All posts by Carl O'Brien

Carl T. O'Brien is a graduate of Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He aspires to be a writer and professor of theology and philosophy. He currently lives in a small town in Georgia with his wife, Elizabeth, and Trashcan, their 3-year old dog.

The First Amendment, the ACLU & a High School Girl

The First Amendment —

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now, if you’re one of the idiots that Ezra Klein claims doesn’t understand the Constitution, let me see if I can break down for you the First Amendment.

Congress is not allowed to make any laws that make a national religion, or keeps people from doing their religion. It also can’t keep people from talking about what they want to talk about. It also can’t keep journalists from talking about what they want to talk about. The Government also can’t keep people from gathering together, so long as they don’t hurt anyone or anyone’s stuff. The Government also can’t keep people from getting some kind of compensation for something done to them.

Now, undoubtedly, if you aren’t a product of the American public educational system or have read a book within the past year, you skipped my dumb-downed explanation, because you understood the simple, precise language contained within this text. It’s not a great mystery to you what this amendment, or any of the amendments, are saying.

But, let me point out something further about this first amendment.

Taken as a whole, the thrust of this amendment is toward freedom and liberty, in a sense, establishing the place where public discourse can be held, viz., the public square. In other words, this amendment recognizes that freedom in America can only be enjoyed so long as its citizens are able to speak freely, without fear that the government will persecute dissenters. Now, as to the moral validity of certain kinds of speech, that’s for another article, but this amendment essentially states that everyone is free to say what they want without fear that the government will come after them.

Let’s walk through this amendment and see if we can trace this thought through it.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion… Oh, the culture wars that have been fought over this one phrase! Even now, the ACLU is demanding that a student who prayed during a graduation ceremony apologize and that school officials will take the necessary steps to ensure that “…that graduation exercises are not exploited to present religious messages.” The ACLU claims that the student and the school flouted “…constitutional requirements,” an obvious reference to the First Amendment.

So, does the ACLU have a case? I think so, but only if the First Amendment didn’t balance a negative with a positive.

…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… I would imagine that the ACLU, like many Americans, hasn’t read past that first part, otherwise they would’ve seen something that would have gotten stuck in their collective craw. The First Amendment denies that the government can force anyone to not practicing their religion. It makes no distinction between public and private religious practices. In other words, no where does it say that any religion can’t practice their religion in public. No limitations are expressed here or anywhere else. In fact, considering the other rights afforded by this amendment, it would be incorrect to conclude that the intended freedom does not include a right to the public exercise of religion. If it assumed that this right to the free exercise of one’s religion is merely private, that would open the door for other infringements. For example…

… or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble… Now, we don’t even blink when a member of the media publicly exercises its freedom of speech in the public square. It’s not as if the Press gathers in their homes and freely discusses the news of the day amongst them. No! The Press exercises its right openly and publicly!

Nor do we gather only in our own homes to protest or have meetings away. We exercise our
right to gather peacefully in the open air, where everyone can see us! It only makes sense.

… and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Neither does the First Amendment keep us from exercising this right freely in the public square. We are free to opening and publicly air our grievances out. CourtTV is a perfect example! You can’t get more public than that!

Thus, these are not rights only to be exercised within the privacy of our homes and centers of worship. These are right that we are to exercise freely everywhere.

So, why did the founders lump religion, the Press, and freedom of speech all in the same Amendment? It is because they recognized something dangerous. If a government establishes a religion, then the freedom of its people is threatened. If, however, that same government, drunk with power, attempts to squash the freedom of religious exercise, that government also threatens the general freedom of its people. The same goes for the Press, an assembly, and those who have genuine grievances. Freedom of Speech is an integral part of liberty.

Now, as to the student; this girl wanted to exercise her First Amendment right to freely practice her religion by saying a prayer as a to God, whom she believes helped made her class such a success. She was not attempting to foist religion upon anyone. Rather, she was attempting to honor her classmates and school in the highest regard that a Christian claims is possible; by ascribing the success of her class to divine intervention. This is one of the highest possible compliments that a Christian can give. She exercised her right to bless her fellow classmates.

