As we enter the final weeks of the presidential campaign we can expect the “faith faction” to intensity their activities. The faith faction is an amalgam of conservative Christians, mostly evangelicals, who hold strong positions on a narrow range of social issue concerns. The list includes school vouchers, prayer in schools, public religious displays, taxes, and added just for this year’s campaign, gay marriage.
The faith faction marches under the banner of a Christian America. They believe that their views on matters such as school vouchers or gay marriage are rooted in biblical teaching. They believe that if <America fails to embrace a biblical pattern for conduct it will inevitably follow a path the end of which is a re-enactment of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The faith faction doesn’t say much about the positive side of their beliefs; what the country would look like if we were on the right path. We can surmise from the verve of their warnings that they must believe that an embrace of biblical principles by our country will result in the appearance of paradise—a place where evil is restrained and goodness prevails. Sir Thomas More had a word for such visions—Utopia.
Not that utopian visions are bad. We need positive and even ideal visions of what we might become. We cannot go very far into the teaching of Jesus without encountering such ideals. Turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, caring for the least of among us—all of these are powerful images of what human community might become. Without a dream there is no hope.
The problem is not the vision, the problem is the method. The faith faction seems to believe that simply stacking the offices of government with right thinking folks, leaders who believe what the faction believes, that the social concerns they have will be corrected, and the vision they have for America will be enacted. In other words, they believe the kingdom will come by force of law.
Think about it. Judge Roy Moore is lobbying Congress to make legal his monument to the Ten Commandments. The religious right shows up in every campaign with a call to legalize prayer in public schools. The Marriage Amendment is an effort to enact as law the biblical view of marriage.
Is this the way faith works? Do things like goodness and virtue and character come about because they are the law of the land? We can’t even stop shoplifters; do we really think we can force people to be godly?
In the not so distant past, evangelicals led by the likes of Dwight Moody and Billy Graham believed the best way to convert America to Christianity was by means of persuasive preaching. They believed that if the church was faithful to its mission a “great awakening” would eventually sweep the nation like a mighty rushing wind, transforming people and institutions as it blew. A bit utopian, for sure, but at least faithful to the faith.
Healing and transformation are possible when we properly observe the principles and practices of our faith. But forcing those principles into practice by rule of law does not work. Faithfulness cannot be legislated. The effort to legislate religious beliefs only serves to corrupt our faith practices and empty them of their power and significance. This is no utopian dream—it is a political and religious nightmare.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.