Culture Friday – Secularism on display


NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Friday the 17th of April, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up: Culture Friday. 

Here’s New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, talking about disease-mitigation efforts in his state, why coronavirus cases have hit a plateau and started to fall, and why New Yorkers have to remain vigilant.

CUOMO: It is directly the result of what you do today. The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Fate did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that.

EICHER: Maybe you think a reporter baited Cuomo into his lack of gratitude to God. But it didn’t appear to me that way as I looked at the quote in context.

The reporter asked about the plateauing of the coronavirus numbers and asked specifically, “what makes you feel so confident that the worst is over?”

To be fair, the governor said he wasn’t confident. He was making the point that draconian efforts must continue. It’s like going on a diet, he explained. You eat right, you lose weight. You lose discipline, you gain weight. Simple as that. It’s all about what we do. We do smart things, we mitigate the disease. We do dumb things, the disease is likely to take off again. 

That’s the context.

It’s Culture Friday and time to welcome in John Stonestreet, the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Good morning!

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning!

EICHER: I bring this up, because it got a lot of attention. Kind of a pride-goeth-before-a-fall sort of attention. These are uncharted waters we’re in, and now’s not the time for hubris from any political leader—whether it’s a political leader at the White House in Washington or at the state house in Albany, New York. The first thing you should be doing is asking God for help, not saying, we’ve got this. 

But I am noticing, and I’ll bring this up in a moment, a disdain for the worship of God, and it seems to me to stem from this idea: that God has nothing to do with issues like these. This is a matter for “the experts” and don’t bother the experts with your judgy ideas like “repent or you will likewise perish.”

What would be the right balance, do you think? The appropriate stance for a public official. I guess, boiling it down, what would Kuyper do?

STONESTREET: Well, I mean, obviously he wouldn’t do that. And neither, by the way, would almost any other political leader in American history, not just Christian ones. I mean, Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have said anything like that. Benjamin Franklin, who was highly cynical and skeptical of religion and Christianity, wouldn’t have said anything like that. I’m not even sure Voltaire, who wasn’t really a political leader or American, would have said something like that. Because even though he was pretty much a skeptic, he still had some sort of sense of the providence of God in moments even of his skeptical writing. 

This is really just a stunning thing. And I think it reveals a couple things. 

Number one is there are these moments in time when you realize just how secular something, a place has gotten. The coronavirus has been that. So, for example, we have seen the complete and utter embrace of something that is morally problematic like abortion as essential services, while so many other things are not. We had so-called Christian writers question Samaritan’s Purse intention in New York City. There are times when the worldview of a culture is revealed. This has been actually one of those. And it’s been a theme where hopefully Christians continue to run into the plague and do the good work that they’re doing, not making foolish decisions like we’ve seen some make, but really trying to engage the moment.

But there is a great kind of cynicism and skepticism. 

And one of the marks of this, too, is not just the openly disdainful stuff. It’s in quotes like this one by Cuomo, which is essentially what folks have called either the political illusion or technocracy, this idea that the world really isn’t a place that’s governed or controlled by anything outside of this world, that all the forces that matter are horizontal ones, they’re not vertical at all. And so what we’ve got to do is rightly align either our political process, some sort of medical solutions or medication, or our science and so on and we will be able to fix the world’s problems. 

Now, look, that’s been an impulse in modern culture for a long time. But this is the gut-level impulse of modernism that religion goes to the category of personal and private and that the thing that really tells us the truth, the thing that really brings us the progress, the thing that really solves us our problems is our own ability to figure out and restructure our lives around techniques or around scientific endeavor or around medical experiments and then we’ll rid the world of whatever kind of “fall” that it has.

So, we’re seeing a stark contrast of worldviews and we’re seeing also kind of an indicator, the little yellow “you are here” arrow of just really how secular we are as a culture.

EICHER: Let me play a bit of audio from a cellphone recording by Pastor Charles Hamilton of King James Bible Baptist Church, Greenville, Mississippi. This from Good Friday. You’ll hear an official warning him that attendees for a drive-in service will receive tickets, and you’ll hear, if you listen carefully, an officer saying the pastor’s rights are suspended by Governor Tate Reeves, followed by the pastor’s reply. It’s quite an exchange.

AUDIO: OK, I’m good. I got that. I know. I know about it … we’re gonna get tickets. 

