Faith: March 2007 Archives

Below I'm going to try to provide some cultural context for James Dobson's comment casting doubt on Sen. Fred Thompson's Christian faith (while applauding serial bigamist Newt Gingrich). But first, these folks had some worthwhile things to say on the subject:


Dobson has alienated a lot of people with his comment and he's also set up the biggest Sistah Souljah moment of the upcoming race. Fred ought to use this as a chance to talk about his faith, and also to differentiate himself from shrill voices like Falwell and Dobson.

Allahpundit at Hot Air, where See-Dubya has this to say in the comments:

Speaking as someone who was baptized in the Church of Christ myself, [Dobson] has just used up every last bit of goodwill I had for him. It’s sanctimonious jackass spokesmen like Robertson, Dobson, and Reed who are making Christian conservatism irrelevant and driving us into the arms of mushy-headed Rick Warren feelgoodism.

In the comments of the same post, blogger Right Wing Sparkle defends Dobson's career, but not his comments in this situation.

Karol writes:

Much as my instinct is to lash out at Dobson (I mean, who is he to say who is or is not a Christian) I know that he is quite a big deal, especially in the swing state of Colorado. I don't know what he has against our man Fred, but I do hope he cuts this nonsense out.

The USA Today article included a quote from a Dobson spokesman that may be difficult for non-evangelical readers to parse:

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson's claim. He said that, while Dobson didn't believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless "has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian -- someone who talks openly about his faith."

"We use that word -- Christian -- to refer to people who are evangelical Christians," Schneeberger added. "Dr. Dobson wasn't expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to 'read the tea leaves' about such a possibility."

Let me try to translate and provide some context, without justifying Dobson's comment.

Evangelicals draw a distinction between nominal Christians and committed Christians. Within the evangelical subculture, the bare word "Christian" means someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus, someone who has had a conversion experience, someone who has asked Jesus to come into his heart, someone who has been born again. (As I write those phrases, I'm struck by the difficulty of explaining the concept to people who aren't native speakers of evangelicalese.)

While other branches of Christianity define being a Christian in terms of participation in the sacrament of baptism, which they regard as objectively making a person a Christian, evangelicals understand being a Christian in experiential terms -- making a decision to follow Christ, having a conversion experience.

The pietistic predecessors of modern evangelicalism looked at the institutionalized churches of the 17th century and saw a dead orthodoxy -- the form of religion was there, but the life-changing power of the resurrection was absent. America's Great Awakening in the early 18th century was not about converting pagans but about calling a nation of outwardly moral, faithful churchgoers back to a lively personal faith in Christ.

From the evangelical frame of reference, it makes perfect sense to ask the question, "Is he a Christian?" of someone who was baptized and has gone to church every Sunday morning of his life. As the saying goes, being born in a Christian home doesn't make you a Christian any more than being born in a garage makes you a car. The reality of your faith and the security of your salvation is suspect if you can't point to a date and place when you came to faith.

I can remember, as a Campus Crusader in college, being very suspicious of people who claimed that they couldn't remember a time when they weren't Christian. There were a number of students in our group who grew up in Christian homes and had been baptized as infants, but they had conversion experiences in college. Many chose to be baptized as adult believers, because only now did they consider themselves Christian. Their earlier church involvement was mere religion, not living faith in and a vital personal relationship with Christ.

To bring this back to politics: Here in Oklahoma, even our Catholic politicians are expected to be born again. When a Republican politician from a liturgical background runs for higher office, you can expect to see an interview with him in a magazine like Community Spirit, in which the pol tells of a personal conversion experience and describes his devotional habits of prayer and Bible reading. (Extra points for being part of a Bible study or prayer group with fellow politicians.) Evangelical voters are reassured to hear a politician talk in this way: He must really be saved, and therefore he has the spirit of God dwelling within him, and therefore he can make godly decisions as a government official.

The demand to hear a conversion story can have comical results. I can't find the exact quote, but I recall that the elder George Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, had a typically awkward answer when asked, during his campaign for the White House in 1988, whether he was born again. He knew he had to say yes, but it was clear that he didn't really understand the question.

While Dobson might be upset that Thompson hasn't come to pay his respects, I suspect Dobson's main problem is that Thompson doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve, that he doesn't talk about his prayer life or having a quiet time or being in a Bible study or listening to Christian radio. The problem with that is that it mistakes the talk for the walk. It puts Dobson (and those he influences) at the mercy of whoever can make the most convincing use of the standard evangelical buzzwords, which doesn't necessarily correlate with genuine devotion to Christ.

UPDATE: Mollie Hemingway at Get Religion gets it. She agrees that the follow-up quote from Schneeberger is the key to understanding what Dobson said:

I also think it’s worth highlighting that what we’re seeing here are classic distinctions in how various Protestants define Christian.

