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HORSESHOE BAY, Texas (BP)--Nothing catalyzes Americans to action more than the violation of personal physical freedom, WORLD magazine founder Joel Belz said during the annual Association of State Baptist Papers' Feb. 10-13 annual meeting in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, Feb. 10-13.
Belz, commenting on Western culture's captivation with civil liberties, warned against a grosser perversion of the God-given gift of physical freedom that occurs not at gunpoint but in a "quiet embezzlement while no one is watching."
"We do not have to fear atomic bombs; we do need to fear godless men and their ideas," said Belz, quoting the late Fulton J. Sheen, an American Roman Catholic bishop who had a weekly TV program in the 1950s.
Admitting it may sound "overly cheap and almost obscene" to assert that civil liberties are not at the core of the true meaning of freedom, Belz stated that physical freedom and freedom of religion are not the ultimate issues of liberty.
Noting he could easily set the stage for a discussion of freedom by referencing Muslim extremists, or North Korea and Iran's nuclear capabilities, Belz instead called attention to Jesus' words in Matthew 10:28: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
"There is a strange tendency among us all when we take up the issue of liberty in general and religious liberty in particular to reduce the discussion to somehow its most tangible and visible aspects," said Belz in one of his three addresses during the meeting of Baptist state paper editors. "So, we measure liberty's progress overly much in terms of the absence of literal chains -- the absence of literal jail cells, the absence of literal guns or the absence, in Muslim terms, of literal gallows."
Americans think of themselves as free people primarily because the country has been spared from physical restraint in the form of a totalitarian government or repressive religious regime, Belz said. Careful not to minimize God's gracious dealings toward the American nation, he said WORLD magazine often carries reports of the global persecution of the church.
"Nonetheless, I hope we still always see such reports in their right perspective. That perspective is that throughout the long history of God's people, from Old Testament times until this very moment, persecution and the loss of civil liberty and the reduction of personal freedom have been among the very best gifts that God ever gives to His children," Belz said. "... [T]he blood of martyrs throughout the history of the church wonderfully watered the church as thousands of able young people committed their lives to the preaching of the Gospel around the world."
As such, Belz said, liberty is neither an end itself nor is it a personal right. Instead, liberty should be viewed as a gift.
"Freedom and liberty of this sort are gifts God graciously extends to some of His servants, just as to some He gives good health or financial prosperity or beautiful children. But we should never fall into the trap of supposing that the state of political liberty or civic freedom is the norm for God's people -- just as we do not expect that He owes us perfect health, or a big bank account, or deliverance from Wall Street, or beautiful children."
The fact that the nation has been largely spared from physical enslavement has both spoiled and blinded the church, Belz said, noting that "God's goodness might be even more extravagantly expressed to His people when he sends us to Egypt or to Babylon."
"The irony in all this may be that in our aversion to physical bondage and to persecution we have such a remarkable tendency to fall into bondage to a very different taskmaster -- our love for freedom," Belz said.
And in a culture built on Patrick Henry's famous credo, "Give me liberty or give me death," Belz said one only has to look at the annals of history to see the abuse of freedom paves the way for nominalism in the church.
"... I'm going to ask you to ponder the extent to which we, right here in America, have come to overly worship the gift of freedom that God has given us -- more than the giver of that gift Himself," Belz said, alluding to America's "love affair" with the Declaration of Independence. "Just as we do with some of His other good gifts, we make freedom a false god, pushing from His rightful place the God that may or may not choose to give us such freedom. We come to the point of insisting this gift is instead our birthright."
While agreeing that bondage is something from which to ask God's deliverance, Belz proposed that "loss of liberty" also could serve as part of God's plan of enrichment for His followers.
"We have been of the mindset that atom bombs, along with some lesser but still physical weapons, are what we really need to fear. We really are more afraid of atom bombs than we are of the ideas of godless men," Belz said. People are "all too cavalier about the evil one who walks about seeking whom he may devour with wrong words and mistaken ideas."
Real danger, Belz said, lies not in physical bondage, but in ideological and spiritual bondage.
"Another way of saying this is simply that ideas are always stronger than prison walls and prisoners' chains," Belz said, pointing to the victorious tone of much of the Bible's prison literature.
"Whether it is Paul the apostle writing to the Romans or John Bunyan the Puritan writing 'Pilgrim's Progress' or Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist, writing from his Birmingham jail, great ideas have the wonderful propensity to leap over prison walls and to break the chains," Belz said, noting that the opposite also rings true.
"Wrong ideas imprison people who may otherwise seem to be free," Belz said. "That's why millions of people who have developed dreams of sexual freedom in their minds are instead slaves of those very dreams and their resulting preferences and habits. It is why millions of others who built great arguments for the right to stimulate their bodies with chemical substances of all kinds are instead victimized by the fruits of their freedom. Women have championed the idea that the choice to keep or to destroy their babies is an illustration of great and unprecedented personal freedom -- and then those same women find themselves struggling by the tens of thousands with the nightmare of guilt.
"We suggest with our lives and our actions and our priorities that ideas are not nearly as scary as atom bombs," Belz said. "We are quite sure that we can listen to ideas and read them and discuss them and toss them back and forth like balloons floating in the air -- all with no ultimate effect on our souls until we consciously give them our permission to have [an effect]....
"We envision this big laboratory where ideas can be measured and weighed and analyzed and put in incubators and taken out at scheduled hours. We are incredibly casual about guarding ourselves, who are the laboratory workers, with sterile processes and with proper insulations and proper precautions against the terrible toxins we are handling. In short, we overrate ourselves and our abilities to resist alien ideas."
No better illustrations can be found than in the fields of education and entertainment, Belz said.
