jasonbwatson

June 16, 2017

Respecting Religion

You have likely heard about, read about, and even watched or read the exchange that took place on June 7 between Senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, during Vought’s confirmation hearing. There has been much said and written about the ridiculousness of Sanders’ questioning–not to mention the unconstitutionality of it–from all ends of the political spectrum, and I will link a few examples here if you would like to read them for yourself. Aaron Earls blogged about it on The Wardrobe Door, clearly making the point that “all roads lead to exclusion,” and that the opinions of Senator Sanders (and Senator Chris Van Hollen, who expressed an inclusivist view of Christianity during the hearing) are perhaps even more intolerant than Vought’s view that led to the questioning. Others on the conservative end of the political (and religious) spectrum made equally eloquent and passionate arguments against Sanders’ questioning.

Interestingly, those calling out Sanders’ intolerance were not confined to the usual ranks though. Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic, wrote, “It was a remarkable moment: a Democratic senator lecturing a nominee for public office on the correct interpretation of Christianity in a confirmation hearing putatively about the Office of Management and Budget.” She went on to state, “It’s one thing to take issue with bigotry. It’s another to try to exclude people from office based on their theological convictions. … This is the danger of relying on religion as a threshold test for public service, the kind of test America’s founders were guarding against when they drafted Article VI.” She concluded her piece by articulating exactly what so many on the other end of the spectrum have been saying about “tolerance” for years: “As the demands for tolerance in America become greater, the bounds of acceptance can also become tighter. Ironically, that pits acceptance of religious diversity against the freedom of individual conscience.”

Even Camila Domonoske, writing for NPR, addressed Sanders’ line of questioning. She provided a reasonable and balanced look at the issue from both sides, citing spokespeople for Sanders, legal experts, Muslim leaders and Russell Moore , president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She correctly reported that views on hell differ, even among Christians: “Different Christian sects, and individuals, have varying interpretations of damnation. The traditionalist view is that eternal suffering awaits all who do not accept Christ; on the other end of the spectrum is the universalist belief that everyone will be saved. And then there are disagreements about what hell actually is.” But the very title of Domonoske’s piece asks the question that ultimately needs to be addressed in light of the Sanders-Vought exchange: “Is it hateful to believe in hell?” (And even if one feels that it is, is such a belief a legitimate subject of questioning in a political confirmation hearing and/or a legitimate reason to oppose or restrict someone from political office?)

I have linked only three examples here and there are many, many more, from all sides, so feel free to find and read those to your heart’s content. It will not surprise anyone who has read the blog with any regularity to know that I found Sanders’ questioning to be out of line and unconstitutional. But I actually want to take a different perspective on the entire exchange, looking instead at Vought’s responses to Sanders. I do not want to throw Vought under the proverbial bus, as he was no doubt surprised by the vehemence of Sanders’ questioning, but he seemed to be uncertain in his responses, unwilling to double down on what he had written and take a firm and unequivocal stance on biblical Christianity. In short, he seemed caught off guard, unprepared to give a defense for his faith.

The apostle Peter addresses the importance of enduring suffering for righteousness sake and being prepared to offer a defense for faith in 1 Peter 3:13-17:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Vought was certainly put in a position by Sanders to suffer for righteousness’ sake. He was, quite literally, asked for the reason for the hope that is within him, and he was indeed slandered and reviled during the exchange. Matthew Poole, in his commentary, said of verse 15, “either that hath authority to examine you, and take an account of your religion; or, that asks with modesty, and a desire to be satisfied, and learn of you.” Sanders certainly fell into the first category.

Again, it is impossible for me or anyone else to say what we might have done were we in Vought’s seat, so I do not wish for this to be seen as an attack on him. But I do wish it to be seen as an encouragement for all of us who claim the name of Christ and seek to be faithful to biblical Christianity. Should we ever find ourselves in a similar situation, will we be prepared to respond? Will we have a defense for our faith, for the hope that is within us, when we are literally in the spotlight? Russell Vought had an opportunity that very few people ever have had or will have, I suspect. He was seated before United States senators, with the opportunity to speak God’s Truth into the congressional record, not to mention to the ears of elected officials and to millions of people across the country and around the world.

