Theology and Politics

Theology and Politics

Marion D. Aldridge

We are living in a time when politicians are trying to be theologians, and theologians are attempting to be politicians. It’s not working out very well.

Over the years, I’ve resisted the temptation to post my political inclinations on Facebook or my blogs. I’ve been a happy American, blessed beyond reason under both Democratic and Republican Presidents.

My specific concern this week is when people speak, as if they knew what they are talking about, in areas where they don’t know what they are talking about. For instance, the Bible.

I know little to nothing about economic theory or geological formations. Neither is a field in which I have expertise. So, I offer no opinions.

The Bible is a Big Book. It says a lot of things. If you study the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and take a course in systematic theology, and another in ethics, you will discover quite a long and complicated history about how people of faith should live in the secular world. Here are a few of my summary thoughts about matters of faith, as they relate to the law:

1) Jesus was clear when he said to let Caesar have what belongs to Caesar, and let God be in charge of the God-stuff.

2) Paul was a follower of Jesus, willing to go to jail for disobeying laws. In fact, when he named his top three motivators, the law did not make the list. He said the Big Three are Faith, Hope, and Love, and the greatest of those is love.

3) The Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and Paul all point us to higher ground: “What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

The law is not to be our moral compass. Legalism is a methodology for defending, instead of fixing, a broken compass.

These are principles even a politician can use as an ethical guide.

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Quotations, South Carolina | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr is the best book I have read in a decade, and I read a lot of books!   Richard Rohr spoke to me on every page of this short volume. I had to read it slowly, only four or five pages a day. Any more would have been too much to digest. I write in my books. I underline what I like. I place a star beside what I really like. I talk back in the margins when I disagree. I am glad to get two or three outstanding insights out of any book I read. In Falling Upward, I suppose I have 50 or more stars, which mean “Yes!” and “Amen!” Examples:

“No Pope, Bible quote, psychological technique, religious formula, book or guru can do your journey for you.”

“Resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious people, who tend to love the past more than the future or the present.”

“When you are in the first half of life, you cannot see any kind of failing or dying as even possible, much less as necessary or good.”

Rohr, who is a Franciscan priest, has had a similar pilgrimage, it seems to me, within Roman Catholic circles, as I’ve had within Baptist circles. As a youngster, he bought the whole package, believing every word his religion taught him, as I did. But adult realities and the shibboleths of childhood did not always fit together easily. He introduced me to the image of the “loyal soldier.” According to Rohr, when the Japanese military returned home after World War II, they were given permission, in a ceremony, to leave their soldiering behind. They had been loyal soldiers, and that had been good for their country during that period in their lives. Now their country needed them to move forward to the next step, to be farmers and merchants and craftsmen. Rohr contends that adult Christians need to be given permission to move toward mature faith, to fall upward, to be able to think for themselves and not merely to follow someone else’s orders as if they were still teenagers.

Another phrase of Rohr’s which I found helpful is “double belonger.” As teens and young adults, we work out our identities, so we claim certain tribes (I am a white, heterosexual, male evangelical Baptist Christian from South Carolina who is a Clemson graduate and who was a Young Republican in college. Other people are in different tribes. They are Hispanic or Catholic or pull for Georgia Tech or whatever…) As young adults, those categories are very important. As mature Christians, Rohr and I find them less and less valuable. We can be double-belongers! I am not required to choose sides. I can value insights from Republicans and Democrats. I would like for some of our politicians to read Rohr’s book. Being stuck in the world of either/or is not the role of a Christian. Do you really think God is either/or? Do you think God is limited to loving Baptists or Catholics, Christians or Jews or Muslims, conservatives or liberals? Teens can be forgiven such foolishness. Such bad theology from sixty-something’s is less understandable.

More quotations:

“You learn how to recover from falling by falling!”

“The only real biblical promise is that unconditional love will have the last word!”

“Every time God forgives us, God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us.”

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Prayers

God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

Where the Pavement Ends

Never having been a particularly good pray-er, I am grateful for any assistance to help my prayer life.

When my grandson prayed before a meal (as we all did at one time) one of those blessings children learn when parents aren’t in the room (Good food, Good meat, Good Lord, Let’s eat), my son-in-law, Thorne Barrett, a wise man, suggested maybe we could raise the bar a bit higher than that.

Here are some of my favorite prayers that raise the bar and say some of what I think needs to be said.

