More people have experienced “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in America than anywhere else on earth. On the Fourth of July hardly a village in the United States, hardly a city street, is without some celebration of the Declaration of Independence.
Despite complaints about national decline and about “idea gaps” that still separate the actual social and political situation from the announced principles of our historic documents, the American people nevertheless rank high in good will and generosity, in bold venturesomeness and ingenuity, and in general honesty. This reservoir of virtue is apparent to anyone who has visited other continents.
These qualities are not self-wrought, however; they reflect the nation’s orientation, however tenuous, to those distinctive spiritual realities which once lifted the Western world from paganism to a sense of Christian conviction and conscience. The traits that weld a heterogeneous society into a national family—truth, justice, love of neighbor, and benevolence—originate and mature through revealed religion. There may be an “American character,” but there are really no “American virtues.”
No one would deny that America has scars and blemishes. There is inordinate ambition, for example—the greed for power, for prestige, as well as for plenty. There is corruption—in politics, in business, in labor unions, in sports. And there is race prejudice—that devastating blight to the affirmation that “all men are created equal.”
Americans clash over goals and methods. Those who would socialize the American scene battle those who champion a voluntary rather than coerced society. Those who would rely on Big Government’s legislation to solve all man’s needs resist those who maintain—and quite rightly, we believe—that the best and only guarantee of a bright future depends on individuals enlightened to the imperatives of a just social order.
This turbulence does not mean, however, that America has “gone over the brink.” Rather, this stirring may be—indeed, probably is—its hour of decision. Although America’s natal strength may be far-spent, those who live in Washington constantly face the tragic ambiguity between White House solutions for race problems everywhere else and its inability to rescue the District of Columbia from becoming a moral shambles. It is one thing for photogenic politicians accompanied by an arsenal of news photographers and F.B.I. agents to hike fifty miles along the Potomac; it is quite another for a congressman’s wife, let alone an ordinary citizen, to stay at home alone in the District, or for church people to venture out to evening services, or for anyone to walk at night, even in the shadow of the Capitol or the White House. It is high time to reiterate what the founding fathers knew only too well—something that many of their homelands had forgotten—that not the utmost amount of government compulsion but rather the fullest recovery of human dignity is the answer to human problems.
For those who are first-generation Americans, the thrill of living and reliving the Declaration of Independence still retains its glamour. Often their parents left other lands expressly for larger liberties and opportunities, and for the most part were not disappointed. In this new land their children were born without the bondage of class limitations, were given unprecedented opportunity to rise and progress and even to shape their adopted country’s future. Those who dismiss these characterizations as “built-in patriotic prejudices” need to remember their own more distant past. The American founders gave their very lives to shape a haven for those ideals that should bless oncoming generations and nourish the hopes of multitudes around the globe. Such a heritage is not a matter of verbal heat; it is the index to national and cultural health.
Our hopeful appraisal is not intended to suggest, however, that the biblical ingredient in American culture is currently in full bloom, and that our people automatically absorb some kind of Christian fragrance from their environment. As it does almost everywhere else in the twentieth century, the acrid smog of sin and sham penetrates American society. Not everything about this nation is admirable; much, in fact, is superficial and even shameful. But the real essence of America is still its historic climate of beliefs. It is this essence which nourished a nation of world distinction, a nation whose best traditions still hold the promise that even in these days its citizens will recover needed spiritual and moral resources to lift the weak, furnish new motivation to the listless, and set a fresh example of dedication to durable realities. If we fail here, the American mind, already lapsed into an American mood, is doomed further to becoming merely an American madness.
To desire a Christian nation is always a proper Christian objective. But to desire a Christian government is something else again and is to be regarded with suspicion. A government’s best approximation of Christian ideals comes by its assuring equal justice under the law for all citizens and protection for their God-given freedoms. A government that acknowledges its servant role as a minister of justice and operates in the spirit of the theistic affirmations of the early American political documents will aim to preserve and protect the liberties of all, not simply of some, or even of the many. In such an atmosphere voluntary religion—the only kind worthy of the name—can thrive.
