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Hello, fellow wayfarers … Why the extreme Left and the extreme Right seem to hate America … What we should do with the “manifestoes” of murderers … How I am surprised by gratitude (and by my lack of it) … A Thanksgiving week combination Desert Island Bookshelf and Desert Island Playlist … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

American Christians and the Anti-American Temptation

If any political idea in American life has proven itself over the past several years, I can’t think of a better candidate than the “horseshoe theory”—the notion that, at their extremes, Left and Right bend toward each other, sometimes as to be almost indistinguishable.

One of the ways we can see this is in a bleak and darkening view of the United States of America. The question is not so much whether extremists of the Right or Left seem to hate America these days as much as it is the question of why.

Over 15 years ago, then-candidate for president Barack Obama’s campaign was rocked by a videotape of sermons from Obama’s pastor, Chicago preacher Jeremiah Wright, in which Wright spoke of the September 11 attacks in language reminiscent of that of Malcolm X after the John F. Kennedy assassination, as “chickens coming home to roost.”

Wright denounced the idea of “God bless America,” replacing it with instead a call of “God damn America.” The controversy proved to have no staying power—not because most Americans would agree with Wright but because almost no one really believed that Obama himself held to such views. In fact, Obama repudiated his pastor and left the church.

Wright’s bleak view of America was not unusual for a specific strand of the further reaches of the American Left, at least since the Vietnam era. Counter-culture protesters, after all, once burned American flags and referred to the country as “Amerika,” equating the United States with an imperialist dictatorship.

In more recent years, some initiatives such as the 1619 Project have gone beyond the well-established truth that slavery and systemic racial injustice were the original sin and ongoing struggle of the United States. They argue that slavery is, in fact, what the founding was actually about in the first place—therefore making American racism unaccountable to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and rendering it irredeemable.

If this is a “culture war,” then one would expect the Right to defend such traditional values as patriotism of the “America: Love It or Leave It” variety. And yet, we see, if anything, an even bleaker view of America from the more radicalized sectors of the populist Right.

Damon Linker detailed the dark worldview articulated by the “illiberal” intellectuals of the Right, prompting New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to ask, “Why Does the Right Hate America?” The concept of a “Flight 93” view of an American project that should have its cockpit charged and plummeted to the earth is indeed quite a bit of a change from “It’s Morning Again in America.”

Indeed, the sort of Christian language of the United States as slouching toward Gomorrah or as a new Babylon sounds more fitting for a leftist critique of American “imperialism” than for those who once heralded a kind of civil religion that seemed to confuse, if not merge, piety with Americanism.

I found myself asking not long ago, “How did the ‘God and country’ Christians become so unpatriotic? Why do so many self-proclaimed ‘Christian nationalists’ seem to hate their own nation? Why do many progressives seem dismissive of any progress?”

This actually should not perplex us. Psychologists have a category for disordered personalities that idealize and then discard. The person whose spouse is expected to meet all spiritual, emotional, and physical needs—to be the perfect “soulmate”—is usually headed for divorce. The parents who build their entire lives around their children’s accomplishments usually end up estranged from them, or even hating them. We cannot love that which is important but not ultimate if we expect it to be ultimate.

That’s what idolatry always does. We expect our idols to fulfill meanings and purposes they never can. When they disappoint us, we tend to reject and rage against them before seeking some other idol where we repeat the process.

A progressive with a view of an upwardly moving and utopian future will ultimately resent anything short of utopia—even if it is an engine so uniquely conducive to justice and human flourishing as liberal democracy. And a conservative with an idealized view of a golden age of the past will soon come to resent an era that doesn’t live up to the illusion.

The Messiahs who don’t live up to our expectations of them are quickly tossed aside for the Barabbases who we believe will.

The American founders were not the Christian models that some forms of Christian propaganda (otherwise known as “lies”) have told us. These same founders were not the cartoon supervillains that other forms of propaganda would characterize them to be either. They were sinners who aspired to something they never lived up to—and that we don’t live up to either. The genius was that they didn’t seek to wipe away those tensions.

E. B. White—author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little—taught an entire generation of Americans grammar and the craft of writing. Many of us had our high-school term papers marked up for deviating from the Strunk and White Elements of Style.

In 1936 White argued that not only was the United States Constitution not a sacred document but that it isn’t even a grammatical one. White noted that “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union” is language meant to turn “many a grammarian’s stomach, perfection being a state which does not admit of degree.” Something is either perfect or imperfect. It can’t be “more perfect” or “less perfect.”

