Most of us have heard it said that people should not bring their religious views into the public square. At first this seems reasonable, until you consider, say, our own history.
In his recently released book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2017), Michael Wear who advised candidate and President Obama on faith issues, quotes a speech his boss gave as a senator in 2006 to support his claim that Democrats and progressives should neither ignore nor seek to marginalize faith. The quote offers a compelling reason why we should not ask people to check their religion at the door of the public square – namely, because faith has impelled many to fight for some of the most important and desirable political and social changes in our nation. (Another reason is that there is no such thing as a morally “neutral” public square; everyone, religious or not, appeals to ultimate values and beliefs. The question then becomes: Whose values, whose morality, should dictate discourse at the public square?)
“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition” (18).
Read the full speech here.
I’m not a big runner. I’m just now trying to get back into running by working on my mile time, a challenge I hope will make running more enjoyable or at least interesting for me. (Thankfully I’ve come a long way from the 14 minute-mile I ran in 8th grade P.E). I say this because I’ve just finished a book I probably never would’ve picked up but for my runner friend who lent it to me (and who’s also just given me a fantastic workout plan; you know who you are – thank you!). The book is Running & Being (1978) by the late George Sheehan, a well-known cardiologist, writer, lecturer, and, most important, I’m sure he would’ve agreed, a runner. I was so struck by Sheehan’s weaving of striking philosophical and even theological observations into a book about running, that less than 30 pages into it I realized I needed to get my own copy. If any of that sounds interesting to you, get the book and read it – I recommend it at least for its thought-provocativeness and Sheehan’s enjoyable writing style.
Here I just wanted to share a particularly striking and I think correct statement by Sheehan asserting that everyone is religious. This is a claim often made by Christian (and non-Christian) apologists and philosophers, who understand that everyone, whether or not they consider themselves religious, thinks and lives in ways that may be characterized as religious because everyone is putting their faith in or building their lives around something, whether or not they’re aware of it. This then shifts the question from “Are you religious?” or “Do you or do you not believe in God?” to “What, for you, is ultimate? What are you building your life on?”
“Every man is religious. Every man is already acting out his compelling beliefs. Religion is not something you belong to, or accept, or think. It is something you do. And you do it every walking minute of every day. Religion is the way you manifest whatever is urgent and imperative in your relationship to yourself and your universe, to your fellow man and to your Creator. Every act is a religious act” (54).
In his classic book Holiness (you can read it here for free), J.C. Ryle, a 19th-century Anglican bishop who once thought Christianity “one of the most disagreeable occupations on earth, or in heaven,” tells the real life story about a perplexed, irreligious English traveler and a Native American convert to illustrate how those who know Christ as the Redeemer who paid for the forgiveness of their sins are compelled to tell others about him and what he’s done for them.
In the story the Englishman asks the Native American Christian why he “talks so much about Christ,” and the Native American man’s answer is a vivid, apt representation of what Christians believe Christ did, for those who would believe in him, by his death and resurrection. I believe his answer may also be a helpful illustration for those who have asked such questions as, Why won’t Christians stop talking about Jesus? Why don’t they keep their faith to themselves and why do they insist on telling others about things like sin, damnation, forgiveness, and…Jesus? Why are they so worked up or even obsessed about this man who died two thousand years ago? Read the Native American man’s answer, and then ask yourself: If you believed that God through Christ has done the same for you, wouldn’t you be wanting to tell the whole world about it?
“Man,” said a thoughtless, ungodly English traveller to a North American Indian convert, “Man, what is the reason that you make so much of Christ, and talk so much about Him? What has this Christ done for you, that you should make so much ado about Him?”
The converted Indian did not answer him in words. He gathered together some dry leaves and moss and made a ring with them on the ground. He picked up a live worm and put it in the middle of the ring. He struck a light and set the moss and leaves on fire. The flame soon rose and the heat scorched the worm. It writhed in agony, and after trying in vain to escape on every side, curled itself up in the middle, as if about to die in despair. At that moment the Indian reached forth his hand, took up the worm gently and placed it on his bosom. “Stranger,” he said to the Englishman, “Do you see that worm? I was that perishing creature. I was dying in my sins, hopeless, helpless, and on the brink of eternal fire. It was Jesus Christ who put forth the arm of His power. It was Jesus Christ who delivered me with the hand of His grace, and plucked me from everlasting burnings. It was Jesus Christ who placed me, a poor sinful worm, near the heart of His love. Stranger, that is the reason why I talk of Jesus Christ and make much of Him. I am not ashamed of it, because I love Him” (301).