The First Amendment isn’t about limiting religion, anymore than it’s about limiting the freedom of the Press. Rather, it’s about ensuring the freedom of everyone in America. We are both free from governmental control of what we worship and from the governmental controlling how and when we worship. That’s true freedom.

Why I’m Against a Marriage Amendment

There’s something rather disturbing happening in America, and, frankly, I’m surprised not more people are picking up on it. After all, if a serious philosophical shift was happening in a country, you’d expect intellectual leaders of all stripes raising their voices as one, yet I haven’t seen anything of the kind.
So, by way of introducing this trend, let me ask a question; is it within the judicial court’s province to define morality? Do we want to give the government that power? Of course, the answer would seem to be a resounding “no!” And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening.

I write, of course, of the debate between supporters of so-called “same-sex” marriage and the supporters of heterosexual marriage. On the one side, SSM supporters are attempting to get the courts to agree with them that the gender of the marriage partners isn’t important, so they have suits filed against this county for such-and-such a ruling and that state for such-and-such a bill.

On the other side, supporters of one-man-one-woman marriages are attempting to get an amendment passed that would legally define ‘marriage’ as between one man and one woman exclusively. I think they’re trying to fight fire with fire by going to the same courts that the SSM supporters are going to and trying to get them to rule in their favor.

The problem with fighting fire with fire, however, is that sometimes you just have twice as many fires.
You see, if we give the courts this power, we are essentially blurring the line between the law of the land and the law of nature, or to call it its other name, the moral law. You see, those two things are very, very different. The moral law is, simply put, a system that everyone on earth agrees upon. Everyone agrees that killing is wrong. Now, of course there are people who might bring up some cultures where cannibalism is practiced as an exception to this rule. The problem is, no cannibalistic culture eats its own members. It might laud the consumption of one’s enemies or eats its deceased members, but, if a man kills another man for food, that society would punish him. Theft is also something that we can all agree upon is wrong. In fact, along with murder and theft, we would also all agree that cheating on one’s spouse, lying, and jealousy for something someone else owns is wrong. So, I would argue, every culture on the planet agrees that murder, theft, lying, and adultery are all really bad things.

Hmm. That list sounds familiar.

But, that’s not all that Morality says on the matter of, well, morality. Because, morality simply does not matter at all if there isn’t a higher power at work. Seriously. I’m not just saying that because I’m a Christian (although, I’m sure some readers stopped reading this article the moment I wrote that). Morality means absolutely nothing if there isn’t some kind of reward and punishment system in place. Why should I care if there isn’t some kind of punishment for all my bad deeds? I could rape little children and it really wouldn’t matter in the long run because, once I’m dead, I don’t exist.

Sorry, Rob. There must be punishment, and lots and lots of it, for morality to mean anything. Thus, if there’s punishment, there also must be a punisher, a being, better than us, who has a standard to measure a person’s conduct against. Christians call this being God. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another religion that has a being like the Judeo-Christian God, but, you’re free to call Him what you want. We call Him Yahweh, because that’s what He calls Himself. Anyway, a higher power, a punisher, must exist for morality to mean anything.

Now, this punisher, God, has a standard and, being just, He would naturally want to give people fair warning of the danger they’re in and, also, how to get out of danger. And, thus, we have a written document, the Bible. Because, you see, Christianity can be viewed as a moral system and that very system is what has given rise to our legal system and, yes, even our values of hard work, faithfulness, the value of children, etc. That is the moral system that even the least Christian of the founding fathers assumed. It was assumed all over Europe at the time and it was assumed in the thirteen colonies of America. And it greatly influenced the law of the land here.

Now, the law of the land is the law, set down by the government, for the general governance of people’s behavior. It tells us not to murder, lie, cheat, or steal; otherwise, the government will come after you and punish you for those things. But, where did the government get this idea?

Evolutionists would tell you it was developed over hundreds of thousands of years as man evolved to think and reason and, thus, for a society to survive, it created these rules. These rules then help us run a smooth and efficient society. Whether this is a valid argument or not (and I suspect it’s not), it really is peripheral to my argument that morality is based upon a higher power, whether divine or evolutionary. Either way, morality came before government. Thus, law is the acknowledgment of a pre-existing moral system. Thus, the law of the land is subservient to the law of morality.

