Within one month, the nation saw the ousting of two public figures for their stances on religion and race. Those behind the ousting claim they are championing the cause of civil rights in the 21st century. But something is amiss, and it is profoundly disturbing.

Way back in 2008, Mozilla Founder/CEO and JavaScript creator Brendan Eich made what was apparently a horrible, life-changing mistake: he financially supported an initiative (Proposition 8) to protect traditional marriage in California. For perspective, recall that even presidential candidate Barack Obama’s position on Prop 8 was squishy back in those days.  The Twitterverse originally discovered the publicly-recorded contribution in 2012, but it resurfaced upon Eich’s appointment as CEO and led ultimately to his resignation surrounded by controversy and protest.

Another public figure, another sin: In 2013, San Diego Clippers owner Donald Sterling expressed his dislike of African Americans to a female friend. Thanks to a recording that was released to TMZ, those remarks have become public. As a result, Sterling is banned for life from NBA games and Clippers facilities, and has been fined $2.5 million.

Both scenarios present actions that are directly offensive to certain groups in society, and for that reason both individuals faced dire consequences. I agree with Nick Gillespie’s characterization of these events as simply the action and reaction of market forces. When users boycott a product or advertisers pull their support, we are witnessing a company kept in check by the people. If a leader cannot lead effectively because s/he has damaged the brand and severed trust of employees or customers, that person must go. And as far as that point can take us, I have no problem with what happened to these men. But that doesn’t get to the real problem.

Denny Burk argues that the difference between these two events is that Eich did not actively discriminate against gay people, while Sterling was clearly revealed to be—quoting Andrew Sullivan’s words—“a crude, foul bigot.” The rationale here seems to be that the public should be understanding toward offensive actions as long as the offender is not blatant about it. The distinction is perhaps too subtle for my taste.

Nearly everyone finds Sterling’s actions repulsive, while the controversy at Mozilla was merely ideological, but there is more to these stories than the number of protesters. The particular size of the mob bears no moral significance. Even though I regretted what happened to Eich and I enjoy the thought of someone like Sterling getting what was surely coming to him, at some level both events are equally disturbing.

Both of these men have been publicly condemned and punished because they hold unpopular opinions. One believes the state should only recognize marriage between a man and a woman, and the other takes issue with people of a certain skin color. We all acknowledge that these individuals have a right to their opinions. Yet, just because one has a right does not mean the expression of it is appropriate in all times and places. A negative post about one’s boss on Facebook is reasonable grounds for being fired, even if it isn’t outlined in company policy—at some point, common sense must enter the picture. It is naïve to think that one should not have to balance their personal and professional life.

What is most disturbing in both cases is that these men kept their unpopular opinions to themselves—it was others who brought them into public view with the intention to destroy them.

“these men kept their unpopular opinions to themselves—it was others who brought them into public view with the intention to destroy them.”

What should they have done? In order to avoid public lashing, should Eich have refrained from any kind of support or expression in an important political debate, or should Sterling have avoided speaking with friends about his ridiculous views? Perhaps, but that starts to hamper the whole idea behind freedom of expression.

Freedom of Speech in the U.S. has two meanings. From a constitutional perspective, the First Amendment says the Federal government has no power to limit free expression. Since neither of these cases involve a Federal prosecution, the Constitution does not apply, and it may be fully within the right of the public to silence an offender. But the other interpretation of Freedom of Speech suggests that it is a fundamental right, to be not only protected from government, but by government, as part of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This view holds that individuals should not be shut out of the public dialogue because of unpopular ideas.

“Unpopular” should be distinguished from “dangerous.” An early Supreme Court case concluded that Freedom of Speech does not give one the right to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater because it can threaten public safety. Sometimes, one man’s liberty is another man’s tyranny, so a balance must be struck in the protection of rights.

Who is the victim here, and whose rights should be protected? To the news media and most of the public, the victims are the offended masses. But the men themselves are also victims of self-appointed wistleblowers and a culture that has zero tolerance for the appearance of intolerance.

It is not a crime to be racist, or to be against same-sex marriage, and in a free country that should remain the case. If anything, the government may be used by these individuals to sue for slander. But the court of public opinion obeys no law but its own.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln—then an up-start attorney and Illinois representative— addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, urging his audience to steer clear of the mob mentality:

“When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded. But all this even, is not the full extent of the evil.–By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”

By these words, Lincoln pressed upon his audience that the preservation of a nation of laws, not men, must depend on a respect for reason and order. The hangings and witch trials of today are highly commercialized, driven by a combination of leftist intolerance and media sensationalism.

