The PCA’s Denominational Magazine Goes Political: A Rejoinder to David Cassidy’s “Prayer and Work in the Face of Violence” at By Faith Online
This is the social justice gospel exposing itself openly, without modesty and without regard to how repulsive it is to the many other PCA members who believe in the spirituality of the church (Col. 3:1-3), the prudence of minding one’s own affairs rather than those of other communities (Prov. 26:17), and the propriety of an armed citizenry (Neh. 4:7-23). It has nothing to do with the duties of Cassidy’s office, not anything to do with our denomination or its faith: it is contemporary urban political preference presented as edifying Christian teaching, a coercion to agree masquerading as earnest Christian appeal.
David Cassidy is very animated about what he perceives as the insufficiency of our nation’s response to criminal homicides, particularly those which involve firearms. In an article at By Faith, the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), he inveighs against what he regards as a mistaken attitude about prayer, vehemently asserting that prayer which is unaccompanied by work is “presumptuous theism” and a far cry from the need of the moment, which is, on his view, the “diligent, bi-partisan work of elected officials and citizens ready to tackle the legion of issues that have created this plague” of gun-related crime. Pondering his claims, one might fancy that his feelings have gotten the better of his reason and led him into writing an article of which we might say, in the words of Proverbs 19:2, that “desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.”
He makes some strange claims. He says that “neither the individual Christian nor the elected official . . . can go on using prayer as a cover for inaction.” Yet the case which inspired his article, the Ralph Yarl shooting in Kansas City, Missouri, has not been attended by inaction: the shooter has been charged with felonious assault and if convicted will probably be imprisoned for the rest of his life. When Cassidy talks of inaction he must mean something else then, though he is short on particulars and speaks in generalities like this:
We must all start working for a safer society. It’s time to stop excusing our lack of progress in reducing mass shootings and work on creating and implementing the solutions that will foster a safer society for all. With the first responders, medical personnel, police, and all who in every way work to preserve life, let’s get on with the good work that needs to be done.
Elsewhere he says, “We can’t merely pray about a kid being gunned down for no reason other than he rang the wrong doorbell.” One wonders how it is that Cassidy knows that Ralph Yarl was shot because “he rang the wrong doorbell” when his accused assailant has not yet had a chance to present his side or to defend himself in court. To be sure, such information as is available suggests (key word) that this was a senseless act, but it is not just to tacitly assume that the media’s narrative of events is accurate, not least given its record for inaccuracy in reporting; and much less is it just to condemn a man in the court of public opinion before he has been tried in the court of law (comp. Jn. 7:51; Prov. 18:13, 17). “You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike” (Deut. 1:17). By assuming the truth of the media’s narrative Cassidy is not being an impartial judge, nor is he hearing everyone alike.
Yet such claims pale in comparison to four others that Cassidy makes. He says that “elected officials in this country need a timeout on calls to prayer and should instead get to work on the problem of gun violence, the leading cause of death among children in this nation.” We do indeed need a “timeout on [politician’s] calls for prayer,” but not for the reason Cassidy suggests. We need such a thing because such displays savor of hypocrisy and receive our Lord’s explicit condemnation (Matt. 6:5-7) – a thing which Cassidy and By Faith seem to have elsewhere forgotten.
As for gun violence being “the leading cause of death among children,” this is factually false. Using CDC data on causes of death by age, available here, we see that in 2020, the last year available, homicide by any means fell in fourth place for deaths among minors, with 2,059, behind unintentional injuries (5,746), congenital anomalies (4,860), and short gestation (3,141). Even subtracting infants it is second in the 1 to 17 age group, being outnumbered by accidental deaths by a factor of 2.51 to 1. Going back farther or widening the time range pushes it farther down the list. In the 2010-2020 period Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), suicide, malignant neoplasms (cancer), and pregnancy complications all outnumbered it in number of deaths, and its ratio in relation to accidental deaths was 1 to 4.21. And of course not all homicides were conducted with firearms: in 2020 the 1,376 known firearm homicides similarly trail SIDS (1,389) and cancer (1,407) deaths. Such an enormous error of fact exposes not only Cassidy but also By Faith and its editors and, indeed, our whole denomination to ridicule, for they should have not allowed such a statement to be published, and it suggests that he and they do not understand this matter about which they feel so strongly.
Also, using the Census Bureau’s low estimates, there were about 74.4 million minors in 2020, meaning about 1 in 36,145 of them died of homicide that year. Hardly a crisis, yet it does not prevent Cassidy from saying that “our current situation is as hellish as it is unsustainable.” In fact, if one compares total homicides among minors in the 1981-1998 and 1999-2020 periods he will see that there were more homicides in the former (shorter) era, the first for which the CDC’s WISQARS provides data, and yet our nation did not collapse and has seen its population increase from about 229 million in 1981 to about 330 million in 2020. The vast majority of minors have made it to adulthood, in other words, which means that Cassidy’s talk about the situation being “unsustainable” is nothing more than grossly exaggerated and irresponsible rhetoric.
