is the election, every four years, of a God-President. This is a very complicated process, and affects every aspect of Acirema life. The Acirema religion is atypical in many ways, the chief being: 1) The religion has aspects of both monism and dualism. 2) The religion relies on both faith and magic. 3) They deny that they share the same religion. 4) They deny that it is a religion at all.

Overview:

The Acirema overwhelmingly belong to one of two sects. They have many names among themselves, and among each other, both self-glorifying (for their own sect) and pejorative (for the other). However, the two names that seem to be most in use are the Tarcomed and the Pog. The two sects claim to be as different from one another as possible, but for at least the past few decades their actions have grown more and more indistinguishable, to the point that only experts can tell them apart. The two sects themselves, however, vehemently deny this, so it is instructive to look at the major similarities.

Dualism:

Both sides, every four Dirt years, throw all of the efforts of their disciples into electing the next God-President, which is always one of two Chosen Prophets, one from each sect. Yet both sides have agreed that no God-President shall be elected more than twice, regardless of how well he performs the office. It is an article of faith that this would lead to corruption, as if eight years were not long enough a time to be corrupted. The disciples preach to the masses, who are at least nominal followers of the sects themselves, in order to encourage them to participate in the voting ceremony. The devotion of the masses does lie in some doubt, as it has been many years, if ever, that even half have participated in the actual ceremony. Yet even those who decline to participate in the ceremony itself (which is surprisingly prosaic and unmystical, being simply a matter of counting votes and then multiplying them by a formula based on place of habitation) devote quite a bit of time to watching and listening to the disciples, and chanting formulas in support or dissent of the two sects’ Chosen Prophets. Each side is certain that only their Chosen Prophet, as God-President, can save Acirema from poverty, war, corruption, and tyranny, while the election of the other Chosen Prophet will bring about all these things. So in this sense, the religion is dualistic, with the true believers of each sect certain that the other’s Chosen Prophet will be a God-President of Evil and Darkness.

Monism:

However, once in office, the current God-President is praised (by the disciples of his own sect) for all good things that may happen within the realm of Acirema, while he is universally reviled (by the disciples of the other sect) for all possible bad things. Even those who claim to follow neither sect generally attribute the good or the bad to the decisions and the character of the God-President, whoever he may be. In this sense, therefore, the religion of the Acirema is monistic, as everything that takes place is an aspect of his rule. The chief priests, who go about instilling this belief in the worshippers, are called the “media,” not because they mediate between the people and their God-President, but because they are the only mediators of His decisions and statements to them.

Faith and Magic:

It would be natural to assume that the Acirema might fear and revere their God-President’s power simply because it is vast and unlimited like that of any tyrant, but a short review of their Law (which is indeed fairly well-enforced, though not commonly well-understood or thoroughly read) reveals that this is not so, and that the power attributed to him is entirely based on superstition and faith. The best example of such faith is the miraculous control that they attribute to the God-President over the economy. Yet a cursory review of their Law will show that the God-President has very little power over their sprawling economy, not even the power to make laws. That power is vested in a temple which, every two years they fill with what appears to be a college of wizards (also divided into Tarcomed and Pog sects), who try to influence the economy by what I can only describe as legislemancy: a series of written spells designed to make those who have elected them richer, and those who support their opponents poorer. The spells are so arcane that even many of the wizards no longer know their contents, let alone their eventual consequences. The practice does have this advantage for them, however: since no consequence of the legislemancy can ever be known for sure, there is no effect that cannot be successfully claimed as a triumph for one sect or the other. It is therefore understandable (and one of the last remaining signs of sanity in Acirema culture) that the people’s distrust of these wizards is such that the Acirema have given their temple a name that can mean both the opposite of progress and indiscriminate sexual intercourse (proving that for all their other faults, the Acirema are skilled wordsmiths and ironists). In recent years, the sectarian wizardry has grown more and more oppositional, and the result, of course is that very little gets accomplished. This seems to have been designed into the system by the authors of the Law, who were quite obviously wiser than the current Acirema. This congress, as they call it, however, serves only to reinforce their faith in the power of the God-President.

Identity of Practice:

Both sects have therefore given to the God-President more and more power, seemingly unaware of the fact that the power they give to the God-President that they support carries over to the one they oppose. Both sects encourage their God-President to fight the other sect to the uttermost, both beseech him to wield the full force of the Law without mercy over the other sect, and both call upon him to see that he extends the force of the Law and his powers of government so that more and more of their money will be taken and spent by the government.  So in this way, we may see that the religion they practice is truly the same.

Denial of Faith:

One must be careful, however, when traveling among them, never to refer to their religion as such, for both sects will violently deny that it is a religion at all. While much variance on the matter exists within each sect, the Tarcomed are most likely to deny that such a thing as God exists, which may account for their devotion to (or hatred for) the current God-President, as they have no other deity in which to repose their trust. However, even more curious are the Pog, who generally profess to worship another, and far older god. A review of the local literature revealed that this alleged god supposedly came to Earth as a man, and preached love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, all of which are markedly absent from Acirema religious debate, aside from the fact that both sects do claim to possess these qualities, while believing their opponents lack them entirely. However, as neither the Pog nor the Tarcomed spend even a quarter of the time discussing or practicing the tenets of this minor “religion” as they do their major one, we may safely discount this quaint folkway as having any real effect upon their actions or beliefs.

Conclusion:

The Acirema are, for now, in a very strange and possibly dangerous religious phase of their culture. There is some evidence that in the past, a saner approach to politics, and we may assume, religion, took place, in which the Acirema recognized that policies rather than superstition and sectarian purity were more likely to affect their economic and diplomatic fortunes, but few, if any of that generation survive today, and since age is not well-respected among the Acirema, any testimony from them can be dismissed as “reactionary” and “out-of-touch.” We may only hope that their children may be as much wiser than the current Acirema as their ancestors were, and hope for more fruitful contact at a later time.

[1] Untranslatable gender

[2] Intelligent machines

His Kingdom Endures Forever

Another column I wrote about a year ago. It is always easier to argue against a part of an idea than it is to argue against all of it.

There is a popular and growing disdain for the concept of an afterlife today. Among agnostics and atheists, it is seen as pure wishful thinking, lampooned as “pie in the sky when you die,” a nostrum intended to keep the poor and the ignorant enslaved to the will of the religious elite. That this phrase was popularized by a communist who intended to harness the poor and ignorant to his revolution is either forgotten, or else embraced as “liberating,” as though dying for a secular cause you’ll never experience is somehow more meaningful and less absurd than dying for a religious one you would.

In the postmodern age, we see that even among some Christians, a desire for an afterlife is seen as somehow dishonorable and mercenary. As though somehow it is “pay” for “being good,” which truly virtuous people would do without reward. Thus, it is argued, Christians (or anyone) who believe in an afterlife are really just admitting their own moral failings. I must admit that, as a Christian, this argument fails to move me, seeing that the whole basis for faith in Christ is a recognition that everyone fails at morality.

I find it an interesting paradox, therefore, that in so many fantasy works that explicitly address the question of what it means to be good, the idea of an afterlife inevitably occurs. If it does not at the beginning, then it does at the end. Almost as if it were a secret that cannot help but come out whenever we discuss what it means to do right at the cost of our own lives.

Of course, the classic threat that is leveled at our SFF heroes is always “submit, or die.”  Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Chalion cycle, begins The Curse of Chalion with the tale of Lupe dy Cazaril, a Chalionese nobleman recently freed from the slavery into which he was betrayed. Although Cazaril at first dares death to save his young pupil, a Chalionese girl threatened with a forced marriage, he finds himself quickly caught up in a the service of gods who ask him to die not once, but three times to save Chalion from a curse brought about by the desperate pride of two men long dead. Cazaril does this at the risk, not only of his death, but of his damnation. And damnation becomes a theme throughout this cycle of Bujold’s work, just as reunion with the gods does. The entire second work, A Paladin of Souls turns on saving the soul of a damned ghost. To do this, Dowager Queen Ista must walk into danger only on the word of her patron god.

If Cazaril is not especially religious at the beginning of his tale, Frodo the Hobbit and Harry Potter the wizard are even less so. Both characters face, however, the growing power of a malevolent force that wishes to dominate their worlds. While the characters are extremely different, Frodo being completely unknown in his world before encountering the One Ring, while Harry is a prophesied hero practically at his birth, they have this similarity: both are forced to choose whether they will accept the role of opposing a deadly foe at the cost of their own lives. And the reward for both of them, revealed at the end of the last volume, is Heaven. The fact that Harry chooses to turn his back on Heaven (and the penalty for Voldemort’s determination to live forever at the expense of others is, make no mistake, a form of Hell) is irrelevant. He has seen Heaven, and can be confident he will find his way back.

I would contend that these authors have seen clearly a necessary truth: that the belief in an objective moral code that can demand our lives in its service cannot be separated from the belief in an afterlife. The alternative to this is not moral rectitude, but a dreadful moral injustice, in which the good are enslaved to the evil. It makes God (or whatever the source of the moral code is) into a moral vampire, demanding the hard road of virtue while returning nothing.

A comparison may be useful here. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost:[1]not a Creator, but simply an immensely powerful being who opportunistically identified itself as “God” to all who came after. Hell is maintained for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings.

I find it fascinating where Pullman went in setting this up. When, in the first volume, The Golden Compass, we meet the parents of the main protagonist, a girl named Lyra, her parents (whom she does not know, as they have more important things to do than raise a child) are engaged in experiments to understand the nature of the universe, which they can only do, it seems, by cutting out the souls of children. This they do without qualm.

By The Amber Spyglass, we are asked to believe that these same people who would torture and kill children to attain their ends are sacrificing themselves heroically in combat to overthrow the evil Metatron. I suppose we ought to congratulate Pullman on his honesty: at least his anti-theistic messiah figures were honest enough to start out by killing children. Most of the ones in the real world are too cowardly to show their willingness to do this until they have already attained power.

