Friday, December 28, 2007

Turmoil in Pakistan

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The world scene can change in an instant. With the assassination of former, two-time Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the geopolitical situation became more tense and uncertain thanit had been only seconds before her death. She was killed after the explosive force of an incendiary device strapped to a terrorist caused her to hit her head on a lever in the vehicle she was riding in. At least 28 others also died in the blast, and more than a hundred were injured. Nearly three dozen additional people have been killed in the ensuing unrest. Ironically, Bhutto was killed not far from where Pakistan's first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in October 1951 and where her own father, also a former Prime Minister, was hanged in 1979.

As the opposition leader in Pakistan, Bhutto had played an important role in challenging, balancing, and therefore moderating the government of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in 1999 via a military coup. In addition, her liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP) provided an outlet for many Pakistanis who are unwilling to knuckle under to the rising tide of Muslim extremism sweeping that part of the world. The latest reports are that al Qaeda elements were behind the assassination, specifically Baitullah Mehsud, a wanted pro-Taliban militant leader based in the South Waziristan tribal region.

Obviously, Pakistan is geopolitically important for two primary reasons: 1) It shares a mountainous border with Afghanistan, where al Qaeda Prime (specifically, Osama bin Laden and his operations chief, Ayman al Zawahiri) is hiding; and 2) the Muslim country is part of the exclusive club of nations that possess nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan fall to radical elements—either the Taliban or its sympathizers in the military and/or the intelligence service—the Doomsday Clock would surely tick several minutes closer to midnight.

So far, Pakistan under Musharraf has remained a useful, though shaky ally of the U.S. throughout the War on Terror. While essentially a military dictator despite his recent resignation from the armed forces, Musharraf has been able to ride herd on the forces of religious extremism, military dominance, and secular liberalism that are the major ideologies of his fractured state. He has had to crack down on the most turbulent tribal areas, enforce loyalty from his own army, and negotiate with Bhutto and her faction. He is in the unenviable position of being everyone's enemy.

Pakistan is intrinsically unstable due to its hodge-podge nature: It is made up of at least five different major ethnic groups (Punjabis, Afghans, Kashmiris, Sindhis, and Balochis); a handful of separate Muslim ideologies; two major geographic regions (the mountain region and the Indus River Valley); and a strong secularist tendency, especially among the educated and urban populations. The army, which accepts enlistees from all of these groups, is for better or worse the prime instrument of stability, due to its power and discipline. With Bhutto's assassination releasing rioters into the streets, martial law and harsh military responses to flare-ups of fighting and looting are likely.

To further compound Pakistan's problems, the upcoming parliamentary elections may be postponed as well. One major party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by another former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has already indicated it will not participate in them if they take place as scheduled on January 8. Bhutto's PPP, by far the largest opposition party, is now without a clear leader—in fact, it has never been without a Bhutto family member as its chairman. It may take weeks or months before a new leader is chosen, and even so, it may fracture into several smaller parties if it fails to reach a consensus on a new chief. Realistically, the Pakistani political scene will probably become even more chaotic.

This may actually work to Musharraf's benefit. With so much turmoil among the various political parties, candidates, and activists, he may emerge as the nation's only viable leader. Love him or hate him, Pakistanis may realize that, even though his regime has angered them in so many ways, he provides a measure of stability that is far preferable to the ravages of civil war. In other words, the devil that you know is better than the devil you don't know.

The United States, in its position as the leader of Western interests, would prefer Musharraf to maintain control and bring swift stability to his country. It has worked successfully with him in the past and knows which levers to push to get results. President Bush and his advisors know that al Qaeda wants nothing more than turmoil and confusion in Pakistan because it works best in such an environment. Through the Taliban, it could offer a stabilizing influence of a sort, particularly in the mountainous western regions of the nation, while procuring Pakistan's nuclear weapons for use in its cause through its supporters in the military and intelligence service. The U.S., then, will probably offer and provide intelligence and clandestine military support to the Musharraf government to help quell the disquiet as soon and as noiselessly as possible.

In a better world, the people of Pakistan would use the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to band together and expulse Muslim extremism from its culture. However, this is a world whose god is Satan the Devil (II Corinthians 4:4), whose hateful, destructive influence has deceived all humanity (Ephesians 2:2; Revelation 12:9). Thus, religious and political turmoil are part of the normal fabric of life—and will be until Jesus Christ returns to this earth to put an end to sectarianism and war by putting Satan away (Revelation 20:1-3) and ruling personally from Jerusalem (Revelation 20:4-6). Then, with Satan unable to broadcast his divisive attitudes, Christ will teach humanity His way of life that brings cooperation, peace, and unity (Isaiah 2:2-4). This glorious future of peace is why Jesus commands us in Matthew 6:10 to pray, "Your Kingdom come." Are we praying for it fervently enough?

