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It’s not only the left that sounds the alarm when Christians “jeopardize the separation of church and state” by engaging in political action. Some Christians object, too. One evangelical leader offered this stern warning: “There should not be even a hint of anything political in our public discourse.”
This may sound spiritual in some circles, but it can be devastating to the public good. Without question the Gospel has supernatural power to change lives, and those changed lives can change the world. William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa come immediately to mind.
Some Christians wrongly conclude, however, that political involvement is therefore a waste of time. This is a mistake. The Gospel is never communicated in a political or cultural vacuum.
“The effective and mass communication of the gospel depends upon the freedom to proclaim it,” wrote Hugh Hewitt. The Apostle Paul told Christ’s followers to pray for those in authority so believers might lead a tranquil, quiet life in godliness and dignity. In a democratic society those prayers can and should be augmented by action.
The doctrine of political passivity is flawed in its understanding of the function of law, the changing definition of “politics,” the role of the Christian citizen in the moral education of a nation, and the original intent of the First Amendment.
The First Function of Law
Laws are not meant primarily to change hearts. They are meant to change behavior, and they accomplish that very well.
The New Testament tells us that government is for “the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” The book of Proverbs reminds us that, “The king gives stability to the land by justice” and, “The execution of justice is joy for the righteous.”
Biblical teaching is clear: God intends government to use law to enforce morality. Informed Christian people are essential to that process because the concept of justice that grounds good government can be twisted by evil men in power. If the Church doesn’t stand in the gap giving substance to the words “good” and “evil,” then nothing prevents leadership from reversing the definitions, praising evil and punishing good. Tragically, this is already happening.
Pinning Down “Politics”
Second, the term “politics” is vague. What specifically does it mean to say that Christians should avoid “politics”? Initially it meant that churches shouldn’t campaign for a particular candidate. “Keep religion in the domain of theology, morality, and family relationships,” we were told, “and leave politics to the pros.”
Little by little, though, more things have been included under the broad rubric of “politics.” One by one the secularists co-opted the moral issues, called them political, and told us to get off of the playing field.
The Church was told, “Abortion is not merely a moral issue anymore. It’s political.” What about the morality of alternate sexuality like lesbianism, homosexuality, man-boy ‘love,’ and incest? “That’s ours, too.” Same-sex marriage? “A civic concern. No place for the church.” Family issues like divorce and child support, reproductive technologies, and the education of our children? “Back off.” Stewardship of the environment, the care of the poor, sex education, birth control, sexual harassment, pornography—including child porn? “All politics.”
Notice the outcome. When Christians follow a policy of “no politics,” it’s easy to silence the moral voice of the Church. Simply label any issue “political” and followers of Christ wave the white flag.
This policy is tantamount to surrender. When we are pushed out of the public square, there’s nothing left to talk about but purely sectarian issues: manner of worship, methods of baptism, music in the sanctuary—and angels dancing on pins. We are allowed to have our parochial discussions behind the closed doors of our churches, but we can speak of nothing that—in the minds of those we are trying to reach—has anything to do with the real world. Is it any wonder our faith is called irrelevant?
Does the Scripture teach we should be silent on anything that doesn’t have to do with saving souls? Is it God’s desire that we abandon everything this side of the grave as profane and utterly lost? Is nothing in this life valuable, important, or worth redeeming?
Ironically, the church is still being blamed for the moral silence of its past, including its uneven response to Abolition and, later, to the Civil Rights movement. Christian inactivity in the face of injustice then didn’t communicate purity, but approval of slavery and racial prejudice. Past unwillingness to be involved in “politics” has been a blight on the Church ever since.
Laws Can Change the Heart
Third, a properly constructed set of laws can change the heart. David Lewellyn has observed: “Laws begin by imposing norms of conduct, but conclude by teaching morality and values. As these values are inculcated, the coercive power of law recedes as its moral force rises to govern the conduct of the people.”
How does this happen? A sound moral code—one that’s consonant with the internal capacity for moral development God has given each person—tutors us by adding clarity to our innate sense of right and wrong.