At the end of the novel, Lyra breathlessly declares her intention to begin building “the Republic of Heaven,” to replace the shattered kingdom. But this Republic of Heaven will have no permanent inhabitants, it having been revealed that infinite existence was only possible, for some reason, in Hell. Lyra’s “heaven” is temporary, powerless, and cannot even contain the boy she has grown to love.

Pullman’s point, in the end, seems to be that his humans are free because they have discovered the truth: that Christianity is a lie. Well and good, I suppose, but the truth revealed is a terribly depressing one: that humans are free only to die. It truly is a Satanic conclusion: that it is better to reign and die than to serve in Heaven. He makes no argument as to why this is superior, he simply establishes on his own Author-ity that this is the case.

I would argue that we find it difficult to separate the idea of Heaven from the idea of a transcendent moral code because the two are fundamentally indissoluble, as Tolkien, Rowling, and Bujold instinctively grasp. They are repelled from separating the two for much the same reason that Pullman is attracted to destroying both: because they believe that an objective and powerful moral code is essential to human freedom, while Pullman believes that such a code destroys it. Each author has built a world on his on this foundation, and the consequences for the human condition are plain. Which world we would choose to inhabit is, as always, a choice for the reader. I believe Pullman would argue that the overwhelming advantage of living in his world is that it most closely resembles the real one. To that, I can only reply, along with C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, “in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it.”

[1] “That we were formd then saist thou? and the work
Of secondarie hands, by task transferd
From Father to his Son? strange point and new!
Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d
By our own quick’ning power…”

The Temptation of Samuel Vimes

For this week’s Monday post, another column that I did for Sci Phi Journal last year. Terry Pratchett was perhaps the most amazing writer I have ever read, who faced his own limitations and did not deny them. This column represents one of the lessons I learned from his writing.

Like so many of us, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett earlier this year. Not so sad as I had been to learn that he suffered from the variant of Alzheimer’s disease that led to his death in the first place. What can I say of him? He was possibly the greatest fantasy author of my lifetime. He had the rare gift of being able to shift from writing comic farce to deep philosophy in the space of a paragraph. His works contained allusions to great literature, music, science, and the Bible.

If you have not read Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! then put this column down, get a copy and read it. I’ll wait. In fact, if you have read it, go read it again. You’re welcome.

At the very end of the book, after the dragon terrorizing the city has been defeated, Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, takes Captain Vimes of the City Watch up on the pinnacle of the palace[1] and offers him the world.[2] The reason Vimes struggles with depression over the state of the city is because, Vetinari says, Vimes thinks of the world as divided into good people and bad people. But in reality, “there are always and only the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.” The human race is a “rolling sea of evil,” and the only difference is the depth.

“Down there… are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. No the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they do not say no.”

The parallels with C.S. Lewis’s demon, Screwtape, complaining about his “lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers” in Hell are inescapable: “Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern or emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their ‘normalcy,’ or even because they had nothing else to do.” Like the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, they dared not say no.

Of course, even in Pratchett’s world, there are those who will stand up to the dragons. There are those with good intentions, like Vimes’s second-in-command Sgt. Colon, who try to rally the people to oppose the dragon’s order to sacrifice virgins to it by using the tactics of peaceful protest:

“It can’t burn everybody,” said Colon.”
“I’m not exactly sure I understand why not,” replies a nameless citizen. “Why can’t it burn everyone and fly off to another city?”

Pratchett realizes the truth; that there are some enemies who will not be moved by moral gestures, no matter how noble. Nevertheless, as Colon’s protestors (including Colon himself) drain away before the appearance of the dragon, one man, even in Ankh-Morpork, dares to place his life between his loved ones and the desolation of dragonfire. What happens to him is predictable, and bleak.

We are not even told his name. At the core of the scene, brilliant in its mockery of the limits to nonviolent protest, is a man whose self-sacrifice for his daughters and his fellow citizens is swallowed up in oblivion, without a further thought.

This reinforces Vetinari’s gentle pity of Vimes, the man who “put[s] together “little rafts of rules and vaguely good intentions and say this is the opposite, this will triumph in the end.” Obviously, it doesn’t triumph. It is not so much that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” as the saying goes. It is that evil will triumph despite all that good men can do, because those good men are drowning in the sea of evil apathy that is the human race.

Against this, Vimes does not budge: “‘It’s just because people are afraid and alone…’  He paused. It sounded pretty hollow even to him… ‘They’re just people. They’re just doing what people do, sir.’” Vetinari replies, “You have to believe that, I appreciate… Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death.”

Both Vetinari and Vimes miss the point, here. Vimes uses people’s loneliness and fear as an excuse for people’s behavior, and Vetinari tacitly accepts that this would be an excuse. In other words, that people “doing what people do” are people relieved to stay alive at the cost of everyone else they know. In Good Omens, Pratchett (with Neil Gaiman) says it another way: Adam, their protagonist, says to the Angel Metatron, “I don’t see what’s so triffic <sic> about creating people as people and then gettin’ upset ‘cos they act like people.”

Of course, this explanation flies in the face of pretty much all monotheistic theology, including Judaism and Islam, which state explicitly that people were not created as this sort of people. If the crux of any criticism depends on a straw man of the opposition, then surely we can agree it is a bad criticism. It is vital that we understand this, because the situation is in no way fictional. A horrifying factual example of people being people in this way can be found in Corrie ten Boom’s memoir of the Holocaust, The Hiding Place, when she pleads with a Dutch pastor to hide a Jewish mother and her baby:

“No. Definitely not. We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!”

Corrie’s father responds: “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family.”

If people being people results in the actions of the Dutch pastor, then I submit that being people is itself evil. What, after all, do we think of a man who is good only because he is safe and warm and fed and knows he will be tomorrow? Is that our idea of a moral person? Those who deign to do good when all is well with them? Whole schools of politics, of course, Marxism as well as fascism, are based on the idea that this is so. That essentially, we cannot expect people to be virtuous and kind until they are no longer poor; that the poor and oppressed (and their “allies”) may essentially threaten to terrorize the cosmos if it does not suit their ideas of equality and justice, and call it morality.

Though his statement sounds “hollow even to him,” Vimes does challenge Vetinari’s temptation to despair: “Do you believe all that, sir? About the endless evil and the sheer blackness?”

Vetinari: “It is the only logical conclusion.”

Vimes: “But you get out of bed every morning, sir?”

Vetinari: “Yes? What is your point?”

Vetinari:  “Oh, do go away, Vimes, there’s a good fellow.”

Vimes, battered little almost-Christ, sees the truth, though he has no answer for it either: that Vetinari’s view, true or not, cannot sustain life. And to this, Vetinari has no answer. He goes on ruling, goes on striving, an evil captain of a Flying Dutchman, sinking in a sea of evil.

Terry Pratchett expresses the problem of good and evil as clearly as any writer I have ever read. But he does not have an answer to it. He has only the temptation to despair. Against this, Vimes endures, but only with stubbornness; not with hope. The choice is between theology and despair, and I know of no third way. That I leave as an exercise for the reader.

[1] Okay, the view from his office window. Nothing’s very high in Ankh-Morpork.

[2] In the sense of showing it to him. Not in the sense of giving it to him. This is Vetinari, after all.

The Word: Can God Make A Person Free Enough To Surprise Him?

Explanation: A bit over a year ago, I began writing a regular theology column for Sci Phi Journal called The Mote In God’s ‘I’. This is the column that launched the series, and remains my fastest sale to date (15 minutes). I am re-running it here, hoping my readers like it as well as the editor did.

The Mote In God’s “I.”

Most of the problems I’ve run into in my life, I have solved by the simple expedient of reading more science-fiction. I was too young to be an astronaut when I discovered that such an incredible profession existed, so I read Rocket Jockey by Lester del Rey. I didn’t have any friends in my middle-school years, so I read Anne McCaffrey and imagined myself a dragonrider. Somewhat more productively, I watched and read Star Trek and found myself a few like-minded friends who started tabletop gaming. Problem solved. Whenever dramatically boring people said I couldn’t use made-up worlds to solve my problems, I pointed out that a) the “real” world had no better track record at that, and b) it was working fine so far. Then I read more science-fiction and solved more problems.

One of the oldest problems in theology is that of free will versus theological determinism. If God exists, and is all-powerful and all-knowing as his followers claim, then how can his creation be possessed of free will? Won’t He know everything they are going to do beforehand? And if He does, is the future not fixed? And if fixed, in what sense do creatures have a choice?

(This essay is not going to concern itself with the debate on whether free will exists. For the sake of this essay, it exists. If you believe otherwise, go… do whatever the hell you were already going to do, I guess. I can’t stop you. More to the point, you can’t stop you. Have fun.)

On the other hand, if creatures have free will, then can God really be God? Doesn’t that mean he’s either not omnipotent, or not omniscient?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!

The problem is that many theological thinkers have just been willing to accept what turns out to be a false dichotomy. Calvinists, who believe in predestination, essentially say that yes, God does know everything, and are fine with that because the purpose of God is to glorify God. How God is glorified if it turns out that He Himself is the ultimate cause of evil, because no one ever had a choice not to commit it, I have never been able to figure out.

On the other side of the theological divide, we have the Arminians, who say that free will is sacred to God, so God would never interfere with it. While that certainly says a lot more for God’s character, it still doesn’t really answer how God can’t destroy free will by knowing the future.

In other words, the problem with both schools of thought is that their answers lack the imagination that provides the backbone of really solid science-fiction writing.

For the longer answer that is actually relevant I eventually formulated, I have to give credit, not, as you might think, to men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (I’m going to assume we all know these guys were hard-core Christians, yes?) but to writers such as S.M. Stirling and Terry Pratchett. Because both of these men’s worlds really do contain the answer, if we look hard enough.

