In the course of a discussion the other day with a very good friend of mine, the issue of whether and how Christians should engage a “secular” society was raised. I was advocating that Christians should speak out more forcefully (and preferably more articulately and effectively) on the issue of same-sex marriage. She expressed “conflicted” feelings on the matter. Though she didn’t invoke the phrase, her position resembled the “wall of separation” view held by many Americans today, namely that the United States is a “secular” country and Christians should respect a clear boundary between “church” and “state.” Marriage, in her mind, is a civil arrangement, and while churches should certainly be protected in what relationships they sanction, she was reluctant to force her views on the society overall.
How should Christians engage popular culture and the public square? Should Christians strive to advance their moral views in the political and/or legal sphere? Can Christians push for the legislation of morality? Or should Christians respect that we are a “secular” society with varying beliefs and thus confine their moral pronouncements to places of worship? My friend and I agree on far more than we disagree, and she will likely agree with much of what I write here. Not all of this post is applicable to our disagreement, but the issue she raised resonates throughout the political and cultural stage in America today, and is therefore worthy of our attention.
Is the United States a Secular Society?
Let’s first examine the premise (which is frankly too often assumed without any scrutiny) that the United States of America is a secular society. While the Constitution of the United States forbids any “religious tests” for federal officials and the First Amendment prevents Congress from establishing a religion (such as the “Church of England” in the Mother Country), the Founding Fathers established the United States itself in a monotheistic context. The Declaration of Independence, which started us as a nation, invokes God four times: “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge,” and “Divine Providence.” Various state constitutions invoke God, and in some cases, the Christian faith specifically. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress passed several resolutions that called for prayer, fasting, and “national humiliation.” Individual states (former colonies) did the same. General George Washington asked Congress to create the chaplain corps. and also ordered his men to avoid cursing, attend worship services, and conduct themselves as “Christian soldiers.” When Washington became President, he called on the American people to pray during his First Inaugural Address and later issued an extremely religious Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. And when he retired, Washington published a Farewell Address that said “religion and morality” are “indispensable supports to political prosperity.”
These are just a few examples of a highly monotheistic and moralistic perspective widely shared by our founding leaders. Note that I’m not claiming all our Founding Fathers were Christian. Many of them, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were (by their own admission) plainly not Christian, at least not in the evangelical or orthodox sense. But all of our Founding Fathers, even the anti-Christian Thomas Paine, believed in God and believed we were, in some ways, accountable to God. And all of our Founders, with the possible exception of Paine, believed that our government and policies should reflect objective moral principles long decided by Divine Providence.
The idea that the United States of America was intended to be purely secular is simply not supported by the historical record. As the late (and liberal) Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once wrote: “We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
How Should Christians Engage the Political Process?
At this point, some Americans may concede that the Founders were at least monotheistic, but they quickly add that they weren’t necessarily founding a “Christian nation.” On this point, I agree with John MacArthur, who says that it’s simply not possible for a nation-state to be “Christian” in the biblical sense. Jesus saves people (as in individuals). He doesn’t save nation-states. So, in the biblical sense, I agree that the Founders did not make the United States a “Christian nation” per se.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians must take a laissez faire approach to the political process. It doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t seek to have the United States reflect Christian values. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, explained: “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” In other words, it’s up to Christian citizens to elect Christian leaders and thus advance Christian values and principles via the political process.
Some Americans, typically those on the left side of the political spectrum, go apoplectic at this thought. They say that Christians shouldn’t “impose their views” or “their religion” on others, point out that America is made up of other faiths and cultures, and remind us (as if we’ve forgotten) that the Constitution explicitly forbids “religious tests.” Let’s take each one of these objections in turn.
Does the Constitution Forbid “Religious Tests”?
Article VI of the Constitution of the United States reads in part: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Those suspicious of Christians striving to elect more Christians to office like to point to this part of the U.S. Constitution, claiming that somehow its meaning or spirit is being violated by Christians wanting to support like-minded individuals for higher office.
With due respect to those of my readers who may be sympathetic to this view, I have to say that this is one of the most ridiculous arguments I’ve heard. The clear meaning and intent of Article VI of the Constitution was to prohibit any legal or official “religious test” for a public official, such as was the case with eleven of the thirteen original states. For example, Delaware required its officials to take an oath, affirming their belief in the Trinity. Pennsylvania required its officials to “acknowledge the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments.” Similar language was included in the constitutions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. And the original Maryland Declaration of Rights required that elected officials make a “declaration of belief in the existence of God.” At first, the U.S. Constitution limited its prohibition to national officers, but the Supreme Court later applied Article VI to all the states as well. By then, most states had scrapped their religious requirements anyway.
For the record, I oppose legal religious tests for elected officials. That is not at issue here. What John Jay was advocating (and what I find myself in great sympathy with) is that Christian voters should prefer Christian candidates. That is not an official religious test. It is an example of an individual voter exercising his or her right to vote according to whatever criteria he or she selects. Do I, as a voter, not have the right, for instance, to vote for a candidate based on her tax policies? Same question with regard to foreign policy views.