Give you a formal warning.

Yes sir.

And we’ll allow the … if you do have members come, we will allow them to leave before they’re cited.

Yes sir.

If they decide not to is when they’ll—

Order from the governor.

Yeah.

Your rights are suspended.

No. The government does not have the right over the constitution. We’re talking about the constitutional law, the first and second amendments to the U.S. constitution that were given from our forefathers. Tate Reeves can’t take it away. Erick Simmons can’t take it away. Nor can the police officers.

Can be suspended, by the military

No, you can’t.

I should’ve mentioned the other name in there, Erick Simmons, the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. That’s who Pastor Hamilton was also talking about: the governor, the mayor, the police, the military, all constrained by constitutional limits on their powers.

Now, a couple of words here before we move on. My colleague Mary Reichard is going to explain this and another case in Kentucky, and go into some detail on the legal questions. So that’s coming on Monday.

The cultural question is interesting, too. By and large, churches have been most cooperative. We’ve wanted to be good neighbors. I can speak for my own church, I’m on the livestream team, and we’ve been working within the spirit of the local lockdown, to prepare online worship services for our congregation and community. So the exceptions to the rule have really been exceptions to the rule.

My question for you is this: when do you think is the right time to be polite and cooperative, and when’s the right time to fight aggressively to advocate for our rights?

STONESTREET: Well, I don’t like the way the question’s phrased, honestly. Forgive me, Nick, but I don’t the choice is between being polite and cooperative and fighting. I think you can be polite and not cooperative and I think that’s sometimes what you have to do.

EICHER: And I think you heard that there, to be fair to the pastor.

STONESTREET: I think we heard that there. I think he was trying to be very polite as I think most have. Not all. I mean, there’s been some bad actors in this and there’s been foolish actors in this. And this is a really tough situation. I don’t think it’s going to get easier. And because, again, we’re making these decisions in the context of a culture that no longer sees church or religious experience as core to our lives together. 

And that’s really important because many people, first of all, still do see church as core to our lives together. I think pastors see that. I think maybe some of them are realizing that they see it in their congregants or their culture doesn’t and maybe we haven’t done such a great job catechizing our own people in why church is really so important. I worry, too, that when all this is over whether we can get people back in the pews when it’s so much easier to watch stuff online. And I heard somebody on a podcast this week said something along the lines like there’s no difference between what happens in our church and what happens online. You can sing at home, you can get good preaching at home and so on. I thought, man, if there’s really no difference, we’re not doing this right. So I think it’s revealing so much about our culture right now and it’s a fascinating reveal. 

That said, I think what you have here is a real issue. Now, I think some of it is innocent, honestly. And part of that has to do with bureaucracy, part of that has to do with local—I think in the town of this mayor of Greenville—a local mayor trying to do his job with the governor, trying to stay on good terms with the governor, and then having to kind of be this guy. And he clearly doesn’t know what the Constitution says. 

Now, I do think, though, that the church doesn’t need to resist some of these orders just because it’s the state telling them. And this is where I think it’s also been confused. There’s been this kind of growing tension between the church and the state so that we sometimes think that, well, if I’m getting a directive, it’s my duty to disobey. If the directive is wise, if a way to love your neighbor—especially the elderly attendees maybe in your church or community—is to stay at home in order to flatten the curve, well then great. Do it. 

Look, I’ll close with this, Nick: I’m going back to what this is revealing about our cultural moment is both fascinating and should be very revealing, that we’re far more secular than we thought we were, and that the church, which if you watch any episode of Little House on the Prairie you’ll see was at the center of everything that happened in town, is considered widely—maybe even in places like Greenville, Mississippi—to be extra, non-essential, to be on the peripheral of life together. And that should tell us an awful lot about our culture and about ourselves.

EICHER: John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Thank you!

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.


(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) In this March 24, 2020, file photo New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Culture Friday – Secularism on display

  1. Shannon Miller says:

    Sometime around the end of March, I remember a quote being published and attributed to Gov. Cuomo that I can’t for the life of me find by searching. I believe it was an article from The Sift in which Gov. Cuomo said words close to “God help us all, God help us all, God help us all.” It shocked me so much that I read it several times to ensure that it was being attributed to Cuomo. If this is the case, his failure to acknowledge an answer to his plea is that much more condemning.

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