By / Feb 25

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the decline of global democracy, and the Ahmaud Arbery federal murder trial. They also talk about the Queen’s recovery from COVID-19 and pursuing racial unity in the SBC. 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. NBC News – Russia Launches Illegal Invasion of Ukraine
  2. Russia launched attacks on Ukraine from multiple fronts
  3. Putin’s speech
  4. Ukrainian president as a target
  5. Axios – Global democracy declines for 16th year, annual index finds
  6. CBS News – Ahmaud Arbery federal murder trial
  7. NBC News – Queen postpones more events after Covid positive

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By / Jan 3

The most important thing about Christianity is what it tells us about God and his Son, Jesus, the one true king. Through the revelation of the Bible, we learn that God is not embedded in nature like some kind of life force. Nor is he a reflection of the aspirations of communities, such as their desire to be brave or powerful.

Instead, the God of the Bible is transcendent in nature. He is not part of creation. He is above and beyond it. The biblical God is not a totem or a powerful supernatural ally. His will dictates the structure of reality as we know it. 

But it is also important to know what Christianity tells us about human beings. We understand that we are sinful, self-seeking, and disobedient toward God. However, we simultaneously understand that we have been created with the dignity that comes from being made in God’s image. 

Both of these features—the transcendence of God and the inherent dignity of human beings—loom large in the story of democracy and human flourishing in the history of the world. Together, they form a strong bulwark against governments founded on power rather than justice and give the people a place to stand, both when they support and when they resist governments of the earth. 

When government goes wrong

The Roman empire is but one of many governments in world history that sought to wrongly unite the rule of a man with God’s rule through emperor worship. Yet, the Bible tells us clearly that while God has given us government for our benefit, the various caesars of the world rule by authority that is only derived from God (Rom. 13:1). He is the true source of the right to rule. Leaders are only entrusted with the government. They are absolutely not the source of it. To the extent that their leadership varies from God’s moral law, they essentially saw the limb upon which they sit out from under themselves. 

So, while we “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” we never forget that we must also “render unto God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). It requires no fine parsing to determine whose claims are superior in that equation. And while Caesar’s image may be on the face of the coin, it is God’s image which rests upon us (Gen. 1:27). Every would-be emperor should bear in mind that they are not free to violate image-bearers with impunity.

How democracy deals with human nature

In contrast, the past three centuries have witnessed the flowering of democracy throughout much of the world. While the Bible does not dictate a system of government, we have established earlier that it informs us about human beings. If we accept the reality of our sin nature, one major question is how to respond to it in terms of law. 

While the earlier, dominant approach was to rely upon the virtue of a leader and church hierarchies to control human sin, we have perhaps ruefully realized that elites are also sinful and cannot be relied upon to transmit their purported goodness to the rest of us. The sad history of Israel’s kings is not a bad reminder on that front. Instead, we have sought to enlarge the task of deliberation on public matters to essentially the entire adult population.  

When we take that step, we acknowledge a real responsibility image-bearers have. God gave human beings the task of stewarding his creation (Gen. 1:28). While we may tend to limit such thoughts to how we interact with the resources of the earth, it is also the case that there is a moral and a social ecology. It is important to steward such things as family ties, marriage, moral responsibility, trust, the education of the young, and other elements of what is sometimes called “social capital.” In other words, our wealth goes beyond physical things to the ties that bind us and make life meaningful. 

On one hand, the move toward democracy is self-protective. As an example, C.S. Lewis advocated democracy because he believed in the fall of man and concluded democracy was a necessary check on sinful ambition. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr mixed cynicism with optimism by saying that man’s inclination for injustice called for democracy as a barrier, but also noted that man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible. So, yes, we decentralize decision-making to protect ourselves from tyranny, but we also engage in democracy as a way to seek justice together. 

Among the powers with which God has entrusted human beings is the ability to reason. Democracy calls upon us to reason together about the nature of the good society and good laws to govern it. In this sense, democracy honors the dignity of human beings and goes beyond responding to the sinful will to power.

