Two Mondays ago, I drove to Midway to pick up Pastors Jeremy and Bob. They were returning from a victorious weekend pastoral visit to Mission Peak Baptist Church in California, and I endeavored to do everything in my power and more to ensure that I was there before their 3 pm arrival time.* I quietly slipped into the interstate system and in my attempt to put the first Battles full-length into the van’s CD player, I accidentally tuned in to the Rush Limbaugh Show on AM 1440 (given my Calvinist proclivities, I can’t put a lot stock in that concept, though!). As luck would have it, the host filling in for Rush was talking about Mormons running for President and was presenting the case that there was no inherent reason that Christians couldn’t vote for him in faithful obedience to the God of the Bible and that there’s really no grounds for debating whether Mormons are Christians- they aren’t.
I was surprisingly refreshed to hear a conservative who claims Christ say such a thing; in the sordid realm of talk radio this view is not widely accepted, so I was quite pleased to hear him discuss not a separation of politics and religion but rather how religious convictions can be expressed in the political realm without engaging in the reductionism that Christians should vote exclusively for Christians. Unfortunately, I think this dude would probably present the case that Christians should vote exclusively for Republicans, but I don’t want to throw out that accusation without more evidence, and besides that, that issue’s a whole other can of worms better saved for another time.**
So, to return to the host filling in for Rush, his basic thesis is that pursuing what is best for the country in terms of its governance and administration is not bound up in a direct cause and effect sense with religion and that if a Christian votes for a Mormon genuinely believing that he or she would do a good job the believer is not engaging in an act of betrayal to the faith. I concur wholeheartedly, and I do so based upon the example of Daniel, who faithfully served a slew of Oriental despots with the aim of doing them proud being a blessing to their empires. Did he betray Yahweh in doing so? No! He took seriously Jeremiah’s deliverance of the word of the Lord to the exiles in Jeremiah 29:4-7. Verse 7 is the crux of the the command; there God says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The word translated “welfare” is the word shalom, which we all know means “peace” but also comprehensively describes success, prosperity, and an abundance of joy.
So hey, right on, I’m in- this is sounding right so far. He even said at long last that although he does not hold to Mormon theology and that Mormonism is not historical Christian orthodoxy, by the same token there’s nothing about a Mormon’s beliefs that would compel him to not vote for one to be President. Mormons don’t have shariah law in their bag of tricks, for instance, so there’s no conflict of interest or liberty in terms of governance and administration, like I said before.
But then the calls starting coming in.
Most were having their worldviews rocked by the argumentation being advanced by the show’s host which brought me a certain sadistic glee which I repented of a few minutes afterward, but then a woman from South Carolina called in, who identified herself as a former Mormon. She tried to tell Rush’s listeners that Mormons view Joseph Smith the same way that many Christians view Billy Graham.
“Whoa, whoa- that’s just not true, and you should know better than to say that,” the host interjected. Thank you, bare minimum knowledge of inspired writers and 20th Century evangelicals, for saving the day right there via the host’s retort! To call her claim specious is to insult specious arguments the world over! There’s clearly a world of difference between venerating a writer who is used by God to record special revelation and looking up to a guy who preaches the world over. If you don’t get that, you need to do your homework before you stick your foot in your uninformed mouth! To say what she did is to minimize the importance of Joseph Smith to the theological system known as Mormonism (which I’m fine with, p.s., I only mean that equating an agent of revelation with a man who was not utilized to deliver God-breathed articulations of doctrine is to strip his contributions to a theological system of their authority and their unique, divine essence) which she, as a former Mormon, should acknowledge in honesty. So again, super happy that the host totally called her out on the complete falsehood of that statement.
