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Editor’s Journal: America’s God: A public theology examined

Not since the end of Great Britain’s Victorian age had such terror gripped the Western world like it would after Sept. 11, 2001. Twenty-first Century terrorism brought with it new challenges for many modern nations, and the motive of the terrorists’ actions seemed to have been simmering for years before erupting in a religious rage. Seemingly overnight, the fruit of a century of progress regressed to that of primal man. Perceptive observers could only admit that something drastic was happening, and the future of modern civilization might be in question. An obvious connection quickly became apparent to many journalists and political scientists: any religion is dangerous, all should be equally held to account as all religions possess latent tendencies toward extremism. Voices who linked the presence of religion with the occurrence of terrorism found traction.

The undeniable fact was that religion did aid in the formulation and execution of the 9/11 atrocities. The mentions of a god and the praise attributed to him by the masterminds of the carnage prompted a public debate. One emerging idea was that religion did indeed underscore and even aid in the founding of the governments and/or regimes in such a dramatic way that to avoid studying the founding of any government apart from at least a cursory glance toward its cultural and religious teachings could all too easily eclipse the hints of future political actions—even terrorist events. From the divine right of kings to direct democracy to representative democracy to communism to theocracy, political governance required a working theology. Exposing the ruling theology was the task at hand, and it was a task that many in the Church—particularly evangelicals—had all but abandoned.

In the days after 9/11, some leading Christian pastors and theologians began to openly dialogue about the Church’s role and voice in statecraft. What should be the extent of the Church’s involvement and how are theological conclusions to be drawn in light of the political documents (such as the Declaration of Independence) that use religious language? Are voter guides and large campaign-like rallies sufficient to communicate the complexities of religious political engagement? When the talents of stagecraft meet the teaching of the Bible, some issues and particular teachings of Scripture are certain to be shunned in favor of more favorable political strategies. Behind many modern organized evangelical political efforts rested a loose and often simplistic reading of Holy Scripture.

Morality policy (as it has come to be known by public policy scholars across the world) has shaped the United States social policy agenda since the year 1979. The beginnings of this subfield of social policy analysis originated with an American professor, James B. Christoph of Indiana University, who founded his research and model on Britain’s Parliament during the classic debate surrounding the abolishment of capital punishment. In the parliamentary system of government, experts (read bureaucrats) who are specially trained to understand, draft and create policies for the benefit of the public present the legislation to Parliament who, in turn, and in concert with the majority party, typically enacts its proposals.

This was not true with capital punishment, however, and it was a sharp departure from the status quo because of the emotion which surrounded, in the words of Christoph, “deep seated moral codes.” Public law, therefore, took on a new meaning, and Christoph formulated a new area of formal study that surrounded the moral issues of abortion, homosexuality, birth control, prostitution and capital punishment. This subject became the terrain of the American experience of many Christians who, in the words of sociologist William Martin, engaged the American political system beginning in the 1980s “with God on our side.” Borrowing the war room tactics of hard-ball politics, many evangelicals have chosen to fuse the moral codes of the Bible to the public policies of the day believing that public policy is little more than applied theology.

University of Akron Professor John Green, in his work, The Bully Pulpit, used what for many in the evangelical world was a new idea for governmental activism—social theology. During the 1960s the conflict between rival visions of social theologies reached a fevered pitch. It was the civil rights movement followed by the war on poverty, then the Vietnam War followed by Roe v. Wade which has sustained the often bitter debate over the role of religion in politics. Green noted that there is a two-party system that actually separates Protestant pastors and theologians from each other as both read the same Bible, but come to radically different conclusions about public policy. To state the obvious: Christians differ in their understanding of certain Bible passages regarding the role of politics and faith.

Carl F. H. Henry, 01/22/1913 - 12/07/2003

Heroic efforts have been made by certain evangelicals such as Carl F. H. Henry to unify evangelicals around the Gospel in all its manifestations to the world—both its spiritual and social aspects. This was most clearly observed in his 1947 classic work, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry saw the founding of the American republic, in some ways, as a religious undertaking. The United States was not simply a hodgepodge of religious views. Many political leaders in the original colonies were influenced by religion—and not just any religion. As historian Mark Noll has observed: the Christian faith as expressed by evangelicals had formed the locus of communities during the colonial era and well into the early history of the American republic.

This is not to say that confusion and disagreement did not exist regarding the interpretation of providences in the fledgling colonies. As an example, not all Christians in the original colonies were convinced that America was the new Israel. Nevertheless, government was seen as an extension of law for the common good as defined, in some ways, by Holy Scripture. Those not holding to Scripture’s authority (and there were many) were not bound by law to accept the central tenants of Christian doctrine. Yet, even nonbelievers partially adopted the understanding that the creation of the world was no accident and time on the Earth was to be used for advancement of civilization.

Government was understood to be the cumulative decision of a community to release to others authority over their lives. How this takes place and by what force it is administered is, at bottom, a theological issue. If man is seen to be the measure of all things, then government will usually reflect a totalitarian regime. If God is believed to be paramount with authority over the rulers of a nation, then liberty of conscience to worship God—not the king—will be a first concern to any nation. The battle is for control—who says what to whom for how long surrounds the issue of power. How power is managed and controlled is the task of the government. How a government is structured continues to be an on-going crisis and battle for supremacy.

Over time, humans begin to place fundamentally religious aspirations on the machinery of government requiring the state’s help in critical times. Normally, more and more personal liberty is forfeited in hopes of avoiding social conflict. The result: personal autonomy begins to slowly erode and governmental control invades more areas of personal life.

Christianity’s influence in American statecraft cannot be denied. The challenge for the modern Church, however, is to accurately preach the Gospel in such a way that the dreadful plight of mankind is seen in theological terms not simply political opportunities. For when theology becomes little more than a weapon to advance any political agenda (conservative or liberal), the truth of the Bible has been compromised and the Gospel obscured behind man-made ideas of earthly satisfaction void of eternal truth.

Author: Douglas Baker

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