“The hangings and witch trials of today are highly commercialized, driven by a combination of leftist intolerance and media sensationalism.”

In another example, the narrative built around the Trayvon Martin story within the first 48 hours destroyed the reputation of George Zimmerman, irrespective of his guilt or all evidence to the contrary. NBC went so far as to edit recordings of Zimmerman to hyperbolize the story in order to characterize Zimmerman as a racist, and is now under suit for doing so. What matters here is not whether he was innocent, but whether due process was allowed to operate before the media cast their verdict.

There was once a reining idea among liberals that people should be able to not only hold, but loudly express unpopular, countercultural opinions. From Westphalia to the U.S. Founding, the onward march of humanity had sought not only democratic equality, but freedom of conscience, protected by government—one of its few legitimate roles. We are now seeing these rights challenged by a mob-like intolerance. Without a respect for privacy, personal opinion and due process, we are indeed no longer a free country.

Jefferson Bethke’s “Jesus hates religion” video has gained enormous popularity among the Facebook walls and Twitter feeds of America’s young evangelicals. This slick production features Bethke reciting a poem about Jesus and his teachings being the antithesis of “religion,” (to which he applies a peculiar definition). More to the point, it is a critique of hypocrisy, though his message is distorted by extraneous and frequently inaccurate attacks on Christianity and America.

The politically charged opening lines set the tone—perhaps the inspiration—for the rest of Bethke’s prose. It is clearly his view that many Republicans are fake Christians who are judgmental and heartless, yet have claimed moral superiority and hijacked the church. He continues on, recklessly blasting the church for starting wars, not feeding the poor, excommunicating divorcees and generally not representing the gospel. Thus, he concludes, the church—and, of course, Republicans—are following “religion,” but true Christians follow Jesus.

Unfortunately, while there is an important message to be shared here, the video is littered with theological inaccuracies, erroneous assumptions and, yes, its very own glaring hypocrisies (jump to the bottom to see what others have said). Bethke has been thoroughly critiqued, and has taken it with respect and humility, but what I really want to ask is this: How is it that a video with so many wrongheaded statements is so widely praised among my peers? I can think of at least three reasons.

1. The popularization of church

Most Christians do not study theology. That is understandable just as much as the fact that most people do not read philosophy literature. But we should expect pastors and preachers to uphold a high level of intellectual discipline. Furthermore, it is their responsibility to find ways to bring all people to a greater understanding of the history and theology of their faith. In too many churches, substance in teaching has been replaced with opinions, based on the whims of passion, with a supporting act by jumbotrons and coffee shops.

More and more people are rejecting traditions and congregations in favor of independent study and transient attendance at flavor-of-the-month churches. This disconnection from the larger Church body, and its theological and historical context, has left younger Christians with a blank slate and unsteady foundation.

2. Politically and historically biased education

Our public education system has a markedly left-wing bias. It is not uncommon to characterize our Founding Fathers as power-hungry racists, our foreign policy as imperialist, and our economic system as an instrument of oppression and destruction. American successes are counted as steps toward a progressive vision of equality and opportunity, led by protests and presidents, against conservative power structures.

Thus, many young people have been trained to see themselves as part of this ongoing political movement. Their enemies are tradition and wealth, and the party that protects them. Christianity is ordinarily a part of the tradition to be rejected, but Christians themselves call instead for a revolution in the church. Left-wing Christian populism emerged in opposition to the “American Dream,” wrongly interpreted as the acquisition of material success and status.

3. The MTV generation’s reaction to TBN

We live in a media-driven world. Television—especially cable—brought with it new values and ways of communicating. Appearance and production became extremely important for attracting an audience. In the late 1980s, Music Television did to a whole generation what Elvis did in the 1950s: it energized America’s youth and changed the industry. Indeed, the “reality tv” phenomenon first began with MTV’s “real world.” Amidst news anchors and soap operas, MTV made television cool.

Trinity Broadcasting Network
Image via Wikipedia

In an attempt to utilize television as a ministry tool, along came Trinity Broadcasting Network, featuring gaudy furniture, big hair, fanciful clothing and very uncool entertainment. To my peers, the face of Christian America was outdated and kitschy, while the secular entertainment industry was electrifying. Then came the scandals with Jim Bakker, the angry rhetoric of Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the controversial statements of Pat Robertson and his “Christian Coalition.”  The Church, it seemed, was becoming a voice of division.

