Vail Daily column: Thinking clearly with compelling conviction
This year is my red-letter year as a newspaper commentator and dramatist. The Vail Daily has published my weekly commentary for a quarter century, with the first commentary running on July 20, 1991. Titled “American religion: Merely a warm tingle,” I warned of dangers when healthy faith’s mental edge gets dulled. Sheer emotionalism often supplants it, as in “I’ve found Jesus, so don’t challenge my faith with new insight.”
During our nation’s bicentennial 40 years ago, I first portrayed Thomas Jefferson in 18th century garb. He displayed grievous faults as a slave-master. Still, Jefferson deserves our admiration because of what he declared during the nasty, mud-slinging presidential campaign in 1800. In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1801, Jefferson tried to lower the boiling point of political animosities and religious character assassinations. He cooled heated exchanges by asserting: “ … every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Statesmen of differing political persuasions practice the art of agreeing to disagree agreeably.
Gerald R. Ford served as 5th District congressional representative in the House when I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After a short but significant presidency, he supported ministry through the Interfaith Chapels at Vail and Beaver Creek, where I served the Presbyterian parish for a decade.
Ford exuded Jeffersonian instincts. He worked across political aisles, didn’t smugly co-opt God for his agenda, seldom bragged about political victories and used compromise as the constitutional glue melding broken pierces in our republic. I espouse in print these values, too.
What’s changed since 1991 when I started commenting on hot potato religious convictions that intersect political trends?
Twenty-five years ago, evangelical Christians wielded political clout in Washington’s corridors. Ralph Reed formed the Christian Coalition in order to make America great again by having a cozy relationship between Christ and the president. Evangelicals aimed to control Congress, treat the Oval Office as their national pulpit and appoint Supreme Court justices to restore Bible reading and prayers in public schools, along with a blanket condemnation of abortion. These Christians felt cocky, basking in the after-glow of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Evangelicals assumed Reagan’s hand-picked successor George H.W. Bush would establish a Christian kingdom on Earth in America by pledging never to raise taxes.
Now those dreams have drifted, cut from once-strong moorings in the early 1990s. God’s party is splintered. Its presumptive nominee Donald Trump asks no divine forgiveness because he’s such a swell guy. He brags about great assets and achievements that preclude God’s mercy. Aligned with the GOP, Trump’s white Protestant Empire no longer calls political shots in America because Hispanic culture vies to replace it.
What perspectives inform my commentaries on these political and religious cross-over trends?
I believe God works underground in a web of historical tunnels that often conceal his political dealings. History is a filter through which God’s influence ebbs and flows in politics and religion. As we unpack past national mistakes and successes in order to make wise decisions today, God’s will defies our tidy categories. His ways aren’t always clear to us. Not only do Americans ignorant of our country’s history make poor citizens, they are duped by politicians who speak as if God directly whispers in their ears.
Then distorted religion and politics make gains. Superstition supplants reasonable faith. Bigotry taints patriotism. A chummy “me and Jesus mentality” makes for faith too self-assured. For instance, stout Christians testify they lose weight because Jesus is their work-out trainer. Business tycoons swear Jesus gets them jacked up because he’s their Red Bull. Lonely Christians “spiritually date Jesus” to fill this void. Some citizens privatize faith, claiming judgment on our nation’s wars is political meddling and unpatriotic. Other Christians show devotion to Jesus and themselves, but not necessarily in that order. Like Donald Trump.
My commentaries debunk these popular religious perversions. Jesus works through historical ambiguities to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
Another commentary perspective corrects things religious and political that are silly, simplistic, sappy, slanderous and sanctimonious. When politicians and preachers assume they know more about God than he does, these unhealthy traits usually take center stage.
As my college English literature professor Stanley Wiersma observed, “When you are too sure about God and faith, you are sure of something other than God: of dogma, of the church, of a particular interpretation of the Bible. But God cannot be pigeonholed. We must press toward certainty, but be suspicious when it comes too glibly.”
Another key perspective guiding my writing is: God’s for the little guy — the widow and orphan, the poor outsiders, the folk who don’t make it on “Entertainment Tonight,” the refugees, the resident aliens, the border-crossers raising children as American citizens who work hard. “God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the late Elie Wiesel declared, “ … I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.” I second this credo.
A prayer expresses my perspective to interpret American religions intersecting politics. “We reach for humility that allows us to bend, for empathy that helps us understand, for commitment to not be complacent.” Thanks, Vail Daily, for inviting me to share this good news for 25 years. As long as wacky religion and feisty politics prevail, I shall keep commenting with discernment.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.