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Christian role underscored in addressing public issues

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Christians are called to stay determinedly active in the public arena to address the most pressing issues of our day, public policy champions said during a conference on faith and public policy at Union University, Jackson, Tenn.
About 200 people attended the Oct. 19-20 conference, titled, “Christian Faith and Public Policy: Where do we go from here?” and cosponsored by the Baptist-affiliated university’s Center for Christian Leadership and the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities.
The center’s director, David P. Gushee, noted the first day’s speakers talked broadly about Christian involvement in politics, while the second day’s speakers addressed more specific issues, including abortion and separation of church and state.
On abortion, for example, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the abortion issue’s divisiveness shouldn’t convince Christians to avoid the pro-life effort, but rather, give them hope and encouragement to continue the “struggle for hearts and minds.”
“We’ve won in some respects, ” Land said. “Most of America is uncomfortable with abortion today. Abstinence programs have been enacted, and the number of abortions has gone down.”
But the fight is not over, Land said. Laws in support of abortion are still in place, and those laws “have chosen death and cursing over life and blessing.”
Ultimately, Christians have a choice to make when it comes to the abortion issue, he said; they can choose to emphasize individual rights (such as those of the woman) or emphasize the human life which God has created. “For those who say we can’t legislate morality, I say explain the civil rights movement,” Land said.
The most effective way to affect legislation, including that of abortion, is through “prudent and principled” activity, said Michael Cromartie, a senior fellow in Protestant studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
One of the loudest and most accepted voices in the public squares of early America was that of the Protestant Christians, Cromartie said. But beginning with the Scopes trial of 1925, Christians began to shy away from the public arena, even going so far as to say that God’s work could only be done within the church’s walls.
By the late 1970s, Christian involvement in politics revived, but mainly because Christians increasingly felt the government was working against them rather than with them. “They see themselves as defendants, and not the aggressors, in the culture war,” Cromartie said.
The most effective Christian activism, Cromartie said, nevertheless will come from “epistemological humility, public modesty and charity toward even our strongest opponents.”
“The argument should never be whether Christians ought to be involved in social and political issues. Rather, the issue should be: on what matters should we be most concerned and what are the most prudent ways to express such convictions,” Cromartie said.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, insisted government and religious institutions cannot afford to separate themselves.
Ridding America’s public life of any religious connotation is impossible and destructive, Elshtain said, noting: “Religion contributes to political life and its mores. Religion draws people into the community and away from themselves. Religion and politics cannot be separated.”
To separate the two compromises the Constitution’s promise of freedom of religion, Elshtain contended. “A private religion is no religion at all. When religion is destroyed, it’s not freedom but bondage,” she argued.
Stephen Monsma, professor of political science and chair of the social science division at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., said there are two theories struggling for dominance when it comes to separation of church and state: a strict separationist, no-aid-to-religion theory and an equal-treatment, substantive-neutrality theory.
Those who support the no-aid-to-religion theory hold that “the religious freedom language of the First Amendment should be interpreted to mean that church and state must be kept in as separate spheres as possible and that government may not subsidize or support religion,” Monsma explained.
Like Elshtain, Monsma said he believes the no-aid theory’s strict policy of separation of church and state is a detriment to American society. Specifically, Monsma argued the no-aid theory has driven government in some cases to withdraw its financial support of religious-based social service organizations.
“For the poor and low-income families, the results are often truly tragic. The poor have no choice but to make use of the social and health services provided by government agencies or by private agencies the strict separationist principle would deem to be sufficiently religion-free, even when those agencies are ineffective and lack any religious commitment,” Monsma said.
Jim Skillen, executive director of the Center for Public Justice in Annapolis, Md., explained why government has a mandate to be just and why Christians must stay involved in public policy.
“The person, work and authority of Jesus Christ have to do with everyone and everything in all creation. Therefore, Jesus Christ has everything to do with government and public policy. The question then is how, not whether, Christian faith is connected with public policy,” Skillen said in a chapel address to an audience of about 1,000. Skillen pointed out first that Christianity is not a stranger to the world’s governments. In fact, “Jesus is not a visitor to, or intruder into, a strange land,” Skillen said. “This world, including human political responsibility, belongs to God through the Son even before the Son’s incarnation.”
That means humans, and even more so Christians, are mandated to do what they can to ensure that government and public policy are fundamentally just, he said.
“This does not mean giving in to utopian expectations about human achievements on earth through politics, ” Skillen said, citing several issues that Christians can focus on, such as racial and environmental justice.
“Wholesale, legalized discrimination against black or red people was a fundamental injustice, ” Skillen argued. The challenge today is for government to protect against arbitrary, racist exclusion, not necessarily make people love one another,” Skillen said.
In regard to the environment, Skillen pointed out the Bible clearly explains humans are to be good stewards of God’s creation, including its land, water and non-human creatures. Christians, Skillen said, should advocate “good public law that recognizes the full value of land and water” and “the interdependence of all creatures.”
“The attempt to clarify government’s responsibility for protecting everything from innocent life to religious freedom, from precious resources to the rights of families, is something that should compel Christians everywhere and at all times,” Skillen stressed. “This is part of our Christian service, part of the way we acknowledge Christ our Lord and seek to love and serve him.”

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  • Nedra Kanavel