Sunday, October 19, 2014

Setting the Record Straight

How are Christians to respond to homosexuals? New legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is having an impact on many businesses run by Christians. Christians have been forced to think through that question to an answer that is both biblical and kind.

It is clear that God loves all regardless of who we are. He loves all regardless of our sin, and we all are sinners. If God loves all, then it is incumbent upon us to love all.  That includes heterosexuals, homosexuals, and those confused about their sexual identity. It includes murderers, child abusers, liars, the greedy, the sexually promiscuous, and, yes, sexually active homosexuals. We naturally discriminate between sins, making some more serious - and unforgivable - than  others. God does not. Paul writes,
"everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence. But by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free." (GNT)
So the first rule we must follow is to love. But that still leaves us with the problem of how to deal with the sin.

If we have a neighbor who is a serial killer, love would lead us to call the police. It would be the loving thing to do both for our neighbor and everyone who might be in danger. If we have a neighbor who is a thief, we would do the same - out of love. But those are both recognized as crimes in our society. What about "sins" that are not crimes?

The truth is that Christians have a poor track record here. We overlook some sins and focus on others. We in America are inclined to consider divorce, for example, as regrettable, but not a sin. The Bible would say otherwise. We think of gossip and gluttony undesirable, but not sin. Yet they too are regarded as sin in the Bible. We overlook most lies, even excusing them in ourselves, yet lying is clearly a sin. Yet when it comes to homosexuals, we instantly call out their sin. If we overlook some sins in ourselves and call out sins in others, that is hypocritical.

We need our thinking corrected. But the solution is not to overlook sin, either in ourselves or others. It is to confront lovingly. But when and how?

My wife and I have both had friends and co-workers who were sexually active homosexuals. Neither of us felt it appropriate to confront them with that sin. There might be a time to do that, a time when we could lovingly do that, but we never felt it was the right time. There were bigger issues. None of these people were Christians. Their bigger need was to know that God loves them, and we decided that loving them was our role.

Of course, if they were to respond to God's love, the sin would need to be dealt with. It would stand in the way as every sin does of any relationship with God. That would be the time to speak. Sin needs to be repented of and forsaken if anyone is to walk with God, be that sin pornography, hate, stealing, lying, or homosexual relations.

Those are simple biblical principles: love and lead that person to the Savior and when it is time urge them to repent of their sin. The pressing issue because of the recent legislation requiring no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is HOW to love the sinner without approving of the sin.

Specifically, can I as a Christian photographer participate in a same-sex wedding? Would that be participating in what is a sin? Can I as a baker participate by providing the wedding cake? Can I as a pastor participate by performing the ceremony? Those all have been real issues for real people in the last few years.

The law says if you are providing a service to the public as a businessman, you cannot refuse to do so on the basis of sexual orientation. But what of our conscience?

Each Christian in those situations must decide. Many Christians have chosen to kindly and without intending any offense decline to participate in those ways. It has cost some of them long drawn-out lawsuits, fines, and the loss of their businesses. So be it. Jesus said that we would suffer persecution if we walk his path. He did. Why should we expect otherwise.  

The one thing that we should not do is retaliate in hate or seek to hurt. Jesus did not. We should not. He continued to love those who murdered him. We can do the same in our much less serious trials.

We do live in America, however. And like Paul who at times called upon his rights as a Roman citizen when he was mistreated or falsely accused of a crime we have rights. We can call upon our rights. We have the right to speak in opposition to the direction our society is taking. We have the right to exercise our faith as we see fit. We have the right to challenge the legality of legislation that forces us to violate our conscience and biblical principles.

If we do, however, we must do so without vitriol or violence.  Martin Luther King Jr. provided a model for us of non-violent protest. He was willing to take the abuse and go to jail for the principle of freedom. And it is our privilege to do the same. And it may come to that. Being careful to let love be always at the forefront of every response.








Friday, October 17, 2014

No Way

Would Jesus Ok Same-sex Marriage? That was the question posed in the title of an article on CNN.com recently. CNN.com You can probably guess the answer: Yes, of course. However, you will never believe how the author Jay Parini arrived at that conclusion.

Parini, whose credentials include a book about about Jesus but no apparent training in biblical exegesis, bases his argument in part on a passage in Matthew 19. I would use the same passage to argue the opposite. Let's compare Parini's analysis of the passage with mine. He begins with Jesus' teaching about divorce.

"Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

"And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The only comment Parini makes is that this was the basis for "Christian bias against divorce - a bias that has, necessarily, eased in the past century..." He skates over the truth that was the foundation of Jesus' argument: "God made them male and female and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife...'" That was God's purpose for men and women from creation, Jesus declares, and he argues that this purpose should not be destroyed by divorce.

There can be no basis for homosexual marriages here. Quite the opposite. Though Jesus did not address the issue directly, the logical conclusion would be that homosexual marriage is a perversion of God's original pattern because it is not a union of a man and a woman.

Parini then goes on to quote Matthew 19:10-12. It is his only attempt at a biblical argument.

"The disciples said to him, 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' But he said to them, 'Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.'”

The argument goes this way: This is a difficult passage, he agrees, but it allows, because of the way the word  eunuch is used in other non-biblical Greek texts, for understanding the "eunuch who has been so from birth" as a gay man. This is, he claims the context of the passage and determines the meaning.

He goes no further. He doesn't attempt to argue that being born gay exempts that person from the pattern of marriage being one man and one woman God gave in creation. He simply makes the statement that the passage may refer to gay men. And it may, but that does not support Parini's thesis that Jesus accepts homosexual marriage.

Need it be said that this is terrible exegesis. Context is, of course, important. But the most important context is the passage itself then the whole of the Bible's discussion of the topic then the meaning of the word used outside the Bible. Parini reverses the order and ignores the immediate context and the larger biblical context altogether.

The immediate context is the question the disciples had about how sacred  God holds marriage. (Remember in the passage Jesus quotes from Genesis God's purpose is that men and women will marry and will marry someone from the opposite sex and that their marriage is to be regarded as sacred.)  Jesus answer is that, yes, marriage is sacred. But sometimes not marrying is the necessary choice. Then he gives three groups who may properly choose not to marry or who may not be fit for marriage: first, people who are incapable of sexual union between a man and a woman, next people who have been made incapable by castration, and finally those who choose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The point here is there are some who are not included in the expectation that all will marry.

Apparently Parini expects the reader to draw the conclusion from the fact that some are eunuchs from birth that homosexual unions are acceptable. But there is nothing in the passage implying that there is a third alternative, such as marrying someone of the same sex. The simple conclusion is that eunuchs are the exception to the general rule that marriage is for everyone.

But let's broaden the context. Let's consider Paul's teaching on the topic. In Romans 1 Paul writes of those who turned away from God and whose hearts were darkened. Among the consequences of that darkening was this:

"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error."

This should be enough to establish that homosexual unions are perversions. They are contrary to nature as God created it. They are dishonorable. And they are sinful.

There are other passages equally clear, but this will do.

The answer to the question would Jesus approve of homosexual marriage is no.

This is not a condemnation of homosexuals. Perhaps they are born that way; perhaps they are made that way by men. There is no condemnation for being who you are. But it is a condemnation of homosexual unions. If homosexuals wish to live in accordance with God's purpose, they must choose not to marry, just as those do who sacrifice marriage for the kingdom of God.

Parini, though he makes this brief and rather offhand reference to Jesus and the Bible for support, does not really base his argument on the Bible. Rather he bases it on the changing opinions of men, quoting and misquoting among others Jimmy Carter and the leaders of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches who have endorsed homosexual marriage. Maybe the title of the piece should have been "Does the Modern Religious Establishment OK Same-sex Marriage?" Had that been his thesis, his answer, sadly, would have been accurate; they do. But Jesus? No way. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

ObamaCare and Common Core

For our own good and for the good of those who are unable to improve their own lives the government has taken on that role. The government, for example, is making sure that everyone has health insurance. That is good news for those truly can't afford health insurance and for those who can't find an insurance company that will insure them. It is bad news for those who for reasons of their own or because they can afford to pay for their health care would not choose to buy health insurance. But the problems do not end there. The Affordable Care Act will ultimately limit the health care available to many who now have excellent insurance and care.

It has already limited my options. I am on Medicare. Medicare sets limits on the amount it will pay health care providers. The result has been to reduce the number of doctors who will accept me as a patient. I am relatively healthy at the moment. So I don't need much in the way of health care. But the chances are that one day I will. The big question is whether I will be able to get the healthcare I will need. Right now getting through the system of primary providers to be able to see a specialist is so time consuming that any critical problem will likely not receive attention before it becomes too big to adequately treat.