S.M. Stirling is my all-time favorite alternate-history writer. Sister Marya Sokolowska of his Draka cycle is one of my favorite religious characters in all of fiction. But it was The Peshawar Lancers that started me thinking along theological lines. In it, the “seer” Yasmini can see possible futures, enabling her to predict the results of present actions. As the novel progresses, she begins seeing all the possible futures, all the time, until it threatens to drive her mad.

Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld universe, more facetiously puts an omniscope (which can see anywhere and anywhen) under the control of the Department of Inadvisably Applied Magic. When asked to observe the future, he demurs, on the grounds that observing the future would cause all the possible futures to collapse into a single future, which, having been observed, would now be the only future.

In both of these cases, we see the same core idea: there are many futures to choose from. And while it might not be possible for a man to observe them all, as in Pratchett, or for a woman to keep them all straight, as in Stirling, it should be quite possible for God.

The solution to the problem is not that God be considered less than omniscient. It is that He be considered more omniscient than we had ever imagined. Why could God not see all possible futures, simultaneously, and then react accordingly as His creation, blessed with free will, makes choices?

There are really only two objections to this: Firstly, does this mean that God could be surprised? Maybe even thwarted? Certainly not, and science-fiction (or fantasy) again provides the answer, as any competent dungeon-master who has ever run a party through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign knows. Because the dungeon-master knows the rules. The party may do something unusual, and the die rolls may be odd, but they can’t really surprise him.  And by (in Hawking’s famous phrase) “throwing the dice where they cannot be seen,” God can certainly always create the circumstances He wants. But no being with infinite attention could ever be surprised, any more than an author of one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books could be when a child reaches one of his endings. Yet, the child had free will.

Secondly, is it possible for God to keep knowledge from himself in this way (and you have to admit, that’s a lot more interesting than the old “can-God-make-a-rock-so-heavy-yadda-yadda-barf” question)?

Well, it’s hard to imagine why He couldn’t. His lack of knowledge doesn’t threaten Him or anyone He cannot protect. And God often speaks in “If… then” phrases in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Exodus 4 being but one example). Why would God need to use “if” when He already knew? Is He lying to his followers? That would seem more troubling than the idea that God might limit his own knowledge. By giving people free will at all, God would already have limited His own power, simply by allowing other power to exist. This objection seems petty.

There seems to be no intrinsic reason then, why free will and omniscience could not coexist, so long as we recognize the proper definition of “omniscience,” which requires, as science-fiction has always required – as religion, at  its best, has always required – that we always seek beyond the limits of the humanly and presently possible.

Screwtape’s Toast: A Serial Retrospective

Blogger’s Note: It would be neither practical nor wise to divulge the means whereby the following dispatches came into my hands, and following the example of that great author upon whose work I have built, will say no more, but release them into the Internet, where intelligence from Hell will doubtless feel welcome and at home. I also with him encourage my reader to remember that the devil is a liar, and that not all he says should be regarded as true even by his own standards.

Introduction: It has now been sixty years since the recording of “The Toast,” which, although conceived as no more than a series of remarks delivered to a general audience of tempters, has in the interim become unhallowed as one of the foundational strategic texts of the Lowerarchy.

It is, however, perhaps fitting at this time to review the salient points of this great document, and comment upon the extent to which his vision and aims have been accomplished among our patients in the past sixty years, which have seen such changes wrought upon that planet as to make it almost unrecognizable. It has seen us triumph in ways that would have seemed unimaginable. And as we are not, in the words of a popular political slogan in the United States “tired of winning yet,” it is perhaps worth our time to examine this worthy document so as to safeguard and preserve the final victory that even now is in sight.

Screwtape Proposes a Toast

It is customary on these occasions for the speaker to address himself chiefly to those among you who have just graduated and who will very soon be posted to official Tempterships on Earth… I well remember with what trepidation I awaited my own first appointment. I hope, and believe, that each one of you has the same uneasiness tonight. Your career is before you. Hell expects and demands that it should be — as mine was — one of unbroken success. If it is not, you know what awaits you.

While Screwtape himself has fallen out of favor with Those Below (some say for the grievous fault of being unable to restrain his incisive intellect, others that he was falling too far and too fast to suit the powerful. The precise charge, as always, is Secret), he has perhaps won for himself the distinction of being the first to simultaneously distinguish himself as a devil of parts, and a devil in parts. It is of course to be hoped that his intellect will one day be with us again, when his reeducation is accomplished.

I have no wish to reduce the wholesome and realistic element of terror, the unremitting anxiety, which must act as the lash and spur to your endeavours. How often you will envy the humans their faculty of sleep! Yet at the same time I would wish to put before you a moderately encouraging view of the strategical situation as a whole.

If Screwtape had remained to see the fruition of his designs, we can only assume that he would indeed be more than “moderately” encouraged. But we will speak of that later.

Your dreaded Principal has included in a speech full of points something like an apology for the banquet which he has set before us. Well, gentledevils, no one blames him. But it would be in vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality. Not all the most skillful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid.

Oh, to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your inwards when you’d got it down.

Being assigned to the European theater of operations, Screwtape had reason to be, shall we say, disappointed with the abrupt change in his culinary fortunes. But had he taken a broader view, he would have dined on Chairman Mao, Idi Amin, and Fidel Castro, to say nothing of those who outlived the general slaughter on the general principle that we base our own rebellion on, that “the victors are never judged.” Curtis LeMay and Richard Nixon might well have warmed his gullet as well as any ancient Roman.

Instead of this, what have we had tonight? There was a municipal authority with Graft sauce. But personally I could not detect in him the flavour of a really passionate and brutal avarice such as delighted one in the great tycoons of the last century. Was he not unmistakably a Little Man — a creature of the petty rake-off pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stalest platitudes in his public utterances — a grubby little nonentity who had drifted into corruption, only just realizing that he was corrupt, and chiefly because everyone else did it?

And now, let us look at the first hints of our great success, because while these petty creatures still exist, and defile the plates of the more pathetic of us, today we have encouraged such Little Men — and women, let us not forget the importance of the division — with a burning resentment of the limits to their power, and the feeling that they truly deserve the meager resources they cheat their fellows out of. Some of them even add a delightful frisson of self-righteousness to the melange.

Then there was the lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers. Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern and emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their “normalcy,” or even because they had nothing else to do. Frankly, to me who have tasted Messalina and Casanova, they were nauseating.

These we still have with us, and for the same reasons. But we have taught more and more of them to invest their sexual antics with their entire reason for living. To boast of them openly as a sign of “liberation” and “rebellion” (while carefully avoiding any actually worthwhile activity that might make those words meaningful, to be sure) and to join an ever-growing movement that regards such activities as morally right and even “honest.”

The Trade Unionist stuffed with sedition was perhaps a shade better. He had done some real harm. He had, not quite unknowingly, worked for bloodshed, famine, and the extinction of liberty. Yes, in a way. But what a way! He thought of those ultimate objectives so little. Toeing the party line, self-importance, and above all mere routine, were what really dominated his life.

The humans flatter themselves that such creatures are of the past, but really, as I hardly need tell you, we are getting them more and more often, in the two chief flavors of Corporatist, who does all these things while congratulating himself on his natural leadership and clear thinking (and the knowledge that if he did not do it, someone else would) and the Activist, who regards the bloodshed, famine, and extinction of liberty as not only excusable, but as positively desirable as long as it all happens to the right people in the name of the Cause.

Gastronomically, then, the situation has much improved, because while the human cattle were content to ignore the moral law in the age of the Toast, now we have taught them that flouting it is a supremely moral act, whose virtues are Envy and Greed, and whose blessings are Pleasure and Power, both of which they have rights to, simply by virtue of existing.

The Conservative Christian Who Cannot Make Voting For Donald Trump A Morally Good Choice: An Open and Respectful Fisking of Dr. Wayne Grudem

I was dismayed last week to read Dr. Wayne Grudem’s call to Christians to vote for Donald Trump. You can find the whole thing here. While I disagree vehemently, I also respect Dr. Grudem as a capable theologian whom I have found generally respectful of those he disagrees with. Dr. Grudem’s words will be in italics. Mine will be in bold. And this is gonna be a long one. For reference: I am not a liberal by almost any definition. I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton either. But that is another topic.

Some of my Christian friends tell me they can’t in good conscience vote for Donald Trump because, when faced with a choice between “the lesser of two evils,” the morally right thing is to choose neither one. They recommend voting for a third-party or write-in candidate.

As a professor who has taught Christian ethics for 39 years, I think their analysis is incorrect. Now that Trump has won the GOP nomination, I think voting for Trump is a morally good choice.

American citizens need patience with each other in this difficult political season. Close friends are inevitably going to make different decisions about the election. We still need to respect each other and thank God that we live in a democracy with freedom to differ about politics. And we need to keep talking with each other – because democracies function best when thoughtful citizens can calmly and patiently dialog about the reasons for their differences. This is my contribution to that discussion.

So far, Dr. Grudem, I don’t really have anything to object to. Although I disagree with your thesis, I think you are absolutely right about respect and patient dialogue. However, I just have to ask whether those two qualities are in fact hallmarks of the candidate you are choosing to defend here. 

I do not think that voting for Donald Trump is a morally evil choice because there is nothing morally wrong with voting for a flawed candidate if you think he will do more good for the nation than his opponent. In fact, it is the morally right thing to do.

I did not support Trump in the primary season. I even spoke against him at a pastors’ conference in February. But now I plan to vote for him. I do not think it is right to call him an “evil candidate.” I think rather he is a good candidate with flaws.

Again, I’ll agree with the core thesis: all candidates are flawed. On occasion, it may be better to accept those flaws than to accept much worse flaws. But let’s look at what those flaws are, on your own showing:

He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages. These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws in this election.

