Barry Lynn unfairly lumped James Dobson and Jim Wallis together this week, asserting that both were pressuring politicians to make public policy decisions based on the Bible.
“Religious advocates of all stripes are applying all kinds of pressure on politicians to start passing laws based on their interpretation of the Bible,” wrote Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“From James Dobson to Jim Wallis, evangelicals are goading politicians to couch policy-making in Christian terms,” he said. “Politicians are not preachers, and political debate should not be turned into religious conflict.”
Lynn said, “Elected officials should make decisions based on the public good, not private religious belief.”
After a slight tip of his hat to the role of religious debate in the public square, Lynn said, “Our nation’s laws must be rooted in constitutional values and reasoned analysis, not someone’s personal take on Scripture.”
While both Dobson, a religious-right leader, and Wallis, a religious-left leader, do take their faith into the public square, that’s where their similarities end. In fact, they differ at two distinct points.
First, Wallis reads a big Bible that speaks to him about both personal morality and social issues. Dobson has a small Bible that serves as a proof-text to speak mostly against gays and abortion.
Second, Wallis gives a Christian witness in the public square to values and directions that shape public policy. Dobson seeks control of the Republican Party in order to run the state and implement his theocratic goals. The former wants to influence; the latter wants to control.
Lumping Wallis and Dobson together is misleading.
More harmful is Lynn’s creation of a false choice between reasoned analysis and reading Scripture. The choice between reason and faith is a dishonest one. Yet Lynn wants that paradigm to be the prevailing one with which people think about the role of religion in the public square.
He weaves a series of belittling phrases through his brief statement: “their interpretation of the Bible;” “private religious beliefs;” and “someone’s personal take on Scripture.”
As an ordained United Church of Christ minister, Lynn should know better, unless he also reads a small Bible, from which he draws the idea that faith is private and personal.
Those who read from the big Bible know that the biblical witness speaks to both personal morality and social responsibility.
Ironically, Lynn emphasizes the Bible’s focus on the inside, not the outside, much as conservative commentator Cal Thomas did last week.
Thoughtful Christians know that a straight line does not exist between the Bible and public policy. The Bible offers no blueprint for economic, domestic and foreign policy.
Biblical values can shape public policy, however. Justice, human rights, kindness, honesty and fairness are a few of the many values found in the big Bible that find expression in constitutional values and public policy.
Lynn regrettably reflects a more secular left perspective than a religious one.
Baptist heritage first advanced the idea of the separation of church and state without placing faith in the ghetto of private concerns. The best of the Baptist tradition maintains a wall of separation and yet gives witness to biblical values in the public square.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.