Friday, July 24, 2009

Religion in the Public Square

Yesterday I mentioned a few themes from the book Founding Brothers, but I avoided the issue of religion in the public square because there was insufficient space to make a point I wanted to explore.

The manner in which the slavery issue was debated throughout early American history exemplifies, probably more than any other, the challenge of bringing religion into public debate. The Quakers were quite vocal against it from the beginning, but their voices were dismissed because they were also pacifists who had been against the revolution itself. To some extent there was a condescending attitude toward the Quakers because although they were "nice" and "good" their views were not practical.

The tragedy (one of many, actually) with regard to Christians bringing the Bible to bear upon political issues like slavery is that the slaveholders were themselves church-going Bible-believing Christians who quoted the Scriptures to defend their way of life. Even after the end of slavery, these same believers went on to defend racist policies and fight against the very principles of freedom for all which the revolt against England was all about.

This unfortunate misuse of the Bible within the context of politics is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In Britain, during the Irish potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century Christians in Parliament argued that the people of Ireland should not be fed or helped in any way because it was a judgment of God.

Does this mean Scripture does not apply to political battles? Am I suggesting that Christians should have no voice in the political process? Absolutely not.

My personal belief is that the Ten Commandments, for example, are not true and good because God said them. Rather, they are true and good because God is a loving God and He understands how the soul works and the human social order works, that murder and adultery and lying are behaviors that damage communities and ourselves as well. It is in our best interest to live in harmony with the underlying rules of the universe we find ourselves in.

This may be an oversimplification for the sake of brevity, but I take it to the public square in the following manner. When arguing our case, whether it be for life affirmation or against the wrongfulness of treating humans as property, we must speak into the culture without the religious jargon and hardline arrogance that says, "My view is God's view." As mortals, can any of us have an absolutely perfect understanding of the ramifications of every situation, every piece of congressional legislation?

In point of fact, everything is easy in the ethereal realm of ideas and ideals, but it gets messy when you pull it down into the broken mess that is our world today. First, being a hardliner makes it very hard to find common ground to negotiate solutions with your enemies. Second, a thing may be "wrong" to one person but all the solutions are equally bad. Numerous examples can be cited.

Bottom line: our philosophical approach as Christians in the public square must be one of being Biblically informed, but we can't march into the arena spouting Bible verses and expect to have influence. Bible-wavers have been on both sides of nearly every ethical issue, from slavery to Viet Nam.

Our attitude must be one of humility and teachableness. The real need in the public square is for truth, compassion and justice to prevail. These are values for which banners must wave and for which all Christians must speak up. Our world is broken. How can we not make some attempt to be agents for healing and restoration?

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