Christian Conscience and the Secular Workplace

I had the following question from a reader [edited to make the person less identifiable, and posted with permission]:

I've been following your blog for a few months now, and I've found your posts thoughtful and gracious. Thanks for the time you put into it.

I wanted to take a minute and ask you for a line or two of your advice. I was a teacher myself for many years and realize how precious free time can be, so however brief of a response you can afford is appreciated.

Several years ago I made the transition from a more explicit ministry role to a role in the technology/media industry. I had been teaching computing for some time, was starting a family, and the financial penny eventually dropped. So I took a conversion course and made the change. My current job I view primarily as a way of supporting my role in theological education and as a part-time pastor.

The trouble is, along with the secular workplace come certain ethical grays that I hadn't been accustomed to dealing with. Seeing as you work in a secular university, I wondered if you had any thoughts on this.

For example, the net ethical consequences of the technology I work on is still TBD.  [...]  More immediately, our company provides access to an array of films, some of which are of some value, others of which are in direct opposition to the Christian values I espouse and preach.

I do have a degree of influence in the company, and have been able to steer the direction in certain positive ways during my time there. But the fact remains that impacting the nature of the entertainment industry, or influencing the ultimate societal impact of certain technologies is beyond the scope of my influence. So I will inevitably find myself earning a paycheck resulting from the promotion of certain materials that have to do with darkness rather than light.

Do I leave and protect my conscience, or remain and seek to be a light, however dimmed by the surroundings?


[I wrote back something like the following:]

Peace of Christ to you as well.

It's good that you're carefully thinking through the moral consequences of your job.  I'm not going to pretend that there are always easy answers to these questions.  But maybe I can say a few things that will encourage you in your present circumstances.

1.  Jesus said we were to be "in the world, but not of the world".  It's sounds to me like you're wrestling here more with the "in" part than the "of" part.

Obviously, Christians should not directly endorse or commit acts which they think are sinful.  But when it comes to more indirect forms of enablement, I think that the Spirit of God actually leads different people to adopt different strategies, depending on the individual person.  Some Christians are called to serve God within explicitly Christian sub-communities with a relatively high degree of autonomy from secular culture, while others are called to immerse themselves within a secular culture and be salt and light there.

This isn't moral relativism.  The reason different Christians are called to different positions in society, is that it's a question of different talents and tactics; not a question of who you stand for, which always stays the same.  (There are a variety of gifts, but just one Spirit.)

2.  And sometimes, God moves people from one of these lifestyles to the other one; in other words he can call you to take different strategies at different times in your life.  St. Paul the Apostle was no stranger to this feeling of disorientation.  As he described his experience in 1 Cor 9:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

There may be some shock of transition, in that if you started off with the "Christian sub-culture" approach, you might feel like you are compromising yourself by being involved with people or things that seem unclean to you.  (Like Peter's reaction to the sheet from heaven.)  And perhaps several of these things really are unclean, and you can't endorse them in your mind; but sometimes it's hard to separate yourself (in an external sense) from those things, without also rejecting the people involved.  That's why it's a judgement call.

The important thing is that you remain faithful to him in whatever situation he's called you to.  If you have heart-righteousness, you can't be compromised by any amount of indecency around you.  This is what St. Paul the apostle called having a "strong" faith in Romans 14-15.

No seriously, you can't be compromised by it if your heart is right.  Not if you have the kind of "innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents" character that Jesus is calling you to have.  And if you don't have that character yet, ask him for it.  He might allow you to make some mistakes along the way that are part of the learning process, but he will be faithful to you in whatever situation he's placed you into, if you place your trust in him.

3.  When I was about 6 years old, I was attending a Baptist school in Los Angeles, and I recall that they had a kids concert where my older sister helped to perform the following "Input / Output" song:

It's cute and catchy, but I think it fundamentally contradicts Jesus teaching in Matthew 15:10-20.  Jesus says that it isn't the inputs into our life that cause us to sin, but rather the outputs (which come from our heart).  Human beings are not robots, who are mechanically controlled by our programming and data.  Attempts by Christian parents and leaders to create a "safe" environment that prevents children from ever being exposed to evil, can ironically be motivated by an almost Marxist view, where the spirit of a person is controlled by their material circumstances.  So they think that, in order to change people, you have to control them externally, rather than inspiring them from within.

It's a fear-based system (what will happen to the kids if they hear about this idea?) rather than a faith-based system.

4.  In the Old Covenant, when a ceremonially unclean object touched a clean thing, the clean thing became unclean (Haggai 2:10-14).  But in the New Covenant, there is something so perfectly clean, that when it touches an unclean thing, it is the unclean thing that becomes clean, without contaminating the clean thing (Matthew 8:1-4)!  In other words, in the Old Testament, uncleanness was contagious, but in the New Testament, cleanness is contagious, because Jesus has the power to make people clean.  And he lives inside of each Christian.  If you love as he loved, then you will be like that too.

That's why Jesus uses yeast (a reproducing organism) as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels.  (Even though in the Old Testament Passover ritual, yeast had previously been used as a metaphor for sin, again because of its contagiousness.)

The reason uncleanness was contagious in the Old Covenant was that there hadn't yet come into the world a powerful enough love and light and disinfectant to fully cleanse our sin.  So God gave Israel some quarantine rules, as a temporary measure, until Christ entered the world to save it.  But after Christ came, these quarantine rules were no longer so necessary.

That's why Jesus went to dinner parties with prostitutes and tax collectors.  You can be pretty sure that some stuff happened at those parties that you and I would not approve of.  But the Son of Man went to them anyways, to seek and save that which was lost.

Like I said, some people are called to live in Christian sub-cultures, and I'm not in any way trying to minimize or disrespect that choice, since it works well for many people.  But sometimes people conceive of such subcultures wrongly, as a place where we can go to avoid temptations.  But that's just not possible in this life!  A Christian sub-culture just exposes you to a different set of possible temptations.  (Such as the temptation to slap the word "Christian" on schools or music, and assume they've just been redeemed, even though nothing in people's hearts is any different than what happens outside in the "world".)

Don't get me wrong, an unclean thing can still infect you today, if you turn from Christ and your heart lusts after it.  Christians must keep themselves pure from worldly desires (James 4:4, Rev 18:4).  Yet Jesus taught his apostles that the dividing line of purity has to be in the heart, not in walls of separation from other people.  As the famous quotation from St. Solzhenitsyn goes:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.

If you work in a secular environment, there may be tendencies for it to look a little bit like Romans chapter 1.  But if you work in a churchy environment, there will be temptations for you to become like Romans chapter 2; and these temptations can sometimes be very subtle, difficult to avoid, and encouraged by the community.  Neither way looks very much like Romans chapter 8, which is where we ought to be living.  If so, we can triumphantly say:

"For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor [secular culture nor religious culture], shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

5. Your metaphor of "light dimmed by the surroundings" is not really sound.  Darkness is just the absence of light, and hence it has no inherent power of its own to overcome light (John 1:5).

This is certainly true for literal light.  Darkness is not a substance.  There is no such thing as a "dark flashlight" which can emit darkness the way a normal flashlight produces light.  Only if the light is concealed or blocked by an opaque object (so that the light doesn't reach whatever spot you are looking at) can there be darkness somewhere.  And even when the light is blocked by a solid object, it still shines on whatever object is blocking it, and illuminates it.

The light of God is truth.  Do you believe that truth is more powerful than lies?  Do you really believe it?