The same is true of the Common Core State Standards for education. The CCSS as it is known attempts to establish standards for the English (ELA) and math curriculum and to make those standards the same across the United States. As with the Affordable Care Act, there is good news for some. In many schools the standards for English and math are low. Students are graduating from high school without the skills or knowledge base to succeed in college. And across the country standards vary so much that a student transferring from a school in New York probably will not be on the same page as the new school in Nebraska. The CCSS bring those schools into sync with one another.

The other benefit is there is a new emphasis on preparing teachers for the more rigorous environment of the CCSS classroom. Teacher training is light years ahead of where it was when I graduated from college. But there is bad news as well.

The bad news is that many excellent schools with creative curricula and high standards are being forced into a one-size-fits-all curriculum that is crippling the creativity of the teachers. But that is not the worst of the CCSS. Performance on the national standards are tied to federal funding for schools. That pressures schools to teach to the tests that are given to access performance. Since those tests are given in every grade and repeatedly throughout the year, almost all the instruction will be teaching to the tests. The cascading consequences are that school administrations, teachers, and students are living with continual stress, something that is similar to test anxiety. And after all that, fewer students are succeeding. The standards have been raised before the quality of instruction has adapted to the CCSS. That will result in fewer students succeeding rather than more.

So what has this to do with Christian worldview? Our worldview includes the conviction that every person is an individual and that every individual has personal responsibility for his or her life. ObamaCare and the CCSS make the government the caretaker and forces students and all of us, in regard to health care, into a system that promises maximum benefits at the lowest cost but which, in fact, reduces the benefits to those who are most likely to find a way to succeed on their own. And reduces the incentives to do so.

ObamaCare and the CCSS are socialist answers to problems that are best addressed by individual effort and enterprise. The better solution is to allow the government to subsidize health care for those who cannot afford it - as it has been doing - while allowing the free market to provide health care insurance on every level for those who wish to buy for themselves the level of insurance they want.

In the case of the CCSS, raising the level of student success is vital for our nation. But to do that by limiting the best students is counterproductive. One answer seems to be charter schools that provide creativity and flexibility free from the burden of standardized tests and set students free to rise to their potential. There are schools like that. They are schools where teachers and administration believe in students and allow them opportunity to explore and grow rather than forcing them into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

It is amazing what a student can accomplish when she is set free. However well intentioned, CCSS will not do that. I think it is a mistake turn in American education just as I think Obamacare is a mistaken turn in healthcare.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rethinking the Church

What is the church and what should it be? There have been more than enough books in the last few years attempting to wring some sense out of those questions, and I don't pretend to be able to do better than the biblical  scholars and those who are on the fronts lines in re-imaging the church have done. But I do have a perspective that may be a little different. My thesis is that we have examined the church from the wrong end of history. And because of that we misunderstand key New Testament truths.

What I mean is that we have looked at the church through 21st century eyes rather than 1st century eyes. Yes, in many cases we've looked at the church in Acts and the epistles with the goal of discovering and  appropriating the genius of the early church, but we've failed to see the church's connection with God's plan and means in the Old Testament.

Peter didn't make that mistake. In his sermon on Pentecost he connects the coming of the Holy Spirit to the prophecy of Joel. He sees what was happening as a continuation of  what God has been doing rather than a brand new thing. So what had God been doing?

It was God's purpose that the Israelites be a witness to God in the world. Abraham and his family were to be a blessing in the world. Moses says that as the Israelites follow the laws God has given them, other nations would take note of the goodness of those laws. They would be attracted to the God who wisely gave them. And the Israelites were to welcome the stranger, and in Jonah, care about even their enemies.

But they did not. They built walls to keep the world out. They saw the world around them  as the enemy.

So God expelled them from the land. For seventy years they were captives in Babylon and were from Babylon scattered around the known world. We see a bit of that picture in the book of Esther. Still they created little Brooklyns isolating themselves from the world around them. Not realizing that the Messiah was to be a world king, not just their king.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jews saw the Messiah as a national savior who would throw off the bonds of the Romans and bring in a renewed kingdom. But that was not who Jesus was. Though his mission was first to Israel, his eyes were upon the world. He was a Messiah of peace with God and then peace among men, and for that they killed him. He was not the Messiah they wanted.