Here’s my first serious criticism: if you believe that bombing the families of terrorists is morally reprehensible as a strategy, then this cannot be waved away as a “mistaken idea.” Punitively killing people’s families isn’t a “mistake.” That’s a deliberate strategy that involves killing non-terrorists to influence terrorists. Mass killing may in fact be necessary to end a war, and that did work in World War II, but let’s not pretend that the firebombing of Tokyo was a “mistake.” Either defend it on moral grounds, having the courage to say outright that it is a morally terrible but necessary choice, or don’t. But don’t call it a mistake. Furthermore, Donald Trump has not “abandoned” this position. He just evaded it when cornered and said that “take out” didn’t mean “kill.” What it does mean, he has not made clear.

On the other hand, I think some of the accusations hurled against him are unjustified. His many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-(legal) immigrant or anti-Semitic or misogynistic – I think these are unjust magnifications by a hostile press exaggerating some careless statements he has made. I think he is deeply patriotic and sincerely wants the best for the country. He has been an unusually successful problem solver in business. He has raised remarkable children. Many who have known him personally speak highly of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity. 

Of course, the press is hostile to Trump now that their free advertising — whoops, I’m sorry, I meant “dedicated coverage” — has made him the Republican candidate guaranteed to lose to Hillary Clinton. He’s the kind of Republican candidate they’ve had wet dreams about since Nixon kicked McGovern’s ass in 1976! Of course they magnify his statements. That doesn’t mean that those statements don’t exist (nor do you need to be particularly leftist to find them. Is Fortune magazine leftist? Seems hard to credit). But they scarcely need much magnification and they don’t seem “careless.” And if your candidate goes around placing full-page ads in newspapers to object to removing “hate and rancor from our hearts” CARELESSLY, then that is a major problem in and of itself. Indeed “carelessness” seems to be a hallmark of Donald Trump’s candidacy and character. When the young men falsely imprisoned in the case linked above were exonerated, Donald Trump… didn’t care.

And while I am sure many people speak highly of him, many people speak highly of Che Guevara, but he was still a racist mass-murderer.

But the main reason I call him “a good candidate with flaws” is that I think most of the policies he supports are those that will do the most good for the nation.

Should Christians even try to influence elections at all? Yes, definitely. The apostle Peter says Christians are “exiles” on this earth (1 Peter 1:1). Therefore I take seriously the prophet Jeremiah’s exhortation to the Jewish people living in exile in Babylon:

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

By way of modern application, I think Christians today have a similar obligation to vote in such a way that will “seek the welfare” of the United States. Therefore the one overriding question to ask is this: Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?

Okay, sure, although I think you hardly have to reach this far into Scripture to support the idea of seeking the welfare of your own nation, and I definitely agree that Christians have a moral imperative to use the power granted us to make sound decisions based on effective policy.

If this election is close (which seems likely), then if someone votes for a write-in candidate instead of voting for Trump, this action will directly help Hillary Clinton, because she will need one less vote to win. Therefore the question that Christians should ask is this: Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Hillary Clinton win the presidency?

Well, no. First of all, write-in candidates are not the only other choice, and it’s disingenuous to pretend that they are. Gary Johnson is going to be on the ballot in all fifty states, and he’s polling ahead of Clinton in Utah. This may be the first election since 1964 that a third-party candidate wins electoral votes. Jill Stein has far less support, but at least is nationally known.

Under President Obama, a liberal federal government has seized more and more control over our lives. But this can change. This year we have an unusual opportunity to defeat Hillary Clinton and the pro-abortion, pro-gender-confusion, anti-religious liberty, tax-and-spend, big government liberalism that she champions. I believe that defeating that kind of liberalism would be a morally right action. Therefore I feel the force of the words of James: “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).

Dr. Grudem, this is unworthy of you: you are using Scripture as a club to try to beat people into submission by using a strategy very similar to victim-blaming. You might as well say that crime victims “sin” because they know that going outside increases their exposure to crime. They know this, so they should stay indoors. And it can be just as easily argued on the same grounds that defeating Donald Trump is a morally right action and claim that people who vote for him “sin.” This sort of spiritual Mutually Assurd Destruction gets us nowhere, and should be avoided. In addition, one might very well have used the same argument to defend voting for Hitler in 1933, when Josef Stalin had killed millions of people, while Hitler (as far as I can tell) had killed none. “A vote against Hitler is a vote against Communism!” And in case it’s in doubt, I believe impeding, let alone defeating Stalin’s Soviet Union would have been an immensely morally right action. But we have to ask: defeat it in favor of WHAT?

And, Dr. Grudem, as long as you are using James’s epistle to back your position, let us see what he has to say about “careless statements:”

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear,slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
James 1:19-20.

“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,[c] these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
James 3: 7-12.

The Scripture, sir, tells us not to trust men like Donald Trump. BECAUSE OF their words. So I have to question whether your “moral choice” is a Biblical choice.

 

Some may feel it is easier just to stay away from this messy Trump-Clinton election, and perhaps not even vote. But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing. The prophet Obadiah rebuked the people of the Edom for standing by and doing nothing to help when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem: “On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that . . . foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them.” (Obadiah 1:11).

But voting for a third party is not voting for Hillary. And it is not doing nothing. I agree that staying home is a bad idea. But it is not the only idea, and it is wrong to equate “doing what is unlikely to succeed, but right” with “doing nothing.”

I am writing this article because I doubt that many “I can’t vote for Trump” Christians have understood what an entirely different nation would result from Hillary Clinton as president, or have analyzed in detail how different a Trump presidency would be. In what follows, I will compare the results we could expect from a Clinton presidency with what we could expect from a Trump presidency.

Okay, good: let’s discuss policy. That’s what this election is supposed to be about. Whether it is about that is a different question.

The Supreme Court with Clinton as president

Hillary Clinton would quickly replace Justice Scalia with another liberal like Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. This would give liberals a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court even without Justice Kennedy, and 6-3 when he votes with them.

But that is not all. Justice Ginsburg is 83, and she has had colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, and has a heart stent. Justice Kennedy is 80. Justice Breyer is 78. A President Clinton could possibly nominate three or four justices to the Supreme Court, locking in a far-left activist judiciary for perhaps 30 or more years. She could also add dozens of activist judges to federal district courts and courts of appeals, the courts where 99% of federal lawsuits are decided. Judicial tyranny of the type we have seen when abortion rights and same-sex marriage were forced on the nation would gain a permanent triumph.

The nation would no longer be ruled by the people and their elected representatives, but by unelected, unaccountable, activist judges who would dictate from the bench about whatever they were pleased to decree. And there would be nothing in our system of government that anyone could do to stop them.

That is why this election is not just about Hillary Clinton. It is about defeating the far left liberal agenda that any Democratic nominee would champion. Liberal Democrats are now within one Supreme Court justice of their highest goal: gaining permanent control of the nation with a five vote majority on the Supreme Court, and then relentlessly imposing every liberal policy on the nation not through winning elections but through a relentless parade of one Supreme Court decision after another.

Even if Clinton were to drop out of the race (perhaps due to additional shocking email disclosures, for example), our choice in the election would be just the same, because any other Democratic nominee would appoint the same kind of liberal justices to the Court.

This is the reason that a lot of people whom I otherwise respect give for casting a vote for Donald Trump: BUT THE SUPREME COURT! And given the overreach of the judicial branch and the federal government, I share the concern. But Donald Trump isn’t the answer to that concern. Firstly, there’s little evidence that he’s actually in favor of limiting that overreach. Trump was in favor of Obamacare just in FEBRUARY! And the mandate! Secondly, Trump has made proposal after proposal that shows that he is ignorant of the basic limitations of the Constitution! How could such a man reliably pick a Supreme Court justice that is NOT the very kind of “liberal” you fear? He could do it through sheer ignorance.

Abortion

On abortion, a liberal court would probably find the ban on partial-birth abortion to be unconstitutional (it was upheld by only a 5-4 majority in Gonzalez v. Carhart, 2007). In addition, the court could find an absolute “right to abortion” in the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and then sweep away with one decision most or all of the restrictions on abortion that pro-life advocates worked for tirelessly over the last 43 years, including ultrasound requirements, waiting periods, parental consent requirements, and prohibitions on non-doctors performing abortions.

Voters should not doubt the power of the Supreme Court to abolish all these laws restricting abortions. Think of the power of the Obergefell v. Hodges 5-4 decision in June, 2015. It instantly nullified all the work that thousands of Christians had done over many years in persuading the citizens of 31 states to pass constitutional amendments defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. But no one is campaigning for such laws or amendments anymore, because it would be futile. The Supreme Court has spoken, and therefore the issue is settled in the political system of the United States. We lost – not at the ballot box, but because we had a liberal Supreme Court that nullified the democratic process regarding the definition of marriage.

So it would certainly be with any efforts to place legal limitations on abortion. Nobody would campaign any more for laws to limit abortions, because any such laws would be unconstitutional. The legislative lobbying work of pro-life advocacy groups would be totally and utterly defeated. Millions of unborn children would continue to die.

Yes, well, I’ve already written on why opposing same-sex marriage on the legal level is a bad idea. In addition, I really hate to break it to you, Dr. Grudem, but most Americans want abortion to be legal, at least under certain conditions. If you want the court to oppose this, then you are engaging in the same type of judicial rule you object to liberals using, and that’s dishonest. Additionally, the Bible does not consider abortion to be the equivalent of murder: Exodus 21:20 states that: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[e] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.” The same law would require the death of the offender if the woman died, but only a fine for terminating the pregnancy. This practice of “fining” seems to imply that Old Testament law considers  termination of pregnancy (even when it is caused by someone NOT THE PREGNANT WOMAN) morally equivalent to theft, which was also punishable by fines.
I cannot therefore find any Biblical grounds for taking this objection seriously. I dislike abortion intensely, but I didn’t write the Bible.