To rely on legislative coercion or upon public institutions to advance and protect the cause of true religion is to misunderstand both the function of the state and the task of the church. Christianity depends ultimately neither upon the state nor upon culture; the Gospel is neither a state-religion nor a culture-religion. The church does not derive its authority and mission from the state, and the state does not derive its authority and mission from the church. Both are “under God,” and each has its divinely appointed task. When both state and church enthusiastically and properly fulfill their respective tasks, then we may expect a secure destiny for “the land of the free,” even in an age of cannibalistic totalitarianism.
Tax Exemption And Church Political Activity
The disallowance of tax exemption to the Fellowship of Reconciliation has stirred sympathizers to threaten an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court unless the Internal Revenue Service corrects this “absurdity.” Letter writers are asking IRS to explain its distorted thinking; they picture the denial of exemption as a trial balloon which, unless punctured, could waft away all religious exemptions.
But what are the facts? The government considers the Fellowship of Reconciliation ineligible because its disarmament objectives can be achieved only by legislative commitments; in other words, the movement is essentially engaged in political activity. This verdict accords with the group’s concentrated efforts toward the congressional vote.
Churches have historically enjoyed tax exemption because they engage not in a political crusade but in a spiritual mission. The reason is clear enough, then, why spokesmen for church institutions which engage increasingly in direct political activity (lobbying, endorsement or disapproval of specific legislative proposals, and so on) consider themselves threatened by the case in point and are ready to file supportive amicus curiae briefs if the matter reaches the courts. Some of their concern is doubtless legitimate. For one thing, should government claim the right to define what is and what is not religious activity, it may imperil religious freedom by imposing an unacceptable view of the function of the Church. By such procedure the state could soon swat any troublesome gadfly out of existence. As we know, the totalitarian powers—both Nazi and Communist—soon came to regard any church that protested government policy as engaging in non-religious affairs. Yet in proclaiming the revealed principles of social justice and civil order, the Church dare not hide the relevance of these imperatives to the contemporary crisis simply because some local tax collector senses that the Church thereby influences the realm of political life.
But is the Fellowship of Reconciliation issue really vital to the churches? Churchmen who defend the movement argue in two different directions. Some contend that “peace” is the fellowship’s main concern, that it is not a lobbying committee, and that its success in no way depends upon congressional action. Others recognize that this kind of plea for immunity might cost the churches the right to “meddle in politics.” They argue that although many problems of social justice can be solved only if the Church promotes legislative solutions (rather than regenerative spiritual dynamisms), yet the Church’s main concern is not on that account achieved through legislation only. But revenue officials are not convinced. Despite FOR’s spiritual or moral motivations, they say, and despite its partial orientation to non-legislative mechanisms, the achievement of its objectives depends nevertheless upon legislative commitments.
Income tax regulations stipulate an organizational and an operational test of eligibility for exemption. No exempt organization is to engage in activities outside its exempt purposes except “as an insubstantial part of its activities.” If “more than an insubstantial part of its activities is not in furtherance of an exempt purpose,” the exemption is to be disallowed. There may be ambiguous elements here, such as the precise definition of “insubstantial,” and whether revenue experts propose to measure either the purposes of an organization or its methodology, or both. The Council for Christian Social Action, for example, which gets 1.9 per cent of the budget of the National Council of Churches, spends its main energies in forms of political action.
Whatever the ambiguities may be, however, the treasury rules are clear enough to warn any church agencies concentrating in political activities that they do not qualify for tax exemption on religious grounds. If such church agencies wish to concentrate in political concerns, they ought to do so by the financial support of interested partisans—as FOR is currently doing (with voluntary gifts that more than offset the loss of exemption); they ought not to deploy church funds to partisan interests nor expect taxpayers indirectly to defray programs which they may not care to promote at all, or at least do not wish to promote through the churches.
To disallow exemption to the Fellowship of Reconciliation does not actually jeopardize all institutions whose social objectives bear on legislation. The Christian religion has a necessary stake in law, and church members have a political duty that includes the criticism of poor laws and the advocacy and support of good legislation. But this participation is quite different from direct involvement in political action by the Church as an institution. Some religious groups have gone so far as to approve or disapprove particular candidates—in fact, have stopped little short of indirectly promoting a religious political party. Were the Catholic Church to sponsor a Catholic candidate, such groups would be first to protest. If the Church is really concerned for its true mission, it will not discourage but will welcome a warning about proper and improper ecclesiastical involvement in politics.