"Bluntly stated, education can't afford for any of its slaves to taste freedom. Just try to place a book arguing the merits of creationism in a public school library. Try to discuss the theological distinctives of those people we used to call Pilgrims in the social studies classroom of most state schools," he said, noting that the arduous debate surrounding these and similar issues has resulted in "handcuffs and leg irons on the minds and souls of tens of hundreds of thousands of young people in our society."
However, Belz said, the results of such censorship are more grievous than the actual methods employed to restrict conservative thought.
"The worst part of all is that the poor children don't, for the most part, have a clue of what they are being deprived of. To take away a young person's physical freedoms is evil, but if that young person at least knows what's going on, he or she can still resist with the mind and the soul. Such a person can even plot a means of escape.
"But to take away one's freedom even to think certain thoughts because those thoughts are not popular with the majority, and to do that in a way that the young person isn't even aware that there were alternatives to that pattern -- that removal of freedom represents a kind of heinousness multiplied many times over," Belz said. "For, now, the victim does not even know of his or her own imprisonment."
While the content of state education is typically fought on issues such as history, evolution and sexual morality, Belz asserted that the root problem of American classrooms lies in its neglect of truth.
"The ultimate wrongheadedness of statist education is that it fails even to convey to students a sense that there is a difference between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, and thereby condemns those students to the most piteous sort of tyranny and bondage," Belz said. "I would a thousand times rather that my children be chained in a literal dungeon, yet still with the knowledge that they were prisoners, than to be apparently free as birds but unaware of some spiritual or mental shackles that bind and prevent them from what they ought to be."
Alongside state education, the entertainment industry also imparts a false sense of freedom to Americans, Belz said. Used as an escape from the reality of daily life, the very word "escapism" assumes some form of bondage, Belz said.
"My main point right here is the irony of escapism of entertainment so often and almost immediately becomes a brand-new bondage," Belz said.
As with education, Belz said it not the content of entertainment that ultimately enslaves, but the "pretense" of freedom surrounding the so-called freeing activities of movies, books, music and other media.
"We suppose ourselves, in the large blocks of time we carve out for entertainment, to be the ones in control, when in fact, so much more than we begin to imagine, we are being controlled," Belz said. "We think we are tearing down walls and fences that confine us, running and wandering and exploring wherever we think we might be delighted. But all the while, we are far too often being naively led, and shaped, and held by a master whom we would scarcely recognize."
Because entertainment and state education are not universally morally suspect, Belz distinguished between two forms of godlessness. The first sense of godlessness suggests "vicious rebellion against God" and is often used as a "deprecatory put-down." But it is the second sense to which Belz said he was referring -- a literal conclusion that one's outlook on life does not include God.
"There will be times when the influences that work so hard to enslave us will not at first appear to be godless in the wicked, awful sense," Belz said. "Very often those influences will appear to be anything but vile, nefarious and corrupt. Wrapped in the sophistication of modern education, modern entertainment and a thousand other influences, they will sometimes even appear to be thoughtful, beneficial and uplifting. Except ... that they are still godless. And to that end, such gifts still are not ever our true liberators but always instead our enslavers."
Despite the evils of contemporary culture, Belz said he is not advocating that the church disengage from the culture. Rather, he warned that the godless spirit of culture often is found among the fellowship of believers.
"... [T]he godless spirit that takes away our freedom and liberty to be God's salt in this culture is not so much 'out there' as it is right within us," Belz said. "Even those of us in the church -- we may be the godless people we ought most to fear. We are the people who wear God's name but have so little of Him within us. And that is precisely our slavery. That is the ultimate loss of our freedom."
A godless, secular culture is not the ultimate foe to vanish, Belz asserted, but rather the dry spirit of nominalism within God's church -- which can only be corrected through the construction of a biblical worldview.
"My own passion in life, both in the work of education and in the work of publishing, has been that what we do, we do through a God-centered and biblical worldview," Belz said. "That we focus the lens of God's revelation in Scripture on whatever activity we take up ... and then to do that activity with all of God's own perspective that we can possibly discover."
This vision for everyday life is reflected in WORLD's mission statement. "We like to report good news but we don't make it sticky-sweet. We also report bad news because Christ's grace becomes most meaningful when we're aware of sin. We want to be tough-minded but warmhearted," the magazine's website states. "But what matters the most is this: We believe in a God who tells the truth and wants us to do the same."
With a biblical worldview, Belz said it is easy to understand Paul's injunction to believers in 1 Corinthians 10:31 concerning true godliness: "... whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." Belz noted that Paul explicitly used examples from everyday life such as eating and drinking as the vehicles through which the church should center on God.
"The older I get, the more I am persuaded that is where we have lost our grip on godliness," Belz said. "And it is where we have become the slaves of our increasingly post-Christian culture rather than enjoying the liberty God has intended us to enjoy.
"Let's stop telling everybody how ungodly the culture around us is and ask God's Spirit to help us, however modestly, construct a godly culture," Belz said. "Until we do that, we are truly godless people who will, by our very failures to incorporate God's character in our daily living, continue to become our own captors."
Citing a recent Barna study indicating that out of 240 million Americans who claim to be Christians fewer than 25 million are actively seeking God's guidance in everyday life, Belz said: "Our problem today in a cultural sense is not nearly so much the awfulness of the secularism and paganism that are out there. Our problem, instead, is our own persistent illusion that we can keep fighting a battle of any kind while the fuel gauge on our very own vehicles sits so perilously close to empty. We've got a culture to confront ... and I don't want to diminish that a bit, but I also want us to remember we don't do it with empty gas tanks."
Belz, who writes a weekly column for WORLD and is co-author of "Whirled Views," a collection of columns with the magazine's editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky. For more information about WORLD magazine, go to www.worldmag.com.
Melissa Deming is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.