6.  Reread the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matt 13:24-30.

Part of the point of this story is that no person is smart enough to separate the wheat from the tares; at least, not right now at this stage in history.  (The separation is coming, but this has to wait for the final judgment, when both plants have reached their full maturity.)

You might think you know which movies are "wheat" and which ones are "tares", but art is a funny thing because it can speak to people's hearts in ways that aren't entirely predictable.  It is good that there exist stories of every possible sort, since they enlarge the range of our thinking about the world.

Most of the divines of St. William Shakespeare's day thought it was a sin to attend theatrical performances, because of their ribaldry and because it distracted people from more noble endeavors, but today he is considered "high culture".  Can you imagine where the English language would be, without Hamlet and his other plays?  We can all express our thoughts more vividly, because he existed.

One certainly cannot judge the spiritual value of a work by applying superficial "content filters" (e.g. if the movie depicts adultery or swearing or smoking or gang warfare or alternative sexualities, then it is bad; if it avoids all this stuff and also has an uplifting overall message, then it is good).

There are some deeply spiritual and moral works of literature which portray people committing crimes or serious sins, but they are still wholesome precisely because they shine a light on how this actually affects real people.  As a result of seeing these consequences more clearly, people can be inspired to turn away from destructive actions before they ruin their lives.  Indeed, in some ways it's especially important to have stories portraying sinful deeds, since that's the only possible way for us to learn about sin, without having to actually commit it.

Then there are films and novels that are deeply anti-Christian in their outlook (I'm not talking about straight up XXX pornography here, but rather works which have some artistic merits, but also glorify ungodly values).   Even so, that doesn't automatically imply that it is only bad for the world that they exist.  It could well be that some of these stories help the discerning to see something new about the world, and some might even be the instrument of somebody's conversion to Christ!  After all, I don't think any work can have much artistic value if it doesn't resonate with some important truth about the world (even if that truth might be mixed with lies, in a way that is a trap for the unwary).  And to the extent a work of fiction resonates with any truth, it reveals something about God who is the Truth—even if the person who wrote it is an atheist and never intended for that to happen.

Conversely, a studio which makes a film that is "clean" and "Christian" might still be creating a work with very little artistic value.  Because artistic value is closely connected to truth, this implies that it is (to some degree) telling lies about what humans are like, and what real virtue and vice look like.  Such fiction specializes in equipping people to see the world in an immature and unrealistic manner.  There's a whole Christian film industry which specializes in this type of glop.  (Of course there are also some great Christian films like Chariots of Fire.)

So maybe some of the works which seem to us like "wheat" are actually "tares", or vice versa!  It's not really our place to judge.  (Of course it is fine to judge for yourself what seems spiritually/artistically good, for purposes of deciding what you will watch, or make, or recommend to your friends!  What I mean by "not judging" is more that if somebody else makes something on your platform, and then somebody else enjoys it, you aren't necessarily in a good position to know whether it will have been good or bad for them, in the long run.)

7.  Suppose now that you are a creator of technology.  You can foresee that this technology will be used to produce both good things and bad things.  Some will use it to become more virtuous, while others will use it to sin.  What should you do?

It seems to me you have a pretty obvious role-model here.  I'm talking about God himself.  He created a world, and he could have turned on content filters that made it so bad things weren't possible.  But in his wisdom, he didn't do that.  Instead he put all sorts of things in the world that humans can use both for good purposes and for bad purposes, and he gives us the freedom and space to pick what we will do with them.  Most of the time, he lets people make their own mistakes and learn from them, so we can learn the consequences for ourselves.  Of course, he's provided us with lots of direction and guidance in the Bible, and yet he doesn't even force people to believe he exists, if they don't want to do that!  Yet even so he still provides the same sunshine and rain for the wicked, just as much as to the righteous (Matt 5:45).

As my Dad said in an interview once about the philosophy that motivated him to make the Perl programming language:

The philosophy of TMTOWTDI ("There's more than one way to do it.") is a direct result of observing that the Author of the universe is humble, and chooses to exercise control in subtle rather than in heavy-handed ways. The universe doesn't come with enforced style guidelines. Creative people will develop style on their own. Those are the sort of people that will make heaven a nice place.

8.  New technology often has unforeseen consequences, and can drive social change.  But once again the character of the heart matters more than the nature of the particular medium.

Historically you can find alarmists whenever any new communications media appears (e.g. people freaked out about the printing press, and about radio, and about TV, and about the internet, and about smart phones).  And there have always been people who consumed each of these products in an unhealthy and addicted manner, or were led astray by lies.  But when the dust settles, we've usually found that the essentials of human life are still the same under new technological conditions.

Even in the days of Twitter, print books still exist, and a lot of people still read them.  Or if, someday in the future, Virtual Reality reaches the mass market, it will just be one more thing in the media ecosystem.  People will still meet in person and talk to each other (once the pandemic ends, anyway!)

9.  Before Jesus preached the gospel, he made furniture.  A skilled craftsman has to judge whether they are making good, solid, reliable work.  Whether it is useful to others.  Some people might have used his furniture in morally questionable ways, but a craftsman can't prevent that.  He can only make the best product he can, and leave the rest to the customer.

So if you think whatever you make personally is good in and of itself, and that it will be mostly used in good ways, then I think your job is morally justifiable.  Even if some folks take advantage of the opportunity to sin.  If, however, you think that the evil predominates (e.g. if you were making your money as a loan-shark exploiting poor people) then you'd need to find another line of work.

10.  If I had interpreted 2 Cor 6:14 with excessive rigor, I could never have become a physicist working in my area of interest (my PhD advisor isn't a Christian, and virtually all of the top universities are secular in practice, if not always in theory).  But the rest of St. Paul's writings make it abundantly clear that he never meant that we shouldn't interact with non-Christians socially or in the marketplace.

I don't think working in a secular workplace contradicts this passage, as long as you keep open the option to leave, in the event that you would otherwise be forced to cross a line which violates your own conscience.

I think it is of enormous importance that this line of conscience exists (that it is clear in your own mind, and that your coworkers know there are some things you would never do).  But it is actually not very important for all Christians to draw this line in exactly the same place as each other.  And it's also not wrong to think strategically—in light of your specific circumstances and culture—when you decide exactly where this boundary should be, based on the truths that you think are the most important to witness to.

Refusing to do specific things for specific moral reasons, seems like a far more compelling testimony to outsiders, then simply refusing to associate with them from the outset would be.  Even non-believers often respect and admire people with a strong internal moral compass, as long as they don't come across as judgemental.

(Of course if God makes it clear to you that he's drawing a line you for you in some particular place, then obviously follow the Spirit's prompting, however difficult it may be.  But in such cases there's no need for my advice.)

I can't make this judgement call for you.  But I don't think the situation you've outlined for me is necessarily an ungodly compromise.  Maybe it's exactly where God wants you to be, and you just need to approach the situation with faith, rather than doubting.


Posted in Ethics | 4 Comments

Comparing Religions VIII: Honest Messengers

The next questions are best considered together:

8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?

9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?

Jesus preached a message of self-sacrifice, and went to the Cross.  His Apostles, although respected in the Christian church, could reasonably expect to live unpleasant lives and be killed for their testimony.  Tradition states that nearly all the Apostles were martyred, and we have pretty good historical documentation of this in the case of a few key eye-witnesses (Sts. Peter, Paul, James the Apostle, and James the brother of Jesus).

On the other hand, many cult leaders have deliberately created religions on purpose in order to get money, sex, and fame.  If the religious leader gets plenty of women, wealth and power, then one can reasonably suspect ulterior motives.  Especially if their "revelations" support their own power-seeking agenda.