Whether they admit it or not, many Americans adopt a view similar to that held by Dobson: Christianity is mainly about behavior and feelings. Christians of all stripes — as well as folks who don’t define themselves as religious — tend to judge Christians’ fidelity to their faith (and adherents of other religions) by their actions. Many of them incorporate personal testimonies into the equation as a means of speaking to behavioral change or a change of feelings. I bet that many readers are nodding their head and saying, “And what’s the big deal about this?”

Well, this view is extremely different from that held by other believers, myself included. In my church body [Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, one of the most conservative branches of American Lutheranism] we don’t really speak of personal behaviors or statements — as Dobson seems to have done — to determine someone’s religious status. Instead we point to whether they’ve been baptized.

ALSO: Barb the Evil Genius, a Lutheran blogger, initially thought I was defending Dobson and wondered if I still held the opinions that I say I held as a Campus Crusader in college. You can see my response, plus some additional thoughts, in the comments below. If you can't imagine that someone can be a genuine Christian without a crisis conversion experience, you need to read Barb's thoughts on the subject.

Doug Loudenback has a nearly comprehensive history of downtown Oklahoma City hotels from the beginning to the present day, illustrated with postcards, vintage photos, and present day photos. The fate of each hotel is described. One of the more interesting "whatever happened to" stories involves the Holiday Inn (built in 1964) on the west side of downtown, which last operated as a hotel in 1993, closing for good just before the launch of MAPS. Here's what Doug found when he rang the doorbell:

A pleasant young lady came to the door, spoke with me, did not invite me in, but, after a time, she allowed (at my request) that I enter the lobby since it was so damn cold outside! The lobby area was beautifully appointed just like a fine hotel would be. At the lobby desk, we were joined by another pleasant young lady. There, I asked a few but not many questions (understanding that I was an uninvited guest and not wanting to be too pushy) and not necessarily in this order:

(1) Was the building owned/used by the City of Oklahoma City (given the OKC flag flying in the frontage)? Answer: No.

(2) What is the building used for? The young woman who allowed me in said something like it was a character development center. I said, "You mean, like a rehabilitation center?" She said, no, it had nothing to do with rehabilitation. I asked her to explain a little. I don’t recall her exact answer, but it had to do with training programs to build character. Not really understanding and not wanting to be too nosey, I asked if I could have a brochure or something simple, and she gave me a single sheet "flyer" type of paper with the name "Character Council of Oklahoma City" at the top and which contained a picture of Mayor Cornett at the bottom. I asked if there was a website where I could read more, and the young lady gave me this address: and, later, I noticed another name on the "flyer", She also said that a monthly breakfast and lunch was available, the next being 1/24 at 7:00 a.m. and 1/26 at 11:45 a.m., and that I would be welcome to attend (after telephone a fellow to let him know for planning purposes). I asked about the condition of the building above the lobby level and I was told that most of them had been reconditioned, all but 2 or 3. I did not ask what they were used for but didn't get a clear answer about that. That was pretty much the extent of my visit and I left with good feelings generated from the pleasant ladies but still not knowing a lot more than I did in the first place.

Doug did some further digging and learned that the Character Training Center is part of the Bill Gothard empire. The heart of Gothard's teaching is that God's blessing is to be found in unquestioning obedience to the God-ordained authorities to which you are subject. (Here is a pretty fair Time story on Gothard from 1974.)

A version of his teaching that has been sanitized of any religious content has been adopted by many cities, including Owasso. Owasso City Manager Rodney Ray is quoted on the Character Cities website about the program's results:

In the three years prior to our character initiative, we had 42 labor grievances and employee grievances, and seven different lawsuits. In the three years since we put the character initiative in place we have had two grievances and no lawsuits from employees.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett also provides a testimonial:

From experience, I have found this program to be an excellent tool for filling the void of moral character within our state's youth… I recommend the implementation [of this program] within every level of state and local government.

Oklahoma is a "State of Character," which would explain why we have a state-sponsored lottery and public officials going to jail at regular intervals.

During my time as a member of the Oklahoma Republican Committee, many of our quarterly meetings were held in the center's meeting rooms. While there were always a few staffers around the lobby desk, I noticed that they were always polite but never outgoing, and they never seemed to talk to one another. For young people, they seemed emotionally buttoned up.

The walls of the lobby are decorated with framed posters of each of the 49 character qualities that Gothard has identified, each illustrated with an animal who exemplifies that quality. (Some of the connections are quite a stretch, but it would be disobedient to point that out.) If you run in Tulsa's River Parks, you've seen the names of these qualities stenciled on the storm sewer blocks.

(Gothard has also identified 49 "general commands of Christ", each of which he assigns to one of the 49 character qualities.)