U.S. Government Aid Funds Steeped In Religious Compromise
The foreign aid program seems to be meshing United States policy abroad into religious entanglements that most Americans would consider unconstitutional and imprudent on the domestic scene. Some congressional as well as some church leaders are voicing a growing demand for critical review of these involvements.
The Peace Corps is by no means the worst of the offenders. On the whole its record of achievement and service is remarkably good, even if it reflects the curious confidence that human need is best resolved by a program of governmental response. Where the Corps commits volunteers to service in religious schools and agencies abroad, it defends itself against any compromise of church-state separation on the ground that such assignments are in fact made by foreign governments that are not bound by our conventions. But this flexibility which accommodates American-supported programs to an “in Rome do as the Romans” philosophy is subject to three criticisms. First, the United States is under no obligation to offer its programs where our own traditions are inoperative. Second, such concessions on our part weaken the will and power to resist further and wider commitments. Finally, religious compromises abroad become precedents at home for those who seek to exploit public funds for sectarian purposes.
The United States’ foreign aid program is now so riddled with compromises of our own church-state traditions as to merit thorough review. Under public protest AID at one time publicly withdrew its policy of commitments through church agencies, commitments enthusiastically ventured by an influential complement of Roman Catholic staff officials. But the practice continued nonetheless. Finally a new policy was announced which left so many unresolved problems that AID is widely reported to be “in business (objectionably) as usual”—that is, to be operating overseas on a policy of religious involvement that would incur forthright criticism at home.
In matters of education, the Senate subcommittee on education was told recently that the United States now pours more funds into educational institutions abroad—religious schools included—than at home. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, accordingly, wants a full administrative disclosure of such expenditures abroad to religious schools, a disclosure that some congressmen state privately would lead to explosive congressional debate. In one instance $500,000 was reportedly given to rebuild a Jesuit school destroyed by fire in Ecuador, while in nearby Colombia (where foreign aid funds are committed to government schools) Romanist pressures consider the Protestant schools illegal and at times close them down.
Another complication is that numerous Protestant groups abroad which champion church-state separation for the United States willingly accept money from foreign governments. In the Congo, for instance, virtually all Protestant as well as Roman Catholic mission schools receive subsidies from the Congolese government.
Religious involvement, in other words, is not exclusively a compromise involving the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Many Protestant foreign mission boards and agencies are compromised, and not all of these are “ecumenically minded”; independent evangelical enterprises are involved also. There are Protestants who criticize Peace Corps workers in Roman Catholic enterprises but consider it special divine providence when these workers help in Protestant pursuits. One disturbing factor is that national church leaders abroad often stress that church-state involvement has long been their own heritage under past British or some other rule, or that the Christian movement in their countries has been reared under a church-state philosophy that permits and encourages government subsidy of religious and non-religious schools alike. Missions leaders in the United States often insist that it is proper to take cooperative account of these traditions. Hence they would not limit government commitments in those lands to non-religious schools but instead would encourage distribution on a non-discriminatory intra-religious basis. Sometimes American mission leaders abroad who contend that such religious aid by the United States is a moral-sociological-financial necessity cannot reconcile it, however, with this country’s church-state practices. Further complications arise because treaty-making powers are considered to have legal precedence over domestic church-state policy; accordingly State Department policy often proceeds by rules quite different from the constitutional precedents of our domestic scene. To say that the State Department is encouraged in these matters mainly by a colony of Georgetown University foreign service graduates is an exaggeration; the hard-core influence is more likely a group with little interest whatever in sectarian religion.
One encouraging development is the emergence of a conference of Protestant leaders of various denominational and interdenominational alignments to review this involvement of government aid in religious institutions and agencies. One of its concerns is to prevent compromises abroad from becoming leverage for compromises of church-state separation at home. This group will also scrutinize both the prevalent notion that “the First Amendment doesn’t apply overseas” and the ambivalent application on the domestic scene of the principle of church-state separation. And it will try to propose regulations that guard churches and missions from the compromises and involvements which undermine both American political philosophy and a sound policy of Christian benevolence.
