In the past few years the identity of the religious right has crystallized around the issues of abortion and homosexual marriage. These two issues have made political activists out of many ordinary believers.
On a smaller scale, as befits their now minority status, the religious left has championed issues relating to peace and justice. They have opposed the war in Iraq, while also advocating for the poor and dispossessed of the world.
These two groups, along with a vast middle ground that rarely makes the news, all represent legitimate pieces of our common national experience. As Christians and citizens, we have every right to hold and express opinions on whatever we think is important. We also have the right to try to persuade folks that we are right and invite them to join us in our cause.
Trouble develops when persuasion gives way to legislative activism. Trying to convert someone to our way of thinking is one thing, but trying to turn tenets of faith into the law of the land is something else altogether.
Sometimes it’s a no-brainer—like when a school official recites the Lord’s Prayer over the intercom in a public school. This is an obvious effort to have the state endorse a particular faith. But other instances are not as easy to get at.
For instance, the view that life begins at conception is rooted in a particular theology. If we use that definition to make abortions illegal does that mean we make a religious belief the law of the land? The same could be argued about banning homosexual marriage if marriage itself is understood as a value derived from religious belief.
From the religious left we are reminded that God expects us to care for the widow and orphan. Does that mean that Social security is an establishment of religion?
We want simple absolutes: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But in our system of self governance absolutes do not apply.
Take the Ten Commandments prohibition against killing for an example. There are those who argue that killing is absolutely wrong. Thou shall not kill is not ambiguous in any way–except, of course, when someone actually kills someone. Then it becomes legitimate and even necessary to kill the one who killed another. Thou shall not kill is not absolute if we believe there are circumstances in which killing is acceptable.
Others start at the same place but end up with a very different conclusion. Thou shall not kill is an absolute, they tell us. Taking a human life for any reason is wrong. Abortion is wrong, capital punishment is wrong, war is wrong, suicide is wrong, and so on.
How do we decide whose reading of the Bible is the correct one? Does the religion with the most votes get to enforce their faith on the rest of us?
Faith has a vital role to play in the well being of our common life as citizens and neighbors.
Despite what the religious right says God has not been removed from the public sphere. The separation of church and state has never meant the separation of faith from life.
As we seek to express our faith publicly, the Golden Rule becomes an important source of political wisdom. Minorities have ways of becoming majorities. The prayer over the intercom today may belong to the faith of another tomorrow. We may want to play by rules that are fair for everyone every time.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.