Early in 1985, with the hoopla of the 1984 presidential campaign just dying down, I was installed as minister to the university here at Duke. There were, of course, many clergy at the installation service. Among the politicians participating in the ceremonies was the president of the university’s student government. He confessed that he was uneasy about being close to so many preachers.

“John,” I said to him, “haven’t you been reading the papers? Don’t you know what politicians and preachers have been doing lately? You must be the only politician in America who isn’t trying to get close to a preacher.”

The campaign of 1984 is now long past, but the debate over the rightful relation between church and state—between preachers and politicians—continues. Unfortunately, we have not yet come to terms with the seriousness of the moral challenge facing us. Many Christians assume that our society is basically on the right track and needs little more than a legislative tuneup to keep on course. In truth, we need a major overhaul to get us back on course.

American government is based on the proposition that a social order can be based on self-interest. Our system of checks and balances is institutionalized self-interest. I am given maximum space to aggressively pursue what I want, as long as I don’t bump into you while you are getting yours: two cars in every garage, VCR’s, recreational vehicles, and a place at the lake.

We complain about the “welfare state,” but we need it. Lacking a bond other than common pursuit of individual desires, who but the state will care for the poor, the old, the sick, or the very young? Government helps us get what we want ...

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