Do Americans Trust in God?

Terry Paulson

12/31/2013 12:01:00 AM - Terry Paulson

Our coins say it--"In God We Trust." But surveys indicate that fewer and fewer Americans actually put their trust in God. For many, God seems to get in the way. To some, God and his commandments are the creation of an archaic Judeo-Christian belief system that just impedes needed cultural transformation.

Coverage of the recent statements by Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson have focused primarily on his statements regarding homosexual behavior. But the subsequent reaction has revealed a deep divide in our culture.

Ron Highfield's faith-affirming book, "God, Freedom & Human Dignity," explores the impact of centuries of Enlightenment thinking on modern day moral judgment and contrasts that with America's long-standing Judeo-Christian moral foundation. While those with a secular view look within themselves for moral sources and authority, Christianity points to a transcendent God who is Lord, creator, and man's ultimate judge.

Such a difference invites conflict. Highfield writes, "For many people, Christian calls for obedience to the divine law, for repentance and moral transformation sound like recipes for oppression." Approaching people today with any hint of such judgment just triggers a reaction of defiance or indifference.

Highfield draws on Alasdair MacIntyre's book, After Virtue, to help understand contemporary moral thinking. Highfield explains that MacIntyre noted three activities characteristic of moderns: "The arbitrary claim to possess rights, the inclination to protest and the strategy of unmasking. The self asserts certain rights against other people, but can offer no rational justification for these claims. Hence, when the self feels that its rights are violated, the facade of rational argument quickly falls away leaving nothing but protest and indignation. Protest, according to MacIntyre, is a 'distinctive feature of the modern age.'"

The Robertson protest has fueled an equally strong reaction--"Fire Robertson" vs "Bring Him Back!" But let me take a step back from this battle to attempt to bring some less emotional clarity to the evangelical Christian world view that some attack as "offensive:"

1. America's freedom of speech has supported a necessary and vibrant exchange of even "offensive" exchanges throughout our history. Political correctness and even attacks for "offending" can threaten this vital freedom if allowed to win the day. Christian tolerance does not translate into approval of all lifestyles. Ever since Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, God has been "offending" people with his "stop" sign to man's sin. Likewise, secular attacks on the religious offend many, but Christians have no desire to silence attackers by force of law.

2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, makes the observation: "If there is no God, everything is permissible." What could be called "right" or "true" without God? History provides ample proof that the support of the majority cannot be a reliable anchor for moral decisions. With no higher moral authority, any individual could argue, "What gives anyone the right to determine what is 'right or wrong' for me?" In the same way, America's Declaration of Independence based our rights not on reason or majority rule, but on "inalienable rights" that come from our creator--The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. God-based rights and rules provide a firm foundation.

3. God's commandments, rather than being an obstacle to freedom, help foster freedom. Studies have found that perceived freedom in teens is higher in homes where clear parental discipline is consistently applied. The uncertainty of inconsistent parenting diminishes perceived freedom. With clear rules and referees enforcing them, players know what's out of bounds and can be free to play between the lines. To Christians, playing the game of life by God's rules and grace is not constrictive; it's freeing.

4. When the Bible lists sins, it's not done to isolate any group but to confirm that all sin and fall short of God's expectations. When Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery by asking, "Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone," he reinforced the universality of sin and man's need for forgiveness and grace. You may see "John 3:16" signs at football games, but John 3:17 is more essential to this discussion--"For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Most Christians have no desire to single out anyone for condemnation.

5. Christians are called not to judge or condemn but to pray for, love and serve sinners and even our "enemies." We're also called to bear witness to Biblical truths including God's moral laws. But aren't Christians supposed to love their neighbor as they do themselves? Of course, and I would hope my neighbor would love me enough to confront what I was doing if dangerous to my eternal wellbeing. Blindly approving whatever a person does is not true love, and it is certainly not Biblical. No one needs the approval of Christians, but having God's approval might be very important.

Years ago, a gay speaker friend was in his final days in his fight with AIDS. When Hank asked me to come and pray with him, I came not to judge but to serve. I treasure that shared prayer with Hank. In that same spirit, as Christians, even when attacked, may we spend a little less time judging those who are lost and a little more time sharing about what it means to be found and to serve in the spirit of Christ's love.