All of this left young Christians without public role models. In a battle of words, people like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton could compete. But in a battle of popular entertainment, Christianity failed to supply a counterweight. Despite trying to keep up with changing trends, Christianity seemed out of touch, out of date, and seriously in danger of collapse. Enter the emergent church, which is on a tacit mission to inject cool back into Christianity and make Jesus “relevant” to modern culture. One outcome is an explosion of new churches that have effectively exiled the over-40 crowd.

Without roots, Christianity is a slave to the winds.

I wrote a blog post last July called Postmodernism and the Great Protestant Exodus, in which I argued that postmodern philosophy had caused Christians to distance themselves from traditions and denominations. In their place is an idea that each individual is on a personal search for God and truth—relationship, not religion. But while the essence of the idea is true, according to Protestant claim, they swing the pendulum too far. By failing to recognize the role of liturgy, order, accountability, tradition and historical context, they are stepping out of the ship and into a life raft, then cutting the tether in the middle of a vast ocean.

In America, we grow up admiring revolutionaries, but we must also learn when to be loyalists. Of course we are each called to seek Christ on a personal level. But to interpret this as a call to do away with “religion” is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.


Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really, by Kevin DeYoung

– Video: Jesus=Religion, by Worldview Everlasting

New Scientist recently published the results of a study which shows that people’s ideas about God’s values tend to match their own, and researchers are using this to conclude that religious people impose their own beliefs on God, thereby creating their very own perfect being, and validating their own views. The article can be found here.

There’s just one problem I have with the analysis of the results: correlation doesn’t imply causation. Let’s see what else we may be able to find with this kind of scientific “research.” Perhaps we can prove that driving a smart car makes people environmentally conscious, or that people choose political parties based on which one they voted for in the last election. Maybe atheists don’t believe in God because they don’t go to church. While all of these claims could – to however miniscule a degree – be argued on the basis of possibilities and correlations, most of us would agree that they are definitely not representative of reality in most cases.

For the same reasons, you cannot conclude that a person is casting their own values upon someone else, just because there is a match. Isn’t it possible – in fact, quite likely – that once people have an idea of what constitutes the values of the Almighty, they attempt to align themselves along the same straight and narrow?

Before I was a Christian I had one set of moral views. Upon the intervention of an authentic experience with God, I faced a dramatic shift in my priorities and attitudes, and a radical re-calibration of my moral compass. I’m confident that this story is not unique – that it is the story of a majority of my fellow “believers.” Thus, it happens so that my value-system attempts to reflect the values of God, or at least the way I see Him. “Ah, but,…” you say, “the way you see Him is determined by how you want to see Him.” Well, determining what I “want” isn’t exactly provable. If you use that argument we’re back to the traditional atheist claim that we believe because we want to. If that reasoning is acceptable, I suppose it is equally acceptable for me to deduce that you don’t believe because you don’t want to – a claim which is unlikely to garner consensus.

Religion, at least as my Christian experience has shown, is about outward learning and internal conviction. I mean that we seek knowledge and understanding of all things, which we can do through traditional scientific methods, but we also must account for that thing that is intangible and untestable; that voice that is crystal clear, yet inaudible. This is where faith becomes incredibly personal, and it is one aspect of Christianity that has been placed under the heaviest scrutiny. It is impossible to quantify or qualify personal thought or feeling. We can analyze the biological events, but we cannot explain their cause or meaning, other than to reason that there is some evolutionary need. Yet, how is such an explanation different from saying that God builds us for certain purposes and needs?

This mixture of outward learning and internal conviction does not always produce the same conclusions in all people, which leads to different doctrines and personal beliefs. Unfortunately, you never hear preachers say that this is okay – that one person, one church or one denomination cannot have everything  figured out, and that each of us has an inherent freedom to search for the truths of God independently. It’s bad P.R. to tell people to listen to you, then say they don’t have to listen to you. But it’s true.

What is revealed by the fact that people’s values are matched to their idea of God’s values? Only that religious people want to be better people. Where I’m from we consider that a worthwhile aspiration. And now that it has been backed by research perhaps it will convince the secularists that religion is actually good for society.

The researchers involved in this study have made significantly tainted assumptions, based not on an objective position, but by the influence of the secularist motive. This study isn’t science – it is an attempt to reduce religion to mere superstition; the meaningless byproduct of desperate but inadequate minds. I would hope that the champions of diversity and tolerance would agree to disagree on this, but I am afraid that the scope of diversity has certain impenetrable boundaries, and my Christian beliefs place me in the least favorable position.