Using the transcription of the exchange between Sanders and Vought provided by David French of National Review, I want to imagine what Vought’s answers could have looked like. I am giving Sanders’ questions/comments in blue, Vought’s real answers italicized in brackets and what I would like to imagine could have been said instead in more faithful adherence to Peter’s exhortation thereafter in orange.

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

[Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .]

Absolutely not, Senator. Islamophobia is a fear or hatred of Muslims and I neither fear nor hate Muslims. I am a Christian and I believe the Bible–both Old and New Testaments–which clearly states that the only way to know God is through acceptance of His Son Jesus Christ as Savior.

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

[Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College.]

The context of my statement in Resurgent was dealing with the Muslim religion because it dealt with a position taken by a professor at Wheaton College regarding the Muslim religion. But in reality I believe that all people who have not accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, regardless of their religion or their rejection of all religion, stand condemned. I believe that because that is what the Bible says. while there are others, John 3:18 would be perhaps the best example. It says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” So, in keeping with my Christian faith, I believe that many people stand condemned.

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

[Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .]

Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

[Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .]

Yes, Senator, I do believe that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned because that is what the Bible says.

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

[Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.]

I am not sure if that statement is respectful of other religions or not, Senator. To be honest I am not certain it was designed or intended to be respectful of other religions. That statement was made specifically to highlight the very clear, very important differences that exist between biblical Christianity and Islam. The Christian faith is, necessarily, narrow-minded and exclusive. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” I was articulating and defending that element of my faith, that portion of what the Bible says.

I think, however, that you are missing an important point, sir. I absolutely respect the right of every person to choose his or religion, or to choose no religion. I believe the Constitution of the United States explicitly grants a freedom of religion to everyone in this country. That means that I accept, respect–and would defend–the right of Muslims or Hindus or Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or Catholics or anyone else to believe, or not believe, as they so choose whether or not I agree with their religion. So in that regard I have complete and total respect for other religions.

But if by respecting other religions you mean that I have to agree with what they believe or keep quiet about areas in which my faith differs from theirs then I guess I would have to say no, I do not respect–by that definition–other religions. But given the incredible freedom of religion that we hold so dear in this country, Senator Sanders, I cannot imagine that is possibly what you meant.

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

To which I would say, if I might Mr. Chairman, that the freedom to believe as we see fit and to speak as we wish–even about those differing and contradictory beliefs–is precisely what this country is supposed to be about.

 

June 7, 2017

Let’s Keep “Parents” Around

Last August Joanna Schimizzi, a National Board Certified Teacher, wrote a blog for the “The Standard – The Official Blog of the National Board.” The blog post’s title was “Ban the word ‘Parents’.” Here’s how she started:

This school year, I want to challenge you to ban certain words from your vernacular. We each have our own set of words and phrases that are taboo in our classroom, like “stupid” or “I can’t”, but this year I want to challenge you to stop using the word “parents”.

What was the reason for this peculiar notion? Schimizzi wanted to challenge teachers “to realize that many of our students live in settings where ‘parents’ are not the only figures who are important to their success.”

That’s true of course. Dictionary.come defines “parent” as a father or mother or a protector or guardian. We usually have the former in mind when we think or say “parent” I am sure, and for years it has been common practice for many forms and communications to utilize “parent or guardian” due to the fact that so many children do not receive their primary care from a biological parent. The reality, however, is that there are more children living with two biological parents than most of us would guess. Last November 17 the U.S. Census Bureau, in Release Number: CB16-192, reported, “The majority of America’s 73.7 million children under age 18 live in families with two parents (69 percent), according to new statistics released today from the U.S. Census Bureau. This is compared to other types of living arrangements, such as living with grandparents or having a single parent.” According to that same report only 4% of U.S. children do not live with any parent.

Schimizzi said her position toward the word “parent” came when she was talking to a guidance counselor at her school about the low number of responses she received on a Parent Survey she sent home with students at the beginning of the year. “Her support helped me realize that many of my questions had implicit bias that placed value on certain experiences not applicable to all families,” Schimizzi wrote. “And one of her best suggestions was to change ‘Parent Survey’ to ‘Family Survey.'”

