Letter to a Christian Nation – A Counter Point for Sam Harris
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris merits an intelligent response that offers the reader a rationale for the credibility and rectitude of orthodox Christianity. Not all individuals who claim to be Christians fully exemplify the moral teachings of Jesus. In fact, many by their words and actions cast a shadow on the name of Christ. Nevertheless, millions of intelligent Christians in America have thoughtfully compared their Christian faith with atheism and found the latter consistently lacking in both evidence and any real foundational warrant for moral integrity. This does not suggest that atheists cannot be moral people or live moral lives, only that they have nothing on which to ground their morality. Atheism provides society with no inherent basis upon which to distinguish between right and wrong other than by popular consensus, and few would suggest that the majority is always correct.
As one “transformed by Christ’s love”1 but not “deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism,”2 this treatise will prove useful to all readers as a presentation of a reasoned defense of protestant, orthodox, evangelical Christianity. Please understand at the outset that terms like “orthodox,” “protestant,” and “catholic”3 have specific meanings in their own right, prior to their adoption by certain religious sects. By “orthodox” I simply mean, that which adheres to essential doctrines of the Christian church as they have been defined and defended since the time of Christ. By “protestant” I am referring to those branches of Christianity that arose as a result of the 16th-century Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517 and perpetuated by men such as Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox. The Reformation was a protest against the corruption of the established Roman Catholic Church at the time. Since the Reformation, protestant believers have united in their rejection of the authority of the Pope, but have disaffiliated due to doctrinal nuances considered non-essential when compared with the core teachings of orthodox Christianity. The teachings of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and virtually all other faiths differ markedly from orthodox Christianity. A consistent error in Harris’ writing, as well as in the writing of Richard Dawkins,4 is the tendency to categorize all faiths under the rubric of “religion,” thereby blurring the doctrinal distinctions between them.
For most of the 500 years that preceded the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was the majority representative of Christianity. The 11th century saw the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which the Eastern Church denounced the Pope’s alteration of the Nicene Creed without the consent of an ecumenical council. The Roman papacy sanctioned the horrors of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition that Harris places on the shoulders of generic “Christianity.” The Spanish Inquisition, although initially focused on false converts to the Roman Church from Judaism and Islam in the late 1400s, eventually turned its focus toward Protestant Christians subsequent to the Reformation.
Protestants like John Calvin and Martin Luther seem to adopt different personalities that vary according to the point of view of the biographer. Harris claims that “John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches,”5 which he presumably discovered from William Manchester’s book A World Lit Only by Fire.6 Contrary to this view, the historian Kenneth Scott Latourette states that “in spite of Calvin’s plea [to the civil authorities] for a more merciful form of execution, Servetus was burned at the stake...”7 In fact, Michael Servetus was the only individual executed in Geneva during Calvin’s lifetime, during an era when such executions were commonplace elsewhere.8 Regardless of the difference of opinion between these two historians, the vast majority of the brutality perpetrated historically, in the name of Christ, has resulted from the turpitudes of the early Roman Catholic Church, not protestant Christianity. In mid-sixteenth century England, Mary I, of the Tudor dynasty, also known as “Bloody Mary,” executed Protestants in an effort to return England to Roman Catholicism. During her brief five year reign, she ordered the deaths of over 280 Protestant Christians, many more than those executed in any five year period during the Spanish Inquisition. Mary I was responsible for the executions of many notable reformers, such as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and John Bradford.
Letter to a Christian Nation – A Look at Modern Religion
In America today, there are approximately twice the number of evangelical Protestant Christians as there are Roman Catholic adherents.9 Worldwide, the Roman Catholic Church has made great strides to repair some of the rifts that previously existed. In 1964, Pope Paul VI met with the Eastern Orthodox leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, and rescinded the anathemas of the Great Schism of 1054. A similar attempt at ecumenism occurred with the 1994 release of the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together, drafted by Charles Colson and Fr. John Neuhaus. Both of these attempts at reconciliation met with some legitimate dissent, due to distinct doctrinal differences, yet neither event yielded acts of violence such as those perpetrated historically or by extremist adherents of Islam today.
In the final analysis, true Christian believers are found in the Roman Catholic Church as well as protestant churches today. Conversely, many from both churches claim the name of Christ but do not truly represent Him, as both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins found from letters they received. Jesus amplifies this truth in Matthew 13:24-30, commonly known as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. In three of the four gospels Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say I am?” This question cries out for a response from everyone alive today, because the correct answer results in a life forever changed, in a very positive direction, by the grace of God.