Certainly, if a religious leader engaged in other sorts of fraud, confidence schemes, crimes or other immoral conduct, that should be a huge red flag!  (Especially if they did so after starting their religion; but even frauds committed beforehand serve as evidence of character, especially if they didn't show any signs of remorse.)

If you are a follower of any of the religious founders mentioned below, I ask for your patience and tolerance, as an adequate exploration of this topic is bound to touch on some sensitive issues.  But on a matter as important as this, I think it is important for me to tell the truth as I see it, even when the facts do not seem to be very flattering to the individuals concerned.

L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology)

For example, in the case of Hubbard, he is well known to have told multiple people beforehand that "the easiest way to make money would be to start a religion," prior to founding Scientology and fleecing tens of millions of dollars from gullible marks.  (The main way to advance in Scientology is to pay the "Church" tons of money for classes.)

This suggests an "Hubbard test" for diagnosing false prophets.  If they get a gazillion bucks or lots of sex from preaching their religion, then any testimony they give about the divine is tainted given the obvious incentives for them to do what they are doing.

Some other cult leaders pretty obviously fail this test:

Joseph Smith (Latter Day Saints, i.e. "Mormonism")

Prior to becoming a religious founder, Joseph Smith was already notorious for scamming people out of their money to fund "treasure hunts" using seer stones, to the extent that he eventually faced prosecution:

Smith was arrested for disturbing the peace, a charge commonly used for charlatans and tricksters, and according to the Vagrant Act of New York included those “pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found.” Referred to as “The Glass Looker” in court documents, Joseph openly admitted to indulging in magic arts and organizing hunts for buried gold. New York law provided punishment for disorderly persons, whose definition included jugglers (conjurors), diviners, and those pretending to have skill in discovering lost goods. The charge aligns with uncle Jesse Smith’s description of Joseph: “He says he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity to say they are, and that the angel of the Lord . . . has put him in possession of great wealth, gold, silver, precious stones.”

Given that no treasure ever materialized, Stowell’s nephew, Peter Bridgeman took legal action after he became sufficiently concerned over Smith’s unfulfilled promises, ever-increasing requests for money and complaints about treasure slipping away at the slightest infraction. In his complaint, he wrote: “Mr. Stowell is represented as being not a very bright man, but he had saved considerable money for those times, and Joe Smith managed to get and spend most of it.”

And after being commissioned as a "Prophet", Smith came up with a purported divine revelation in which "God" [actually Joseph Smith] tells Emma that he could break his oath to her and marry additional wives, with her consent:

61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. (Doctrine and Covenants 132)

Oh, wait, just kidding about her permission being required: if she rejects the institution of plural marriage God will punish her and Smith will be exempted from that requirement:

64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.

65 Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.

(Obviously, any attempts of Smith to state that he only very reluctantly accepted the religious obligation to sleep with a bunch of attractive young women should be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.)

Oh, and don't read too much into the "virgin" bit either, since Joseph also liked to convince married women into sleeping with him, under the guise of offering an "eternal marriage", including some women he seduced without the knowledge or permission of his first wife Emma!  (Here is corroboration of the factual aspects by a Mormon apologetics site, along with some unconvincing attempts to argue that it isn't really adultery to have sexual relations with women who are legally married to other men.)

And finally Smith's "martyrdom" in prison doesn't really have a huge amount of evidential value regarding his sincerity, given that he was shooting his assailants at the time.  These are not the actions of a man resigned to death.

Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science)

Mary Baker Eddy made some dictatorial rules for her church which include: 1) not bothering her with information she didn't want to know, 2) always calling her by her proper title, 3) the right to make any female congregant serve her as a personal maid in her home.  What a &$@!

Apparently she was also paranoid that people would "maliciously mesmerize" her, and would excommunicate people for this offense on the turn of a dime.  This is not the kind of suffering for one's faith that makes it more credible.

Sun Myung Moon (Unification Church)

The abusive antics of Sun Myung Moon (and his supposedly sinless family) are similarly well documented.  Moon's doctrine was that he could create a new perfect human family by, well abuse.  According to the link above:

While Moon’s theology had geopolitical ambitions, he saw his family as the means for realizing his vision. At the age of 40, he married his cook’s daughter, a delicate 17-year-old beauty named Hak Ja Han. Moon claimed that their union marked the beginning of the “completed testament” era, in which Moon would reverse the fall of man by making his wife pay penance for Eve’s sins. For three years, he stashed Hak Ja Han in a rented room, kept her in bitter poverty, and forbid her from seeing her family. The goal was to rid her of Eve-like defiance and cultivate “absolute obedience” so that she could bear children free of original sin. By the winter of 1960, the first of these perfect children had arrived.

It turns out that when you teach your cult that your children are literally perfect, they turn out kind of messed up:

The task of caring for the messiah’s children fell to his followers, who didn’t dare discipline them. “The Moon kids were like gods—completely and utterly exempt from the rules,” says Donna Orme-Collins, a onetime Unificationist whose father directed the British church. Moon’s eldest son, Steve, a plain, slender boy, was particularly brazen. In the late ’70s, he was expelled from an elite middle school for shooting students with a BB gun. Moon sent him to live with Bo Hi Pak, but Steve’s behavior only deteriorated. He started doing drugs and picking fights, and Pak was unable to rein him in. At one point, according to members of the Moon and Pak families, Pak even resorted to spanking his own son—a sweet, studious boy who went by the American name James Park—when Steve got out of line.

You can click on the link above for the rest of the sordid story.

[Including a connection to Hunter Biden, for you political junkies!  I wrote the first draft of this post well before the Trump scandal, so I was a bit surprised to find him there when I reread the article.]

The cult leaders above are somewhat niche figures, who preached messages which could also be rejected on more philosophical grounds.  But now I would ask you to bear with me as we apply the same test to the founder of a major world religion:

Mohammad (Islam)

While Mohammad's persistence under persecution during the early phases of his ministry is quite impressive, it would have been more impressive if the later stages of his career did not contain so much retaliation and bloodshed.

Similarly, while his moderation when it came to material possessions was admirable, it is blemished by his lack of self-restraint when it comes to sex; although other Muslim men were limited to 4 wives (plus slave women), he allowed himself 11 at once (plus slave women).  As it says in the Quran:

Prophet, We have made lawful for you the wives whose bride gift you have paid, and any slaves God has assigned to you through war, and the daughters of your uncles and aunts on your father's and mother's sides, who migrated with you.  Also any believing woman who has offered herself to the Prophet and whom the Prophet wishes to wed—this is only for you and not the rest of the believers.  We know exactly what We have made obligatory for them concerning their wives and slave-girls—so you should not be blamed: God is most forgiving, most merciful.

You may make any of [your women] wait and receive them as you wish, but you will not be at fault if you invite one whose turn you previously set aside: this way it is more likely they will be satisfied and will not be distressed and will all be content with what you have given them.  God knows what is in your hearts: God is all knowing, forbearing.  You are not permitted to take any further wives, nor to exchange the wives you have with others, even if these attract you with their beauty.  But this does not apply to your slave-girls: God is watchful over all.  (Haleem translation of Sura 33:50-52)

His immediate Companions also received significant quantities of status and booty, through military victory, as a result of their close connection to their prophet.

While many of them fought courageously and died in battle, and many doubtless sincerely believed Mohammad's prophecies, those who survived were able to profit considerably from the new religion.  This has to be taken into consideration when evaluating their testimony.

