Christian groups in America have a long history of political activism. The issues may change from one generation to the next, but the impulse to reform society seems a constant feature of faith.
The issues Christians care about today run the full length of the political spectrum. Progressive Christians such as Jim Wallis of the Sojourner’s community and evangelist Tony Campolo champion the cause of economic justice. Both are passionate in their belief that the Gospel of Jesus must include proactive ministries on behalf of the poor.
On the other side of the aisle are Christian leaders such as D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell. Both of these high visibility preachers are unapologetic in their effort to “reclaim America for God.” Social concerns on their radar screen include opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and promoting public displays of the Ten Commandments.
So passionate and so effective are these Christian advocates, from the left and the right, that one defender of church-state separation believes they are all part of the same problem.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argues that faith advocacy from whatever quarter and for whatever motive violates the spirit of the Constitution. Lynn believes that politicians and not preachers should develop policy. And that policy should be based on the common good, not a scriptural ideal.
This really complicates matters. Evangelicals are nurtured in a climate of evangelistic fervor. They are taught from baptism that their purpose as Christians is to preach the Gospel to the whole world. The highest good for an evangelical is to see all people embrace Jesus as Savior.
The problem comes when persuasive preaching gives way to coercion. While it is one thing to become a Christian voluntarily, it is another thing altogether to force someone to live by Christian principles imposed by the rule of law—no matter how virtuous those principles may be.
But where is the line? Certainly “do not murder” is part of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, but it turns out to be pretty good advice for everyone. “Do not steal” is another covenant principle that has become recognized as more law than faith.
But matters such as idolatry, resting on the Sabbath, taking God’s name in vain, and even something as significant as not committing adultery or taking care of our elderly parents—these ideals, important as they are, cannot be forced by law.
Falwell and Kennedy would argue that God’s law is higher than the laws of mere human beings. They would not hesitate to make profanity or adultery crimes punishable by law.
Wallis and Campolo, on the other hand, know they cannot make neglect of the poor and elderly a crime punished by law, but they do dream of changing our economic system so that public funds are available to assist the least of these in our midst.
Were they to succeed, would that be an establishment of a faith? Is providing for the poor by means of a social program the same thing as coercing someone to pray or listen to prayers?
Lynn would say it is the same thing, but I would say it is not. While from the perspective of faith, honoring the Scriptures and following a covenant ethic is certainly good, it must be seen as a particular good—that is, a good that is not self-evident to everyone. While people who pray would argue that prayer is the greatest thing ever, it is only so for those who believe. People who do not pray should not be forced to pray or hear prayers against their will.
On the other hand, caring for the poor and disadvantaged, while certainly promoted in the Scriptures, is an ideal that transcends religious belief. Social scientists would argue that caring for the poor actually makes a society stronger, healthier. In other words, policies that seek to alleviate and eliminate poverty promote a common good. That people of faith share this concern, even if motivated by biblical teaching, does not mean that social programs are necessarily expressions of faith.
However we discuss these matters, one thing is for certain: Christian activism is here to stay. Faith is, and should be, part of our national dialogue. What people of faith cannot do, and should not want to do, is impose their vision on everyone else by means of law. We should be willing to contribute to the common good in every way we can. But as for the particular good which grows out of the ideals of our faith, that’s when being salt and light becomes important.
James L. Evans is pastor of First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.