Athanasius (296-373) was an early Church Father known for his effective defense of orthodox doctrine against Arianism, a heresy that claimed Jesus was literally created by God the Father and therefore not divine. On this day before Christmas Eve, I thought it appropriate to share two brief excerpts from Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation, a brilliant (and at only 60 pages, short!) treatise of the greatest miracle of all: The Almighty God’s taking on a human body, even a helpless infant, to obtain salvation for those who put their trust in him. On Christmas Day many of us will get gifts that, enjoyable and even useful as they may be, are nonetheless perishable and of little value to our souls. Before this time comes, let’s reflect on and give thanks to God for the one gift that surpasses them all: That of his Son, in whom there is not just life, but life everlasting and abundant.
“You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men” (4).
“The Word perceived that corruption [resulting from our transgression of God’s law] could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all…for naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required…for the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (12-13).
The late Christopher Hitchens was a devastatingly brilliant man of letters who wrote widely, and fiercely, on myriad topics, becoming more widely known in recent years as one of the “New Atheists,” along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for his no-holds-barred attacks on religion, even claiming that religion “poisons everything.”
I recently picked up his last book, Mortality (Twelve, 2012), which was published posthumously after his death in 2011. I did this not because I wanted to read his thoughts on death – there aren’t many for a virulent atheist like him – but because he was a great writer. Hitchens was also a gifted speaker and debater, always ready to employ his voice in debate and lively conversation. This writing advice he offers combines these two things, voice and writing, as he so impressively did throughout his life:
“To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition out loud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better into. If something is worth hearing or listening to it’s very probably worth reading. So, above all: Find your own voice” (50).
So whether you want to become a professional writer or simply write better and more effective e-mails, have you ever thought much about developing your “voice”? And how often do you have others read your work, not to mention reading it yourself?
In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne offers the following excellent, basic distillation of the principle of religious freedom as it ought to be applied in the United States. This distinction is too often blurred, or simply omitted, by those who would remove all reference to religion from the public square in the name of the legitimate principle of separation of church and state, which addresses institutions. As Benne notes in the last sentence, thoughtful Christians will inevitably, and legitimately, engage their faith in the world of politics and policy:
“The state should not confuse separation of church and state, which deals with institutional relationships, with the separation of religion and politics, which deals with the interaction of religious values and perspectives and the political process. The latter is protected by the First Amendment, whose first freedom enables religious persons and institutions to bring their religious values to bear in the political process. Further, such interaction is inevitable when Christians take seriously the comprehensive scope of God’s sovereignty and their duty to that sovereign God” (55-56).
In his tremendously helpful Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne lays out the two main ways to wrongly relate religion and politics – separationism, which calls for a strict removal of faith and religious values from the public square, and fusionism, which seeks to marry religion to politics in a way that has repeatedly proved toxic and destructive for religion itself. Benne then argues for “critical engagement,” whereby Christians critically participate in politics by seeking to move from the “core” insights of their faith (e.g. the fallenness of man, or the dignity of life in all its forms) to public policy, allowing for sincere disagreement on certain trickier issues.
In the excerpt below, on the problems of separationism, Benne shows how many of us do this – compartmentalize faith – in other areas of life besides politics. The right approach, he argues, and I would heartily agree, integrates faith in a way self-critical, thoughtful, and sensible way to all areas of life. But separate it must not remain, for if Christians had always practiced this – keeping religious values out of various spheres of public life – we wouldn’t have the likes of Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce, and Eric Liddel, whose Christian faith spurred their historical achievements in the fields of science, politics, and sports, respectively.*
“The vast majority of separationism…is not driven by faulty theology. Most is a product of practical tendencies to separate religion from ordinary life – Sunday from Monday through Saturday. People don’t have to be sectarians or dualists in theory; they just think and act in ways that separate religion and ordinary life, including politics. One major reason for such dualism is that since the coming of modern times…each sector of life is increasingly divided from other sectors of life, each being purportedly guided by its own autonomous principles. So practical wisdom gives the verdict that ‘religion and politics don’t mix.’ Religion and science don’t mix. Religion and business don’t mix. Religion and art don’t mix. Religion and sport don’t mix. So Christians segment themselves according to the sector of life that they inhabit at the time. They are bifurcated or trifurcated Christians.
“While there is some truth to this segmentation – there is a tentative autonomy to these various sectors – there is no final autonomy. From a Christian point of view all sectors are under the sovereignty of God, and he is active in them… There can be no areas that are free and clear from the presence and commands of God. Practical separationism is as bad as theoretical separationism. Both must be rejected by serious, classical Christians” (23-24).
* Wilberforce was the 18th-century British politician who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade, and Eric Liddel was the Scottish runner and missionary who famously refused to participate in an event at the 1924 Olympics because it would have forced him to compromise his Christian convictions (the film Chariots of Fire was based on this).