Regarding evidence of possible deception, there are a few red flags, in which divine revelations to Mohammad just so happened to come out in an extremely "convenient" way for him personally.  Here are three particularly notable incidents, each of them reported by faithful Muslims (and each partially corroborated by the Quran):

1) Visibly coveting a wife he gave to his adopted son Zayd, then later (after they divorced) making a ruling that adoption isn't legal in Islam, thus allowing Mohammad himself to marry her (otherwise it would have been considered incest according to the Arab culture of the time).  Part of this event is alluded to in Sura 33:37-40 of the Quran:

When you said to the man who had been favored by God and by you, `Keep your wife and be mindful of God', you hid in your heart what God would later reveal: you were afraid of people, but it is more fitting that you fear God.  When Zayd no longer wanted her, We gave her to you in marriage so that there might be no fault in believers marrying the wives of their adopted sons after they no longer wanted them.  God's command must be carried out: the Prophet is not at fault for what God has ordained for him.  This was God's practice with those who went before—God's command must be fulfilled—[with] those who deliver God's messages and fear only Him and no other: God's reckoning is enough.  Muhammed is not the father of any one of you men; he is God's Messenger and the seal of the prophets: God knows everything.  (Haleem)

In other words, under the guise of forbidding adoption, he changed the rules about incest in order to benefit himself personally.  Of course he said God was the one changing the rules, but we have only his word for it, and the motivations don't look good here.

[Incidentally, this is another difference with the New Testament, which talks about adoption as a metaphor for how God welcomes us as his own family.]

2) Raising the number of required eyewitnesses needed for an adultery accusation to 4, after his favorite wife Aisha was accused of misconduct, and (absurdly) mandating punishment for all those who testify, if not enough witnesses are found:

Those who accuse married women of adultery, then fail to produce four witnesses, you shall whip them eighty lashes, and do not accept any testimony from them; they are wicked.  If they repent afterwards and reform, then God is Forgiver, Merciful.  (Sura 24:4)

For all I know Aisha was in fact innocent, but that does not justify introducing permanent injustices into the legal system, to protect the interests of a single person.  It is quite obvious that simply failing to meet an enormously high burden of proof, does not automatically imply that those testifying are guilty of perjury.

Perhaps (as many Western countries now seem to believe) the best legal system should not punish adultery at all.  But what is the point of making it punishable but also virtually impossible to try to prove it without incurring serious consequences?

3) The "Satanic Verses" incident, in which Mohammad apparently revealed some verses for Sura 53 of the Quran, making concessions to Meccan polytheism.  Then he back-pedalled by saying that Satan had actually recited that verse in his voice!

Then he claimed that all previous prophets had had the same issue.  This implausible self-justification can be found in Sura 24:52-55:

And We did not send before you any messenger or prophet except that when he spoke [or recited], Satan threw into it [some misunderstanding].  But Allah abolishes that which Satan throws in; then Allah makes precise His verses.  And Allah is Knowing and Wise.  [That is] so He may make what Satan throws in a trial for those within whose hearts is disease and those hard of heart.  And indeed, the wrongdoers are in extreme dissension.  And so those who were given knowledge may know that it is the truth from your Lord and [therefore] believe in it, and their hearts humbly submit to it.  And indeed is Allah the Guide of those who have believed to a straight path.  But those who disbelieve will not cease to be in doubt of it until the Hour comes upon them unexpectedly or there comes to them the punishment of a barren Day.

This incident is discussed in more detail by early Muslim traditions, which describe the details of the previously revealed verse and how Mohammad corrected it.

(Many Muslim hadith scholars do not accept as authentic any of the hadith giving the story of the previously "revealed" Satanic verse, due to various defects in the relevant chains of transmission.  However, I think some allowance must be made for the unwillingness of Muslims to propogate material so embarrassing to their Prophet.  The tradition is still credible because: a) there are multiple early sources, b) it was accepted by the earliest Muslim biographers, and c) it makes coherent sense of the verses above in the Quran.)

If there were events of this kind narrated in the New Testament, that would make it a lot harder for me to trust it.  Especially if there seemed to be a pattern of self-serving behavior.

What about their justifications for this behavior?

Of course, it is always possible for a person who claims to speak for God to make up some reason for why what they are doing is justified.  When you have the social ability to freely invent stories about why you had to abuse people for the sake of their immortal souls or whatever, and if you have a community who trusts you enough that these claims are believed, this gives you a lot of power!  So it's playing with the net down to ask whether the religious founder was justified by their own strictures, given their ability to amend those rules at any moment (although many cult leaders do not even meet this low standard).  It's better to ask:

1. To what extent did these religious leaders follow the ordinary conventional moral rules about fair play, chastity etc. that everyone in their culture already knew about?

2. To the extent they argued for changes to the rules, did they follow the same rules which they imposed on everyone else?  Are they a good example of what they are preaching?

(We can also ask if the new moral teachings are an improvement on what came before, but that is the subject of the next post in the series.)

From the perspective of a prospective follower who has to decide whether to place their trust in a claimed religious leader, one cannot simply accept at face value a prophet's claim to be a good person.

If I am supposed to accept somebody as a representative of God on the basis of their moral character, then that moral character needs to, at a minimum, be recognizably good by my own standards, even if in certain respects it goes beyond what I already know.  If I also have to take their moral goodness on faith—if they use their status to behave like a person on a power-trip would—then there is no good reason to take their claim seriously.

Jesus (Christianity)

It is generally pretty easy to tell whether a religious founder craves money and sex and ego.  Just look to see whether they in fact fleece their followers for money and pressure a bunch of girls into sleeping with them!  These kinds of religious leaders justify Jesus' statement that:

All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  They will come in and go out, and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  (John 10:7-13)

This should not be interpreted as saying that no sincere religious leaders ever existed before Jesus, since we know for a fact that Jesus regarded Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah etc. as authentic followers who served him beforehand.  Nor does it imply the nonexistence of wise (albeit sometimes misguided) sages, such as Confucius, Laozi, Plato, certain rabbis, or even Buddha.  These people never intended to put forward themselves as the object of veneration.

Christ did put himself forward as an object of veneration, but he also rejected earthly ambitions and power-games.  Instead he humbled himself to the point of voluntarily accepting death by torture.  It was in this way that he sought to save humanity, while remaining a humble suffering servant, not craving the praise of human beings.  He only cared for what his Father thought was important.

To be sure, Jesus' contemporaries definitely accused him (and his apostles) of fraud and malfeasance.  If you can take seriously the accusations that were actually made in the first century (e.g. that he did miracles by magic, or that his disciples stole his body on Easter to fake the Resurrection) then I suppose nothing I can say here is likely to make a difference to you.  But I don't see in the New Testament any smoking guns, of the sort one would expect from a con artist trying to pull the wool over people's eyes in order to turn a profit.

(The New Testament does tell people to put their faith or trust in the message, even when circumstances seem dark and discouraging, but I am not so cynical as to interpret this as an admission of fraud all by itself.  It's when you catch a religious leader pilfering from the money-box, or diddling a kid, and then they tell you that you just need more faith—that's when you should kick them to the curb.)

I do not, however, want to give the impression that Jesus was perceived as impeccable by his contemporaries.  Far from it!  His sinless perfection (if Christianity is true) consisted not in perfect conformity to human social convention, but rather the overthrowing of those standards in favor of God's new kingdom.  To be fair, I ought to therefore show the more "scandalous" side of Jesus, and we can see if it is in any way parallel to the transgressions above.

