Are most American Christians heretics? A recent online survey of three thousand Americans conducted by LifeWay Research indicates we’re certainly confused. More than two-thirds of Americans believe there is one true God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But ask them if the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a person and 64 percent will say “yes.” So God is three personsexcept when he’s two plus a “force.”
And then there’s the Pelagianism. More than half of Americans agree that salvation is in Christ alone. Yet 71 percent agree that a person needs to contribute some effort to his salvation. Sixty-four percent say we need to take the first step to be at peace with God. So it seems Christ alone savesexcept for the part we contribute. Along the same lines, an overwhelming majority allows that we sin but nevertheless believes most people are by nature good.
These sorts of results aren’t surprising. They suggest poor catechesis and muddled thinking rather than heresy. Most of us adopt the dominant cultural assumptions unthinkingly. One is the very American conviction that we are what we make of our lives. Another is the bourgeois conceit that we may have faults but are basically good. These assumptions are incompatible with Christianity. But heresy is not a set of beliefs that contradict or deviate from the Christian truth. If that were the case, most Christians most of the time would be heretics, because most of us don’t take the time to make our convictions consistent, or even all that coherent. Instead, heresy is a spiritual attitude that refuses to accept the authority of the apostolic tradition. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of that, too. But it’s not the same as calling the Holy Spirit a “force” because, well, without theological training it’s hard to see how the word “person” applies.
The same LifeWay Research survey shows how Christian the American public remains. Forty-eight percent believe the Bible to be the Word of God. Forty-three percent say the Bible is 100 percent accurate. Some may favor a glass half-empty response to these results, pointing out that these numbers reflect a long-term decline. I’m inclined to see it as half-full. This is reinforced by a generational difference. When asked about the literal truth of Jesus’s bodily resurrection, 21 percent of older Americans (sixty-five or older) strongly disagreed. Only 10 percent of those age eighteen to thirty-four strongly disagreed. The same pattern holds for belief in the literal truth of the Bible more generally.
I’m always interested in data about opinions on the morality of sex outside of marriage. Asking someone if they agree that sex outside of marriage is always a sin serves as a useful way to discern their attitude toward the sexual revolution more generally. The surveys I’ve looked at recently suggest a correlation between the educationally successful middle class (and by implication also the economically successful) and skepticism about the sexual revolution. The LifeWay Research survey produces results that confirm this. Asked about the statement “sex outside of marriage is a sin,” the group least likely to strongly disagree (15 percent) were those with college degrees. Those with high school diplomas or a little bit of college were most likely to strongly disagree (28 and 30 percent). Twenty-four percent of those with graduate degrees strongly disagree.
Here’s my speculative (but I think plausible) analysis. The meritocratic elite (people with graduate degrees) navigates the sexual revolution pretty well and therefore has no strong objections to it. Meanwhile, middle America is dividing into a successful middle class (college grads but not the meritocratic elite) that adopts a stringent moral code to insulate their children from the worst effects of the sexual revolution, while a failing middle class is morally disarmed.
Are we living in the Humanae Vitae moment? Seems like a ridiculous question, but last June particle physicist Elina Berglund and her physicist husband, Raoul Scherwitzl, founded NaturalCycles. It’s a tech start-up that provides a natural family planning app. Women enter their basal body temperature each day and the NaturalCycles app crunches the data to predict when they are fertile and infertile. The app gets more and more accurate with continued use, because the algorithm self-revises to account for the variations in each woman’s cycle. The company recently raised additional venture capital to develop a wireless thermometer so that body temperature inputs are automatic, making the app even more accurate in its predictions. The company reports 10,000 users since launching in December 2013. Cost: $59.90 per year.
I would not underestimate the potential popularity of something like NaturalCycles. If you asked a typical undergraduate female what she thinks about hormones in her food, I’m willing to bet she’d say it’s bad. It’s only a matter of time before she connects the dots.
Rebecca Traister, senior editor at the New Republic, wants a revanchist feminist reset on the abortion debate. “We need to make it clear that abortions are not about fetuses or embryos. Nor are they about babies, except insofar as they enable women to make sound decisions about if or when to have them. They’re about women: their choices, health, and their own moral value.” Abortion is not about killing, no, not at all.
Traister wrote her defense of abortion while in her final trimester of pregnancy. She didn’t want an abortion, but she defends her right to have one, even at that late stage. “Should some medical, economic, or emotional circumstance have caused my fate to be weighed against that of my baby, I believe that my rights, my health, my consciousness, and my obligations to othersincluding to my toddler daughteroutweigh the rights of the unborn human inside me.” How does this differ from the following? “I believe my rights, my health, my consciousness, and my obligations to others outweigh the rights of the unborn human beside me.”
Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett and I were commiserating about what has felt like a tough year. He passed along this from his colleague Bob Rodes:
God’s world made a hopeful beginning
But man marred his chances by sinning.