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Curse of Teen Pregnancy

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It is not uncommon today to hear news of some celebrity having a child out of wedlock. Jamie Lynn Spears at the 2007 Kids' Choice AwardsIn fact, illegitimacy seems to be the norm among the famous and infamous these days. The latest blockbuster story is that sixteen-year-old actress Jamie Lynn Spears, younger sister of Hollywood bad girl Britney Spears, is pregnant by her nineteen-year-old boyfriend. The younger Spears stars in Nickelodeon's Zoey 101, in which she plays a clean-cut, sensible character. In real life, she is at this writing twelve weeks pregnant and resolved to have the baby. These days, such a declaration of responsibility is about the best news we can hope for.

Perhaps public acceptance of celebrity promiscuity is at least partly to blame for the United States having the highest teen-pregnancy rate among developed nations. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that, in 2004, nearly 36 percent of live births in America were to unmarried mothers, affecting 1.47 million women. Almost a quarter of these unwed mothers were teenagers. Sadly, a recent national study reported that the birth rate for teens rose in 2006, the first increase since 1991.

The situation is far from improving. In 1970, 10.7 percent of U.S. births were to unwed mothers, meaning that in a little over three decades the illegitimate birth rate has jumped by about 335 percent. The nation has had an illegitimacy rate greater than one-third since 2000. What a shameful moral state we are in!

This is just one facet of the sexual revolution spawned in the 1950s and 60s. We could add high divorce rates, more tolerance for "shacking up," increased incidence of sexual diseases, longer welfare rolls, flagrant prostitution, "mature" television programs and movies, and a host of other social ills to the list of repercussions to the heavy drumbeat of sexual freedom. As with all of these societal problems, teen pregnancy is not liberating to the too-young mothers that it affects. In reality, teen pregnancy most often dooms a young woman to a lifetime of hardship.

For starters, she is now shackled to a baby who requires nearly continuous care. Though it may be cute and wonderful, the baby needs feeding, changing, comforting, bathing, and entertaining on an around-the-clock basis. Many young moms do their best to finish high school despite the constant demands of the child, and the most successful have devoted, extended families whose members pitch in to help when things get tough. Yet, such "ideal" situations are not usual. For most young mothers, life becomes a struggle.

Attending college is beyond the abilities of most unmarried women with a child. Costs—both monetary and time—are too steep for them to handle. Were the young lady unburdened with a child, she could go to class and work a job or two to get by, but having a dependent to feed, clothe, and send to daycare makes it almost impossible. So college is ditched in favor of getting a full-time job. However, because she has only a high-school education at best, her career opportunities are often limited to starting out at minimum-wage jobs and hoping to receive promotions down the line somewhere through hard work and on-the-job training. Too often, she ends up in a low-wage, dead-end job and relying on government assistance to make up what she lacks.

Socially, she will likely never recover. Chances are, the father of her child will not marry her, and his support for either her or the child (or both) will be minimal, sporadic, and reluctant. Without the benefit of marriage, she can leverage no legal procedures to compel him to help her. Her chances of finding a husband are cut drastically, since few men relish the thought of becoming an instant father to someone else's child once he says, "I do." Many unwed mothers will at some point live unmarried with a man, and studies show that, while this situation can be economically better than living alone, it falls far short of providing the real benefits that marriage does (see "Unwed mothers' prospects for marrying well, or at all, are greatly diminished, Cornell study finds").

Finally, what about her mental and emotional state? A September 1999 report, "The Age of Unwed Mothers: Is Teen Pregnancy the Problem?" by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values points out a link between unmarried mothers and depression:

One nationally representative study finds that, among White 18 and 19 year olds, about 41 percent of unmarried, first-time mothers reported many symptoms of depression, compared to 28 percent of married, primiparous [first-time] mothers of that age [Source: "Young Maternal Age and Depressive Symptoms: Results from the 1988 National Maternal and Infant Health Survey," American Journal of Public Health 88, no. 2 (February 1998): 266ff]. Maternal depression is a significant risk factor for children, often leading to problems in adjustment that may linger for years after the mother's recovery.