Teaching good character is a fine thing, but there doesn't seem to be any need in Gothard's system for grace, atonement, and forgiveness. Jesus appears only as a lawgiver, not as the one who perfectly fulfilled the Law's demands on our behalf. It's a good moral system, a fine civic religion, but it isn't the Gospel.

If you can filter all the Christian content out of a program without substantially changing it, it wasn't all that Christian to begin with.

UPDATE: Doug Loudenback adds a comment and a link to a lengthier account of his research into the owners of the old downtown OKC Holiday Inn. And his article links to another account of someone who wondered what was going on in that building.

Flu; Barrs

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Our 10-year-old was running a degree of fever Friday morning, so we kept him home from school. This morning he was at 104, was coughing, aching, and congested, and he threw up, so I took him to the urgent care center. They were very efficient at processing us in, and it didn't take much longer to get to the examining room than it would have if we'd made a normal doctor's appointment. (I was surprised, however, that the urgent care clinic didn't have access to his records and our insurance information, since his pediatrician is part of the same medical system. We had to fill out all the paperwork again for the urgent care clinic.)

The doctor ordered a nasal and throat swab to check for flu and strep. My son went back to the waiting room while I walked the samples down to the lab. About 20 minutes later we were called back in for the results: Influenza.

For goodness' sake, it's March already! The daffodils are blooming! Flu season is supposed to be over!

So we've got him quarantined in his room, away from little sister and little brother. He and I and little sister are taking Tamiflu.

Since my wife is still nursing little brother twice a day, we're debating what to do for her. Tamiflu could help her not get the flu, but since they don't know if the medication passes into breastmilk and what effect it would have on a 14-month-old if it did, her taking it means not nursing him. We're reluctant to stop nursing, because it immunized him against the intestinal bug that ran through the family two weekends ago. (Also, my wife says, nursing is nice. It would be sad to have to stop.)

Flu means the 10-year-old will miss a sleepover birthday party. The backup plan, if he didn't feel up to a sleepover, but was up to getting out (this was before we knew it was flu), was to take him to the Bob Wills Birthday Celebration -- he wanted to hear Oklahoma Stomp. (I would have liked that, too, and to hear the Texas Playboys' longer set tonight. Would someone please go tonight and e-mail me -- blog at batesline dot com -- to tell me all about it?)

We're quarantining ourselves as much as possible, so the other thing we're going to have to miss is a special program at Christ Presbyterian Church tomorrow morning. Jerram Barrs, head of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, will be the keynote speaker for our church's annual missions conference. He will be speaking during worship at 9:15 a.m., and then during a combined adult Sunday School class at 11:00. After a catered box lunch, there will be a further Q&A session.

Barrs teaches apologetics at Covenant Seminary. The title of his talk is "Finding Grace in Unexpected People." The vision statement of the Francis Schaeffer Institute will give you an idea what to expect:

The Church is to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person. Unfortunately, Christians can retreat into a subculture due to fear of the surrounding society. Many do not understand or are unsure how to respond to secularism, postmodernism, New Age spirituality, and the challenges of science and technology. Instead of seeking to grow in understanding, Christians can withdraw behind defensive barriers for protection.

The tragedy is that the barriers work both ways. They not only keep the culture away from Christians, but they also keep the Gospel away from those who need it. We can begin to develop an "us versus them" mentality which isolates us from our neighbors and prevents others from hearing the Gospel and seeing it at work in our lives. We often are regarded merely as "religious," not as earnestly concerned for truth.

The goal of the Schaeffer Institute is to assist Christians in breaking down these barriers, to become more faithful and effective in evangelism, and to become more obedient to God's Word in all areas of life. We seek to do this by training Christians to observe and understand the culture in which they live, and by modeling respectful dialogue with those who are not Christians. In this way we hope to prepare Christians to be involved effectively as salt and light beyond the Church in the wider culture.

So while much of this missions conference will focus on the missionaries and outreaches sponsored by our church in Ukraine, Uganda, Mexico, the Philippines, Cameroon, Brazil, and Kurdistan, among other places, tomorrow morning's focus will be on effectively stepping outside of the evangelical subculture to reach our fellow Tulsans with the truth of Christ.

One of the things that attracted us to this church when we joined 15 years ago was the commitment to reach the world with the Gospel. Missions wasn't just a special offering collected a couple of times a year, or a small percentage automatically deducted from the budget. The church was directly involved in supporting individual missionaries and missionary families, in sending its own leaders and lay members on short-term missions, and in helping our own members to become full-time missionaries.

You can learn more about the missions program and the 2007 conference from the CPC missions conference brochure (PDF format).

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Faith category from March 2007.

Faith: February 2007 is the previous archive.

Faith: April 2007 is the next archive.

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