But God was not finished. His purpose to take the message of his love to all still stood. He would call others to the task - the church. And so Jesus' commission to his disciples in Matthew 28 is "make disiples of all nations."

But wait. (That is what he said, literally.) Wait in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high. He spoke, of course, of the Holy Spirit. But that's where our 21st century thinking gets a little weird. We fail to see that the coming (anointing) of the Holy Spirit is as much an Old Testament thing as the mission.

In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed, kings were anointed, priests were anointed, both by the Holy Spirit and symbolically with oil, giving them authority in the eyes of people and spiritual power to accomplish the task God had given them. This Pentecost experience was no different.

In order to accomplish the mission of taking the gospel to the world effectively, the disciples needed the anointing of the Spirit. God gave that to the disciples gathered at Pentecost and, as Peter promised, to all who repented and were baptized - and to everyone who has ever been added to the church. It is not a second blessing experience. It is THE blessing - though we may have to recover our understanding of the anointing and faith in the promise of God.



The sign of that anointing was similar to the sign of ecstatic utterance given to the prophets of old - the disciples spoke in tongues. Additionally, as a symbol of the promise made by John the Baptist, they were baptized by fire as tongues of fire appeared above their heads.This experience was not new. Many prophets experienced something miraculous as a sign of their anointing.

What was new was the fact that ALL who believed received the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The experience of tongues that accompanied this anointing was repeated several more times as new groups of people were joined to these first Jewish Christians. But speaking in tongues was not something that every new believer experienced. It was not necessary. The Holy Spirit had been given.

But as part of the anointing every believer did receive one or more of the gifts of the Spirit. These were necessary Spirit empowerments for fulfilling their mission. Yes, some like the Corinthians turned them into competitive games, but that is a misuse. It is not God's intention. This too is not unlike the experience of  men and women of the Old Testament upon whom the Spirit came giving them the ability to  accomplish their mission.

What was new was that every believer was anointed and gifted. Now the purpose of  God that all the world hear thre gospel of his  love could be accomplished.

And it was. Believers and Apostles took the message of the gospel to the far corners of the known world by the end of the first century. In succeeding centuries ordinary believers and apostle-missionaries have taken the gospel to nearly ever tongue and tribe and people and nation. The church is doing  what Israel refused to do.

What the church fails to recognized is that the gifts of the Spirit are God's enabling of that mission. The mission is prior. The gifts enable. What some have done is deny the gifts, relegating them to the past. That discourages their use in the mission. Others have elevated certain gifts and made them signs of the Holy Spirit's filling, but have left them there. Again the connection to the mission is severed.

God is patient. Our failures have not prevented him in accomplishing his ends. But how much more might we be used in his mission if we understood the point of the Spirit's anointing and gifting?

The early church understood and were used mightily. I have to think that we might be as well if we were to understand and believe.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Learn to Read

I talk with a lot of atheists online. In a recent conversation one young man brought up three troubling observations he reportedly made while reading through the Bible. Now, reading through the Bible is a major accomplishment that quite a few Christians have not done. They often get bogged down in Leviticus or 1st Chronicles and go back to familiar territory in the New Testament. So this young man's effort was laudatory. I wish, however, he and other atheists who read the Bible would bring to their reading some basic reading principles they should have learned in high school.

The first principle, one that should be a no-brainer, is to consider the context. Here's an example from my online friend. In Exodus 21 there is a passage that gives instructions regarding slavery. In verse 7 there are instructions regarding the selling of a daughter into slavery. That sounded to my friend like this God endorsed something like sex trafficking. Now, I have to admit that verse alone without the context to provide meaning sounds pretty bad to our 21st century ears. But that is a misunderstanding.

The passage on slavery begins with verse 1. In what follows God gives instructions that forbade holding a man as a slave beyond seven years, unless he chooses to remain as a servant. That establishes that the slavery in view here was more like indentured servitude. The instructions rather than endorsing slavery in any sense that we know it actually provide protection to indentured servants.