The woman next made the claim that because human beings are self-determinative, it really is up to individual persons if they want to call themselves “Christians,” or any other identifier. I’m glad the host squarely refuted this idea, because it’s plainly ridiculous. Ontologically, a thing is what it is and it is no other. She offered an analogy that I’m ashamed to admit I’ve advanced before in years as an unbeliever: imagine a Mets fan telling a Yankees fan that the Yankees fan is not a true baseball fan. I’ve heard this before through my own mouth, and the underlying presumption is something along the lines of there being one Eternal Being, the “one great reality” that informs the universe and that this one great reality is the essence of all of man’s religions. According to this view, then, different cultures call this “Eternal Being” different names, but their religions are simply cultural responses to this one generic, universal experience. Plainly this is false for the simple fact that such a being would be several orders of ontological self-contradiction rolled into one impossible entity. The analogy of white light refracting into the visible color spectrum simply does not work here because the very definition of white light encompasses the data of the color spectrum; there is no breakdown of ontological essence when we affirm that red, yellow, blue and green are subsumed into the category of white light. To say that a faceless “Eternal Being” comfortably encompasses Brahman, Allah, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and Odin without collapsing into absurdity is absolute nonsense. If you think you’re generous in trying to affirm the value of everyone’s religion you need a wake-up call because what you’re actually doing is saying that the Eternal Being (whatever it is) is so bland and characterless that you can say anything about it and it is a valid statement. Try saying that about anyone else and you’re on the fast track to insulting them pretty quickly. Consider the following: Your friend is telling you about her coworker Erik and is describing his various qualities in her attempt to exposit what a cool dude he is. “Erik likes pizza (but sometimes he wants everyone to eat only vegetables), and kids (but sometimes he prefers that they be sacrificed), and purity before marriage (but he is also pleased with temple prostitution from time to time), and he loves to play basketball (but occasionally he thinks the material body is inherently evil and thus no enjoyment of physical activities should ever take place). ” This isn’t a cool or even a complex guy that you want to meet- either you are or he is a moron! Piling on attribute after attribute of all the world’s false deities creates a black hole of impersonality and negative ontological density. Such a being cannot exist.
To argue along the same line of reasoning that all doctrines are culturally conditioned formulations of a culture’s religious understandings is without warrant. For the most part I would concur with this idea, actually: man’s religions are man-made attempts to find the transcendent. With that obviously comes cultural baggage which informs how the search attempts are made. Orthodox Christianity is in total agreement with this idea because the teaching of Scripture is that humankind fashions gods and worships them in defiance of the Living God Who Is. Abraham worshiped the false gods of his fathers in Mesopotamia in ignorance until Yahweh called him out of his homeland and into a covenant relationship. If you want to really think about a rude awakening, think about Abraham getting the ultimate 180 turn from the voice of Yahweh! But the beauty of Christianity is that it is not the story of Man searching after God, but rather of the triune God doing everything necessary to draw sinful men and women to Himself.
When you examine the arbitrary and incoherent axioms of other religious systems, you can recognize with ease that what is really being discussed is simply an idiosyncrasy of the culture that worships this particular god. With ancient Israel, however, another fact quickly becomes apparent: the covenant God of this nation created this culture. The nation of Israel didn’t have a quirky set of practices that they cherished and incorporated into this brand new form of monotheism that they dreamed up- Yahweh, in entering into covenant with Israel, established boundary markers for their personal lives, for their worship, and for their very ethnic identity itself in order to set them apart as His own people. As well all know, the majority of them didn’t dig this idea very much, and they rebelled against these statutes from the very beginning (golden calf, anyone?). So to say that the Israelites simply crafted an idea of God and how to worship Him from the cultural practices that they already had is ridiculous when historically, most of the Israelites refused to obey these practices (Asherah poles and the practice of selling your daughters into temple prostitution are typically good indicators that you don’t take serving the One True and Living God Who Has Revealed Himself Savingly in History very seriously)! We know from the Bible and from history that most Israelites continued the pagan rites of their neighbors and had no regard for the commands of the nation’s covenant Lord.
Obviously I also take issue with the idea that human beings are “self-determinative,” but the host did a good job of squelching that one. I don’t determine much about myself aside from the way that I manifest my sinful nature, but that’s obviously not a determination to be exceptionally proud of. As my boy St. Augustine put it (in so many words), we are to free to do what we like, but we aren’t free to like what we ought to like.
So, flustered by this caller’s inane, reductionistic arguments, I found myself dialing the digits to call in to the program. What’s happening? I thought in a sudden spasm of lucidity. I don’t listen to Rush- much less call the guy! And yet there I was, barreling down I-90, phone propped to my ear, formulating what I was going to say on the off chance that the screeners would let me get my three cents in. I decided that above all, I was going to work in the phrase, “historic Christian orthodoxy,” one, because it always sounds cool rolling off my tongue, and two, I didn’t want to establish anything new- I solely wanted to contend the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). I anticipated being on hold for a small eternity as dittoheads and haters flocked to their phones to offer their scripted responses (i.e. “Rush, you’re a true patriot, and you couldn’t be more right!” or, “You’re a fat idiot blowhard, you know that?!”), neither of which I particularly have time for. But then I heard a voice. An authentic human voice.
“Rush Limbaugh Show, what’s your name and where you calling from?”
“This is Ian from Illinois.” Wow. That still sounds mega weird.
“Well Ian, what are you calling about?”