One accusation found in the Gospels is that Jesus was

a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

but this related to a controversy over whether religious people ought to socialize with "bad people" who don't keep all the rules.  Jesus' self-conception, as someone sent by God to "seek and save the lost", is what sent him to these parties, more than a lack of ascetic discipline.  Many modern people, more sympathetic to the idea of universal love, will probably not find this quite as objectionable as the religious leaders of the day did.  Although I've heard that there are still a few "Pharisees" around in some Christian circles, who would object to a religious leader doing the same thing today.

(As for excessive use of food and alcohol, these are bad habits by definition, but it involves a judgement call.  We can reasonably doubt whether the critics who didn't want him going to these parties in the first place, were very attentive to the exact quantities involved.)

Let's leave aside for the moment all these controversies related to Jesus' mission and identity, his interpretation of the law and welcoming of sinners, and his vehement critique of the religious establishment.   These kinds of topics are the subjects of other posts in this series, and are not really analogous to the kind of moral transgressions and self-serving "revelations" that we've been discussing.  We are looking for a more personal abuse of authority.

From that perspective, what is the most outrageous action of Jesus?  Perhaps it is this:

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.  She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.  Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor."  And they rebuked her harshly.

"Leave her alone," said Jesus.  "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.  But you will not always have me.  She did what she could.  She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

An unsympathetic reading of this passage would be as follows: Jesus takes advantage of his religious charisma, in order to receive inappropriate public attention from a woman he isn't married to.  And in the process he accepts a luxury item so expensive, that arguably nobody is justified in consuming it—let alone a person who strongly advised his followers to "sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Luke 12:33Matt 19:21).

It is true that Jesus did not (so far as the story indicates) command the woman to act in this way.  But instead of rebuking her for the waste, he encourages her; and even presents himself as a more worthy recipient of the gift, than the numerous poor who existed in the land.  Does this make him a hypocrite?

The disciples were scandalized, and John even hints that this was the precipitating event that motivated Judas Iscariot to plan to hand Jesus over to the religious authorities.  So we are not here dealing with an event unfavorably interpreted by outsiders, but rather an event capable of alienating a close disciple, who had given up quite a bit to follow Jesus (and was now apparently regretting that investment).

It is important not to accept a tendentious explanation, of a sort that I would find absurd if given by some random cult leader.  At the same time, we also need to think about what this action would mean, if Jesus is really who he says he is.  The question is: which hypothesis explains better Jesus's reactions to the situation?

Taken in full context, I think the disciples' objection shows itself to be superficial.  Less than a week after this event, Jesus is arrested and killed.  He sees this act of sacrifice as the culminating point of his ministry.  As a general rule, Jesus never joined with those who criticized people for their spontaneous acts of devotion to God.  But in this case, he justifies the woman's act as particularly suitable, because he is about to become a corpse.  So this event is not really about a lifestyle of sensuality, but rather Jesus acknowledging a station on the road to Golgotha.

From an aesthetic point of view, her act is fitting and beautiful, and will be remembered long after other acts of charity are forgotten.  Jesus does not forget the poor, but he affirms this woman's act precisely because of its consonance with the Gospel proclamation.

The term Christ taken literally means someone anointed with oil (as kings of Israel used to be anointed, when they began to rule).   This refers primarily to his anointing with the Holy Spirit, but it was fitting that one who wore a crown of thorns should also be literally anointed.  This was done by a woman totally outside of the usual structures of religious authority, who nevertheless recognized his glory.

Jesus recognizes her love, and elevates her act to a sacramental anointing which reveals God in operation.  Just as (at the beginning of his ministry) his submission to John's baptism transformed its meaning into an enactment of death and new birth.  If the onlookers don't understand, and view his conduct as inappropriate for a decent rabbi, that's their problem.  Like David dancing before the ark, his spiritual compass points in a different direction than his detractors.  In the light of all the acts of self-forgetting devotion which will follow from future saints, the critic's perspective seems more limited here.

In any case, the context clearly shows that Jesus was not aiming at the same thing as a typical cult leader, which is the important point for the time being.

Good Friday, 2021.

Next: An Unfulfilled Prophecy?

Posted in History, Theological Method | 21 Comments

Need Help with Writing?

My wife has spent nearly a decade teaching people how to become better at writing.

If you are 16 years or older, and you need help learning how to write a good academic essay — no, she won't write it for you, that's plagiarism! — then please check out St. Nicole's online tutoring service.

She has a lot of experience with ESL students.  She also offers copyediting, if that's what you need.

She's got two masters degrees, and lots of teaching experience.

What is the connection between this and my usual science and religion fare?  Well that's simple.  THIS content (on my blog, anyway) is always going to be free.  But if you'd like to support us, you can always go over there and pay for THAT content.

Posted in Education | 103 Comments

Saving Energy Conservation

There's an interesting conversation on Energy Conservation going on under my post about how The Universe can't `Just Exist'.  I wrote a reply in that thread which I've decided to turn into a main post.

Saving Energy Conservation:
What would Physicists do if an Experiment showed that Energy Conservation is False?

Just because current experiments seem to show that energy is conserved, doesn't mean a future experiment might not violate energy conservation.

However, what this would actually look like in practice, would be a complicated dialectic involving both experiment and theory.

So suppose for example we do an experiment and it looks like under such-and-such conditions, a box of electrons seemed to get new kinetic energy seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Then I think scientists would probably go through something like the following stages (not entirely unlike the silly pop-psych notion of "Stages of Grief")

1. The first thing physicists would do is suspect that there is some sort of experimental measurment error.  In other words, reject the experimental result on the basis of well-established theory, and try to look for a reason why the mistake was made.  Either because of a measurement error, or because of leakage from some established type of energy (like thermal leakage or external electric fields or something).

[This is like the "Denial" stage of grief, but unlike when somebody dies, most of the time when a scientific experiment discovers something really weird, denial is the right first reaction!  Maybe there might be a bit of "Anger" too if the experimentalists are crackpots or making a slipshod mistake, and refuse to accept correction.]

2. If scientists conclude the effect is real, then they would try to find a new physical theory which explains the effect.  Most conservatively, by adding a new type of particle or interaction.  Importantly, we would normally try to redefine energy in such a way that it is still conserved in the new theory, even if we have to add a new term to the formula for energy.

[I guess this is the "Bargaining" stage of grief, but again if this is successful there is no need to go onto the next stages...]

3. If, after repeated efforts, it appears that there is NO reasonable or natural way to modify our physics theories (and associated definitions) in such a way that there is a conserved energy, then this would rise to the level of a crisis in physics ["Depression"], and people would start looking for more radical solutions to the problem.

4. But if it was discovered that there ARE simple ways to explain the data, by using theoretical models which DON'T have any interesting or useful concept of energy conservation; then (and only then) would we conclude that Energy Conservation is false. ["Acceptance"]

In other words, the first instinct of physicists would be to try to save the paradigm of the theory of Energy Conservation, and there are lots of different ways that this can be done—including questioning the experiment, postulating new physics, and subtle redefinitions of what we mean by "energy".  This might lead one to think that physicists have an absolute a priori commitment to energy conservation.  But I don't think that's true.  I think the paradigm of Energy Conservation is like a piece of toffee, where you can stretch it a lot, but if you stretch it too much it will break.  In other words, there exists the potential for future experiments to drive sufficiently radical changes of our theories, that the concept of energy is no longer applicable (except in whatever approximations are needed for the old paradigm to hold).

