Pundits don't have hot line to heaven

Christians should show humility before using God as a politcal ally

Contributing columnistOctober 10, 2009 

In the early 1990s, as I recall it, after I'd become a religion writer for the Herald-Leader, I wrote an opinion column in favor of the strict separation of church and state.

This was, to my understanding, an exceedingly conservative view.

I soon found out different.

I'd been raised a Southern Baptist, although I no longer belonged to that denomination, and I'd grown up attending theologically and socially conservative churches in Kentucky's small towns and farming communities.

Separation of church and state was among the Baptist tenets drilled into my head early in life; it was only slightly less important than John 3:16.

The principle dated as far back as Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of Rhode Island, but it remained a Baptist standard long after Williams went home to glory.

Baptists are the biggest religious sect in Kentucky; one reason is that thousands of them fled westward in the late 1700s to escape persecution from the Episcopal Church, which was the official, state-sanctioned faith in Virginia.

Having been the victims of a government and church too closely intertwined reinforced Baptists' view that, as I was admonished as a boy, the government ought to keep its nose out of the church and the church ought to keep its nose out of politics.

That's the context in which I wrote my column. I sat back, waiting for congratulatory letters to roll in from my conservative, evangelical friends.

I did indeed hear from many evangelicals, including a number of Baptists. They excoriated me as a pinko, a heathen and a tool of Satan.

I received roughly an equal number of responses from self-described Christian liberals, who hailed me as their new local hero.

This discombobulated me. In less than a generation, in the span between my boyhood and my 30s, these two factions had neatly reversed positions.

Conservative evangelicals now demanded temporal, political power. Some liberal Christians now wanted the church and state entirely separate.

I wondered whether God suddenly had changed his mind or whether we as Christians were simply pawns of whatever happened to have become trendy in our own time and respective religious subcultures.

Today, I ask myself that same question. Christians, whatever our political leanings, ought to be awfully careful when we venture into the public square waving our Bibles and presuming to speak for God.

Our ideas about biblical and divine truth seem to shift with the whims of popular opinion and party platforms — not to mention talk radio.

If we're not careful, we might claim we're speaking for God when really we're only reflecting the ideas of our own circle of preachers and churchgoers and pundits. We can rationalize almost anything. We're easily led down almost any path.

There are so many examples.

Eighty-five percent of conservative Christian activists now identify abortion as the chief moral issue in politics, says a survey by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, in partnership with Public Religion Research.

There's historical precedent for arguing that abortion is antithetical to a Christian conception-to-the-grave respect for human life.

It's hard to find explicit sanctions against abortion in the Bible, but among the early church leaders who appeared shortly after the apostles — people who presumably knew them, or knew people who had known them — there are indeed very plain prohibitions.

The interesting thing is that alongside these bans on abortion often lie equally explicit arguments against capital punishment. For instance, Clement of Rome and Justin Martyr, two of the great church fathers, opposed the death penalty.

Yet today, while most evangelicals oppose legalized abortion, most also favor capital punishment.

Has God changed his mind on this matter, too? Or are contemporary Christians simply reflecting the views of American culture, in which, polls show, 75 percent of Americans favor the death penalty?

Did Clement and Justin Martyr know less about God's will than you and I do? Did they know more or less than St. Augustine, who later argued in favor of capital punishment? Only God can say for sure.

I'm not lobbying here for or against legalized abortion or for or against capital punishment. I'm not even speaking here in favor of church-state separation.

I'm arguing in favor of humility by Christians in the political arena.

That seems to be the virtue most lacking in our public discussions these days.

It seems to me we should always be aware of our own frailties, our own disturbing tendency to attach God's name to — and trot out a Scripture for — whatever political dogma, conservative or liberal, we've already chosen to embrace, whatever gains us happy winks, nods and back-pats from our theological peer group.

Let's face it, our capacity for self-deception is virtually endless. I hope the more we keep that in mind, the less likely we are to be deceived.

Paul Prather, pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, has a new book, A Memory of Firelight: Selected Columns From the Lexington Herald-Leader. E-mail him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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