In addition, we might object to his rhetoric on the ground that no man should make light of hell, least of all a minister of the gospel. Such language is far beneath his office, and is vulgar and implicitly impious: for unlike our society, hell is a place of perfect justice, a place where sin is punished as it deserves, not one where it runs amok. The misery of hell is a deserved misery inflicted by God’s holy wrath and resulting from his retributive justice, not an inexplicable, woe-inducing misery that results from human sin such as is bewailed by psalmists and prophets.
For one to speak of our earthly crime situation as “hellish” when what is meant seems to mean simply “miserable” is to misuse the word and to distort the concept in the popular understanding, which is a serious fault in a churchman. This nation is not hell, and we should not be quick to compare it to that dreadful place of eternal perdition, even in flights of impassioned literary rhetoric. No one who is truly impressed by the awful nature of hell can so easily use it to describe social affairs, even displeasing ones like youth homicides, yet Cassidy did not hesitate to do so, to our shame.
His statement here is an example of that profane speech which our shorter catechism condemns in Question 55 when it says that, “The third commandment forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God maketh himself known.” Who can deny that hell is a means whereby God has revealed himself to us as the God who judges the earth in righteousness? And yet Cassidy uses the term, not to call men to repentance, as our Lord would have him to do (Lk. 12:4-5), but to call for political reform, and that in terms so vague as to be practically useless. I tell you, my dear reader, as a man of unclean lips who dwells among a people of unclean lips (Isa. 6:5), and as a man who has said similar and worse things and is trying to repent the evil habit, that such a thing is a great evil and a cheapening of the gospel of which Cassidy has been ordained a minister. Speaking of our crime situation as “hellish” does not bring me around to his view on that matter; but it does make me think, given the statistics above, that perhaps hell is not such a terrible place after all, seeing as Cassidy can use it, not to warn me of its terrors, but rather as a comment about affairs in this life. To profane a thing is to convert it from a sacred use to a common one, and Cassidy has done it here with hell, by taking it from a solemn ground for urging men to convert to Christ in faith to a mere bit of angry rhetoric about our domestic affairs.
That is a serious thing, and it is worse still that a foul-tongued sinner such as myself, whose sins of the tongue are so frequent that he often doubts his union with Christ on that account (Matt. 12:34-27; Jas.1:26), can yet angrily say, as I do now: ‘I may be lost, and my sins of speech may burn brighter than anything James could suggest in his epistle (Jas. 3:5-12); yet even this vile sinner can see that Cassidy’s speech is profane and tends rather to men’s harm than their edification.’ And if, as is more frequent still, I think the grace of God is greater than my own sin, then we are in the territory of ‘causing little ones to stumble’ (Matt. 18:6), and the offense is scarcely less. Either way I object, as a repentant blasphemer, to Cassidy’s language – for I understand that if I am to be saved from such sin it can only occur in a church whose ministers are characterized by holiness of speech and who would never dare profane such a dreadful doctrine as that of hell by using it as mere political rhetoric.
Lastly, Cassidy says that, “Now is the time to work on curtailing the violence and ending this insanity — that’s authentic holiness in action.” Mark that well reader: for Cassidy “authentic holiness in action” is found in political activism. Not in personal righteousness in one’s dealings with other people (Lev. 19:35-36; Deut. 25:13-16; Prov. 11:1; Am. 8:4-7, Mic. 6:8, 10-12), nor conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 12:1; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 4:2-7; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 1:15-16), but rather in agitating for legislative change. The New Testament says that we are to aspire to live quiet lives (1 Thess. 4:11) and Christ himself refused to judge in temporal questions (Lk. 12:13-14), said his kingdom was not of this world (Jn. 18:36), and avoided the popular movement to give him earthly power (Jn. 6:15), yet Cassidy would have us believe that we are under a moral and spiritual obligation to engage in political activism, conducted, no doubt, along his preferred lines.
Let me be clear that this ought to be a scandal. The PCA’s ministers should not use her magazine to push political propaganda dressed up in Christian garb which is long on emotional rhetoric and at odds with the facts about the crimes which it purportedly wishes to solve. This is the social justice gospel exposing itself openly, without modesty and without regard to how repulsive it is to the many other PCA members who believe in the spirituality of the church (Col. 3:1-3), the prudence of minding one’s own affairs rather than those of other communities (Prov. 26:17), and the propriety of an armed citizenry (Neh. 4:7-23). It has nothing to do with the duties of Cassidy’s office, not anything to do with our denomination or its faith: it is contemporary urban political preference presented as edifying Christian teaching, a coercion to agree masquerading as earnest Christian appeal. And while I think believers can disagree about most questions of domestic politics, I also think we should be able to agree that we should do so as citizens and in the proper (civil) forums, not as church officers or members or in official church publications.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name.