From every angle, the unmarried mother's life is a battle against the odds. She pits her and her child's life and welfare against the cold, brutal forces of this world, and the hard reality is that this uncaring world grinds them down most of the time. Most unwed mothers do not have the resources Jamie Lynn Spears—or any promiscuous celebrity, for that matter—has to avert the hardships inherent in the curse of breaking God's law regarding premarital sex.

There is a great deal of love behind the words, "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14), a command that includes all forms of sexual immorality. God does not want to see any young woman have to suffer the adversities single-motherhood can bring crashing down on herself through sin. The best course to take is the old-fashioned, tried-and-true path of wisdom: to abstain from sexual relations until marriage. As many who have done so will testify, it significantly improves the quality of life!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Religion in Politics

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In the past few weeks, two significant events have transformed the race for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. First has been the surge in popularity of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee into the top tier of candidates. Various polls show him gaining substantially on the party's frontrunners, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Huckabee now appears to have secured a strong second-place ranking in Iowa, where he must score big to have any chance in later primaries. Huckabee, it must be mentioned, is an ordained Baptist minister. He frankly admits that his faith influences his policy decisions.

The second event of consequence was the December 6 speech by Romney at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, in which he answered his critics on the subject of his Mormon beliefs. Essentially, he argued that, while confessing the Mormon creed, he is still a Christian, saying, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." However, should he be elected, he said, "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. . . . I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt RomneyHe reminded his listeners of the fact that many of the Founders of this nation were religious men and that they enshrined religious principles into our founding documents. Despite their memberships in various denominations, they were patriots first, fighting for America's well-being. Romney promised that he would strive to follow their example: "A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States." The former Bay State governor cited the example of another politician from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who "explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President. Like him, I am an American running for President."

In an era of mounting secularism, it is intriguing that religion has become such an integral part of the election debate. Members of the American Civil Liberties Union and other anti-Christian groups—their hopes firmly placed in the more secular Democrat candidates—must be beside themselves in frustration at the resurgence of matters of faith into the national discourse. Should an ordained minister like Huckabee attain the Oval Office, their fears of a fanatical religious takeover of America will reach hysterical proportions: the atheistic version of "the end is near!"

Nevertheless, true Christians should not take this religious turn of events as a sign of American revival. Despite their claims of piety, these two Republican candidates are not knights on white horses to the rescue. Romney, for instance, is a Mitt-come-lately to the conservative cause, having made a number of reversals in his stances on homosexual rights, abortion, and stem-cell research and more recently, on gun-ownership and the environment. His position on illegal immigrants is also seen to be hypocritical, having hired undocumented workers as landscapers at the Governor's Mansion. He is at best a Northeastern moderate running as a conservative.

Arkansas Governor Mike HuckabeeHuckabee is no better. While he tends to agree with social conservatives on abortion and homosexuality, he is extremely soft on illegal immigration, having consistently supported giving benefits to illegals and their children, while opposing restrictions on them. He is also known as a tax-and-spend governor. The conservative Club for Growth writes of him: "His history includes numerous tax hikes, ballooning government spending, and increased regulation." In Arkansas, as Romney did in Massachusetts, he has governed as a moderate at best, though he talks about Jesus a great deal.

As this column has mentioned before, the Church of the Great God is apolitical, which means we do not become involved in the political process. We do not endorse political candidates or parties, nor do we lobby government on political issues. However, we often comment about politics from a biblical point of view because political trends eventually effect societal change. It is the church's job to be society's watchman and warn the people of coming destruction, whether internally or externally generated (Ezekiel 33:1-11). And while it may seem strange that we should caution people about this trend of including religion in politics, it is necessary.

We cannot for a minute discount the decades-long shift toward secularism in our culture, thinking that the tide has been stemmed and reversed at last. Nor can we forget that these men are vying for the nomination to the highest office in the land, the office with the most political power in the whole world—they would say or do anything to make themselves more electable. Finally, we should not diminish the fact that these men need the voting power of the Religious Right to catapult them to the nomination and the Presidency beyond.

Call me skeptical, but these men are playing the "religion card," which they believe may be their ace in the hole. It is an old ploy, using religion to gain temporal power. Our radar should beep like crazy when it appears on the horizon. What they are doing is not far removed from the behavior of the Pharisees in Jesus' day, and He castigated them for their hypocrisy (see Matthew 23). The truth and the true prophets of God were in mortal danger when they held the reins of power (see Matthew 23:13, 15, 27-35). History proves that religion and politics do not often mix well, as one corrupts the other with delusions of power.

It is indeed true that "when the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan" (Proverbs 29:2). However, a religious person is not necessarily a righteous person, especially when so much is at stake. Americans would do well to discern the difference.