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory,
But at present the other side’s
Peter J. Leithart has been a longtime fixture on firstthings.com, as well as a regular contributor to First Things. He’s also director of Trinity House Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, which has now been rechristened the Theopolis Institute, a center for Christian education that offers intensive courses in biblical and liturgical theology. Its mission is to help pastors and Christian leaders become more “Gospelized.” The institute promotes theocracya delicious provocation in our secular age. But this does not mean installing clerics as commissars, but instead an ever more complete conformity of the Church’s life to God’s governing authority as revealed in Scripture.
There are doctrinal points to quarrel about. I’m not one to affirm six-day creation, one of the institute’s doctrinal commitmentsthough I suppose I might under certain interpretations of the meaning of the word “day.” But exegetical and theological quarrels aside, I know from long experience that Peter Leithart’s profoundly biblical worldview always brings fresh insights. The Theopolis Institute is just the sort of thing the Church needs.
John Lukacs once wrote: “What marks the movements in the history of societies and peoples is not the accumulation of capital. It is the accumulation of opinions. (And such accumulations can be promoted, and for some time even produced, by manipulations of publicity, confected for the majority by hard small minoritiesthough not always, and not forever.)”
One opinion is that marijuana is an innocent pleasure. Professor of medicine Matthew Springer is the senior author of a recent research paper on the effects of secondhand smokesecondhand marijuana smoke, that is. Not surprisingly, it’s as bad for health as secondhand cigarette smoke. “Smoke is smoke,” he said. But that’s not the way our accumulated opinions think. He got the idea for doing the study while at a Paul McCartney concert. (Do we need to know anything more to peg Dr. Springer as a Baby Boomer?) “We were already studying the effect of secondhand tobacco smoke on vascular function, and in the middle of the concert, a bunch of people started lighting up. My first instinct was to say they can’t do that here. But then I realized it was marijuana. I think if people started lighting cigarettes in the middle of a stadium, people would tell them to stop. But because they were smoking marijuana, it was OK.”
For any who imagine a moral equivalence between Israel’s efforts to defend itself and Palestinian terrorism, Yossi Klein Halevi makes what is to my mind a definitive observation about the moral difference in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
On the morning of Feb. 25, 1994, the Jewish holiday of Purim, Baruch Goldstein, a far-right activist living in the West Bank town of Kiryat Arba, entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and gunned down 29 Muslim men at prayer.
The horror within Israeli society was overwhelming and unequivocal. Speaking from the Knesset podium, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin excommunicated Goldstein from the people of Israel. The country’s two chief rabbis denounced the attack as a desecration of God’s name, the ultimate Jewish sin. The official publication of the West Bank settlement movement, Nekudah, denounced Goldstein, a settler, as a stain on its camp. Only a radical fringe sought to justify and explain the massacre as a response to Palestinian provocations.
Tuesday’s massacre by two Palestinian terrorists of four Jews at prayer in a Jerusalem synagogue is the Palestinian Baruch Goldstein moment. Yet rather than respond with shame to the murder of those Jews, as well as of an Israeli police officer, the Palestinian reaction has ranged from reluctant condemnation to outright celebration. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly after being pressed by Secretary of State John Kerry, condemned the attackeven as he cited Israeli “provocative acts.” Less equivocal was Abbas’s advisor on religious affairs, Mahmoud Al-Habbash, who said of the terrorists: “We are behind them. The leadership is with them.” Palestinians cheered in the streets of Gaza.
On November 18, just a few days before we wrapped up this issue, firstthings.com released the Marriage Pledge. Drafted by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz, it calls for the churches to separate government marriage from Christian marriage. The way to do that is for priests, pastors, and other church officials vested by the state with the power to perform marriages to renounce the use of that power. What that means in practice is refusing to sign government-provided marriage certificates.
Some bloggers have denounced the Marriage Pledge as mean-spirited, which really amounts to saying that any Christian who speaks clearly in public about Christian marriage is mean-spirited. Others more sympathetic to the pledge contend that it raises more problems than it solves. For example, why should a pastor refuse to sign a government marriage certificate while he says it’s OK for the couple to go to the courthouse to put their own John Hancocks on one? Good question, and one I think answered by the fact that government marriage is a civil contract rather than a sacred covenant. Signing it at the courthouse makes that clear, and clarity is what’s needed right now.
There are doubtless other questions to be raised about the Marriage Pledge. Doug Wilson notes some on his blog, Blog & Mablog. (Those wishing to decode the name of his blog should consult Ezekiel 38.) He thinks the pledge insufficiently thought through. Perhaps. In fact, quite likely. I’ve been forced to think more clearly by a number of people who think the pledge wrong-headed. However, I remain convinced it’s worth supporting. We’re not going to get anywhere unless we take a first step.
Last month’s “Public Square” suggested that those who continue to sign government marriage certificates are violating their consciences. That’s wrong, and Edward Peters rightly criticized me. Although same-sex marriage is a parody of marriage, there’s nothing intrinsically evil about using documents that say Spouse A and Spouse B.
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While We’re At It sources: American heretics, lifewayresearch.com, October 28, 2014. Natural cycles, techchrunch.com, October 30, 2014. Abortion rights, newrepublic.com, November 11, 2014. Secondhand smoke, consumer.healthday.com, November 16, 2014. Palestinian terrorism, online.wsj.com, November 18, 2014.