A Pontiff’S Love And A Council’S Anathemas
In his final hours of life, men marveled at the strength of Pope John’s heart. Prior to that they had marveled at its warmth. In a hate-stricken age, men heard gladly from an open Vatican window a heartbeat of compassion. The Pope had spoken his pleas for peace and Christian brotherhood in tones both convincing and compelling. Perhaps history’s most universally beloved pope, he evoked compliments even from Communists. Accessible and tradition-shattering, he embodied for many the deep-rooted longings of men of good will for the unity of mankind.
At the same time, his policies had many critics. His friendly overtures to the Communists gained for him the title “Red Pope” among some conservative Italian Catholics disturbed by the recent Communist election gains in that country.
John XXIII undoubtedly was largely responsible for a fresh spirit of charity which created happier church relationships. Churchmen were surprised to see Protestant observers admitted to the secret deliberations of Vatican Council II, undoubtedly the one great overshadowing event of John’s short pontificate.
Yet for all the good will, the basic theological differences bestriding the road to unity remain. Pope John was not a theologian; his emphases lay elsewhere. But he never spoke of compromising basic Catholic dogma. He did not share the modern, sentimental fallacy that doctrine is a costly irrelevancy which serves to block unity. Even in rejecting birth control, he said, “There cannot be any adoption of erroneous doctrine.…”
The New Testament couples love with truth, and Paul asserts that love rejoices in truth. Here is the challenge to separated Christians. Revealed truths are of eternal consequence. Doctrines Protestants hold to be biblical and basic were anathematized at the Council of Trent. Rome has since reaffirmed the anathemas.
A pontiff’s love and a council’s anathemas.… We hope the former is replaced, but it cannot restore unity of the Church until the latter are displaced.
Bible And Prayer Ruling A Signal To The Churches
Sometime this month the Supreme Court will hand down its ruling on the legality of Bible readings and prayers in the public schools. Religious leaders who view the Church mainly as a weather vane, anticipating the direction of Court decisions and cushioning their communions against outbursts of emotion, need a reminder of the Church’s larger role. The time has come as never before in American life to exhibit the power of voluntary religion and to give vital content to theistic affirmations distinctive of our political documents.
In a recent sermon Dr. Edward L. R. Elson reminded his congregation in Washington’s National Presbyterian Church:
A secular nation is not what we were at the beginning. Then we said it was God who gave us liberty, God who brought forth the nation, God who hath preserved us a nation.… We are a theistic people.
This has been and I trust will continue to be a nation under God. There is an unfinished task. No matter what General Assemblies pronounce or courts adjudge, we must find new and better ways of increasing the depth of the God-conscious reality and creating symbolic actions whereby we teach this truth to our children and witness to the whole world the divine sovereignty over this nation as well as over individual man and the corporate life of the Church.…
If we are to eliminate religious exercises in public schools and prayer in public ceremonies like Congress and civic ceremonies we must find and soon find ways of involving the whole people in public symbolic acts attesting that we are a theistic people even though not a theocratic state. If symbolic acts do not presently have deep meaning, let us invest them with deeper meaning—not abolish the acts.
One fact is sure. When the Supreme Court gives its decision, the Church’s task will only have begun. The burden of the Christian community will be heavier, not lighter, than before.
Ecclesiastical Controls And The Preservation Of Christian Liberty
The freeing of the human conscience from the dictates of an ecclesiastical hierarchy can be considered as one of the most precious fruits of the Reformation. Men learned that God alone is Lord of the human conscience; it is responsible only to his authority. Ecclesiastical authority is to be obeyed only so far as it is conformed to the revelation of God’s law, which is the inspired Scriptures. God set the human conscience free from all obligation to believe or obey any judgments, opinions, or commandments of men which are either contrary to or aside from the teachings of the Word.
The Roman Catholic Church has maintained that the Church, and not the Scriptures, is the true standard and organ of the will of God. The Church has the power to enact laws in God’s name, binding the consciences of men. The Reformation denied that God had given that power to the visible Church, and it freed men from ecclesiastical domination. Unfortunately, church control over the wills of men seems to be returning to Protestant circles. The pressure of small but effective controlling groups has been subtle but nevertheless effective. Policies formulated by a few are forced upon an acquiescent majority, who little realize that they are forfeiting a heritage of liberty.