In this one case, though, White was willing to sacrifice the rules. “A meticulous draughtsman would have written simply ‘in order to form a perfect union’—a thing our forefathers didn’t dare predict, even for the sake of grammar.”

A Christian view of humanity should free us to differentiate between a claim to perfection and an aspiration to that which is “more perfect.”

Every era is shot through with grace, and every era since Eden falls short of the glory of God. We can love our parents or our children or our spouses not in spite of the fact that they are flawed but precisely because they are not intended to be our gods.

We can, those of us who are Americans, love America—with all of its flaws and failures—precisely because we don’t expect it to be the kingdom of God.

Christian nationalism can never end in patriotism because it confuses the ultimate and the proximate. Progressive utopianism can never result in patriotism because it does the same.

Genuinely kingdom-first Christianity, though, can and should free us from nationalism, nativism, and perfectionism to truly love God and country, because we know the difference between the two.

Don’t Publish Murderers’ Manifestoes

Years ago, I asked a friend, a former member of Congress, how it felt to be out of office and in a new life. “I don’t mind not being a congressman,” he said. “I do mind being replaced by an idiot.”

I can only imagine what that feeling is like since, as former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, I was succeeded by someone far smarter and more effective than I ever was, am, or could be.

I hesitate to say what I think of Brent Leatherwood publicly the way I do privately, for fear that someone will use it against him, but my endorsement of him in no way implies his endorsement of me. He’s an exemplary Christian man and leader, and I always have admired him greatly, never more so than now.

In the past year, Brent’s family lived through an unimaginable horror, as his children survived the mass shooting at their elementary school, Covenant Academy, here in Nashville. I can hardly contemplate how it would be to guide my children through seeing and hearing their classmates, and even their principal, murdered around them. The Leatherwood family withstood all of that.

In recent days, a right-wing shock-jock—with a sad and sadly public history of what one would hardly call a Christian demonstration of marriage and family—released leaked copies of the “manifesto” of the murderer of those children and teachers at Covenant.

This person—with the hearty approval of an army of trolls online—argued against law enforcement and against the families of the survivors, saying instead that the so-called “manifesto” should be released. At first, this was because the “manifesto” was thought to have revealed a radical transgender agenda against Christians. Later, this morphed into an “anti-white” agenda, since the crazed ramblings—which one could hardly call a “manifesto”—called the children “privileged” and “crackers.” It also used a slur for gay people, so I wonder if it could be called “homophobic,” too, and what that would prove.

Weirdly, the same people who are willing to re-traumatize innocent children to make a culture-war point are almost always the same people who will wave away all of the shootings in which the killer claims to be motivated by, for instance, the “great replacement theory.”

There’s a reason, though, why law-enforcement best practices are not to release the writings of these killers. For one thing, we have seen over and over again the way that other murderers link back to references to these previous “manifestos” to justify their own killing sprees. Moreover, in most of these cases, these murderers are motivated by a desire for a kind of “glory,” a twisted form of “fame” in which their words are remembered.

Every time we treat the writings of these crazed murderers—whether the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, or this killer—as though their writings were declarations of legitimate grievances, we grant them exactly what they want. And we empower the next murderer to do the same—knowing that his or her “manifesto” will likewise be published and read.

Law enforcement needs to know, in detail, the first-person accounts of motivation where they exist. We do not owe these murderers, though, an audience for their sick self-justifications. Those who deserve to be remembered with shame get exactly what they want—a kind of remembrance, a kind of “glory.”

We can expect little more from deranged killers. We ought, however, to expect more from people who claim the name of Christ. We should hope that they would not use the terror of murdered children, and their surviving classmates and parents and teachers, to make their twisted points about, for example, the alleged sins of “empathy.” As the prophet Isaiah told us, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20).

If your points of attack are on school shooting survivors, it’s time to do a conscience-check, before you lose yourself completely.

Surprised by Gratitude

You won’t hear from me next Thursday because of Thanksgiving. I hope to be in Biloxi with my family enjoying my mother’s cooking and my brother’s jokes and stories. I realize that it seems like a kind of cliché to list the “things I’m grateful for” at Thanksgiving. We’ve all been doing that since we were tracing turkeys with our hands in kindergarten.

And yet, I find that the older I get, the more I realize just how little I ever really recognized gratitude before. As I’ve mentioned here before, I think at least once a week about what Frederick Buechner wrote about tears.

“Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention,” he wrote. “They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.”

