A major question facing Christians wanting to influence secular-pagan (one or the other or both) societies that do not have any Christian or even theonomous (governed by God) ethos – especially in the public spaces where social policies are created and enforced – is how to influence them with specifically Christian values.
This became a problem especially during the middle of the 20th century when Christian ethicists realized that a line had been crossed in traditionally Christian societies – away from being Christian to being post-Christian (either secular or pagan or both).
Throughout most of the 19th century and before, and well into the 20th century, a Christian could attempt to influence public policy by appealing to specifically (I don’t say “uniquely”) Christian values.
For example, the social gospel was tremendously influential, together with the whole Progressive Movement (which was not specifically religious) in bringing American society to recognize oppression and deal with it in public ways, such as affirming workers’ right to organize and strike, affirming the need for redistribution of wealth to help the poor and so on.
Walter Rauschenbusch’s writings (first decades of the 20th century) are filled with references to Jesus Christ and the New Testament as authorities.
He could do that because up until his death in 1918 most Americans, including public policymakers, thought of themselves as Christians.
Some time after 1918, both Europe and America (and Canada and Australia) crossed over a line into secularization and eventually (much later) paganization.
I will not spend time explaining the difference here; the two – secularization and paganization – exist uneasily together. A brief explanation that is wholly inadequate would be that for secular people “the less gods the better” whereas for pagan people “the more gods the better.”
In 1937, ecumenical Christian missiologist and theologian Joseph Oldham introduced to Christians the idea of “middle axioms.”
Middle axioms are ethical principles that are not specifically Christian but are compatible with Christianity and can serve as “bridges” from Christianity to secular and pagan people who make public policy.
(Or to Christians in government where appeals to specifically Christian values will not “work.”)
Around the same time, American Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr was beginning to distinguish between love and justice (without separating them).
For him, love meant absolute selflessness, and he relied on the Sermon on the Mount to claim that the love Jesus taught does not resist evil.
Love, he argued, can be an ethical standard within the church and the Christian home, but one cannot expect nation-states or governments or even modern corporations to live by it.
So, according to Niebuhr, “justice is the closest approximation to love under the conditions of sin.”
For him, justice became a middle axiom for influencing an increasingly secular Western world to confront the evils of, for example, fascism and Nazism – even with violence (something Jesus would not do).
During Niebuhr’s early career, most mainline Protestant pastors and leaders were pacifists, influenced by the social gospel. Also during Niebuhr’s early career, American government no longer took Christianity seriously as America’s conscience.
Numerous wholly secular ethicists were clamoring for attention and, generally speaking, love was not in their vocabulary.
Niebuhr’s whole project was to get Christians to accept justice as the guiding principle for public ethics, setting aside the radical love ethic of Jesus there – in public policymaking.
It was also to get non-Christians to come together around justice as the public ethical principle. Unfortunately, he did not define justice very thoroughly. One way in which he described it was “balance of power.”
Anecdote: Some years ago now, I participated in a project organized by a local independent school district to identify and publish (in the schools’) “community values.”
Every focus group placed “love” at the top of the list of community values. The school district omitted love from the list published and displayed in every school in the district.
When I asked why, they said because it is not secular; it is religious. I couldn’t well argue with them. For them, anyway, and necessarily for us (Christians), the middle axiom was “compassion.” That topped the list.
Now, we could debate forever whether “compassion” is really secular or has a strong secular (or pagan) foundation.
However, my point is that it emerged as a middle axiom – acceptable to both Christians and secular school officials (some of whom were Christians but believed religious ideals had no place in public school life).
For me, and for many other Christians, John Rawls’ “maximin” principle (as expressed and explained in detail in “A Theory of Justice”) can serve helpfully as a middle axiom.
The idea is “maximizing the minimum” in public economics without destroying incentive. (Look it up and read all about it.)
Rawls claims, and I agree, that a completely secular, rational basis can be given for maximizing the minimum in a modern, secular, capitalist society. It is what everyone would “vote for” under the “veil of ignorance.” (Again, I don’t have space to spell it out in detail here; look it up and read about it.)
Christians need to accept that we, in America, live in a secular-pagan society no longer “ruled” by Christian principles.
What is our “job” ethically? To abandon such a society, withdraw from it, focus only on the church and family? Or continue to attempt to influence the social order, public policy, using middle axioms?
I opt for the latter.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”