The Reformers foresaw the possible return to such a deplorable bondage and sought to prevent it by carefully worded creedal statements. One of the best expressions is that found in the Westminster Confession of Faith and incorporated in the Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church:
God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XX, Section II).
One of the Westminster divines who helped to frame the above statement on freedom of conscience was Samuel Bolton, minister of the Word of God at Southwark, England. He wrote a treatise on the subject entitled: “The True Bounds of Christian Freedom” (London, 1645). His plea to preserve liberty is well worth studying, and we quote it in part:
Certainly, it is the highest piece of slavery and vassalage in the world to yield up our consciences to the will of any, or surrender up our judgments to be wholly disposed by the sentences, determinations of any.
Christian liberty is a precious jewel, suffer not any to rob you of it. Let us never surrender up our judgments to our consciences to be disposed according to the opinions, and to be subjected to the sentences and determinations of men. Let neither power or policy, force or fraud rob you of this precious jewel.
Be not ensnared and overwhelmed by the policies of men. We are warned to take heed none deceive us, Eph. 5:6; Col. 2:8; 2 Thess. 2:3, as if it were in our power to prevent it. And so it is, we cannot be ensnared but by our own default. We often betray away our liberty when we might maintain it, and so become the servants of men. And this ariseth either from weakness of head or from wickedness of heart. It is my exhortation therefore that those who are the freemen of Christ would maintain their Christian freedom, as against the law, so against men. Be not tempted or threatened out of it; be not bribed or frightened from it; let neither force nor fraud rob you of it. We often keep it against force, and lose it by fraud. To what purpose is it to maintain it against those, who are the open oppugners of it, the Papists, and such as would take it from us, and give it up by our own hands, to them perhaps that seek not for it? Nothing is more usual, and therefore beware.
Give not up yourselves to the opinions of other men, though never so learned, never so holy, because it is their opinion (1 Thess. 5:21). It often falls out that a high esteem of others for their learning and piety, make men to take up all upon trust from such, and to subject their judgments to their opinions, and their consciences to their precepts. Men will suspect a truth if a liar affirm it, and therefore Christ would not own the devil’s acknowledgment of him, when he said, Thou art the Son of God; but they are ready to believe an error, to give credit to an untruth, if an honest and faithful man affirm it. Whatever such men say, it comes with a great deal of authority into man’s spirits; and yet it is possible for such men to mistake.
It is a most dangerous thing to have man’s person in too much admiration, as the Apostle saith, Jude 16. Paul tells us that we know in part, 1 Cor. 13:12. The best are imperfect in knowledge. The most learned, and holy Martyrs, every man hath need of his allowance; they are but men, and in that subject to error. Though these things may afford probable conjectures, that what they hold forth is a truth, yet these are not infallible evidences. Indeed, there is much to be given to men of learning and piety; but we must not tie our boat to their ship, we must not, as the phrase is, pin our faith upon their sleeves. We must not subject our judgments, resolve our faith into their authority. This is to make men masters of our faith; this is a thread of that Garment, whereby Babylon is distinguished; a mark of the Roman Anti-Christian Church. To resolve our faith into the authorities of man, and though it be not required of you, yet it is no less done (though more finely done) by many, than by those of whom such implicit faith, and blind obedience is required.
Economic Growth And The Gospel Of Christ
Our political leaders speak much to us these days concerning economic growth. One cause for lag which they do not generally mention and thus do not confront is mental illness. Cornell University’s Alexander Leighton, professor of social psychiatry and anthropology, told a United Nations conference in Geneva that economic growth is slowed because perhaps as much as 30 per cent of the world’s population suffers from mental disorders.
When one ponders the awful darkness represented here, he may be staggered. But what of the other 70 per cent? So many of these lack the light of truth which shines from the face of Christ that one trembles for a benighted globe. All our inventive genius notwithstanding, this is not the day for liberal optimism. May the Church rather face up to earth’s desperate straits and cast forth the light of the Gospel as the only answer—even unto the day Christ comes in glory and irresistibly annihilates darkness with a new heaven and a new earth.
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