If that’s true—and I believe it is—I realize that tears come to my eyes most often not when I think of pain or of loss but when I realize how much there is for which I am, or should be, grateful. Sometimes that happens when I look around at one of my sons, now young men, and wonder, Where did you come from? How did you become so grown up and responsible and mature? I realize in those moments how little I had to do with the mystery of who they are, and how undeserving I am of it all.

I think of a song, “We Thought You’d Be Here,” that I used to listen to—now over 20 years ago—walking around the campus of Southern Seminary after the doctors told us we couldn’t have children. “I never knew the silence could make me so deaf / I never knew that I could miss someone I’ve never met.”

Now, five prayers answered later, I look at them and realize, These are the people I was missing—the sons I loved before I could see their faces, before I could know why. And I realize my prayers were answered—as they always are, ultimately—beyond what I could ask or even think (Eph. 3:20).

Sometimes in my ingratitude I don’t even know how little thanks I’ve given. I start to just expect things to be the way they are. Every once in a while, though, something will cut through and I will look around and say, “Where did all this come from? When did all this happen?”

And that’s grace that, like all grace, I don’t deserve. That’s a little voice from a Far Country, a voice I keep forgetting but that keeps calling anyway.

Desert Island Bookshelf and Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. That alternates with my asking you for a Desert Island Bookshelf. This week we have both, with a submission that comes from reader William Robert Sharman III, a Presbyterian pastor in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Dr. Sharman writes:

Thanks for your column/newsletter—inspiring for me and my congregation. Amazed every day at the joy and satisfaction I feel here. Your column keeps me grounded. CT as a whole keeps me and my church abreast of world church news. I am grateful for both.

Here are his lists:

Desert Island Playlist

  • John Mellencamp’s version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”—straighter rock form of the great song but with a nice soul feel to the lyrics. Thanks, JCM.

  • Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man”—a reminder that many folks are lonely and hurting.

  • The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”—an island song for an island playlist; and possibly the best of The Beach Boys’ harmonies.

  • Maynard Ferguson’s “MacArthur Park—instrumental jazz that practically sings.

  • Mozart’s Mass in C minor—with strings, choir, and boy choir, this music will lift you toward heaven.

  • Any of Chopin’s etudes and nocturnesa reminder that great beauty is sometimes rested on mortals.

Desert Island Bookshelf

  • Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit—one fine horse story where the little guy prevails.

    • The Red Horse—an epic World War II novel set in northern Italy where my aunt grew up—a soaring story of love and war. Eugenio Corti’s novel was written in Italian but has been translated into many languages, since the story is a heroic everyman’s tale.

      • John Barry’s Rising Tide—an account of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Centered on Greenville, Mississippi, the book reads like a novel, recounting protagonists and antagonists and engineers from New Orleans to St. Louis to Washington, DC, with Mississippi Delta tales woven throughout.

        • A History of Christianity, Vol. 1, by Kenneth Scott Latourette is fine writing, engaging, story-like in feel, detailing the history of Christian mission. Vol. 2 would be smuggled in my backpack.

        • Frederick Dale Bruner’s The Gospel of John: A Commentary is comprehensive yet companionable as any who have used it can attest. Bruner tells the story straight, utilizing every language and interpretation tool available, then adds his own view at every turn. Compelling, winsome, precise, yet often engagingly funny (Bruner tickles me, describing the Pharisees and Sadducees as the Serious and the Sophisticated) this book would inspire the island stay and keep me close to the Lord of heaven and earth.

            • Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter for the same reason.

            • C. S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy still reaches into our future. How could Lewis have more clearly spoken to the evil possibilities of artificial intelligence than he did with the third of these great stories?

              • Of Mutts and Men or any of Spencer Quinn’s mystery novels set through the eyes, ears, and mind of a German Shepherd named Chet. Stephen King says Quinn writes in two languages: English and Dog.

              • A couple of the great Chronicles of Narnia books by C. S. Lewis: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader because it reminds us that noble thoughts, deeds, and lives are still possible to have with the help of Aslan; and The Horse and His Boy because it reminds us that our creator is always with us and always active in our lives.

              Thank you, Dr. Sharman, both for your encouragement and for your fascinating lists.

              Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

              • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

              • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

              Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

              Quote of the Moment

              “And when the world is new again
              And the children of the King
              Are ancient in their youth again
              Maybe it’s a better thing
              A better thing

              “To be more than merely innocent
              But to be broken then redeemed by love
              Maybe this old world is bent
              But it’s waking up
              And I’m waking up

              “’Cause I can hear the voice of one
              He’s crying in the wilderness
              ‘Make ready for the kingdom come’
              Don’t you want to thank someone for this?”

              —Andrew Peterson, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone”

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