However, the instructions for a daughter who is sold into slavery is different. In this case, to prevent the very thing that my friend assumed, sex trafficking, the instructions are that she shall not be set free at the end of seven years. Why? Because a woman is to be considered more like a wife than a slave. As a wife, she could not be simply used and discarded. If there was something that displeased her husband/master, then rules similar to the rules of divorce came into play. She could be bought back by her father or close family, but she could not be sold to the highest bidder. The rules provided protection.

Still, it is described as slavery. That alone seems reprehensible. So that brings me to the second reading principle: consider the times and culture.

For people in 15th century B.C., slavery was sometimes the only way to avoid starving to death. There was no welfare. There was no government to take care of the poor. So for a man who had lost everything there was God's provision of selling yourself into slavery. It provided payment for a debt, and it provided a job, food, and a roof over your and your family's head. In seven years the debt was paid and you could go free. It was part of God's welfare system.

Compared to the conditions among other peoples, compared to some conditions today, the system God gave ancient Israel was humane, providing both protection and hope. It was the best rather than the worst of all possible worlds in 1400 B.C. That was true for a daughter who might be sold into slavery. She was protected from abuse. She was provided with a stable home and a status close to that of a wife.

The world today is, of course, different. Most governments do have some welfare system. There is no need for a man to sell himself into slavery or to sell his daughter just to survive. So this all seems cruel. Seen in context, however, it was not. It was the opposite of cruel; it was kind. It was good. And it was the very opposite of what my friend assumed. BTW he was able to see the sense in it when we discussed it. Give him credit.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gobekli Tepe

Unless you are a follower of archaeology, you have probably never heard of Gobekli Tepe. That's too bad because it is perhaps the most significant and amazing archaeological discovery in modern time. And it has fascinating implications for anyone interested in the Bible and human history.

The Bible in Genesis 1 and 2 describes the beginning of humanity and the place where man first lived. In summary, man was created by God. His creation was relatively recent, in contrast to the usual evolutionary scenario of a gradual rise to humanness that compasses 100,000 years or more. Man was created unique. He was a creature with a spirit and great capacities, a being created in the image of God. And he first lived in a place describe as a garden east of Eden.

That biblical description becomes particularly interesting when we come to Gobekli Tepe.

Gobekli Tepe is a hill in southern Turkey where in 1991 a spectacular discovery was made. It was the discovery of an large and extremely ancient building whose purpose most likely was as a place of worship. It is magnificent in construction and the detail of the artwork carved into the stone pillars. And it has been dated using several different methods at 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. That is as much as 6,000 years earlier than the ruins of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia. And it is as much as 7500 years earlier than the writing of the book of Genesis.

So, how are Gobekli Tepe and the Bible connected? First, Gobekli Tepe and the locations of the Garden of Eden are very close to one another. It may be that they are a mere several hundred miles apart. Both are closely connected to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Second,the dates are very close. The Bible records a genealogy for Adam that, allowing for gaps, can be stretched only to about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Third, early man is described in the Bible as having built cities, developed tools, created musical instruments, and as having an organized religion. It is the last that is most interesting.

Klaus Schmidt,the archaeologist who has done the most work at Gobekli Tepe, made the statement that our whole idea of how civilization developed has been set on its head by this discovery. It now appears that religion was the driving force of civilization, not agriculture. That fits perfectly with the Bible because the first activity besides food gathering recorded there (in chapter 4 of Genesis) was worship.

Of course, the worship at Gobekli Tepe can not be described as the worship of the God of the Bible. Rather it appears by the pictures and sculptures to have been animistic. Yet, that too correlates with the Bible's story, for the Bible tells us that men early corrupted the worship of the one true God and began to worship other things. Ultimately by chapter 6 in Genesis, worship focused on men of renown. And perhaps that correlates with the last mystery of Gobekli Tepe.

Strangely, the site declined. Over several centuries new temples were build on top of the original. But they were inferior in size and detail and artwork. Finally, the entire site was intentionally entombed - not destroyed, but entombed in rubble and sand. It was as if this civilization moved on from animism or something like that to the worship of other things. Yet, with a respect for the past that caused them to expend much hard labor and time in preserving it.

The work uncovering the mystery of Gobekli Tepe has only just begun. Schmidt expects it will take another fifty years to do the digging. And that may not uncover all the secrets. But so far this has proven to be the most exciting find for students of the Bible and archaeology in a long time. And again it seems, science is catching up to the Bible.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Is America Exceptional?