Religious liberty

The current liberal agenda often includes suppressing Christian opposition to its views. So a liberal court would increasingly nullify rights of conscience with respect to forced participation in same-sex marriage ceremonies or expressing moral objections to homosexual conduct. Already Christians are being pushed out of many occupations. Florists, bakers, and professional photographers have had their businesses destroyed by large fines for refusal to contribute their artistic talents to a specific event, a same-sex wedding ceremony to which they had moral objections.

Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran in Atlanta was removed from his job because of self-publishing a religious book that briefly mentioned the Bible’s teachings regarding non-marital sexual conduct, including homosexuality, amidst a host of other topics. His situation holds ominous implications for any Christians who hold public sector jobs. In our military services, many high-ranking officers have quietly been forced to resign because they were unwilling to give support to the homosexual agenda.

Mozilla/Firefox CEO Brendan Eich was pushed out from his own company merely because he had donated money to Proposition 8 in California, supporting marriage between one man and one woman. This event has troubling implications for Christians in any corporate executive role who dare to support a political position contrary to the liberal agenda.

Last year Boston urologist Paul Church, a Harvard Medical School faculty member, lost his hospital privileges at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center because he had expressed concerns about the medical dangers associated with same-sex activity.

Are my predictions about this kind of loss of religious liberty too grim? The three conservative justices still on the Supreme Court expressed similar concerns just last month. The case concerned a Washington pharmacy that has been owned for 70 years by the Stormans family, who are committed Christians. They will likely now be put out of business by the Washington State Pharmacy Board for refusing to dispense an abortion-causing prescription drug. On June 28, 2016, the Supreme Court refused to hear the Stormans’ appeal, in spite of the strong dissent written by Justice Alito (joined by Roberts and Thomas):

“At issue are Washington State regulations that are likely to make a pharmacist unemployable if he or she objects on religious grounds to dispensing certain prescription medications. . . . . there is much evidence that the impetus for the adoption of the regulations was hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the State . . . . If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.” (italics added)

I generally share these concerns, but again, given Trump’s ignorance of the Constitution’s guarantees on freedom of religion, it’s pretty hard to believe that Trump would be able to appoint justices who wouldn’t do exactly what you fear from Clinton.

Christian business owners

If Clinton appoints just one more liberal justice, it is likely that many Christian business owners will be targeted. Hobby Lobby won its 2014 Supreme Court case (again 5-4), so it was not compelled to dispense abortifacients to its employees, but that case could be reversed (the four liberal justices in the minority, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, are still on the court). If that case is overturned, it would force Hobby Lobby out of business, because the Green family had said they would shut down the company of 23,000 employees and over $3 billion in annual sales if they lost the decision. The implications for other Christian business owners with pro-life convictions are ominous.

These incidents show that it is not an exaggeration to say that, under a liberal Supreme Court resulting from Hillary Clinton’s election, Christians would increasingly experience systematic exclusion from hundreds of occupations, with thousands of people losing their jobs. Step-by-step, Christians would increasingly be marginalized to the silent fringes of society. Is withholding a vote from Donald Trump important enough to pay this high a price in loss of freedom?

Some Christians have even hinted to me that “persecution would be good for us.” But the Bible never encourages us to seek persecution or hope for it. We should rather work to prevent such oppression of Christians, just as Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Paul did not encourage us to pray that God would give us bad rulers but good ones who would allow us to live a peaceful life:

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1Timothy 2:1)

Yes, Dr. Grudem, I share your concern, and even more, believe your interpretation of Scripture to be right on, here, but it still doesn’t make Trump more familiar with Constitutional law than he was in the last paragraph. It also doesn’t exactly jive with your willingness earlier to use an argument that voting third party is morally equivalent to voting for Hillary. By your own logic here, any action that could be expected to lead to the strengthening of our faith through persecution should be taken: after all, strengthening our faith is a good thing, right? And you just told us that not doing a good thing is sin.

Christian schools and colleges

A liberal Supreme Court would also impact education. Christian colleges would likely be found guilty of “discrimination” if they required adherence to the Bible’s standards regarding sexual conduct, or even required affirmation of primary Christian beliefs. Campus ministries like Cru and InterVarsity have already been forced off of many university campuses following the 5-4 Supreme Court decision CLS v. Martinez (2010), which upheld the exclusion of the Christian Legal Society from the campus of Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. And now California’s Equity in Higher Education Act (SB 1146), which recently passed the California state senate and will likely become law, would prohibit Christian colleges from requiring students or employees to hold Christian beliefs or abide by biblical moral standards regarding sexual conduct, and would prohibit colleges from assigning housing based on a student’s biological sex if a student claimed to be transgender. Colleges like Biola and Azusa Pacific could not long survive under those regulations.

With regard to elementary and high schools, laws promoting school choice or tuition voucher programs would likely be declared unconstitutional if they allowed such funding to go to Christian schools. A tax credit program for scholarships to private schools, including Christian institutions, was only upheld by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn in 2011, and all four liberal justices who voted against it are still on the court. Another possible target of the liberal agenda would be laws that allow for home schooling, if the secular/ liberal governmental hostility to home schooling in European countries is any indicator.

I feel like I’m in church again, singing a hymn where I don’t know the words to anything but the refrain, only in this case the refrain goes: “I share all thy concerns, but thy solution doth not impress me.” 

Churches

Churches would not be exempt from the impact of a liberal Supreme Court. The court could rule that any school district is allowed to ban churches from renting school buildings on Sundays, an action that could severely hinder the work of small churches and church planting in general. (This was already the ruling of the Second Circuit in the Bronx Household of Faith case regarding New York City public schools.) And some churches in Iowa have now been told that they have to make their bathrooms open to people on the basis of their “gender identity” if the churches are going to be open to the public at all.

“I share all thy concerns, but thy solution doth not impress me.” 

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech would be increasingly restricted in the public square. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that prayers of visiting pastors who prayed “in Jesus’ name” when they opened a city council meeting were allowed under the Constitution, but again it was a 5-4 decision (Town of Greece v. Galloway) and all four liberals who wanted to restrict such prayers are still on the court.

“I share all thy concerns, but thy solution doth not impress me.” Especially since Trump has spoken of his own willingness to clamp down on free speech. I sure don’t want that to be a precedent, still less a precedent set by a Republican.

Criminalizing dissent

Another troubling possibility is that liberal activists, once in power, would further entrench themselves by criminalizing much political dissent. We have already seen it happen with the IRS targeting of conservative groups and with some state attorneys general taking steps to prosecute (!) groups who dare to disagree with activists’ claims about the danger of man-made global warming.

“But my conscience won’t let me vote for Donald Trump,” some have told me. But I wonder if their consciences have considered the gravity of these destructive consequences that would come from a Clinton presidency. A vote for Trump would at least be doing something to prevent these things.

Well, you’d like to think so, anyway.

In addition, I think there are several positive reasons to vote for Trump.

The Supreme Court with Trump as president

Trump has released a list of 11 judges to show the kind of nominee he would appoint to the Supreme Court. A lawyer familiar with many of these names has told me that they constitute a “dream list” of outstanding judges who would uphold the original meaning of the Constitution and would not create new laws from the bench. Trump has said he would rely primarily on advice from the Federalist Society, the organization that promotes the “original meaning” view so strongly exemplified by Justice Scalia before his death.

If Trump would appoint a replacement for Scalia from his list of 11, and probably one or two other Supreme Court justices, then we could see a 5-4 or even 6-3 majority of conservative justices on the Supreme Court. The results for the nation would be overwhelmingly good.

Such a Supreme Court would finally return control of the nation to the people and their elected representatives, removing it from dictatorial judges who repeatedly make law from the bench.

Well, that’s great news. I very much admired Justice Scalia. But all of this hinges on Donald Trump being a man of his word. And you just acknowledged that Trump is a man who makes careless statements. Moreover, the legal record abounds with cases of Trump and his companies NOT keeping their words to pay bills.
Political promises are the currency of the business of politics. Why should we trust that the man whose company claimed that they should be let off because they had “paid enough” will not tell us, when he is elected, that he has “kept enough promises?”

Abortion

Such a court would likely overturn Roe v. Wade and return abortion laws and the regulation of abortion to the states.

Dr. Grudem, it’s not going to happen. I don’t like abortion either (saying it isn’t murder, by the way, doesn’t mean I think it’s a right, nor that I think it should be carte-blanche legal) but Republicans have been fighting this for FORTY YEARS. One of the main reasons trump is popular is that Republicans who WANT to see it happen are damned tired of Republicans promising to end it and it keeps being legal. You don’t have the support among the populace for this. And promoting bad policy because you really, really WANT it to happen is exactly what you say we shouldn’t be doing.

Religious liberty

A conservative court would vigorously uphold the First Amendment, protecting freedom of religion and freedom of speech for Christian colleges, Christian ministries, and churches.

Such a court would likely overturn the horribly destructive decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that changed the meaning of the First Amendment and ruled that a government action “must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion” (note: not a specific denomination but “religion” in general). A conservative court would likely declare that the First Amendment was only intended to prohibit the establishment of a state-sponsored church or denomination.

Such a decision would once again allow the nonsectarian affirmation of personal belief in God in public schools, would once again allow coaches to pray with their football teams before a game, and would allow visiting clergy to be invited to give a prayer at high school graduation ceremonies. It would also imply that nativity scenes without Santa Claus and Buddha should be allowed in government-owned parks and buildings at Christmas time. It wouldn’t require these things, but would allow them if local officials chose to approve them. It would restore true freedom of religion as the First Amendment intended.

It would also protect freedom of conscience for Christians who object to participating in abortions, or dispensing abortifacient medicines, or who do not wish to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. It is also possible that a conservative Supreme Court would eventually return control of marriage to the states.

Slightly modified refrain: “Generally a good idea, if you trust Trump.”