How to interact in a democracy

It is absolutely essential that we engage with the phenomenon of democracy virtuously rather than acting as though we are playing an SEC football game against enemies wearing different colored jerseys. We are not on teams. We are in a conversation with fellow image-bearers. To the extent that we make good use of the opportunities and capacities God has given us, we will honor him and each other. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French nobleman who came to study America in the 19th century, provided an excellent reminder of the place of virtue in political discourse in his Democracy in America. He had the advantage of detachment in his observations. The book contains both compliments and critique. One of his points should always be kept in mind. There is nothing about being in the majority that means one is righteous. Tyranny can emerge from majorities in the same way it can from a monarch or a group of oligarchs.1Tocqueville, Alexis de, 1805-1859. ( 1838). Democracy in America. New York :G. Dearborn & Co.

A Christian anthropology helps us to understand that we are still fallen, even when we act with numbers on our side. If we are wise and remember this reality about ourselves, then we will be able to temper our passions, our self-flattering self-righteousness, and our disregard for understanding how others experience the world. 

So, let us be grateful for the hedges we have against tyranny in the transcendence of God, the truth of Scripture, and our mindfulness that no mere man or woman can solve our sin problem on their account. And let us take seriously the incredible responsibility we have to be stewards of our participation in the democratic process. It is critical that we always remember that human beings share in the brotherhood and sisterhood of men and women under the authority of God. 

Equally wonderful is the fact that Jesus Christ is the only king Earth has ever known truly worthy of the name. As we meditate upon these truths, we can turn aside from tribalism and partisanship and dispute with one another in such a way as to avoid cultivating lasting hatreds when a just peace is what we really desire. In such a situation, we will find our flourishing.

  • 1
    Tocqueville, Alexis de, 1805-1859. ( 1838). Democracy in America. New York :G. Dearborn & Co.
By / Jul 2

Last week, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took new steps in their ongoing campaign against Hong Kong’s democracy. Apple Daily, a popular pro-democracy newspaper that was often critical of Beijing, was forced to close down while a handful of its journalists were arrested.

What happened?

This most recent crackdown is months in the making. The CCP passed a broad national security law in June 2020 that criminalized secession, subversion, collusion, and other activities. Beijing has used the law extensively over the past year to arrest protestors, dissidents, and human rights activists. Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, was even arrested late last year under the national security law for participating in an unauthorized assembly in October 2019. 

With Apple Daily’s founder in prison, it seemed as though the newspaper’s days were numbered. Police raided the paper’s office on June 16 and confiscated hard drives, arrested top editors, and froze the company’s assets. Less than one week after the raid, Apple Daily said that it was closing its doors permanently. Late last week, the paper printed one million copies of its final edition which sold out at stalls across the city.

On top of the office’s closure, Hong Kong police have arrested at least seven staffers from the shuttered newspaper. Most notably, Fung Wai-kong, a senior editor at Apple Daily, was arrested under the national security law on Sunday evening in the Hong Kong airport as he attempted to board a flight for the United Kingdom. He was released on bail two days later and is scheduled to report back to the police in late July.

What is Apple Daily?

Apple Daily was a pro-democracy newspaper that mixed both salacious gossip and investigative journalism and was unapologetically critical of the CCP. Apple Daily’s founder, Jimmy Lai, started the company in 1995 after Beijing threatened his lucrative international clothing brand in response to multiple articles he wrote criticizing the CCP’s response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the newspaper’s 26-year run, it became a staple of daily life in Hong Kong and a thorn in the CCP’s side as it produced story after story investigating and ridiculing party officials.

What is the relationship between Hong Kong and China?

Hong Kong operates under the decades-old principle of “one country, two systems,” which defines the relationship between the city and the rest of mainland China. Under the agreement brokered by the British when they handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, the city was guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy” without political interference from Beijing over the course of a 50-year transition period. As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal and political system that is strikingly distinct from the mainland. In exchange for guaranteeing these freedoms, western democracies treated Hong Kong with a special status, allowing Hong Kong to serve as an important banking and trading hub with mainland China and the region.

What does this mean for Hong Kong?

Apple Daily’s closure is a signal of Beijing’s intent to further restrict the freedoms that Hongkongers have enjoyed for nearly a quarter century. Article 27 of Hong Kong’s quasi-constitution, the Basic Law, says “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions; and to strike.” 

Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s unique autonomy may well be fundamentally weakened due to the new National Security Law. The closure of Apple Daily under the pretense of national security concerns directly undermines Article 27’s protections for free speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to assemble. The crackdown on Hong Kong’s press seems to confirm many advocates’ worst fears — that Beijing is going to use the National Security Law to take away Hongkongers individual liberties. 

What will happen next?

The Biden administration has largely stayed the course set by former President Trump of increased pressure on China. Last year, the Trump administration declared that Hong Kong was no longer sufficiently autonomous from China to merit its special status which included trade privileges and other benefits. Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, concurred earlier this year, saying in a mandated annual determination regarding Hong Kong’s status that, “Over the past year . . . China has continued to dismantle Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, in violation of its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.”

In addition to maintaining the State Department’s determination, a bipartisan group of senators has called on President Biden to impose sanctions on the CCP over the closure of Apple Daily. The senators cited the July 2020 Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which gives the president the authority to sanction “any foreign person, including foreign businesses, that are ‘materially contributing’ to the ‘inability of the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the freedom of assembly, speech, press, or independent rule of law.” Biden appears likely to heed the senators’ advice as he also issued a statement last week declaring his administration’s unwavering support for Hongkongers and their democratic institutions. 

However, U.S. sanctions will likely only have a limited effect. When Hong Kong first changed hands to Chinese control, its economy represented almost 20% of China’s GDP. Today, that number is below 3%. In short, the backlash China has received from the West for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy simply matters less to Beijing than it used to. Therefore, while sanctions from the U.S. government are likely, it appears as though Hong Kong will continue to lose the freedoms it has enjoyed as the CCP hardens its stance against democracy at home and abroad. 

The ERLC is supportive of the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which designates Hong Kong residents as Priority 2 refugees and streamlines their admission process to the United States. This important bill would ensure that the United States can be a place of refuge for Hongkongers fleeing political persecution. The ERLC will continue to monitor the situation as it develops and advocate for policies that protect and promote fundamental human rights around the world.

By / Jun 28

Beneath many—if not all—of the pressing social and cultural questions that our nation faces today sits a fundamental question about the nature and role of religion in the public square. From the often-fraught debates over abortion and sexuality issues like transgenderism to the increased discussions over online governance and the role of the technology industry in moderating public discourse, there lies a deep tension among ethical worldviews and disparate visions for the pursuit of the common good. 

Although it was published in 1984, The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus offers a deep critique of these contrasting visions and models an understanding of the public square that reveals the constant interplay of religion and politics. Ultimately, they cannot be kept separate, regardless of what some proponents of a “naked” or purely secular public square want to claim. Neuhaus defines the vision of a naked public square as the desire to “exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business” (ix).

Neuhaus was a prominent public theologian who served in a variety of clerical positions in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, later serving as a Roman Catholic Priest until his death in 2009. He was the founder and editor of the ecumenical and conservative monthly journal First Things, the director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City, and the author of over 36 works. 

In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus offers a constructive critique of both the moral majoritarian movement of his day — as seen in the “religious right” led by so-called fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — and what some have deemed “the rainbow coalition” of the religious or secular left who seek to shift the conversation of public morality away from any transcendent reality toward radical concepts of “naked” pluralism based in an expressive individualism. Neuhaus concludes that the concept of a “naked public square” is simply untenable and fails to account for the public nature of religion itself. He forcefully argues that religion cannot simply be relegated to a private matter as seen in the language of freedom of worship or belief. And this concept of religion as purely a private matter of the individual is even more prominent today than it was in the 1980s when Neuhaus penned this monumental work.

Dangers of the “naked” public square

In this second edition, released in 1986, Neuhaus seeks to build upon his original cultural critique and begins to flesh out a constructive proposal for bridging “the connections between biblical faith and democratic governance” (xi). He opens the work by exposing the rise of civil religion in his day and critiques the constant debate over the proper role of religion in public life. Much of this debate has devolved into caricaturing opponents’ views, all the while defending the moral purity for our own tribe through comparison. He wisely points out that “in principle, we should be suspicious of explanations for other people’s beliefs and behavior when those explanations imply that they would believe and behave as we do, if only they were as mature and enlightened as we are” (16). This honest and humble posture is evident throughout Neuhaus’ work.