As I said before, one can certainly write down differential equations which do not satisfy a conservation law, for any quantity that resembles an energy.  (A simple example would be if the laws of Nature turn out to be explicitly time dependent. In that case Noether's proof of energy conservation would not apply, and energy could be created or destroyed!

[As I mentioned previously, to some extent energy conservation is already problematic already in general relativistic cosmology, as I've discussed before here and here.]

Posted in Scientific Method | 56 Comments

Respect for the Presidency (and Parents)

About 4 years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Respect for the President in which I argued that Christians have the moral duty to show a certain degree respect to the leader of their country.  I wrote:

The Bible passages above make it clear that we are required to give respect and not merely grudging obedience to our leaders.  Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the President's policy decisions, to sound the alarm at usurpations of power, to whistleblow crimes, to reject immorality etc.  You are not required to agree with him or her, any more than the command to "honor your father and mother" means you must always agree with their decisions.

About the specific candidates for the election, I said that:

That does not mean I am neutral when it comes to this election.  While I am not a huge fan of either candidate this season, Donald Trump is far more dangerous, irresponsible, and crude than his rival, and I may have some personal difficulty in following my own advice if he is elected.  Although it is conceivable he would keep his promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in keeping with my own views, this year the "worst case scenarios" for the Executive Branch seem way worse than for the Judicial Branch.

Well, Trump has kept his promise to appoint conservative justices, I'll give him that.

But in other respects, I don't think he's really governed as a conservative at all.  Nobody who is almost completely without respect for honor, decency, military service, civil unity, the Constitution, or due process of law, can really be called a conservative in any meaningful sense.  Unless you just mean that phrase as an arbitrary label to describe one particular political team, I think that both in temperament and policy, St. Joe Biden is much closer to being conservative than Trump is.

(For that matter, I have some qualms about calling a "conservative" anyone who doesn't believe in some form of environmental conservation—the arguments for doing so are almost exactly the same as the arguments for not making radical changes to the economy or civil society, namely that these things represent a delicate balance that has evolved over a long period of time, and that balance is easy to destroy but very hard to replace.  In other words, it's a bad idea to try to cut off the branch you are sitting on.

Except that actually it's even more foolish to ruin the ecology, as in that case we are talking about a system which God allowed to evolve over millions of years, not mere hundreds of years.  I believe that we humans have been placed on this Earth as divinely appointed stewards of the Environment.  God wants us to cultivate our planet and care for it—not pillage and destroy it for the short-term profit of shareholders.  It may be hard to replace a repressive system of government, but it is far easier than to recreate an extinct species, or to suck 1/3 of the carbon dioxide out of the air in order to return the atmosphere to the condition it was in before the Industrial Revolution.)

This is not really a political blog, and I don't think it is useful to make long lists of links to describe (1) all of the cruel or irresponsible things that the current President has done,  (2) formerly respected conservatives who have come out against him, (3) the way his politicization and minimization of the Covid Pandemic led to a far larger death toll than necessary (currently around 200,000).  There are plenty of other places on the Internet to read about this sort of thing, so I try to avoid getting mired in politics except when I have a distinctive angle.   Nor do I think I am very likely to persuade anyone of Trump's unfitness to hold office, who doesn't already acknowledge that fact.

Nor is it particularly worthwhile to recount all of the ways in which Trump, at least verbally, likes to subvert American instiutions by verbally playing around with ideas like violence towards journalists, or voting twice, or chanting "12 more years" instead of "4 more years" during the Republican Convention.  (But I'm sure he just meant 4 more years of him, and then 8 more years of some other Republican crony.  Right...)  This is the way he tests out authoritarian fantasies (things that are currently impossible in our system, but would be possible in other countries, and might eventually become possible here).

If people call him on it, his supporters just say that he was just joking.  But even if that is true, this is still not the path of wisdom:

Like a madman shooting
firebrands or deadly arrows
is a man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!”

Without wood a fire goes out;
without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
(Proverbs 26:18-21)

Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, not to sow discord and strife!

Even an Incompetent Administration gets some things right

It would probably be far easier to make a list of the very few things I think the Trump administration has done well, such as signing the First Step Act, negotiating a peace treaty between Israel and the UAE, and rolling back a few of the last administration's more creative interpretations of Executive authority (for example on educational policy).

The tax bill he signed made a few structural improvements (e.g. by cutting back on several popular deductions which many economists think are bad policy), and might end up becoming a balanced reform after Democrats get a chance to make some changes.  But I think it was a net negative, due to killing the individual mandate.  Despite its unpopularity and dubious constitutionality, the mandate was originally motivated as a way to minimize the risk of a future death spiral totally destroying the individual insurance market.  Removing the mandate alone, without changing anything else about how Obamacare is structured, was deeply irresponsible.

I also think his administration made a good faith effort to negotiate with North Korea, even though, unsurprisingly, very little came from it.  (However I deeply disagree with his approach to the Iran treaty.  It was as good of a deal as we were likely to get.  Since we weren't prepared to go to war, America should have tried to make it work.)

Is Respect still Warranted?

But what I want to talk about today is this.  If the leader of our nation is this selfish and irresponsible, are Christians still obliged to respect him?  In other words, was my blog post 4 years ago wrong?

First let me dispose of one rhetorical maneuver I don't think is very sensible.  Sometimes people of a liberal bent say things like "Well, Trump is not my president", or that he's an illegitimate President because of issues with the election.

But I think these types of slogans are confused about the definition of the term "legitimate".  Our system of government does not allow for the possibility of a vacancy in the Presidency for 4 years.  So it's only reasonable to say that Trump isn't really the President, if you think that somebody else is the President.  But no judge, no matter how liberal, thinks that whether or not a bill becomes law depends on whether Hillary Clinton signs or vetoes it, or that she has the power to nominate Judges to be considered by the Senate.  No, right now that President is Donald Trump.  (Although more likely than not, he won't be for much longer.)

The main supposed problem with the election was that Russia paid for fake internet accounts which persuaded too many voters to support the wrong candidate.  Now I'm not going to say that Putin trying to mess with voters is a good thing.  But in a democracy the goal is to persuade the voters.  If you think the voters were persuaded wrongly, by bad people, that doesn't make the system undemocratic.  It means that Clinton should have done a better job of persuading the voters she had their best interests at heart.  Just as a monarchy doesn't cease to be a monarchy because the King listens to flatterers who don't have the country's best interests at heart, so to a democracy doesn't cease to be a democracy when some of the people listen to fake news.  It just makes it a democracy where the sovereign is behaving in a foolish manner.  If you only accept the results of democracy when the voters do things you like, then you don't believe in democracy at all.

(As for the Electoral College, that's the system we have for picking the President unless and until it is changed, so deal with it.)

Now to answer the question, I'm going to say Yes, it's still important to show some degree of respect to civil leaders, including Donald Trump (and also the Governor of your own state who may or may not be mismanaging things, and also local authorities—this isn't just about the top position.)

The first reason I think this, is because I think that if Democrats had done a better job of respecting their civil leaders when St. George W. Bush was in charge, and if Republicans had respected St. Barack Obama when he was in charge, then I think the contrast between that respect and Trump's disrespectful demeanor would have been so great, that he could never have captured the Republican primary.  It is only because our civil society was already wounded by extreme partisan bias on both sides, that a person who specialized in trolling people was able to take charge of the political process.

So if I said people didn't have some obligation to show a some degree of respect for the current President, I would be enabling the same process that led to Trump being President in the first place.  That seems counterproductive, to say the least!

