The Path To Genuine National Renewal

by Matthew Raley With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.

If there were a prospect that the nation's course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It's incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan's signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.

President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor -- the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush's, but not different in principle.

A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama's options. It might pass Paul Ryan's budgets as written, and they still won't become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.

So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.

Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?

Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there's no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece's all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?

We can rage against Wall Street's greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.

Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It's time to dig up the planted axiom.

None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great -- great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.

If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:

Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.

And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: "You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God." (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)

If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ's grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.

Are We About To See an "Awakening?" [Yawn]

by Matthew Raley The term awakening is important to American evangelicals -- and ought to become more important. It refers to periods of spiritual renewal, of which churches are in desperate need.

So I was not surprised to find the word associated with Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, and the formation of his Black Robe Regiment. One of the regiment's websites announces that it is "awakening the Christian community." Another is more specific: "The time has come that we must now arise and awaken to the danger of this hyper-progressive agenda that so permeates every aspect of our political, legal,  and educational systems."

The term moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform. "Awakening" gets picked up by various Beck enthusiasts as a focus of their hopes.

Here is one pastor about the "evening of prayer and spiritual renewal" Beck hosted at the Kennedy Center on August 27th, the eve of the big rally: "I’m telling you tonight was like the beginning of a Revival for our country with Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and people from all walks of life singing praise songs and calling upon God to restore our Nation . . . ." The pastor concludes, "Tomorrow, I pray will begin the next great awakening in America."

The next great awakening. There seems to be some confusion.

"Great awakening" is a phrase applied to two periods in American history. The First Great Awakening occurred in the 1740s, the Second from 1800 to roughly 1830.

Here's the problem: Beck's regiment is modeling its awakening not on those periods, but on the Revolutionary War period (1775-83). That is a generation after the First and about a generation before the Second Great Awakenings. No one classifies the Revolution as a period of spiritual revival. Quite the reverse.

Iain H. Murray, in his study Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), summarizes (p 74), "With the possible exception of Western Pennsylvania, there seem to have been no areas where there was general revival during the years of the War of Independence . . . . In most of the country there was evident spiritual decline as political and military events dominated public attention."

Murray quotes an observation from Robert Semple, who was fourteen when the war was won in 1783. Semple said that with liberty came "leanness of soul" (p 76).

This chill to their religious affections might have subsided with the war, or perhaps sooner, if there had not been subsequent occurrences which tended to keep them down. The opening a free trade by peace served as a powerful bait to entrap professors who were in any great degree inclined to the pursuit of wealth. Nothing is more common than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety. Speculators seldom make warm Christians. With some exceptions the declension was general throughout the State [of Virginia]. The love of many waxed cold. Some of the watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered at their posts.

Note that last sentence describing Virginian pastors. That would be the original Black Robe Regiment -- falling, stumbling, slumbering.

The spiritual drought lasted so long, according to Semple (Murray, p 78), that it "induced many to fear that the times of refreshing would never come."

At this moment in our nation's life, pastors need to know their jobs. The surest way to freeze congregations in self-righteousness is to go soldiering in the populist militias. Churches are populated with sinners who have trampled the holiness of God, and whose only hope is that the Jesus Christ whose name they have claimed will recognize them on the last day.

I fear we are not on the edge of an awakening, but inhaling the fumes of stupefication.