When the government gets into the God business
I stumbled onto a fascinating article last week in which the current debates about religious liberties were held up to some historical comparison. What I learned was a bit shocking. (link to blog)
Apparently in the 19th century in the USA there was a strong movement to pass federal legislation to “protect” certain religious liberties. There are parallels between the mood then and the mood now among certain Christian groups. Then (as now) there were some calling for the federal government to enact laws that would safeguard their place in the public arena (translation: prayer in the public schools, Ten Commandments in public places, nativities displays on government properties, etc., etc.). The legislation ultimately failed to make it into law in part because of the work of a Christian minister and magazine editor named Washington Gladden.
As the article points out:
“In his editorials, Gladden railed against the proposed amendment. The state was “not called to the inculcation or confirmation of religious truth,” he wrote.
Gladden invoked religious liberty – the same rhetoric President Trump and members of his administration have used to reassure modern evangelicals – to demand no special protection be made. Citizens should expect “equal footing for their faith, no matter what it may be,” rather than particular privilege.
Most boldly, Gladden argued that a religion that needed protection from government was a religion that had no reason to exist. He wrote on his editorial page,
If our Christianity is of such a flimsy texture that nothing but a constitutional amendment will save it, the sooner it is obliterated the better for the land.
Simply put, he insisted, religious people had to make their own case for their values. If they could not, they certainly did not deserve greater support. This was a controversial argument in what was largely a Protestant country, but other Protestants amplified it. Other Christian leaders came to see support for the amendment as a sign of weak faith.”
Gladden realized that true faith would thrive and survive without the artificial support of the state. It’s an interesting perspective that should give us, the church, pause in this current climate. If the gospel truly is the hope of the world, and if the followers of Jesus truly are empowered with the Holy Spirit, and if the church is on mission day in and day out, won’t that be far more effective than a piece of legislation? As another writer pointed out, let them be suspicious of your beliefs, but jealous of your conduct.
Will your faith thrive without legislation? Will the church shine like the light of the world? That’s Jesus’ plan. What’s our plan?
P.S. – Our next Rooted Experience begins on September 11th. If you’ve been procrastinating or pondering, this is your moment. You can register here for a life-changing ten weeks that will help you connect with God, his church, and your purpose!