Freedom for Christian influence in politics

Significantly, Trump has pledged to work to repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the IRS code, which has been used for 62 years as a threat to silence pastors from speaking about political issues, for fear of losing their tax-exempt status. This would be a great victory for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

In short, a Trump-appointed Supreme Court, together with dozens of lower court judges appointed by him, would probably result in significant advances in many of the policy areas important to Christians. It would also open the door to huge expansion of influence for the many Christian lobbying groups known as “family policy councils” in various states, especially enabling them to work for further legal protections for life, for marriage and family, and for religious liberty.

Speaking of which, at least you’re honest enough to ask:

How can we know that Trump won’t change his mind?

“But Trump has changed his mind in the past,” a politically-minded friend said to me. “How do you know that he will do what he has promised? Maybe he’ll betray you and appoint a liberal Supreme Court justice.”

My reply is that we can never know the future conduct of any human being with 100% certainty, but in making an ethical decision like this one, we should base the decision on the most likely results. In this case, the most likely result is that Trump will do most or all of what he has said.

I disagree, obviously. Trump has a track record of NOT doing what he says he will. That’s what a bankruptcy IS.

In the history of American politics, candidates who have been elected president have occasionally changed their minds on one or another issue while in office, but no president has ever gone back on most of what he has promised to do, especially on issues that are crucially important in the election. In this election, it is reasonable to think that the most likely result is that both Trump and Clinton will do what they have promised to do. That is the basis on which we should decide how to vote.

Possibly correct, but Trump has said so many contradictory and unconstitutional things that it breaks all precedent. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that he WON’T have to break many, if not most of his promises.

And notice how Trump has changed his mind. He continues to move in a more conservative direction, as evidenced by his list of judges and his choice for vice president. Just as he succeeded in business by listening to the best experts to solve each problem, I suspect that he has been learning from the best experts in conservative political thought and has increasingly found that conservative solutions really work. We should applaud these changes.

Of course he is moving in a more conservative direction. He’s already poison to all liberal and most swing voters (which is why, barring a disaster, I’m fairly confident he won’t win) and a lot of conservatives hate him. He has to play to the base. He doesn’t have to keep playing to them after he’s in office.

His choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate is an especially significant indication that he will govern as a conservative. Trump could have picked a moderate but instead picked a lifelong solid conservative who is a thoughtful, gracious policy wizard. Pence is a lawyer and former talk radio host who served 12 years in Congress and had significant congressional leadership positions, so he will be immensely helpful in working with Congress. He is a committed evangelical Christian. He is a former board member of the Indiana Family Institute, a conservative Christian lobbying group in Indiana.

However, the Supreme Court is not the only issue at stake in this election. While I disagree with Trump on a few things (especially trade policy), on most important issues, Trump will likely do much good for the nation.

Taxes and jobs

Trump has pledged to cut taxes significantly, while Clinton wants to raise them. Trump is advocating a 15% tax rate for corporations rather than the current 35%. Lower corporate taxes would lead to business expansion and a massive increase in available jobs and higher pay levels. For individual taxpayers, Trump favors a top rate of 25%, but for Clinton it’s 45%. Most small businesses file under this individual rate, so once again Trump’s lower taxes would result in substantial expansion of businesses and many more jobs. Finally our economy would snap out of its eight years of anemic growth.

In my judgment, Christians should support lower tax rates that would lead to more jobs, because Obama’s economic policies for the last eight years have hurt lower income and low-middle income families the most. Many can’t even find jobs, and others can’t find full-time jobs. Those who have jobs struggle to survive with no meaningful pay raises year after year. It is no surprise that these are the people who are supporting Trump in overwhelming numbers.

Tax rates are also a good indicator of government control. Higher tax rates mean greater government control of our lives, while lower tax rates indicate greater freedom.

If all that comes along with closing loopholes in the system, I’m all for it. Has Trump said ANYTHING about that? Or is it just more “tax cuts promote growth because magic?”

Minorities

Two of the deepest causes of poverty among minority groups and racial tensions in our country are failing public schools in our inner cities and lack of available jobs. Trump expressed a commitment to solve these problems at several points in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. He pledged to reduce taxes and regulations, leading to many more jobs. And he said:

“Nearly 4 in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58% of African-American youth are not employed . . . . This administration has failed America’s inner cities. It’s failed them on education. It’s failed and on jobs. It’s failed them on crime . . . . Every action I take, I will ask myself: does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child in America? . . . . We will rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice.”

By contrast, Clinton will bow to the teachers’ unions and oppose school choice at every turn, and she will continue to strangle businesses with high taxes and regulations, preventing job growth.

Awesome, but that’s not a policy. It’s a vague goal at best.

The military

Trump has promised to rapidly rebuild our depleted military forces, but Clinton would continue the liberal policy of eviscerating them through denying funding. This is dangerous in light of increasing threats from China, Russia, Iran, and ISIS.

Funding the military will make very little difference if it is employed ineptly, as has been the case since approximately 1991, and I’m being generous, there. Trump has even less experience with military action as an arm of government policy than Clinton does, and I think SHE’S going to be disastrously bad at it.

Borders

Trump has repeatedly promised that he will finally secure our borders, an urgent need to protect the nation from ever more terrorists and drug smugglers. Clinton will not do this but will continue to allow in what she thinks will be thousands of future Democratic voters.

Promises, again. There are 11 million — ELEVEN MILLION — illegal immigrants who are determined to live here regardless of what the law says. Many citizens support them in this. Many of both groups believe their political power can only increase by increasing the flow. Amnesty and a path to citizenship for these folks, giving them a stake in closing off the pipeline, is the only alternative to actual civil war.

ISIS and terrorism

Trump has pledged to aggressively attack and utterly defeat ISIS. Clinton will continue the anemic Obama policy of periodic bombing runs and drone attacks, under which ISIS has continued to thrive.

See the comment on use of the military, above.

China and Russia

Trump will not let China and Russia and Iran push us around anymore, as Obama has done, with Hillary Clinton’s support when she was secretary of state. If Trump is anything, he is tough as nails, and he won’t be bullied.

He won’t APPEAR to be bullied. That’s very different from actually being bullied. By asking Russia to expose the emails it might have from Hillary Clinton, he has ALREADY rewarded Russia’s interference in our elections, setting a dangerous precedent. I have little use for Obama’s foreign policy, or Clinton’s, but at least they have the advantage of not scaring the bejeezus out of our allies, whom Trump has openly threatened not to support if they should fall behind on their NATO obligations, FURTHER encouraging Russian bullying of NATO.

Israel

Trump has promised to vigorously defend and support Israel, while Clinton will most likely continue the Obama administration’s criticism, snubbing, and marginalization of Israel.

And why does that need to be a cornerstone of our foreign policy? Maybe it does, but it’s worth perhaps not simply assuming.

Energy

Trump has said he will approve the Keystone oil pipeline and grant more oil drilling permits leading to lower energy costs and providing thousands of jobs. Lower energy costs help everybody, but the poor most of all. Clinton, by contrast, will make fracking nearly impossible and essentially abolish the coal industry, causing energy prices to skyrocket.

Here, I agree, but I’d love a statement supporting nuclear power.

Executive orders and bathrooms

Trump has promised to rescind many of the most objectionable executive orders given by President Obama, so he will likely end the compulsory moral degradation forced on us by a liberal agenda, including orders forcing schools to allow boys in girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms, in defiance of the will of the vast majority of Americans. But Hillary Clinton would likely perpetuate and expand these policies.

The problem is not which laws govern our bathrooms. The problem is there is law about bathrooms at all. Trump is just the opposite side of the same terrible coin, here, but that is a large topic, for another time.

Health care

Trump will work to repeal Obamacare, which is ruining the nation’s health care system, and replace it with an affordable free market system in which companies have the ability to sell insurance across state lines, thus substantially lowering insurance prices especially in those states that currently allow only high-priced “Cadillac” insurance plans. But Clinton would continue to work relentlessly toward federal government control of our entire health care industry.

Not according to what he said in February.

The unprotected

Trump will finally begin to recognize and protect what Wall Street Journal writer Peggy Noonan calls “the unprotected” in America — people in lower income areas who cannot find good jobs, cannot find good schools for their children, do not feel protected from crime, and find their retirement savings are not enough because for years they have been earning no interest in the bank. Trump said in his acceptance speech, “Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across the nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned . . . I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves.”

These American citizens recognize that Trump has built a business career on listening to experts, solving problems, and getting things done. They realize that Trump didn’t earn $4 billion by being stupid, and their instinct says that he might be exactly the right person to solve some of the biggest problems in a nation that has for too long been headed in the wrong direction and stuck in political gridlock.

They may not have college degrees but their old-fashioned common sense tells them that America would be a much better place if we no longer had to be afraid to say “Merry Christmas,” or that boys are different from girls, or that Islamic terrorists are Islamic terrorists. They’re sick and tired of being condescended to by the snobbish moralism of the liberal elites who dominate the power centers in our nation. That is why they cheer when Trump repeatedly violates the canons of politically correct speech. They have found in him someone who gives them hope, and they are supporting him by the thousands.

This is unquestionably Trump’s appeal. This is what his supporters want. But he’s not God, or even a ruling king. He can’t do it by fiat.

Does character matter?

“But are you saying that character doesn’t matter?” someone might ask. I believe that character does matter, but I think Trump’s character is far better than what is portrayed by much current political mud-slinging, and far better than his opponent’s character.

In addition, if someone makes doubts about character the only factor to consider, that is a fallacy in ethical reasoning that I call “reductionism” – the mistake of reducing every argument to only one factor, when the situation requires that multiple factors be considered. In this election, an even larger factor is the future of the nation that would flow from a Clinton or a Trump presidency.

Your statement on reductionism is correct. Interesting that I rarely see a Christian figure make those same argument when a Christian politician of better character (but questionable policies) runs against a Democrat with worse character (but better policies). And hopefully, I’ve addressed many issues by now, sir.