Marion Aldridge


The Serenity Prayer

  • God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
  • the courage to change the things I can, and
  • the wisdom to know the difference. (Composed by Reinhold Niebuhr, adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Steps Groups)

The Lord’s Model Prayer

 Our Father, who…

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A Jimmy Carter Kind of Baptist

After the positive Facebook and Blog responses to my experiences this past week in Plains, Georgia, with President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter, I’d like to say something about their Baptist-ness!

When Southern Baptists decided to alter their theology from conservative-moderate to conservative-fundamentalist about three decades ago, the Carters and I were among hundreds of thousands who decided to reclaim our Baptist heritage of freedom. We formed a new organization called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The “elevator speech” is that while the Southern Baptist denomination had previously allowed theological and ethical flexibility to individuals, churches, and seminaries in interpreting the Bible, the convention slammed that door shut and demanded a stricter adherence to a new party line. The new reality was a Bob Jones and Jerry Falwell fundamentalism: “This is the Truth and all other beliefs are False Doctrine.”

For example, seminary and theology professors were required to agree to the submissive role of females in families and society.

For example, science teachers at Baptist universities (Furman, Mercer, Baylor, etc.) were going to be required to teach graduate courses in geology and biology according to a seven-day creationist, anti-evolution, theory. The Grand Canyon was not formed over millions of years but as the result of a single giant flood. Dinosaurs and humans lived on the earth at the same time, regardless of the evidence of fossils. Don’t argue about this. The Authorities have spoken. The Authorities began to confuse themselves with God.

New documents were drawn up. Missionaries, professors, and denominational employees had to agree that they would adhere to these new mandates, no matter what either science or their consciences said. Men and women of integrity refused to sign on the dotted line. Some female professors were fired just because they were female. According to the new rules, women should never be in a position of authority over a man, and seminaries were full of male students.

It was a surreal few decades and the implosion of Southern Baptists is well documented.

The good news was the emergence of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. CBF became a home to many of us who had been disenfranchised. New seminaries and schools of divinity sprang up which retained the traditional freedoms that had been claimed by Baptists since their earliest days:

  • “Priesthood of the believer” is a biblical phrase Baptists use to declare that no one stands between an individual and God—no priest, no pope, no pastor, no denominational executive.
  • Autonomy of the local church. The term “Independent Baptist” church is redundant. No denomination can tell a Baptist congregation what to believe and enforce it. A Baptist congregation can call a woman pastor or sell its building. The permission of no denominational authority is needed.
  • Separation of church and state. The state cannot tell the church what to believe and the church cannot tell the state how to behave.

That’s it. My church or my denomination certainly has the right to fire me or kick me out, or create a witch-hunting climate that encourages good people to leave. That’s their freedom.

So, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, as well as a lot of friends I dearly love, and I stepped out in faith and began a new thing—the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. That was twenty-five years ago. We don’t always agree on doctrine or a particular interpretation of the Bible, or a favorite political candidate, but we rally around Jesus, as revealed in scripture, as best we understand him.

A different “elevator speech” many people understand is, “I’m a Jimmy Carter kind of Baptist.” People know and appreciate the kindhearted, caring, intelligent, honest, peacemaking, hardworking, idealistic, and humanitarian nature of our former President.

When people ask, I’m pleased to say, “I’m a Jimmy Carter kind of Baptist.”

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“Lukewarm” must mean predictable.

The Road to Character by David Brooks

A Book Review by Marion D. Aldridge

This was a good book for me to read, though I alternated between being energized by it and frustrated.

Brooks is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. Yet, a liberal friend recommended this volume to me. I liked the possibilities of that combination. As a reader, a writer, a political observer, and a theologian/ethicist, I tire of the predictable. Tire. Tire. Tire. I think “lukewarm” must mean predictable. There’s nothing there. Some emperors have no clothes. Blah blah blah…

Brooks is better than that. But “The Road to Character” is uneven. I accept some of what he writes, but it’s pretty random.

I like his premise in the first sentence, that, as we age, we ought to pay more attention to our “eulogy virtues” than to our “resume virtues.” His method, for a few chapters, is to tell the stories of men and women who are successful, who he believes demonstrate character—Dwight Eisenhower, Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day and others. Brooks lifts up certain words as important: perseverance, humility, dignity, and moderation. There also seems to be a lot of dumb luck involved in the attainments of his examples, not to mention some extraordinary intelligence.