Comparison to Respect for Parents

Secondly, I think it is helpful to make an analogy to another commandment about respect, Honor your father and mother.  (This is one of the Big Ten, so we definitely aren't allowed to ignore this commandment and hope it goes away.)

Our parents gave us life, provided for us in our early years, and gave us rules and principles to live by.  For religious people, our earliest image of what God's character is like, will be a combination of the character of our father and our mother.  Hence, our (limited) respect for our parents is a natural corollary of our unlimited respect for God, who is totally authoritative, and the giver of all life.

But parents differ in their quality.  Let's consider 4 cases:

1) Some people, like me, grew up with great parents, who were loving and wise and interested in our welfare, and set a good example.  (Nobody is ever a perfect parent, of course, and in a fallen world, every parent is going to leave their kids with issues of one sort or another.)  But taken as a whole, such parents make it easy to respect them as images or symbols of what God is like.

2) Or you might have had mediocre parents who did everything necessary, but not in a super inspirational sort of way.  Perhaps they weren't very affectionate, or were overly strict, or workaholics, or got a messy divorce.  But they still definitely loved their kids and took care of them and gave them a reasonable start in life.

3) Or you might have had 1 or 2 parents who did a terrible job of parenting.  Perhaps they were unaffectionate, abusive, neglectful, just plain irresponsible.  But they still probably cared about you to some extent, and they still did some of the jobs a parent is supposed to do.  (In extreme cases, they may be sufficiently bad news that their children might even need to resort to cutting off all contact with them, for the sake of their own sanity and protection.)

4) Finally, another class of parents were just completely absent as a caretaker.  They took zero responsibility once you were born (or in the case of the father, begotten), and totally abandoned you.  The only reason you are still alive today, is because somebody else stepped up to the plate to take care of you when you were younger.

Now God says to the children of all of these people, Honor your Parents.  There is no person to whom this commandment is totally inapplicable, since none of us can survive early childhood without having received some caretaking from somebody.  But it must be conceded that this commandment is going to be a lot harder for people in the last two categories than for people in the first or the second categories.

I think everybody is capable of obeying this commandment in one way or another.  However, the way in which we do so, may reasonably depend on what kind of parent we have had.

In any of the first 3 cases, we can honor our parents by giving them credit for whatever good things they gave us (with no need to pretend that their mistakes didn't happen).  And to take care of them in their old age to the extent that this is reasonable and possible given your circumstances.  In cases of abusive parents, it may not be safely possible to interact with them, and the best you can do to fulfill your filial obligation is pray for their souls from a distance.  In a few extreme cases, the most reasonable old age pension might be in a jail cell!

If your parents were totally neglectful (case #4), or if you had to be removed from them (in extreme versions of case #3), it seems appropriate to give the greater degree of honor to whoever actually raised you in their place.   Those folks, whoever they are, may have a much greater claim to be respected as your "parents".  But this does not give you the liberty to curse or hate your biological parents.  For it is written:

Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker—one clay pot among many. Does the clay ask the potter, "What are you making?" Does your work say, "He has no hands"?

Woe to him who says to his father, "What have you begotten?" or to his mother, "What have you brought forth?"
(Isaiah 45:9-10)

Even if your biological parents provided you nothing except for your genetic material and 9 months in a womb, you can still honor them for that one little thing, because by doing so you are really only respecting your own self.  Otherwise you are saying "I wish I was never born", and (unless your piety and suffering equals that of Job) that can slip very easily into despising the Lord who created you, who is your true loving Father.

I recently saw the film Capernaum, in which a Syrian boy named Zain is born in poverty to selfish parents, runs away from them after they sell his sister in marriage, and after a series of unfortunate events, ends up in jail.  There, he sues his parents for allowing him to be born.   This lawsuit is, I think, an example of something that the 5th Commandment categorically prohibits.  (And for those who have seen the movie, I do not, in fact, think that it would be better for the world if Zain hadn't existed; for one thing he spends a good portion of the movie trying to take care of a baby after its mother is deported.)

So what does this mean for you if you are an American who hates Donald Trump and thinks he's bad for the country?  Well, he doesn't seem to be like a parent in class #4, who isn't trying at all to run the federal government.  At worst he's in category #3, an irresponsible and abusive authority.

Respect doesn't mean you have to pretend he's doing a good job when he isn't.  (Although, I don't think he's the worst President ever, when you remember that this includes people whose mismanagement led to a literal Civil War, and also people who directly supported slavery, or segregation, or the genocide of Native Americans.)

At the very least, you can refrain from making juvenile permutations of his name, since that is totally unnecessary in order to make substantive criticism of his administration of office.  You can still acknowledge that he is the President of your nation.   You can grudgingly acknowledge it when he occasionally does good things.  And you can pray for him, in ways that aren't entirely about him being struck by lightening, or ignominiously losing the election.  That would be a start.

The Mirror of the Word

I also don't think that respect for Civil Authority means that we shouldn't hold up the mirror of Scripture to the President's conduct, to see how it looks from a spiritually informed perspective.

I thought this article about 10 Scriptures to pray for Donald Trump crossed the line from sermonizing to cheerleading, especially in the topic headers, for example: praying for  "Trump to do everything in his power to continue to care for those who need assistance" (as if he ever cared), or that "Trump will lead America to continue to be a light for all nations" (which misinterprets "my chosen people" in Isaiah 51:4 as though it referred to the USA, a theological blunder with serious political implications).

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great to compile a list of Scriptures which are helpful for understanding how we should think about Donald Trump as Christians.  But no such list is complete which doesn't include this obviously applicable statement:

There is no fear of God before his eyes,
for in his own eyes he flatters himself too much
to detect or hate his sin.  (Psalm 36:1-2)

Reciprocal Respect

Now let me make another hopefully obvious point.  If children have the responsibility to honor their parents, then obviously parents also have the responsibility to try to be the sort of parents that are easy to honor.  Otherwise, they (the parents) are responsible for the profanation of the Divine Name that occurs when their children reject or despise them.  Perhaps, they are even more responsible for the violation of the commandment than their children are.

The rest of this post is aimed mostly at political conservatives.  I'm sure there are also lots of liberal-minded people who read my blog, but they are unlikely to be very tempted to support Donald Trump, and so the points I am going to make are not primarily aimed at them.

If you are a political conservative; if you believe in the importance of civil society; if you think it is important for people to respect the Constitution and the laws—then obviously it is important to select leaders who model that kind of respect for something higher than themselves.  Respect works best when it is reciprocal.  Only a leader who cares about being respectable is likely to inspire respect.

Similarly, if you want people to respect the cops, then this is a lot more likely if the cops hold themselves to high standards, and strictly adhere to the law and to their constitutional limitations, without people giving them a free pass.

There are lots of ways to win politically in the short run, but the only way to win in the long run is to win hearts and minds.  Anything you do for a political position or party which doesn't work towards this goal, is in the long run counterproductive.

(For example, the last thing the pro-life movement should want, is for the face of the movement going forwards to be a man like Donald Trump.  That is like saying, yes please tie a millstone around the neck of my social movement and toss it into the sea! )

Hence, if you are a political conservative who wants to get people to respect lawful authority, your standard of goodness had better not be that anything which "triggers liberals" is therefore good.  That is the exact opposite of Winning Hearts and Minds.  As St. Paul wrote to Christians:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.  On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:17-21)

No matter how misguided you think another group of people is, defining their evil as your good is one of the quickest ways to become evil yourself.  There is no group of people so terrible, that opposing them can be a substitute for doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God.  To be respectable, you need to have your own moral compass, not simply borrow another person's and then turn it upside-down.