To my friends who tell me they won’t vote for Trump because there is a chance he won’t govern at all like he promises, I reply that all of American presidential history shows that that result is unlikely, and it is ethically fallacious reasoning to base a decision on assuming a result that is unlikely to happen.

Consider instead the most likely results. The most likely result of voting for Trump is that he will govern the way he promises to do, bringing much good to the nation.

But the most likely result of not voting for Trump is that you will be abandoning thousands of unborn babies who will be put to death under Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court, thousands of Christians who will be excluded from their lifelong occupations, thousands of the poor who will never again be able to find high-paying jobs in an economy crushed by government hostility toward business, thousands of inner-city children who will never be able to get a good education, thousands of the sick and elderly who will never get adequate medical treatment when the government is the nation’s only healthcare provider, thousands of people who will be killed by an unchecked ISIS, and millions of Jews in Israel who will find themselves alone and surrounded by hostile enemies. And you will be contributing to a permanent loss of the American system of government due to a final victory of unaccountable judicial tyranny.

When I look at it this way, my conscience, and my considered moral judgment tell me that I must vote for Donald Trump as the candidate who is most likely to do the most good for the United States of America.

By all means, Dr. Grudem, vote your conscience. The only way forward is for us each to vote our consciences. But your reasons, I regret to inform you, have not only failed to move my conscience, they have utterly strengthened my determination not to vote for Donald Trump, because I cannot place my faith in the God of the Bible, and in the Donald Trump that I have learned about. I regret even more to inform you that, because of what I can only see as a selective use of Scripture to support a partisan political viewpoint, and in spite of the respect I have for your many years of Biblical scholarship, I cannot hold that scholarship in the same high regard I have previously. However, please believe that, should Trump be elected (which I doubt he will), I shall pray to the God we both worship that you are correct and that I am wrong. Because may God help us all if you are not.

Theology vs. The Memes #4: If At First WHO Doesn’t Succeed?

Oh, how one of my atheist friends loves the Noah’s Ark story. It is the ultimate proof of God’s incompetence and evil. The argument goes that if God couldn’t make people good enough not to sin, he’s not much of a god, expressed by the meme above.

Folks, this is the worst sort of begging the question when it comes to arguments against religion. What the meme wants to conceal is three separate assumptions that are made: firstly, that the success or failure involved is God’s. Secondly, that we are capable of judging that “success.” Thirdly, that God’s justice, like man’s, is circumscribed by death.

To take the points in reverse order, I’ve already noted that using premature death as an argument against the goodness of God is rather silly. The people killed in the Flood were already going to die. They would face God’s judgment eventually. By the laws of statistics, many of them would have died before reaching the average lifespan. If allowing people to die in a Flood is evil, then allowing them to die at all is hardly less evil. And of course, if you don’t trust God to be just to the souls of the dead, you’ve rather pre-judged your case, since you can have no experience of how He does that. And no, you can’t use God’s visible behavior to humans on Earth to judge what he does with them later. Otherwise you might just as well assume that every parent who speaks sharply to a child and then hauls them away from a party for misbehavior goes directly home and murders the child.

Which of course brings up the next two points. Do we not see that if we take the idea of God at all seriously, we have to imagine a Being that can plan on a scale of millions of years and has access to energies, times and spaces that we cannot conceive of? I realize that atheists don’t take the idea of God seriously, but that’s exactly what reduces memes like this to self-congratulatory wankery, utterly irrelevant to the average believer. It’s a straw-god argument. And straw-god is a real asshole, that is for sure. But if you want to convince believers, you have to take on a real god at some point, and that’s a much harder target, because you can’t judge a god’s success (let alone God’s) on a human scale.

Finally, the idea that the Flood (or any other example of mass death) was triggered by a “failure” on God’s part neatly and conveniently removes human action and accountability from the equation. Scripture’s take on the state of humanity was that life was nothing but people plotting to do evil (Genesis 6).

Again, I realize that my atheist friends don’t really believe in this story. But friends, if you’re going to condemn it as emblematic of the evil nature of the God we have imagined for ourselves, you’re going to have to be consistent, and you’re not even doing that well. First you complain that all the evil in the world is the fault of God and his “failure” to make good humans. Well, okay, let’s take that seriously for just a moment. If indeed that is the case, then surely humans, having seen the evil God allows, could prevent it, yes? If we are better than Him, then we must be able fix it; that’s the inescapable conclusion. Okay, not everything. I mean, we started from a pretty low technology base, so it’ll be awhile before we’re up to preventing plagues and floods.  But at the very least there should be no war, murder, slavery, or any other purely human evil, should there?

Oh, there is? All of those things exist? Gee, that doesn’t look very good for our claim to be better than God and stand in judgment of Him, does it? Hell, we’ve done a better job at preventing the plagues and floods!

If we are so capable of sitting in judgment of God, then why are we not doing better than Him? The failure is not His. The failure is ours. If God calls attention to that failure, then getting mad about it is about as admirable as yelling at the police officer who pulled you over for actually breaking the law.

And of course the other side of the coin is this: If we are not capable of doing better than the God we revile, then obviously we do need a God, don’t we? We need to desperately seek Him — to seek someone — out and discover how we can stop failing. When you’re failing, it’s time to listen and trust. Not to judge. Judgment is the purview of the successful.

If you really disbelieve, then all I can say is that blaming a god who doesn’t exist for your troubles is even more childish than worshiping one. The god you worship might turn out to be real. The god you blame might, too, of course, but you might think about the possible results of that. In either case, the failure is the argument against God’s ethics.

A Christian Case For The Legality Of Gay Marriage

So much has been said on the subject of the recent Supreme Court ruling that it is nearly asinine even to mention that much has been said. And yet, in all that has been said about love, and all that has been said about justice, and all that has been said about fairness and all that has been said about hatred and bigotry and hypocrisy and force, I have yet to hear anyone address an issue that, in my opinion, the Church must acknowledge. That issue is whether or not we, the Church of Christ, are obligated to be honest to the world about what we want out of our government.

Despite some of the histrionics that I have seen from scaremongers on the extreme left, most of the Christians that I know and fellowship with do not want a theocracy in America. I have lived in enough places in this nation and spoken with enough Christians that I can say with assurance that most Christians do not want this. They do want their faith, and the right to practice it protected, and like all people, they get scared (despite the Lord’s command that they should not) and overreact. But the vast majority of them don’t really want a Church State.

I am going to speak, then, to those in the Church who agree with this principle. If we really do agree that Church and State should be separate, and that the State should have nothing to do with the Church, it is difficult for me to understand why the Church should consider it relevant what definition the State places on “marriage.” “Marriage” to the State denotes a legal arrangement that allows for special privileges between the married parties, most of which have to do with parental and property rights. What do we have to do with what the State says, unless it directly challenges our rights to be the Church of Christ?

I submit that it is dishonest of the Church of Christ to both want and not want the State to do our bidding. If we wish to seize the power of the State to make laws (which I think would be a grave mistake) then we should at least be honest enough to proclaim that this is what we want, and work openly for the establishment of a theocracy, which would make laws along Christian principles. I trust that such laws would include making divorce and the remarriage of the divorced illegal as well. But I have not seen the part of the Church that campaigns against the legalization of gay marriage waging a campaign against laws that recognize these other practices of marriage. All of them are practices which the State permits and Christ condemns.

The Muslim faith does, under certain conditions, permit and encourage its adherents to lie to unbelievers in a practice known as taqiyyah. Some Muslims have interpreted this to justify any lie to a non-Muslim. Others stress that taqiyyah only allows Muslims to lie about their Muslim identity to escape torture and death at the hands of persecutors. This is a difference between the Muslim faith and the Christian faith. As Christians, we are charged in the strongest terms to openly avow our faith in Christ when asked. We cannot be honest with God if we are dishonest with the world.

Thus, when we as Americans take offices that require us to execute the laws of the State, and consider ourselves as citizens whose rights are protected by the State (not, please note, granted by the State), we are obligated to make and interpret the laws of the State in a spirit of honesty. And I cannot see how, honestly, we can deny the State the right to define legal marriage as long as we assent to the State’s right to grant changes in married couples’ right to hold property and raise children. If we deny it this right, then we are essentially lying. We are trying to make the State into the Church. I see nothing Biblical in this. It would be just the same as if I, in my capacity as an employee of a private business, took money from my employer and then used my time and effort to preach the Word of God. That would not glorify God. That would be fraud, and sin.

If we assent that a secular State is good, and that we, as the Church of Christ can partake of it, then we must assent to the State the right to make its laws, and its right to, within those laws, enforce them. Otherwise, we are committing fraud, and this we cannot expect the Lord to honor. Note that this applies to Christians regardless of whether you believe that the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful.

If the Church is not honest about its contracts and its obligations as a citizenry, it is not really being the Church. It is being a den of liars and fraudsters. This cannot be a good witness. This cannot glorify God.

Theology vs. The Memes #2: The Emperor’s New Quote

I have seen this meme passed around a whole lot by certain types of atheist whose primary source of comfort is how much smarter they are than Christians because they can face the truth. Allow me, therefore, in the name of truth, to point out the first little problem with it:

That’s right. Marcus Aurelius never said it in the first place. The whole meme is a lie. There’s a quote that it may be loosely based on, but we’ll review that at a more appropriate time. Still, I’m sure that there are those who will claim that, regardless of the source of the quote, it’s still a good message. So let’s examine the whole thing and see what parts stand up to any rational interpretation of “good.”

1) “If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.”

First, does anyone else wonder what the original author meant by “devout?” The people who pass this around probably don’t because the first rule of Meme Club is that you DO NOT talk about what memes MEAN. Memes are self-congratulation masquerading as critical thought. They work by giving the reader the illusion of having had an insight. They are philosophical porn. So in the absence of any definition I’m, going to guess that “devout” means how much you sing, dance, pray, sacrifice and wear cheap T-shirts extolling your deity, because this is the behavior atheists enjoy mocking.