In this book, Neuhaus traces the history of public theology and shows that many critics of religion in the public square express fear that if allowed, politics may again degenerate into the religious wars of the past. Quoting Alastair MacIntyre, he states that “in the absence of a public ethic, politics becomes a civil war carried on by other means” (99). This is a prescient critique of today’s public square based on how many of Neuhaus’ predictions have become reality in recent years with the warring factions of political tribalism — fueled by the rise of the social internet — and the almost religious-like devotion to secularism of our day. Both of these political and inherently religious tribes are at odds over what should constitute a serviceable public ethic, which Neuhaus believes is “not somewhere in our past, just waiting to be found and reinstalled” (37). It will take hard work on behalf of all parties in order to navigate the challenges ahead.

Like a skilled surgeon, Neuhaus dissects the political moment of his day and shows the fundamental issue with religion in the public square is not an issue of Christian truth “going public,” which he points out is an essential element of Christian faith (19). Rather, he critiques the substance of the claims made by both the politicized fundamentalism and the utopian dreams of the naked public square of secularism. He argues that both pose a grave threat to human flourishing and the preservation of democracy as a whole. Whereas fundamentalism can lead to a paving over of conscience and may even devolve into forms of totalitarianism (99), secularism removes the “agreed-upon authority that is higher than the community itself” (76). The naked public square then becomes a place where “there is no publicly recognizable source for such criticism, no check upon such patriotism . . . therefore criticism becomes impossible and patriotism unsafe” (76). 

Neuhaus later proposes a new way in this debate that seeks to reorient the public square as one based on a transcendent reality, one that seeks to honor the real differences in worldview and groundings of morality through the framework of democratic values and a robust public square of reinvigorated discourse.

The morality of compromise

Neuhaus’ vision for the public square draws criticisms from both sides of the debate. To the ire of secularism, he refuses to grant that religion is simply a private matter that shouldn’t be allowed in the public square. Instead, he argues that it is also at odds with the religious right by stating that religion dogma cannot go unchecked in this democratic experiment. He articulates a vision of compromise and tolerance in the public square that seeks to understand both religion and democracy in their proper forms — a vision that is much more robust than critics often ascribe to him. For Neuhaus, compromise doesn’t equate with weakness or giving up on deeply held beliefs but rather engaging in a robust dialogue over important issues and seeking a workable solution for all parties. He states, “Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgment that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. Democracy is the product not of a vision of perfection but of the knowledge of imperfection” (114).

Neuhaus goes on to argue that compromise “is not an immoral act, nor is it an amoral act” because the person who makes a compromise is making a moral judgement about what is to be done when moral judgements are in conflict.” He rightfully critiques the terminology of “two-kingdoms” in popular public theology and proposes a “twofold rule of God” that “underscores that it is the one God who rules over all reality, and his will is not divided” (115). This ensures that the public square is not devoid of a transcendent grounding for morality. Though, some on both sides of the divide will argue that Neuhaus gives away too much in the debate to the other side and that his middle ground approach is ultimately untenable in the increasingly hostile public square.

Neuhaus’ vision of compromise picks up on the idea of true toleration that has been popularized by some today as a path forward in these divisive times of polarization and tribalism. In his view, compromise is not about giving up truth or abandoning principle but recognizing that there are multiple moral actors present in any given decision and the need for humility in a workable vision of democracy. It means that “having set aside the sectarian and triumphalist alternatives, one acts with moral responsibility in an arena that requires compromise” (124). He later describes this project as one true democracy that understands that there “will always be another inning, another election, another appeal, another case to be tested” (181). It is understandable why this particular vision would be unsettling to both sides of these public debates because it means seeing the humanity of your supposed “enemies” and working toward a common future.

In seeking to lay out this vision for religion and democracy in America, Neuhaus describes a “very large number of Americans who feel they have for a long time been on the losing end have come to believe that the winners are trying to deny them their innings” (181). This is also one of the prevailing issues of today and bears acknowledging that particular communities — especially those of color — have actually been historically disenfranchised. But given Neuhaus’ context and intention of this volume, he does not particularly highlight the plight of these communities in his vision for the public square and discourse. While this is a weakness of the argument presented, it does not invalidate the principles that he lays out for his constructive proposal for the public square. He simply shows that those who hold a “pragmatic and provisional view of the democratic process” would understandably be alarmed by his proposal. Neuhaus rejects this pragmatic vision of the democratic process and argues for a more robust public theology.