A recent comment by President Obama and reply by Russian President Putin brought to the fore the question whether America is exceptional. CNN followed the exchange with several opinion pieces. This one American 'Exceptionalism:' Who are they kidding? argued that there is nothing exceptional about America - at least, any more. That agrees with most of the posters on social media and Internet forums.

It appears that today thinking of America as exceptional is positively un-American. (See the comments on this CNN site "Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history."

Of course, "exceptional" is a slippery term. What did President Obama mean by it? What did Putin mean? And what do the posters on the various social media sites mean? It is hard to tell, though it appears everyone has an opinion. Nevertheless, despite the muddiness of the issue, I'd like to argue that America not only was exceptional but remains exceptional.

Let's begin at the beginning. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 just a few decades after America became a nation. Though those who today reference and quote de Tocqueville and his book Democracy in America seem to mine the negatives, a reading of the book seems to me to clearly reveal de Tocqueville's admiration for America and his conviction that, at least in his day, America was exceptional. But in what way?

First, America was exceptional in the independence of her people. De Tocqueville writes: "Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life’s woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it." That is what made us and continues to make us pioneers. It makes America a seedbed of entrepreneurs and inventors. Though we created an industrial society in the 1800s and early 1900s that was the greatest any the world had seen, our strength always has been in the individual and in his or her ingenuity and drive.

Things have changed a bit lately, as most reading this will note. Since the 1930s we have created a welfare society that may itself be exceptional, though not admirable. That welfare mentality has undermined the individualism that made America great. But it remains that many of the most successful entrepreneurs are Americans.

A second way America was exceptional was in our government. De Tocqueville writes: "As the first people to face the redoubtable alternative I have just described, the Anglo-Americans were fortunate enough to escape from absolute power. 'Their circumstances, background, enlightenment, and, most of all, mores enabled them to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people.'" Of course, in de Tocqueville's time most other nations were monarchies; so when Americans chose, in contrast, to organize our government on the principles of democracy, we were exceptional in the world. Since then that model of government has proved attractive to many other peoples, so that today other nations have followed our example - a tacit recognition by those nations of the admirable and exceptional nature of America.

For us, the legacy of our nation's fathers remains in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And that legacy continues to mark America as exceptional in the protections accorded to our citizens. It is for that reason that Americans who value the principles passed on to us guard our constitutional rights energetically.

That brings me to the third way America is exceptional. The freedoms our constitution guarantees us have been a lure to people from around the world who, experiencing oppression and hopelessness abroad, have sought the sanctuary and freedom and opportunity of America. Between 1836 and the First World War more than 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. Among them were my great great grandparents, and probably yours.

But Europe was not the only source of immigrants. Take a drive around any American city and you will find Chinatowns, Little Italys, Latino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Middle Eastern neighborhoods - complete with shops, restaurants, and places of worship peculiar to the immigrants' ethnic origins. We are a nation of immigrants who came to America because of the freedom and opportunity and safety we believed we would find here. And most found what they sought. It is true that many other countries have welcomed immigrants, especially of late, but few have been so remarkably embracing as the United States.

Finally, America is exceptional in the character of our people. Part of that is certainly a product of our faith. Christianity built into us the virtue of personal responsibility and generosity. (Compare the nations that do not have that heritage. Few come close to the generosity of those nations whose culture is Christian.) Americans more than any other people give of our money and our selves to help others. We go to Africa to dig wells. We spend out lives in Asia to provide medical care where there is none. We built schools. We deliver disaster aid. We open our pocketbooks when there is a need here at home. We run missions in every city of America. And it goes on. Others are, of course, generous. But by most measures we are still the leaders, and not only the leaders but the example others have followed. In that I think we are genuinely exceptional.

The naysayers point to our failures. We still fail to provide health care to all equally. We still lag in some areas of education. We have poverty, though our poor are by most measures rich compared to the poor of many countries. We throw our weight around and make plenty of mistakes, Vietnam and, some say, Iraq among them. And we have often acted as a nation with only our own interests a heart - never mind that we rescued Europe and China from despots in the 1940s at great expense to American lives and material. But those are either continuing challenges that we are addressing or limited missteps that do not reflect the character of our people. Step back from these for a wider view, and America looks far different from the picture the naysayers paint.

America is good. America remains a land of freedom and opportunity. Americans are still people of character. America is, yes it is, exceptional.