The funny part is that Jesus rather enjoyed mocking it, too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding of the blood of the prophets… Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” (Matthew 23:29-31, 34). The fact is that even if Marcus Aurelius had said this, Jesus would have anticipated him by nearly a century. Jesus and the Jewish prophets agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the quote. “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what the LORD doth require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Further, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).

What the atheists and the “spiritual-not-religious” folk are missing here is that we all fail miserably at doing these things. They fail to consider what it might mean to be judged by a just God “on the virtues you have lived by.” The whole reason for “devoutness” is an acknowledgement by us that we have indeed failed to practice these virtues, time and time again. God’s standards are higher than ours. They have to be. If God’s standards are not better than our own, He has no claim to be God at all. This is why Jesus said, “You give a tenth of your spices… But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23-25). Devotion is part of the virtue God expects, and what a Christian must mean by “devout” is something more — not less and not other — than living virtuously.

On to part 2 of the “quote:”

2) “If there are gods but unjust, you should not want to worship them.” This is the easiest part of the quote to agree with. But the inherent assumption here is that you know exactly what justice is. Even among good people there are disagreements about this. In the real world, the circumstances in which we find ourselves can not only make living justly a good way to get yourself killed, it can make justice literally impossible. And sometimes, people can be conditioned to think that behavior that would horrify most of us is perfectly normal. Men in prison have a strict code: don’t bump into each other. Don’t pick up another man’s matches. Don’t sit in another man’s chair. “Justice” for these infractions, in that context, can mean a beating or stabbing.

Are we so sure we are different? Killing for honor is still considered justice in many parts of the world. But we call it unjust in my part. If we call God unjust… how are we certain we are right?

And now for the biggest and most subtle lie of all:

3) “If there are no gods: then you will be gone. But you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” Except that’s a lie.  The only true part is the first: “You will be gone.” From your perspective, the story ends here, if there are no gods. Now, your loved ones, they will live on. But you will not know it. They could all be put to death by torture the second you cease to breathe, and you would not care. You could not care. This is one of the greatest lies that atheist thought believes, that there is a state called having lived. That state does not exist in any meaningful fashion. Nonexistence is at the root of it. You will be gone. You will be as utterly gone as if you had never been. Nothing will matter, because you will not exist for it to matter TO. In that nonexistence, the greatest saints and sinners are equal to each other, because they are equal to nothing.
There are only two ways to get around this, and in my experience, most atheists will not do it: admit that morality is a complete and utter illusion, because there is no evidence anything aside from human preference for certain behaviors exist, or admit the existence of something resembling an afterlife (or at least an afterthought), which must be taken on faith.

I cannot live in a universe that is governed by the former admission. And I do not greatly care, for reasons that should be obvious by now, for anyone who impugns my reason or intellect for refusing so to live. Why should I care what that person thinks? By their own admission, they will shortly not exist, and their moral judgments are but present constructs of taste and fashion. I will shortly not exist, and will care for nothing.
This is why I will continue to live by faith. For only if there are gods, and they are just, is life possible. This is why I will raise my voice with Peter, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).

I will leave you with some actual words of Marcus Aurelius, who did know better than this. Ironically, this may be the quote on which the above drivel is based:

“But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs; and have put it wholly in our power, that we should not fall into what is truly evil. “

I’m a lot closer to agreeing with that.

Confessions Of A Zero-Sum Gamer

When I was a senior in high school, I won an award I never even knew I was being considered for. If you haven’t been there, I’m not sure how to describe such a bizarre feeling. A teacher hands you an award, in this case an obviously-plastic book covered in gold leaf floating in a small block of lucite, labeled “The Xerox Award for…”

You know, I can’t even remember. Obviously, it was one of the defining moments in my life. And I scratched my head, trying to figure out why. I don’t think she ever really told me what I’d done to earn this award. Scored high on tests and achieved good grades, as far as I can see. You know — general all around awesomeness. It came with a small scholarship. A few hundred dollars.

I didn’t get it then, but that moment really was  a defining moment in my life. I vaguely wondered then if there was some other kid that had actually tried to win that award. For whom it had a real meaning. Who actually cared about it, had worked for it, and now was sitting there wondering why he or she hadn’t measured up to me. I still wonder about that, obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But mostly, back then, I took it as my due. I was very good, then, at winning things.

I was a National Merit Scholar. My education was paid for by my own determination to be the loyal Son of Academia. If my peers called me a nerd (which was not at all cool in the eighties, but that’s a different story) and cast me out of all cliques of friendship? I would damn them and work twice as hard. Because I wasn’t just good enough and smart enough. No, fuck that: I was better,  I was smarter, and if people hated me, then who fucking cared? Because I was better than all of them.

As you have no doubt guessed, I was kind of an asshole. But I was a competitive asshole.

I was naturally good at the zero-sum game. A zero-sum game, for those who might not know, is a game in which the person who wins does so at the expense of the person who loses. For me to win, you must lose. Sports work this way. My W is your L. So do most games that make people hate each other: Risk. Monopoly. I chose to obey the rules, because they were good for me. Because I could succeed on the terms set for me by authority. Be better than others. It was easy for me to “win.” And yes, it’s been a blessing; I won’t lie. I’m not looking for sympathy from people whose college was paid for by parents (and yes, mine helped me out when the scholarship money wasn’t enough, too), or crushing amounts of debt, or a spouse, or a sleep-stealing part-time job. It was a good thing on many levels.

But what I learned from that was that I had worth because I won. I tied my self-worth to winning. Chained myself to it. “Link by link, I girded it on, and link by link I wore it,” in the words of Marley’s tired old ghost. Worse, I won so easily that I did not know how I won. I put little effort into doing it. It just was. When I tried things, I tended to win. Every victory was another validation of my greatness.

Until I began to lose.

The lows were as low as the highs had been high. I got out of graduate school, which I had attended with another full-ride fellowship I never really understood how I won, (GRE test scores, my friends!) and stopped winning. The reason is no doubt obvious to you. Because in the real world, no one sets the goals for you. In the real world, there aren’t tests, except can I convince someone to pay for this? Am I good enough to get people’s attention?

Of course I wasn’t. I hadn’t had to sell myself, and I hadn’t had to make friends. So I sucked at both those things. When I pursued my real dream, that of writing science-fiction and fantasy (nerd, remember?), I had no idea how to do it. So I wrote badly, alienated the few writers I did meet (asshole, remember?) or lost touch with them, and met rejection after rejection.

But I kept plugging away at it, because I didn’t know what else to do. And I was having a little success. A very little. I was better than the others in my writing group, anyway, and that was something, right? And we were all getting better. All three of us got stories into the final round of an anthology that was the most prestigious market any of us had ever been considered for (very little success, remember?).

They got in. I didn’t. And that, small as it was, was devastating. Because now I was worthless. All my life, I had tied my worth to my success. To being better than. And now I was worse than. The highs had been exaltingly high. But now, that life — the only life I had ever known — was over. I was a failure, and since that was what I was rather than a result of what I was doing, it meant hopelessness. It meant damnation. I stopped writing. What was the point? I was no good. I couldn’t talk to these people any more. I was shamed before them.

It took a long time to dig out of that crash. It took friends and mentors and counselors all helping me shovel the enormous pile of bullshit I had stuck myself in. And to be clear: the fact I was stuck there was my responsibility. No one else’s. Digging out of it meant getting through a lot of anger and resentment as I was forced to look up at people who were now more successful — and, in my twisted world, therefore better — than me.

One of the things that pissed me off the most in those days, were the gracious people. Those incredibly condescending, gracious people, who kept saying how happy they were when others succeeded, because writing isn’t a zero-sum game.  They loved it when other people did well. I dismissed these people as liars. After all, of course writing is a zero-sum game. If you get into the anthology or the magazine, I don’t, because there’s limited space. Besides which, the people saying this were the ones who were succeeding. They’re like the rich guys saying “money isn’t everything.”  Only then I remembered something. My writing group, those people who had dared become better writers than me? (And they still are, by the way, much better writers than me; they didn’t quit in sulky rage). They didn’t play the zero-sum game. They didn’t look at the world as an arena. And though I doubt that either of them will read this post, I will take this time to apologize to them. I am truly sorry for my unfriend-like behavior and disrespect.

It wasn’t, as I had told myself, that successful people could afford to play the zero-sum game. It was that people who didn’t play the zero-sum game could afford to fail. And the failure that they accepted, learned from, and capitalized on became success. I, who could not tolerate losing, had damaged my own soul, incredibly. Because I could not love, could not befriend, and could not learn unless I was winning. Could not tolerate even looking at my failure long enough to learn from it. And that was true foolishness.

Because really, I should have known. I should have at least trusted in the words of my own faith, which teaches us that our worth is in things like kindness, patience, self-control, goodness, love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22-23). That should have been enough for me to know that worth does not depend on what I make other people do, still less upon defeating them. The cost to me in friends lost and opportunities missed and lessons unlearned is beyond numbering. Doubtless, many of you reading this feel that I am an idiot. Well, I was. Perhaps you feel any good person ought to know all these things already. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to learn these lessons at a much earlier age, from better teachers. Well done. I can only learn from where I am.

So why am I writing this? For pity? No, I neither deserve nor need that. You see, I’ve learned better. I am becoming better. No, I’m writing this in the hope that someone who reads this will need to read it. That people out there who can’t sell a story, or can’t land a job in their fields, or can’t find romance will listen, as I did not. Will see that they are not irrevocably flawed, so long as they can practice virtue.

Also, since followers of Christ should know this better than others, I leave a warning to my own Church. I see far too much, at this present time, about the Church “winning” or “losing,” especially in politics and culture. Our victory is not over flesh and blood. It is already won by Christ our founder. Our faith is no zero-sum game. And as long as we can love our enemies, we can never lose.

From Somewhere In Orbit