Christians have the same right as any other lobby group to play in the public policy sandbox, so to speak. Christians can rally together, combine resources, set up organizations, and so forth to elect other people of faith to office and advance Christian principles in the public square. There is nothing inherently inappropriate or out-of-bounds with a “Christian Coalition” or a “Moral Majority.” After all, it was one of our Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, that started the first overtly Christian activist organization. It was called the “Christian Constitutional Society.”
The bottom line is that Christians organizing to elect or help other Christians in the political process is not a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Rather, that kind of civic engagement, whether it involves Christians or non-Christians, affirms the kind of popular and civic involvement the Constitution calls for.
But…why should Christians Impose Their Views or Their Morality on the Rest of Society?
Every single law that’s ever been passed is an imposition of a moral perspective or social viewpoint. Right now, gay rights groups are lobbying hard for the national acceptance of same-sex marriage. Assuming they are successful (and it appears they will be), is that not an imposition of a moral perspective and/or a social viewpoint? Why is it okay for one side to “impose its views” on society, but not okay for another side to strive to do the same? Let’s cut the nonsense. This isn’t about “tolerance” or “respecting other people’s views.” This idea that Christians must stay out of public policy debates or moral discussions because they shouldn’t “impose their views” is plainly ludicrous. Frankly, it’s disingenuous. Every single group that seeks to change public policy is doing so in the context of “imposing” their views or their moral perspective on the rest of society.
What about religious views, though? Imposing moral or social views is inevitable when it comes to changing public policy, but should there be some boundaries when it comes to religious views? George Washington answered this question in his Farewell Address, when he wrote: “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”
In case anyone has difficulty understanding Mr. Washington, let’s be clear. George Washington, the Father of the United States of America, is saying that you can’t have morality without religious principle, and morality is essential to the fabric of the nation. If you still have difficulty understanding or grasping that, read Washington’s quote again and again, until you get it.
Of course, some rather smug readers may dismiss Washington with a “Well, that’s his opinion” kind of line. If you are going to claim that you have more wisdom and experience about what makes a nation successful than George Washington, then I suppose you can make that assertion. I mean, people can claim just about anything these days. But keep in mind that you’re talking about a man who led the Continental Army to victory against the mightiest empire on earth, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, and who served as the first President of the United States. Without Washington, there would not be a United States of America today. It strikes me as rather arrogant and frankly foolish for someone to blithely dismiss Washington’s wisdom as mere opinion. But, hey, maybe that’s just me.
If you’re a Christian (and don’t respect Washington’s wisdom as authoritative), let me point you to the Bible. In Proverbs 14:34, we read “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (NIV). Very succinct, and precisely the same principle that the Founding Fathers of America understood.
How Should Christians Engage The Public Square?
Many Christians face very real confusion over how they should engage the public square. Like my friend, they are people of great intelligence and upstanding moral character, but they see biblical commands concerning love, grace, and gentleness, and they are genuinely concerned about how they should engage the popular culture and the public square. I understand these concerns, and let me make clear that my preceding sarcasm isn’t directed against all those with whom I might disagree on this point (and certainly not against my friend, who like I said, I know would agree with much of what I have to say). Rather, my sarcasm is intended for those who dismiss or ignore the Scriptures and the collective wisdom of our nation’s Founding Fathers. (No, I don’t put the Founding Fathers on the same level as Scripture, but when the two agree, that says something, don’t you think?)
The first way Christians should engage the culture is to examine themselves. God made clear to King Solomon in II Chronicles 7:14 that revival and healing begin with God’s people. We must examine ourselves and make sure that we are seeking God’s face, turning from our sinful ways, and humbling ourselves before Him. Spiritually healthy Christian homes and churches will do much to turn things around in the United States of America. The second most important thing we must do is pray. In I Timothy, Paul tells us to pray for those in authority over us, so that we may “lead quiet and peaceful lives.” If we, as God’s people living in America, want peace, security, and morality, we must pray for it. We need to be on our knees continually, and we need to be praying passionately (and specifically) for the issues and challenges facing America. Finally, we must be good stewards of the opportunities God has given us, and that means we must speak out and vote to advance our biblically-based convictions.
It’s on the latter point that some Christians part company with me, but the Bible is our best source of wisdom on this principle. In the Old Testament, we see God’s prophets speaking moral truth to those in power. In the book of Esther, we see a courageous young woman lobbying the king (her husband) to protect the lives of innocent people. In the New Testament, we see John the Baptist denouncing the Judean king’s moral corruption (and losing his head for it). We see Paul appealing to Caesar for religious freedom, and we see the apostles facing persecution because the spread of the Gospel of Christ was effecting the economy and culture of the cities to which it had spread.
We must not hide our light or bury our talents. We must be the salt and light that God wants us to be. It’s time for Christians in the United States to be the difference makers that God wants us to be!