Charles Colson is founder of Prison Fellowship and was special counsel to President Richard Nixon.
The debate on the relationship of Christians to the state is nothing new and must be seen in historical perspective. The early church wrestled with the question as it faced the pagan Roman Empire; the tension continued in the medieval struggles between pope and emperor, and on into the era of nationalism and the "divine right" of kings.
In the twentieth century, the debate has produced wide swings among conservative Christians between the extremes of isolationism and political accommodationism. In the early decades, believers were buffeted by the winds of theological modernism (with its social gospel), humiliated by the Scopes trial, and finally retreated into fundamentalist enclaves to create a parallel culture through their churches and schools. (The words we hear today from Paul Weyrich are hauntingly reminiscent of that time.)
Then, in 1947, Carl Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism and led Christians back into the American mainstream. What really galvanized them, however, was the liberal victory in Roe v. Wade. In one swoop, the Court struck down abortion laws in all 50 states, turning around an entire culture on the most crucial moral issue of the day.
The lesson was not lost on moral conservatives: they concluded that top-down political action was the most effective means of cultural transformation. If liberals could do it, so could they.
Thus was born the so-called Religious Right, which did fall prey to some of the excesses Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson diagnose in Blinded by Might. Enormous effort went into raising funds and garnering votes—often with extravagant promises to "save America" if we would just elect the right candidates and pass the right bills.
At the time I created consternation among my conservative friends by warning that the church stood in danger of succumbing to the political illusion and allowing the gospel to be taken hostage to a political agenda. Much of the political rhetoric smacked of triumphalism. "We were on our way to changing America," Thomas and Dobson write. "We had the power to right every wrong and cure every ill." In short, at its worst, the Religious Right was a mirror image of the secular Left.
But if the earlier hope to "save America" was overblown, so too is the current counsel to withdraw from politics—an overreaction against an original overreaction. In the elegant words of Richard Neuhaus, such pessimism "expresses a painful deflation of political expectations that can only be explained by a prior and thoroughly unwarranted inflation." Were Christians in fact to withdraw, we would simply ride a pendulum swing back to the isolationism of the fundamentalist era.
Instead, we should learn from our mistakes and develop a biblically grounded political philosophy that gets us off the pendulum and provides a basis for acting "Christianly" in politics. The classic elements of a Christian world-view—Creation, Fall, and Redemption—should guide our thinking.
The doctrine of Creation tells us the state is ordained by God; therefore, participation in political life is a moral obligation, contained in the cultural mandate to cultivate the world God created. We should seek justice and order in political structures, striving to be the best of citizens, as Augustine put it, because we do for love of God what others do only because they are coerced by law.
Yet, because the state is not the only social institution ordained by God, we must work to keep its scope limited. We cannot let it usurp the place of other institutions, such as church and family (Abraham Kuyper's "sphere sovereignty"). Nor should we confuse what can be achieved by political means with what can be achieved only by spiritual transformation.
Second, because of the Fall we must be realistic about the limits of political success. This side of heaven, our accomplishments will always be partial, temporary, and painfully inadequate. There is no room for triumphalism.
Yet, third, neither is there room for despair, for the promise of redemption is that even in a broken world there can be healing and restoration. All creation came from God's hand, all creation was affected by the Fall, and by the same token, all creation shares in Christ's redemption. Salvation is not about personal renewal alone, but also social and political renewal.
These principles give a foundation for responsible political engagement, rather than mere (over)reaction. They give us a perspective beyond the next election and an independent stance that prevents us from being tucked into any political party's hip pocket. We must understand the biblical role of the state and then hold it accountable for fulfilling that role.
By this analysis, Jim Dobson is absolutely right in contending that Christians must oppose wickedness in high places—as they have in every age. A historical model is fourth-century Bishop Ambrose boldly confronting the Emperor Theodosius, who had ordered a brutal massacre of thousands of citizens in Thessalonica. Ambrose successfully demanded that the emperor do public penance. Another model, as Don Eberly notes, is the glorious Wilberforce-Shaftesbury era. Contemporary examples include the 1997 statement "We Hold These Truths," signed by some 50 Christian leaders, decrying the judicial usurpation of our democratic system, and the 1998 "Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency," signed by 157 theologians, calling on President Clinton to repent of the Lewinsky affair. As Jerry Falwell notes, the church is to be the conscience of society.
Of course, there are important distinctions between what is proper for the church as an institution and what is proper for the individual believer exercising his civic duty. The church can and should address moral issues (yes, from the pulpit), but it should never make partisan endorsements. It must not allow itself to be seduced by political power—something I saw all too often when I was in the White House. The church must guard its prophetic stance, leaving direct political activism to individual believers.
In addressing moral issues, moreover, we must not allow ourselves to be stereotyped. Cal Thomas correctly reminds us to address every issue from a Christian perspective—not only abortion and homosexual rights, but also poverty, social justice, and concern for the disenfranchised. I've spent 25 years working among the most marginalized people in society through a ministry to prison inmates, with a lobbying branch (Justice Fellowship) that advocates laws based on a biblical understanding of justice.
Above all, we must not succumb to despair. Jim Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed all give stirring accounts of the impressive gains made by religious conservatives in the political arena. It is nothing short of astonishing that during the tenure of the most pro-abortion President in history, abortion rates are declining—largely because the pro-life message has pierced the public conscience. Don't believe the pessimists who say we can't change society.
As the new millennium approaches, the church can play a crucial role in restoring a culture mired in the anomie of postmodernism. Instead of being polarized by polemics, Christians ought to be charitable toward one another, constantly seeking common ground to work together in helping the church bring renewal to all the structures of God's creation.
Written with Nancy Pearcey, policy director of the Wilberforce Forum and executive editor of "Break Point," a daily radio commentary program featuring Charles Colson.
Other Religious Right articles:
with book review by
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