The third chapter of Paul’s letter to the apostle Timothy sets down some qualifications for a leader:
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
You may be able to think of a prominent politician in our day who falls short of these guidelines. Yet Donald Drumpf continues to hold the support of two-thirds of evangelical Christians. This is according to a PRRI report released October 11, well after Drumpf had erased all doubt in the world that he is an untested, quarrelsome, intemperate lover of money who has not been faithful to his wife:
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of white evangelical voters remain committed to supporting Drumpf, while only 16% say they favor Clinton. However, Drumpf fares much worse among other white Christian voters, a notable shift from support patterns in recent elections. White mainline Protestants voters are split between the two candidates with an equal number supporting Drumpf (42%) and Clinton (42%). White Catholic voters are closely divided with roughly equal numbers in favor of Clinton (46%) and Drumpf (42%). Clinton leads Drumpf among all Catholics voters (55% vs. 34%, respectively) and among unaffiliated voters (70% vs. 20%, respectively) by considerable margins.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds this problematic. How can anyone claim to be a Christian and still support a candidate for office who is clearly unqualified, not to mention a reprehensible human being? And the answer is obvious: they are hypocrites. [We’re instructed not to judge other peoples’ hearts and souls. But their political positions and their ideological claims are fair game.]
Let us turn now to another set of American people who are not hypocrites.
My daughter Hannah recently sent me a link to this report: Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back. It is a detailed bit of social research showing the rapid decline of religious identity in America — especially among young people. I had written about this before using data from the General Social Survey and Pew Research Center, but the new report from PRRI goes further. (I recommend you hit the link and read it all.) This chart, for example, explains the top reasons why people who may have identified as religious when they were young are not religious now:
Each of the reasons listed here is unfortunate. But, if you think about it, it is understandable that sensible people would abandon religion in the face of these conditions. If church was never anything growing up but a dull routine their parents followed for the sake of social standing, who can blame a young person for abandoning the hollow charade and quitting entirely?
The New Testament nowhere says that traumatic events won’t happen. But plenty of religious leaders have made that promise. So someone who has abandoned his or her “childhood religion” may be turning away from Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar or other proponents of the false Prosperity Gospel. If their religion was based on the teaching of a liar, they are wise to discard it. Similarly, they may have seen their church’s purpose slop over into politics. Or the lessons taught in the church may have evolved into a vacuous mix of talking vegetables and bad science museums that . . . well:
The New Yorker article is satire. But it reads like real news and plenty of people would believe it. Even the strongest proponents must admit that Christianity has lost the high ground it enjoyed when Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, Carl Linnaeus and others were both leading scientists and convincingly devout believers. The sexual scandals focus mostly on Catholic priests. But this Daily Beast article reminds us there are so many incidents involving every denomination that nobody can keep up.
Please follow what I’m saying. I’m saying the provocations are terrible things and very regrettable. But they have happened. For millions of people, the face of religion is ugly and stupid. Once we accept that, the fact that those people have abandoned what is ugly and stupid is understandable.
I’d like to come at the issue now from a completely different direction, if I may. Let me preface this by saying that I am ignorant about chemistry. I may not use terms correctly and I certainly can’t provide any formula to prove or justify what I’m saying. But I asked my knowledgeable daughter Jenny and she confirms that the following is reasonably correct.
If you have a quantity (say, a tablespoon) of salt, it will taste very salty. If you pour that tablespoon of salt into a quantity of water (say, a gallon) and stir it, the salt will still be there. The quantity of stuff will be increased. But the saltiness of the solution would be noticeably less than the saltiness of the pure salt you started with.
If you worked the process in reverse by evaporating the water, the volume of stuff would get less. Instead of a gallon of saline solution, you’d have less and less until — when the water was all evaporated — you were back to a tablespoon of pure salt. And as the quantity diminished, the saltiness would increase. If saltiness is a virtue, the tablespoon of pure stuff is better than the gallon of weak solution. A gallon of full-strength salt would be nice to imagine. But it never existed. You can’t add water without diluting the salt. So the best you can do is keep your virtue as pure and you can — however small the quantity.
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,
“And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,—
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?
“Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three:
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”
The Bible speaks of the need for someone to stand in the gap in exactly this way. But in the time of Ezekiel, none was found:
“The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD.…(Ezekiel 22:29-31)
Shoot. I put this reference in here without realizing just how spot-on it is. I don’t mean to commit the fallacy of thinking that Old Testament events have exact parallels in our day. We are not Bible characters. But the 2016 presidential campaign has surely failed to turn up the sort of man (or woman) God speaks of here. The latest word on that comes from Rod Dreher, quoting prominent Christian Ben Carson to the effect that “Sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done.”
It is at least worth considering that the decline in numbers of professing religious people will pay off in more saltiness. I don’t mean to be naive. Certainly it will mean a lot of bad things. It means the possibility of Christian values being upheld by politics diminishes. But when was the last time politics upheld (genuine) Christian values anyway? It means that well-meaning “followers” — people who don’t think for themselves but for better or worse go along with prevailing attitudes — are less likely to find their way into church. It means that fewer and fewer people will understand Nobel Prize winning poet Bob Dylan, whose work is laced with Biblical allusion.
You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister
Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame,
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name
And, of course, it means that fewer and fewer people will believe with their heart and confess with their mouth and be saved by grace. But at least fewer hypocrites means less ill will be done in the name of religion, and there will be plenty of room on the bridge (or in the gap), for the remnant of people who find themselves standing there.