Of course family used to mean parents and the children they cared for. In fact, the leading portion of Dictionary.com’s definition of the word still says, “a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not.” It becomes immediately clear therefore that if Schmizzi and her guidance counselor colleague felt that “Family” would be more appropriate to the realities of students than “Parent” that they must both have agreed, whether consciously or not, that “family” no longer means what it used to mean. Therein lies a huge part of why this recommendation to abolish “parents” is so dangerous–but I will get back to that.

Continuing in her blog, Schimizzi mentioned Al Trautwig’s statement during the Olympics that gymnast Simone Biles “was raised by her grandfather and his wife and she calls them mom and dad.” Biles was, in fact, adopted by her grandparents when she was just a toddler. But when Trautwig was challenged on Twitter about his statement he retorted, “They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.” After being ordered by NBC to apologize, according to The Associated Press, Trautwig issues a statement that said, in part, “To set the record straight, Ron and Nellie are Simone’s parents.”

That situation, however, is a great example of why the word “parent” is so important–not grounds for banning the word. I think many people have long understood that there is an incredible difference between procreating and parenting. Whether by conscious choice to give up or abandon a child, by some kind of incapacitation or even by death, not everyone who contributes to the biological act of childbirth can or will fulfill the role of parent. The willingness of other people to step in and fill that role is to be celebrated and commended–and there is absolutely no need to differentiate their role by calling them anything other than parents. This is true when those voluntary parents are related to the child by blood, such as Biles’ grandparents, as well as when there is no genetic connection whatsoever.

Schimizzi wrote that when she distributes her now-revised survey she will “encourage… students to deliver it to whoever plays the biggest role in supporting them. It’s an interesting experience to watch students think about who in their lives offers them the most academic support.” That is a valid point and it is entirely possible (and sadly, in some instances, probable) that a child will receive greater support from someone other than their parent. That needs to be recognized as well but it is not grounds for abolishing the term “parent”–not by a long shot. Schimizzi ended her post by sharing examples from three classroom teachers for improving family engagement. All three of the ideas have merit but not one of them has anything to do with the definition or role of “parent.” Instead, they focus on language barriers, a parent’s own experience as a student and the failure of parents to do anything with information they receive from the school. Effective educators will look for ways to overcome each of those obstacles. Doing so, however, does not require banning a word.

Banning words is a big deal because words have meanings. We like to pretend they do not sometimes–especially when the word gets in the way of what we want to do–but that does not change the reality that they do have actual meanings. Homosexual activists did not like the idea that “marriage” was not permitted for homosexuals because it was restricted to a man and a woman. So what did they do? Get the courts to extra-legally change the definition. (Somehow extra-legal sounds less offensive than illegal, doesn’t it? The reality is they are the same thing. This is an example of how we also choose words carefully to make something sound other-than what it really is–but this does not change reality either). Once marriage was redefined to include homosexual unions the law began further redefinition. Just a few months ago, in March, a New York court granted three-way custody to what many have called a “throuple.” Slate‘s story on the ruling was headlined, “New York Court Affirms Poly Parenthood with Three-Way Custody Ruling.” Just that headline illustrates the point I am making; whoever heard of “poly parenthood”?

Interestingly, the same Slate article–which was very supportive of the decision, recognized that the ruling was simply a logical outgrowth of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

The victory of Dawn Marano and her child could set solid legal precedent for future custody claims of parents in queer or polyamorous families, a necessary next step in a vision of parenthood and child-rearing that extends beyond the boundaries of monogamous marriage. Funnily enough, this is the exact future predicted by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in his dissent on the 2015 equal-marriage ruling Obergefell v. Hodges. While arguing that the slippery slope of same-sex marriage could lead to the total breakdown of social norms and family structures, he cited the important legal-theory volume “Married Lesbian Throuple Expecting First Child,” a New York Post article from 2014.

We cannot play fast and loose with our words. Words matter precisely because they mean something. Banning the word will not change that reality. The Supreme Court has demonstrated that it can effectively change the definition of a word, and the New York court has proven that it can follow that example by changing the legal basis of custody, but that is why we must be so diligent to protect the words and definitions that we have in place. When we carelessly cast them aside we are opening the door for something else to take their place–and we may have no idea what that something else will be.

Of course we will find out eventually. Or our children will. I am reminded of this quote from Ravi Zacharias: “Our society is walking through a maze of cultural land mines and the heaviest price is exacted as we send our children on ahead.”

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