Now, the legal system being an acknowledgment of the moral system means that the American legal system is heavily indebted to the Christian moral system. The courts simply do not have the power to change that moral system, no matter how much they may want to. It’s not their place. Any law that clashes against the established moral law immediately is invalidated, again, whether people like it or not.

Herein lays my problem with the pro-SSM organizations and pro-OMOW (I didn’t just make up that acronym. You have to dig deep into Google to find it, though) group; they are attempting to give the court the power to decide what is moral and immoral. The role of the courts is not to do that. The role of the court is to acknowledge first what is moral and immoral then decides what category the thing in question falls into.
So, what does this have to do with SSM? Actually, it has everything to do with it, because the debate about marriage is a moral debate. You see, the pro-SSM group keeps couching the legitimacy of marriage firmly in the realm of a ‘right.’ But, a ‘right’ isn’t given out by the government. If it was, then any government is perfectly welcome to oppress and enslave its people, denying the rights of women and minorities as it pleases. Of course, we fight against those kinds of governments because it’s better for people to have rights. Thus, if we say these governments are bad for denying the rights of their people, we are acknowledging two things; 1), that rights do exist outside of governmental control and, 2) that having rights is a good thing. Not just a good thing, but the value of a government is based almost entirely upon the way it treats its people. And the way it treats its people is based upon its moral system. That makes sense, doesn’t it? That’s why we fight for the freedom of others, because it’s a good and moral thing to do. So, we can easily see that any talk of ‘rights’ is a talk heavily seasoned with morality.

That being the case, the issue of homosexual rights is an issue of morality. Unfortunately, we are quickly giving the government the power to decide what the definition of “right” and “wrong” is, rather than deciding whether something is right or wrong. If we do that, then we’ve essentially given moral authority to people who can be mistaken, bought, and threatened into making something moral or immoral. That would be disastrous. Do you really want a judge who can be bought for several thousands of dollars to judge that child pornography is legal and, therefore, moral? Of course not! That’s madness! But, that’s what we’re essentially opening ourselves up for.

Thus, I am against a marriage amendment while still perfectly supporting traditional marriage. It’s just that it would be far safer to keep this debate a discussion based upon moral systems, rather than judicial precedence. It would set a far more dangerous precedent that will get us into much more trouble than a few hollow victories in the court rooms. Let’s, instead, attempt to change the hearts and minds of the people who hold the power to vote people in and out of office and, thus, affect real, lasting change in America. This is really the only safe way to move forward in this debate.

The Death of the Christian College

Well, health care reform is now a fact in America. The President has promised to make big changes to the way business is done in this country. He promised to reduce the deficit, make colleges more affordable, and freeze governmental spending for three years in 2011 among many other things. My biggest worry after listening to the President’s address several weeks ago was not that these amazing changes would not take place, but rather that they would.

For me, the scariest thing in this bill is making colleges more affordable to a wider range of people. The bill outlines plans for making community colleges more affordable, tuition for colleges in general be brought down, lending companies forgiving college debts after 20 years or 10 years if the person works in Public Service, and cutting the middle man when it comes to the handling of student loans.

This might be alarmist, but I’m becoming convinced that, since these measures are put in place, we will see the death of the private college institution. If community colleges, which are already cheaper than most private schools, are given a helping hand by the government more people will flock to these schools than the private ones. Given the fact that teachers are under-paid as is, a decrease in tuition for colleges will mean a possible decrease in professor’s salaries, which might lead to a decline in people seeking employment in teaching.

Of course, lending companies make their money by the interest rates they charge. What happens when these lending companies are then given a time frame to make back their investments? My guess would be they will chase those they lend to more doggedly and perhaps even raising interest rates even higher. They may even begin to only loan to those who they know can repay the loan, leaving others out of money for college.

However, the most alarming part of the bill is that lending institutions and banks will be cut completely out of the student loaning process. Instead, the government will be handing money to students directly. The reason this alarms me is that by giving students the money directly, the government will be paying money to private religious institutions. All it will take is one person to make the connection, faulty or otherwise, that this is a violation of the separation of Church and State. I believe we’ll be only one ACLU lawsuit away from the death of religious colleges and universities.

