Time to climb the ‘wall of separation’

No country in the world has been more agreeable to religious liberty than the United States. This can be fairly called a Baptist legacy, one of the most important things we added to the founding years of our nation. Some of the most horrible things in history have been done in the name of an official state religion. In it you have the compulsion of conscience toward one faith as well as the persecution of other faiths. The simple language of the Bill of Rights is intended to keep that from happening here. Our government is restrained from establishing or hindering a religious faith. That’s it. An amazing array of silly ideas spring from misuse of this plain language. Some of those notions threaten our freedom.

Silly idea one: Churches should have no voice in public policy. When President Thomas Jefferson paraphrased the first amendment commitment to religious liberty with the words “a wall of separation between church and state,” his original draft of the letter followed it by pointing out constitutional limits placed on government, not on churches. The problem with his metaphor is that a wall has two sides. This wall keeps government from meddling in the establishment or prohibition of religious exercise, but has also been used by some to limit the voice of Christians to affect government. Current IRS regulations, for example, allow a church’s tax exempt status to be threatened based on the content of a pastor’s sermon. HR 235 has been introduced, by the way, to restore free speech from the pulpit. My point is that we’ve gotten something badly wrong if we need to restore a pastor’s freedom to address public issues.

Silly idea two: Morality is the stuff of religion and not law. Some phrases have been more scornfully used than “legislating morality,” but not many. Some will say marriage is a religious issue and thus the state should not attempt to define it. Others say that it is a civil issue religious people should stay out of. This false dichotomy illustrates our problem. The state speaks to many things that are also religious. Neither should people of faith be told to store their convictions in the church house. Of course we legislate morality. Offending legislated morality is what puts people in prison.

I recently wrote an incumbent leader to express an opinion about a timely issue. The polite and affirmative response implied that the issue was a distraction from other issues of the day?issues more debatable and less sure. I need a clear note on subjects I do know about if I am to trust my leaders on subjects I do not know. Their impatience regarding these issues is mistaken. National security and financial prosperity will never make up for devastated institutions.

Silly idea three: A politician’s faith is no integral part of who he is. Some politicians duck controversial issues by stating their own views and then adding that they would not dream of forcing their views on someone else. A few have taken this “stand” on abortion; several are trying it on same-sex (it’s anything but gay) marriage. It’s scary that so many of us find these self-contradictory responses acceptable. When an elected official claims to believe one thing and then pursues policies contradictory to those stated convictions, there is no doubt what he really believes. A “devout,” pro-abortion Catholic, for example, falls short of any definition of “devout” as related to Catholic teaching. He is either the one thing or the other.

Silly idea four: An interest in public policy is unworthy of pastors and churches. Not usually stating it so baldly, preachers tend to think of Christian citizenship as less important than just about anything else we preach. Churches don’t give citizenship the prominence it deserves. Jesus speaks of us as “salt” and “light” in a declarative way. We are these things. The exhortation he gives is for us to project our new nature into our world. In our nation and in this time, we can influence the people who lead our nation. This rare gift implies that we must use it to express our distinctive and reborn worldview. We should be active citizens and intentionally Christian ones. In community, our churches, we should encourage one another to this good work as to any other. There is no reason churches shouldn’t help their members register to vote, teach them about issues, and encourage them to vote according to biblical convictions. Pastors should lead in this area as in other matters of discipleship.PAN>

Silly idea five: A voter’s faith is no integral part of who he is. I was raised in a Republican corner of a Democrat state. Northwest Arkansas was Republican for the same reason that the rest of the state was Democrat?because Mr. Lincoln won the War. I was surrounded by those who claimed they would vote for a yellow dog if he was of the right party. No reason was needed, no decision. This traditional view becomes insidious in the present day.

This is important. Some things a candidate promises, while sincerely intended, are beyond his power. Others are priorities that all candidates will honor but address with different action plans. No one, for example, is in favor of job loss, economic recession, weak national defense, or ineffective public education. The debate comes from the various ways we might achieve these laudable goals. It’s hard to choose between them because: A. Unforeseeable events often make the results of a policy unpredictable and unavoidable; B. Those who understand economics, diplomacy, and law better than me (or the candidates) will argue forever and still offer contradicting plans; C. My eschatology discourages the level of optimism that characterizes all political candidates (except Ralph Nader, perhaps). How should we then vote?

Not, I suggest, according to selfish interest (which is also largely unpredictable) or our guesses about whose plan will prosper America. Let’s vote according to what we do know this time.

We know that God has spoken on the subjects that challenge our society today?issues of justice, mercy, righteousness, and holiness. We know that life is holy, set apart as God’s sole prerogative to give and take. We know that families are the first and foundational elements of all human institutions. “Family” has a meaning that cannot be altered without catastrophi

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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