Overall, Neuhaus offers a credible and healthy alternative to the warring factions of society and the outright secular rejection of religion in the public square by showing that these disparate visions of religion and democracy are simply untenable by their very nature. In the preface to the second edition of The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus writes that many critiqued the first edition of this work because it lacked a substantive proposal for applying the vision he articulates. While this second edition does move toward that type of proposal, it still lacks a detailed outworking of his vision for the public square. But Neuhaus believed others would be able to develop that type of proposal as they built upon the foundation that he laid out for an alternative understanding of the relationship of religion and democracy in the public square.

By / Nov 23

Yet again, there are troubling developments on the island city of Hong Kong. This land that once was home to the ideals of freedom, democracy, and open trade between the countries of the east and the west is slipping further under totalitarian control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

What happened?

On Wednesday, November 11, Beijing passed a resolution that sought to empower Hong Kong’s authorities to disquality legislators on what they deemed “a threat to national security” without having to go through a judicial process. Local authorities acted quickly with these powers and forced out four lawmakers, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, Kenneth Leung and Alvin Yeung, for their pro-democracy stances in the Hong Kong Legislative Council. The authority of executive branch leaders to target lawmakers at will is the latest in a long series of blows against the city’s long held democratic heritage.

In response to Beijing’s rapidly expanding control of the island, fifteen pro-democracy legislators announced their intention to resign in solidarity.

The CCP is making clear that it won’t tolerate support for democracy among legislators, and anyone bold enough to oppose the CCP will pay a price.

Pro-democracy legislator Fernando Cheung stated, “Today is definitely the darkest day in Hong Kong so far.” Lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki maintained a hopeful perspective, “As long as our resolve to fight for freedom, equality and justice remains unchanged, one day we will see the return of the core values we cherish.” But for now, these values remain under existential assault from the CCP.

Why does this matter?

On June 9, 2019, an estimated one million Hong Kongers began what would become protracted protests. At issue was an extradition bill supported by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and pushed by the communist party leaders in Beijing, that would have allowed for extraditions to mainland China.

Over the following months, the protestors rallied around five political demands: the withdrawal the extradition bill, an investigation into alleged police brutality against demonstrators, the release arrested protestors, retract the characterization of the protests as “riots,” and the resignation of Lam. Although Lam eventually withdrew the legislation, the Hong Kong government did not budge on the other items, and the protests continued.

In response, Beijing imposed a national security law in 2020 that expanded its control over Hong Kong, including broad powers to punish critics and silence dissenters. The law bans “sedition, secession, and treason” yet does not define those terms. This new draconian statute, left open to the interpretation of whatever Beijing wills, puts the individual liberties of Hongkongers at risk by criminalizing dissent and positioning the CCP to appoint judges to rule on national security cases.

For decades since 1997, Hong Kong and mainland China have operated under a “one country, two systems,” principle. Under this system, Hong Kong operated with a “high degree of autonomy” and without political interference from Beijing. This meant Hongkongers enjoyed significant individual freedoms relative to their mainland neighbors. Western democracies, including the United States, treated Hong Kong with a special status that allowed Hong Kong to thrive economically as it became a commercial and financial regional hub.

In July, President Trump responded to China’s crackdown on Hong Kong by revoking the special status of Hong Kong and signed the bipartisan Hong Kong Autonomy Act, imposing sanctions on foreign individuals and entities for “contributing to the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

Hongkongers know how the communist government in Beijing treats its citizens, severely restricting their freedoms of religion, assembly, and speech. The world is watching as the Chinese Communist Party remakes Hong Kong in its own image. Freedom-loving men and women on the island-city and around the world are concerned. 

For further reading

What Hong Kong reveals about the future of China

What you need to know about the U.S. announcement that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China

Is Beijing dropping the hammer on Hong Kong?

By / Nov 21

Travis Wussow is in Hong Kong this week meeting with local leaders, pastors, and government officials, and filming interviews for a project ERLC is working on. The pro-democracy protests remind the world of the dignity of freedom and the dangers of authoritarianism. For a special, second episode for the week, Travis joined Jeff by phone from his 53rd floor airbnb over Kowloon Bay to talk about the week and how Christians ought to think about these events.   

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