When I was a kid our one of our neighbors had a large, rowdy dog that would sometimes bark at us, through the fence.  It was rather intimidating.  One afternoon, me and my younger siblings started loudly barking back at the dog to show we weren't afraid of it.  Well my Dad didn't like that.  He said, "If you meet that dog in a dark alley someday, do you want it to lick your hand or tear you apart?"

Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes in politics, it's necessary to do the right thing even when the other side calls you Hitler.  Most politicians are cowards, and yes, it's often hard to do the right thing when a lot of people in the media take everything you do out of context.

Still, you should be trying to maximize the amount of accomplishment per unit of outrage.  Not deliberately doing cruel things which don't lead to any permanent good, just in order to spite and enrage the other side.  That will just lead to worse things down the road next time the other guys are in charge.

Considerations while Voting

Next I'm going to say something now a lot of political operatives on both sides don't want you to hear, so pay attention.  Since WWII, the White House has pretty regularly switched back and forth between Republicans and Democrats every few years.  It's unrealistic to expect either party to have a victory that will permanently shut out the other party.  If you aren't going to advocate for a dictatorship, or permanently killing or disenfranchising your enemies, or rigging elections, things are going to go back and forth.

So if you think the only way to save America is for Democrats (or Republicans) never to win another election, then I hate to break it to you, but that ain't gonna happen!

You should think of it more like this.  You should vote, because on average your vote can do a significant amount of good.  But in every election, you aren't just helping to determining whether the R's or D's win.  You are also helping to determine what kind of party the R's and D's will be going forward.  And this is even more important that deciding who wins in the short run.

If you want the future Republican party to look more like Donald Trump, and the future Democratic party to look more like Warren or Sanders, then by all means vote for Trump!  But if you would prefer a Democratic party that looks like moderates like Biden, or a Republican party which looks like somebody who cares about something other than their own ego, then you should probably vote for that outcome.

Yes, Christians should respect Civil Authorities like the President.  And if we are obliged to have respect for the Presidency, then a natural outgrowth of that is that we should try to vote for people who will treat that Office with respect.  Character matters, and people in  high office who have a bad character will tend to corrode the work of everyone they oversee below them.  As it is written:

If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.
(Proverbs 29:12)

Double Standards

By the way, I don't want to hear any replies in the comments complaining about the media's double standards, or "What about this other terrible thing that Democrats did, and liberals let them get away with it?!?"

If you are going to have a double standard at all, at least make it point in the right direction: conservatives should hold conservative politicians to a higher standard than they hold liberals to, and liberals should hold liberal politicians to a higher standard than they hold conservatives to.  Whichever "side" you agree with more, those are the people you should hold to a higher standard!  Not the other way around.

(Far more so, as a Christian, I expect the Church to uphold a higher standard than the world, and I'm okay with the world holding the Church to a higher standard as well.  We should be held to a higher standard.)

It is predictable that liberals would react with outrage to a Republican president regardless of how bad he was.  No matter how bad the President is, there are always going to be hyperbolic people who think he is 10 times worse than he actually is.  (It is not hard to find conservatives overreacting to Obama.)

Precisely because this overreaction is predictable, and happens no matter what, you cannot allow them to shatter your own sense of morality, by saying that because they overreact, you are therefore pre-emptively justified in ignoring the real problems and issues caused by the President's lack of moral character (which currently has a significant death toll, remember).  Is it really an excuse to say: the other side is going to complain no matter what, so I may as well do terrible things?  Is that what passes for moral analysis in politics-land?

I'm sick and tired of partisans on both sides of the political spectrum using the (real or imagined) terribleness of people on the other side, to excuse bad behavior on their side.

If you genuinely thought that Trump was the lesser evil in 2016, or 2020, I profoundly disagree, but I understand that people of good conscience can weigh issues differently than I do.  I will not cut you off from my friendship or disrespect you, simply because you have different political opinions from me about which priorities are most important.

(And yes, there are more abortion deaths every year (around 600,000) than Covid deaths this year.  However, as St. David French points out, the abortion rate is now lower than it was in the year Roe v. Wade was decided, suggesting that Winning Hearts and Minds, supporting mothers with crisis pregnancies, and encouraging Adoption might actually work better than direct attempts to change the issue by means of Supreme Court politics—something which would at best return the issue to the States and allow abortion to be banned mostly in Red States where it is already rare.)

The trouble is, that a lot of the people who were arguing that Trump was the lesser evil in 2016 (because of abortion or whatever), are now bending over backwards to present him as the greater good, covering up all of his flaws, and trying to purge from the Republican party anyone who criticizes him.  That's not what supporting someone as the "lesser evil" means.  That's moral corruption.

I don't think you have to endorse everything a politician does in order to vote for him, or to encourage others to do so.  But Trump, because he loves flattery, makes it pretty hard for famous people to support him, if they show any reservations at all, and aren't enthusiastic about him.  So lots of people have ended up endorsing lots of bad stuff along with the good stuff.

Corruption in the Church

This is most disturbing when the people who do so, are respected leaders in the Church.

Because, while the Church ought to submit to Civil Authority so far as it acts within its legitimate authority (for example, when your State's Governor requires you to wear a mask in large gatherings for your own safety!), Christian pastors and leaders also have a Spiritual Authority of their own, which they need to exercise to ensure that people know about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Thus, a pastor who meets with the President, has the obligation to inform him of the basics of what God expects.

And yet, respected evangelical leaders like Sts. James Dobson and Franklin Graham (son of the great evangelist St. Billy Graham) chose to whitewash Donald Trump, and pretend he was a Christian, in order to reassure rank-and-file churchgoers to get them to vote for him.  (To anyone who is old enough to remember what Dobson or Franklin Graham said about the ethical character of President Bill Clinton, just 16 years earlier, the stench of hypocrisy is palpable.)

They did this, even though quite clearly, Trump is not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.  (Trump has said that he's never repented of any sins; if this is true he is definitely unsaved by according to any Evangelical Christian theology.)

Thus, these "leaders" chose to sacrifice the very sine qua non of Evangelicalism—conversion to Christ, being "born again"—for political advantage.  In doing so, they also sold the soul of Trump himself—who is desperately spiritually sick—for the sake of a mess of pottage, namely their chance at defeating their enemies in the culture wars (although, this will inevitably be a hollow victory, because of the Not Winning Hearts and Minds thing).

As God said to the prophet Ezekiel:

Now at the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel. When you hear a word from My mouth, give them a warning from Me.  If I say to the wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but you do not warn him—you don’t speak out to warn him about his wicked way in order to save his life—that wicked person will die for his iniquity. Yet I will hold you responsible for his blood.  But if you warn a wicked person and he does not turn from his wickedness or his wicked way, he will die for his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.  (Ezekiel 3:16-19)

It was the duty of Evangelical leaders to warn Trump that his towering arrogance put him out of touch with God, and to explain (however unlikely it might seem that he would accept it) the Good News that there is somebody even more important than he is, who was capable of saving him.

But they chose not to warn him.  They kissed him on the cheek, soothed his worries, and left him drowsily sliding towards Hell.  And God will hold these Evangelical leaders accountable for his blood.

[Some people might think it's not very consistent to worry about the damnation of the President at the end of a blog post where I urge people to be more respectful of the Presidency.  But respect includes taking people seriously.  And urging people—not just Donald Trump, but also Joe Biden, and all the other politicians and preachers, and all the readers of this blog post—to be reconciled with God is not only a serious matter, but the kindest and most loving thing we can do for them.]

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