Stop cheering Bill Maher.

Like I said, this may sound alarmist, but I honestly do believe this scenario may occur now that these changes are made. And, since conjecture only goes so far, these problems may never come up. So, all we can do is hope I’m wrong.

‘Avatar’ Dazzles, but Has Old Grudges to Settle

Last year’s blockbuster hit “Avatar” amazed audiences with incredibly beautiful vistas, intense action, and… humanistic naturalism with anti-military undertones?

Avatar Still 1If you’re inclined to see the film, which I highly recommend doing if just for the gorgeous CGI work, I won’t spoil anything for you. That said, the film’s protagonist is a paraplegic marine sent to the alien world of “Pandora” to help a mega-corporation. The corporation is after a precious mineral that the ‘post-Green movement’ Earth needs. Unfortunately, the planet is inhabited by a blue-skinned alien race and their home is directly over the largest deposit of the substance. However, a team of scientists have come up with a solution; create mind-controlled clones of the aliens called “Avatars” to study the people in the hopes of creating a dialogue between the aliens and the humans. But what does the industrial-military complex wish? Forget the aliens, relocate them, then blast their home away!

Waaaaaaaaaait a minute… Haven’t we heard this story before? Oh! Right… the Trail of Tears! More than a few people have commented on the facial similarities between the aliens and Native Americas and Africans. Indeed, the aliens even call themselves, “The People,” a rather clear allusion to the Native American name “First People.”

And, hey! A mega-corporation hellbent on capitalism? What is this? The 1980’s? At what point in the film will the “A-Team” come driving out in their van? Will Mr. T deliver a rousing, “I pity the foo’ who doesn’t respect these people’s belief”?

I don’t mean to be disparaging of environmentalism. I believe that some theological and pastoral resources should be used to define exactly the relationship between God’s people and God’s creation. I believe it’s there and it doesn’t involve hacking down millions of trees or driving species into extinction. However, I also do not believe it involves the anti-human (also read, anti-white guy) sentiment seen in the film.

The anti-military aspects of the film are apparent too. In one scene, a marine is trudging through the foliage of Pandora, spewing flame from a flamethrower, a clear reference to Vietnam footage of the same. The climactic battle of a technological and militaristic underdog winning against a superior force also has throwbacks to Vietnam. One character makes a reference to a “shock and awe” campaign against the aliens.

Several of my immediate and extended family members have been or are in military service. Two of my college roommates are also currently in service. This move into military service is an anti-Darwinian, wholly God-honoring sacrifice. The movie paints a vast majority of the military as being self-unaware, immoral animals with nothing but destruction and death on their minds. This flies in the face of everything that it means to be in the military. The military trains you to head towards almost certain death, when everything in you is screaming to run away, so that your family, friends, and country can be safe.

It surprises me, really, that an American film, made by Americans, and shot in America can be so anti-American. Now, before you think that I’m equating pro-military with patriotism, let me set the record straight. I am! The military is made up of, you guessed it! Americans! And what do those Americans do? Protect other Americans with their lives! What can be more American? As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

My point is this; America has no idea who she is. She has no identity as yet. In the British TV show Doctor Who, a woman brings out a thermos of tea during a time where the Earth is being destroyed. Another character comments, “Tea. While we’re waiting for the world to come to an end. Very British.” I don’t mean to be pedantic, but is there a common bond, a common item, that all Americans can identify with? Or has our individualism completely stripped our culture of anything relatable between people? Sure, when I say, “White House party crashers” everyone knows what I’m talking about. But, who’s going to remember that next year? Or this year in fact!

Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. We are a tossed salad of cultures and experiences. My wife was part of a church who had services for Eritreans, led by an Eritrean pastor with whom my wife was good friends with. She also grew up next to a family of Hmongs and often joined them for festivals and meals. I like hearing stories of these people groups and their experiences. However, there’s a danger to this grandeur; because we have Chinese, Japanese, African, Spanish, etc. living in this country, trying desperately to hold onto their traditions (which I encourage), we, as Americans, have none of that. Almost all of us go out for Fourth of July to see the fireworks, but do we ever think about the Revolutionary War and the thousands that died to bring this country into being? We love the time off during Memorial Day, but how often do we think of the sacrifices of men and women that we are supposed to be memorializing? For goodness sakes, we can’t even shake hands at the end of a political debate! Our country was built to be a system of checks and balances; various political parties going at it for the mutual benefit of all. Now we have Democrats and Republicans practically throttling each other to get their way. These divisions will someday be our downfall.

We, as a country, have no identity, and an anti-human, anti-military, anti-capitalistic movie like ‘Avatar’  drives the wedge deeper between us and what it means to have national unity. For how can we have unity if we believe that the military will kill to get its own way and corporations have no heart? These are American institutions, run by people like us. Perhaps our distaste for these practices reminds us of our darker impulses. Perhaps what we’re raging against is not the fact that the military is elitist or that the mega-corporations take what they want, but rather that’s exactly what we want to do, if only we had the power and inhibitions. After all, “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and(B) madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecc. 9:13).

The Post Christian America

In a recent article in Breakpoint, evangelical leader Chuck Colson brought to light the British government’s stance against any reference to Christianity in the constitutions of its St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, and Ascension territories. The constitutions of the islands generally declare that “religion finds its expression in moral living and social justice.” Thus they affirm that they are a “God-fearing country based on traditional Christian values.”

Big Ben ClocktowerThe British Foreign Office told the islands they should consider removing the affirming Christian statements because the UK is now “multi-faith.” However, after being brought up in Parliament, the Office is now considering ordering the islands to removes these statements. The British government is attempting to remove any reference to Christianity in any of its governances.

This, Colson says, represents a growing ideology. Britain is no longer a non-Christian country, but rather it is a post-Christian country. In formulation, post-modernity and post-Christianity are similar. Moderism attempts to strikeout any influence from Enlightenment area modernity, which elevated absolute truth, universal morality from reason, and scientism. Post-modernity, on the other hand, emphasizes the relativity of truth, a cultural or personal basis for morality, and a philosophy that suggests that language creates, rather than defines, reality.

In like kind, post-Christianity attempts to remove any and all Christian symbolism, language, and philosophy from the public sphere. In his book The New Atheism, Victor Stenger, an adjunct professor of philosophy at University of Colorado and emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, makes the battle lines sharp when he declares that he and the other “New Atheists” do not “take a benign view of moderate religion”(p.13). That is to say that the New Atheists are opposed to even a mild religion that is more tolerant of other religions (e.g., Emergent Church, Unitarian Universalists, etc.). He uses war-like terms when describing “the real war between rationalism and superstition (p. 14)”. He even goes so far as to say, “Faith is always foolish and leads to many of the evils of society” (p. 15).

These New Atheists are the vanguard of post-Christianity, indeed, post-religion. Another example of post-Christianity in America is the indie film Religulous (2008) by comedian Bill Maher and producer Larry Charles of Borat fame. The film was touted as a humorous exposé on religion in general, with host Maher singling out Christianity, Islam, and Judaism specifically. Not wanting to discriminate, he also takes on Rastarafianism, Mormons, and even homosexual Muslim activists. Any thought of this film being an honest dialogue giving religion a fair shake faded when Maher, while interviewing an ex-homosexual man married with three kids with his ex-lesbian wife, jokingly observed that the judge is out on whether his children will end up so. At that moment in the movie, I knew he was no longer the humorous intellectual, but rather a heavy-handed antagonistic agnostic. He was not looking for a dialogue, but rather to deride and ridicule the faithful and sincere.

Maher and Stenger are but a few of the New Atheists that are seeking not to relegate religion into the private sphere, but to abolish it wholly and completely. It is a jihad against any kind of religion, especially Christianity and its denominations. Britain has already begun this trend towards post-Christianity and America is not far behind. America may not be physically persecuted as it is in China and other anti-Christian nations, but it is being viciously and venomously persecuted by these New Atheists with these “quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain that awe” themselves into a mild stupor, drunk on their own perceived intelligence.