The same process also works in reverse, Lewellyn points out. Because Christians have been silent, “debased public standards which are destructive of life, faith, family, personal morality, and social responsibility are now protected by new, coercive laws and constitutional principles.” Simply put, to paraphrase Proverbs, bad laws corrupt good morals. People are tempted to think if it’s legal, it must be ethical.
When someone tells me that laws can never change a fallen person’s heart, I ask them if they apply that philosophy to their children. Does the moral training of our children consist merely of preaching the Gospel to them? Wouldn’t we consider it unconscionable to neglect a child’s moral instruction with the excuse that laws can never change a child’s rebellious heart?
Proverbs instructs us to “train up a child in the way he should go.” So we give our children rules to obey. We expect that a faithful and judicious application of moral guidelines—with appropriate rewards and punishments for behavior—will develop habits of moral virtue.
If this works to build children, why can’t it work to build citizens? If it works to raise a family, why can’t it work to raise a collection of families known as a community? Why do we believe in the transforming power of moral instruction at home, but consider it powerless to inform the moral conscience of a country made up of families just like ours? Same people. Same laws. Same rules. Same process.
The “Separation” of Church and State
The current understanding of separation of church and state—the view that the state is thoroughly secular and not influenced by religious values, especially Christian ones—was completely foreign to the first 150 years of American political thought. Clearly the Founding Fathers did not try to excise every vestige of Christian religion, Christian thought, and Christian values from every facet of public life. They were friendly to Christianity and encouraged its public practice and expression.
It wasn’t until 1947 that the United States Supreme Court first used the concept of “separation” to isolate government from religion. In Everson v. Board of Education, the court lifted a phrase from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a Baptist church in Danbury, Connecticut. The Court ruled, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another....In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’”
The Infamous Danbury Letter
In the Everson decision, the Supreme Court quoted Jefferson’s separation language as a normative guideline for understanding the First Amendment. But Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a member of the Constitutional Convention, and the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Where did it come from?
On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, to quell the fears of the Danbury congregation who were concerned that a national denomination would be established. Here is the text in question:
I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
What did Jefferson have in mind here? Is there an impregnable barrier erected by the founders that excludes religious-minded people from the political process, an ideological enmity between church and state?
The First Amendment
By contrast to the present confusion about separation, the First Amendment is startling in its clarity, offering no limit to the impact of religious and moral conviction of individual citizens on public policy. It is worth reading often. Here it is:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Please forgive me for stating the obvious: The First Amendment restricts the government, not the people. Jefferson’s wall is a one-way wall. Any religious person, any religious organization, any religious conviction has its place in the public debate. It’s called pluralism, in the classic sense of the word.
Notice there are not two distinct provisions here, but one. Non-establishment has no purpose by itself. Freedom of religion is the goal, and non-establishment is the means. The only way to have true freedom of religion is to keep government out of religion’s affairs. This provides for what Steven Monsma calls “positive neutrality.” This view, in Monsma’s words, “defines religious freedom in terms of a governmental neutrality toward religion in which no religion is favored over any other, and neither religion nor secularism is favored over each other.”
The First Amendment was rewritten twelve times to make its intent clear. The concept set forth in the Bill of Rights is “non-establishment,” not isolation. We should strike the “separation” language from our vocabulary.
Calling a Vice a Virtue
Followers of Christ should not be suppressed from without by a notion of separation foreign to the Constitution. Neither should they be silenced from within by misguided piety.
The Church can never replace the work of the cross with civic works of righteousness. This is beyond dispute as far as I’m concerned. The goal of Christian political activity, though, is not to make a nation acceptable to God. It’s to insure a just society.
Christian author Philip Yancey writes, “We have no mandate to ‘Christianize’ the United States—an impossible goal in any case. Yet Christians can work simultaneously toward a different goal, the ‘moralization’ of society. We can help tether the values and even the laws of society to some basis in transcendence.”
The myth of political passivity unwittingly makes a Christian virtue out of the vice of negligence. When we ignore our obligation to morally instruct the nation merely because someone labels it “politics,” then it won’t be long before the country teems with injustice as every man simply does “what is right in his own eyes.”
Gregory Koukl is founder and president of Stand to Reason, an organization devoted to a thoughtful and engaging defense of classical Christianity in the public square. He is also a radio talk show host and author of Relativism—Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. This article originally appeared in this article.