Brooks attempts to make a case for character and morality. But it was impossible to figure out which traits I should be emulating. His examples are often people with giant character flaws. I understand that even the best of us have deficiencies, but Brooks’ analysis seems scattershot. What is the takeaway?

Brooks is of the “Life is complicated” school, as am I. Life is full of paradox. But it is the task of a non-fiction author to help the reader work through the contradictions. On one page, he writes, “The more you love, the more you can love.” Okay. Two pages later, he writes, “All love is narrowing. It is the renunciation of other possibilities for the sake of one choice.” How are both true? I have my own opinions, but I’d like for Brooks to help me understand how his ethical framework includes both concepts simultaneously.

Finally, in the last chapter, Brooks produces a “Humility Code” which, like the rest of the book, was fairly ambiguous—seven pages of a bit of this and a little bit of that.

Lots of epigrammatic hints from David on how to live a life of character, but if this was a road, I got lost somewhere along the way.

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Favorite Phrases from Hymn Lyrics

Favorite Phrases from Hymn Lyrics

Years ago, I heard someone say more Christians get their theology from hymns than from the Bible. That may be true. Surprisingly, Google searches did not provide lists of favorite hymn phrases. Beloved hymns, yes. But I was looking for those nuggets that become the refrains we recall spontaneously throughout our lives exactly when needed.

I love short, memorable mantras whether from the Bible (Honor your father and mother; Love one another; Blessed are the peacemakers.) or from secular culture (If you’re in a hole, quit digging; Mind your own business.) Such fragments of language can trivialize important decisions, but they can also provide intuitive guidance during difficult times:

  • The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
  • Shut up and listen.

On Facebook, I asked friends for suggestions about lessons learned from hymns. I was overwhelmed by the response—hundreds! If I printed them all, you’d quit reading, so here are a few…

  • All I needed thy hand hath provided…
  • Amazing grace…
  • Because he lives, I can face tomorrow…
  • Christ, the Lord, is risen today…
  • For the Lord God reigneth, forever and ever, Hallelujah!
  • God of grace and God of glory… Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days.
  • Great is thy faithfulness!
  • Thou art the potter, I am the clay.
  • He lives! … He walks with me; He talks with me.
  • Help of the helpless, abide with me…
  • I love to tell the story, for those who know it best, seem hungering and thirsting, to hear it like the rest….
  • I once was lost, but now am found…
  • I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free… His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
  • It is well with my soul…
  • Jesus loves me, this I know…
  • Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God…
  • Jesus, thou art pure compassion, pure unbounded Love thou art.
  • Joy to the world, the Lord is come…
  • Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love.
  • Just a closer walk with thee, Grant it, Jesus, is my plea…
  • Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
  • Morning by morning, new mercies I see…
  • O Love, that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee…
  • Praise God from whom all blessings flow…
  • Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.
  • Strength for today, hope for tomorrow…
  • The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
  • The Light of the world is Jesus.
  • There’s wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea…
  • Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis Grace has brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.
  • To God be the Glory, great things He hath done…
  • Was blind, but now I see…
  • What a Friend we have in Jesus…
  • When we’ve been there 10,000 years… We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.
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A Blog from the First Century


If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

St. Paul: I Corinthians 13

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Alexander Hamilton

“Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.” Ron Chernow

Honesty compels me to confess that Broadway piqued my interest in Alexander Hamilton. Family and friends who were fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Hamilton raved.

My formal education in American history was deplorable. I took the required course in the eleventh grade. Probably made a “C” and probably didn’t deserve that. But I spent most of July 2016 overcoming that deficiency. I read all 738 pages of Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. I loved it.

Somewhere in my under-utilized cranium was awareness of Hamilton versus Jefferson. I knew the name Aaron Burr. This volume remedied my early American history deficit.

Chernow covers Hamilton’s view of church and state: “The best government posture toward religion was one of passive tolerance, not active promotion of an established church.”

About mud slinging, Hamilton lamented that, “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” I’ve observed that in politics, religion, business and education.

Hamilton and George Washington often sided with one another against Thomas Jefferson and other “state’s rights” advocates. Hamilton and Washington “had drawn the same conclusions: the need for a national army, for centralized power over the states, for a strong executive, and for national unity.” When twenty-first century Americans want to interpret the Constitution according to the desires of our Founding Fathers, we would need to ask, “Which Founding Fathers?” They were no more homogeneous in thought than we are today.

