CP Opinion

Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

Your Faith and the State

October 30, 2008|8:34 am

As a nation, we cannot overemphasize the importance of faith-informed views being introduced into the discussions in the public square and in the political process.

People of faith are not somehow disqualified from commenting or being involved in the political process because of their belief in One who is greater than themselves. Our responsibility to be involved—prayerfully and personally—in the affairs of our nation does not dissipate once Election Day is past. Without Christians’ participation in society, our culture will continue to deteriorate rapidly.

We need the influence of the Almighty in America, reflected in the principled involvement of devout citizens, because we need a bedrock foundation for our national character that is external to ourselves. We need to be reminded of our accountability to a transcendent moral authority beyond human capacity to create or dismantle, because history shows that is the only sure way to preserve the self-evident, divinely established “unalienable” rights on which this nation is founded.

You can’t force people to act morally—long term, at least—by government mandate, regulation, and force. True change takes place in hearts and minds, which then will be reflected in the “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.” It is a fallacy to assume that the government and the courts can produce a moral system in people or do much more than help preserve a decent moral environment. Even if our government permitted it, which it doesn’t, we can’t simply declare this country to be one that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority. It can only become such a country through the transformation of individual hearts and minds. Transformation of hearts and minds is not the government’s job any more than it is the government’s role to prescribe or to prohibit religion.

Not just our social fabric is at stake; our liberty is as well. If we were to reach a point at which most Americans no longer believed in a transcendent moral order and did not feel an internal obligation to do the right thing even when no one was watching, the consequence would be chaos, followed by reduced liberty. Forced to choose, most people would opt for order over chaos, even at the loss of significant liberty.

This does not mean it is right or desirable for us to have Christianity established as the official or unofficial faith of the nation. That would be detrimental to America, and it would be even more detrimental to Christianity. To equate America with Christianity is to blur the distinction between the secular and the sacred. No matter how much we love our country; we must never confuse or conflate being American with being Christian.

Yet people have the right to bring their moral values to bear on public policy debates and to be heard regardless of the underlying convictions that inform those values. Then society decides through public debate and the ballot box what public policies the people want to implement.

Christians, just like all other citizens, have an obligation to be educated about the issues and the candidates. That is why we go straight to the source in constructing our unique voters’ resource: a comparison of the position statements adopted by the Democrat and Republican parties at their political conventions. As we excerpted the two parties’ views on the issues of the day in building the 2008 Party Platform Comparison Guide, we went to great lengths to insure that our personal viewpoints did not color our efforts. Visit iVoteValues./party_platforms to download a copy of the ERLC’s Party Platform Comparison Guide.

Making voting decisions solely on a candidate’s personality or his promises to bless your bank account is unwise. It is our prayer that those using this comparison guide will bring their biblical worldview to bear as they examine the Democrat and Republican perspectives. Then, we pray each citizen will vote his or her values, beliefs and convictions.

Since our beginnings, the American experiment has intertwined the religious character of its citizens with the religious neutrality of the state. It has been well documented in U.S. history that without faith-based movements much of the social progress our nation has made would not have occurred.

As Alvin Schmidt wrote in his work, How Christianity Changed the World: “On the basis of historical evidence, I am fully persuaded that had Jesus Christ never walked the dusty paths of ancient Palestine, suffered, died, and risen from the dead, and never assembled around him a small group of disciples who spread out into the pagan world, the West would not have attained its high level of civilization, giving it the many human benefits it enjoys today.”

The government’s job is to accommodate maximally the right of American citizens to express their religious convictions and beliefs when they choose to do so. Whether their expressions of faith offend advocates of some other faith or secular humanists is irrelevant. Whether secular humanists’ declarations and manifestos offend me as a Christian is irrelevant. There is no constitutional guarantee against being offended. There is a constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion, as well as freedom of speech.

It is possible to affirm and practice belief in God while simultaneously practicing a rigorous separation of church and state. We can embrace and encourage the role of religion in public life while ensuring that the state remains religiously neutral. One’s faith is a matter of conscience, not a matter of law. One can believe in the separation of church and state without believing in the separation of religious activities and public policy.

Clearly, America was founded as a noble attempt to wed Judeo-Christian values with Enlightenment ideas of self-government.

The United States never was, nor will be, the kingdom of God, and any attempt to identify it as such is idolatrous. What we need today is not a return to the past, but a turning to a future that has never been: a healthy pluralism in which all views are allowed, encouraged, and respected, and in which a healthy respect for the value of religion in America’s past, present, and future permeates society.

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Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.
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