How do I phrase this one? Man, I should really think more before I pick up the phone…
“I want to defend historic Christian orthodoxy and respond to the caller who was comparing Christians to sports teams,” I offered after a half second of introspection.
“Defending Christian orthodoxy and sports teams-?” I could heard his brain straining in vain to establish logical continuity between these concepts.
“No, I mean I’m responding to the South Carolina caller’s claim that adherents of different religions are like fans belittling other fans for not liking the sport the teams play. It’s a reductionism and it swerves so broadly around the facts it misses truth entirely.”
Synapses were firing! I could smell it over the phone! “I follow you,” the screener said. “So it’s wrong to say that everyone loves the same sport…”
“Precisely! What we’re talking about is dozens of different sports entirely- not just different teams playing the same game,” I interjected excitedly.
He mulled that one over. “That’s a good insight, and it’s true. But I have seven more callers waiting to get into the program with their responses and the segment’s going to be over in about twelve minutes, so…”
“Right, no. I get it. Just wanted to try to say something intelligent to push back against what this lady was saying,” I responded. I think I managed to squeeze out the sound of dejection from my voice and pump in a few decibels of confidence instead.
I tuned in for the next twelve minutes in order to soak in the brilliance of those seven callers’ arguments but lo and behold, the brilliance called in instead.
What this ultimately demonstrated for me is that programmers really are primarily interested in sensationalism and shock value in their shows. The emphasis is not on bias-free anything! I see this more distinctly because I told them from the get-go that I had nothing outrageous to say- I was only interested in defending historic Christian orthodoxy. So- nothing audacious…? No hysterics…? No megadittoes? No air time! All in all the experience seemed to confirm to me that talk radio doesn’t have much to contribute by way of reasoned and reasonable arguments. It really is another brand of entertainment, pruned to fit a target niche in the same manner as TV shows, pop radio hits, blockbuster movies, etc. The Lincoln-Douglas debates they are not!
Ultimately, my point is not to boycott Rush (although if you do, I won’t hold it against you). Just don’t pretend that his show or any other talk radio program is a profound dissertation on real issues. If it was, callers would be superfluous. Experts would weigh in with their carefully researched findings and the logical interpretations they are lead to from that data. Shrill histrionics and catatonic sycophantic babble have no place in something like that. So hey, listen to him- because even he is occasionally right on, you might as well admit your bias now if you can’t concede even that point- just bear in mind that tons of his callers are super annoying and don’t have a clue!
Rush, on the other hand, should not be boycotted since they pretty much destroy up until their album Signals (that’s the one with “Subdivisions,” aka one of the best songs of the 80s and the only the Rush song to feature vocal contributions from drummer Neil Peart!). If, in your estimation, one Rush just has to go, don’t let it be Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee- allow them to live in the limelight of your hearts.
This is where we all laugh together because we’re still friends.
*I famously failed to pick them up the Friday morning previous at Jeremy’s house. I was supposed to be there by 2:15 am but I awoke with a start when I heard Jeremy knocking very loudly on my door at 2:21. Fail!
**And which no matter what, I probably can’t put as well as Carl Trueman does in his book Republocrat. However, I’d like to take this opportunity to quote in full a footnote from T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach where he briefly discusses ‘the culture wars’ and their bearing on preaching:
“I add so-called before culture war because I think the entire alleged “war” in the culture between the religious elements and the secular elements exists in the imagination. I do not deny the presence of those with a secular worldview and those with a religious worldview in our culture; I deny that there is anything new about this. Indeed, I believe much of the beauty of the work of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic was that they created a form of government that was impervious to such wars, if citizens rightly understood what they were doing. Because individual liberty was more important for the founders than any good thing that a coercive federal government might conceivably do, the Republic was designed to be one in which religious liberty was respected and promoted, even the liberty to be irreligious. Many of the founders were essentially secularists (e.g. Thomas Jefferson), and others were ardently religious in the most orthodox sense (e.g. John Witherspoon). Jefferson never lost a night’s sleep fearing that Witherspoon would use federal power to coerce him and Witherspoon never lost a night’s sleep fearing that Jefferson would use federal power to coerce him. Each believed in liberty, and was assured that the other did also. There was no “cultural war” between the two, even though there was a profound difference in worldview.
The American Republic was designed in such a manner that it could have avoided the extremes represented today by secularist France and religious Iran. France enforces secularism in public; Iran enforces religion in public. The American Republic was designed to enforce neither, but permit both. The so-called culture wars in that Republic today are therefore due to a failure to believe in liberty, and a trigger-happy willingness to coerce others.”
–Why Johnny Can’t Preach, pg. 85, footnote 14