Some of the issues our forebears wrestled with sound modern: “Hamilton had to combat the utopian notion that America could dispense with taxes altogether.

Another twenty-first century conundrum: “For Hamilton, the federal government had a right to stimulate business and also when necessary to restrain it.”

Another current dilemma is mirrored from early years of our history: “It irked Hamilton that Jefferson claimed a monopoly on morality, and he made the following retort to his adversary: ‘As to the love of liberty and country, you have given no stronger proofs of being actuated by it than I have done. Cease then to arrogate to yourself and to your party all the patriotism and virtue of the country.’”

I love it!



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Limiting God

“I remember reading about an Irish missionary’s attempt to teach the Masai people about the Catholic Sacraments. The missionary said that a sacrament is a physical encounter or event in which you experience Grace or the Holy. The people were then confused and disappointed when they were told there were only seven such moments (and all of these just happened to revolve around a priest). One Masai elder raised his hand and said, “’We would have thought, Father, there would be at least seven thousand such moments, not just seven.’” Richard Rohr

I share that story because it’s such a perfect illustration of a huge problem Baptists have, as well as Muslims, Mormons, and Presbyterians. We all have a tendency to limit God to our experiences and our understanding.

Bad idea.

Christians claim to like Jesus (many of them, anyway), so we read the sacred texts that actually tell about him—his miracles, his parables, his teachings. To be exposed to Jesus is to discover what appear to be holy actions and holy words. We also read texts written by other people trying to explain Jesus. They wrote fifty or a hundred or a thousand or two thousand years later. Some of these writers are better than others. Some are actually un-holy. Jesus had warned about that. But persuasive people persuade and new groups get formed, believing that the Fourth Verse is more important than the tenth verse, or whatever. They become the Fourth Versers. They come to believe there is no way to follow God other than through the Fourth Verse.

The Masai elder is right. There are seven thousand moments, not just seven. A sunrise is a sacrament. A baby’s smile is a sacrament. There are tens of thousands of holy words, not just a few. God is not limited to the Fourth Verse. God told Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” In recent years, that’s become the theme of my spiritual life. Those pivotal words include a lot of verses in a lot of books and a host of experiences. No one has the right to insist that his or her narrow understanding of God is more spot on than mine.

I self-identify as a Christian, but I suspect there are Buddhists that are more Christian than I am. I think I’ll let God work all that out.



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Aging in New Hampshire

“My name’s Alexander Hamilton and there’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait…” lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Friends and strangers are mystified by why I would abandon semi-tropical South Carolina in the dead of winter to freeze for six months in frigid New Hampshire. Minus seventeen degrees this morning! The lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (above) are a clue. I have a lot of life yet to live. I’m still curious about a million things.

I don’t want to offend anyone who has chosen a different path, because there are a lot of fine ways to live a life, but I don’t intend to sit in my home slowly fading into death for the next twenty years.

Of course, I have no control over random disease or tragedy. But I do have choices. I can choose not to turn on the television during the day. Instead, I choose to stir around a bit and continue to meet interesting people in interesting places.

Just think of all the books I have yet to read, of the places I can visit, of the cookies and pastries out there still to be tasted. There are national championships to be enjoyed, waterfalls to find, a grandson to mentor, churches to help, jokes to hear and retell, and thoughts to think.

My wife shares my enthusiasm for life, though her interests don’t always coincide with mine. She loves to sew and I love baseball. But our lives do intersect in a hundred other ways—adoring our daughters and sons-in-law, dinners with friends, Thanksgiving, the occasional trip, and, not least, supporting one another when one of us is ill.

Last night, in a suburb of Boston, daughter Julie and her husband Tom hosted a Murder Mystery party for my birthday weekend. Great experience. Wonderful food. In what world would I rather vegetate in front of a computer than be surrounded by a host of young, new friends?

What’s next? Who knows? I would not have predicted Murder Mysteries for parties, or the Internet, or blogs, or Facebook, or Harry Potter, or Downton Abbey, or being a campus minister at Dartmouth.

Next thing you know, I’ll have a grandson driving… Oh, that’s next month.

Life keeps happening, and I love it.

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Family, Health, Holiday, Quotations, South Carolina, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

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