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All About Heaven?

Fox News interviewed former president Donald Trump in early June and among the questions was one on the meaning of religion.

I’ll provide his answer, but first, a caveat. This is not a blog about politics, although like with all issues, the interests of faith and politics often overlap; that is, advocating for faith eventually may take you to advocating for or against a candidate or political issue.

So, here’s what the former president said, according to several news outlets. I have made no changes to the text.

“Religion is such a great thing. It keeps you, you know, there’s something to be good about. You want to be good; you want to…It’s so important. And I don’t know if it’s explained. Right. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right now, but when you have something like that, you want to be good. You want to go to heaven, okay? You want to go to heaven.”

Why Be Good?

“If you don’t have heaven, you almost say, ‘Oh, what’s what’s the reason?’ ‘Why do I have to be good? Let’s not be good. What difference does it make?’”

What I believe the former president is saying is that religion is about being good so you can go to heaven. And that view, I believe, is partly correct but from the Christian viewpoint, way too simplistic.

In their never-ending efforts to test Jesus, the Pharisees – specifically one of them who is “a lawyer,” according to Matthew’s gospel – asks Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”

Jesus’ famous response: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Shema

The first part of this greatest commandment – called the Shema – was so important to the ancient Hebrews (and to some observant Jews today) that many wore these words on parchment inside a phylactery – a small box attached to the forehead to show that the wearer always kept these words “in front of their minds.”

These two commandments imply much more than being good to attain heaven. For one thing, they imply total commitment, to God and to one another. And for many Christians, keeping the second is also keeping the first.

By way of contrast, I recall years ago stopping in Kearney, MO, just north of Kansas City, at a gas station and going to the men’s room. I overheard a conversation between two locals, in which one man said, “Henrietta asked me to go to church with her.” The other man asked, “Did you go?”

“Yes,” replied the first man. The second man said, “Religion’s OK as long as you don’t take it seriously.”

This subject makes me recall another verse in the Bible, this one from the Letter of James. The author is said to have been the half-brother of Jesus and among the leaders of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. But it was written in Greek, which is among the reasons some scholars question its authorship, saying that it’s unlikely that Jesus’ brother, James, could have been schooled so well in Greek.

Religion Pure and Undefiled

In any case, James writes: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

In other words, “true religion” compels its adherents to care for others, especially those who most need care. And it means not adopting the values of “the world,” which in Jesus’ time and in ours, means the values that contradict Jesus’ teaching.

So, is “being good to go to heaven” important for someone searching for God in the Christian tradition? Yes, but I believe the goal should be in the background for most believers and that taking the two greatest commandments seriously is a requisite for practicing true religion.

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