Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Conscience of the Nation

Last week, I did something that has changed my life.  Instead of trying to just guess what the other side was thinking, I decided to ask them directly.  Much has been made of the bubbles we intellectually move in, and it is absolutely true.  The problem is we see that as a problem for the other side, but are blinded ourselves that we are as bad and worse.  Jesus Himself tells us to be on guard against this.  In the Sermon on the Mount, a teaching so powerful that it profoundly impacted Mahatma Gandhi, he warns us:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.  (Matthew 7:1-6 NIV)

It seems that everyone is familiar with the first two verses.  And many incorrectly interpret them to mean that we cannot judge anything a person does, and therefore, in a sense, is used as a justification of why Christians should not try to impose our values on society, because to do so is to "judge" other viewpoints.  Jesus is being much more nuanced than that, but that will a discussion for another day.  But let me tell you what my new awareness obtained through dialogue has informed me.  You on the left do not want Christians to buy into this interpretation.  And the reason is, ironically, the "separation of Church and State".

During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, a group of Baptists became very concerned with an idea that was buzzing about that the American version of the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, was about to become the national denomination of the United States.  We in America are unfamiliar with the idea of a national church.  It is the combining of Church and State, and is very wrong.  The reason for this is because of what the remarkable Dutch politician/educator/journalist/theologian Abraham Kuyper termed "sphere sovereignty".

Kuyper argued that since Jesus is Lord of everything, then every field (sphere) of human endeavor should include God in its conceptual framework for proper human subordination to occur.  To have legitimacy in rule, all authority must in turn be subordinated to God.  Authority that does not recognize God or His law has no legitimacy because that lack of recognition means that whoever is being ruled over is in danger of being subject to the whims of who they subordinate to, unrestrained. Since Christians believe that unless acted on by either an external or internal force, humans behave very badly, this puts subordinates in a very bad spot.

Though Kuyper lived later, this was a common idea long before Kuyper expressed it so eloquently. Jefferson himself had used the conceptual framework when penning the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is written with this in mind.  Our rights come from God and to have authority, a ruler needs to keep this in mind.  Therefore, King George III was a tyrant, not just because of "taxation without representation", which is what is commonly taught in school.  That is just one of many reasons.  Almost to explicitly emphasize this it is the one reason advanced as evidence of King George's tyranny that does not stand alone.  Instead it bundled with another piece of evidence, the suspension of trial by jury.

The problem with a national church is that it muddles the idea of freedom of conscience.  Many people seem to believe that Christianity is all about rules and regulations.  I was interested to find out when engaging with my younger daughter's Japanese friends she would bring to our house on visits from college, that this is what they had assumed was the essence of Christianity.  They are not alone. It is the common conception among many in this country as well.

The early Americans had seen national churches in England and other places and rejected the idea because they felt that people should be free to worship as they please.  I completely agree and so does Christianity.  As Christians, unlike some other religions, we feel conversions obtained at gunpoint are useless.  We also feel that people should be able to believe what they want.  But all moral religions should be absolutely encouraged for reasons outlined by, ironically given current controversy, Alexander Hamilton himself in Washington’s Farewell Address, which he helped to write:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?

The philosophy behind this statement is because human beings, being inherently selfish, want to do things their own way, often without regard for the feelings of others.  To keep them from this, their behavior needs to be restrained either by their own sense of right and wrong or by an outside agency, like the police.  Some argued, as is done today, that education could be substituted for religion as this internal force.  Washington/Hamilton respond this way:

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

The reason for this is simple. Education is casting bread upon the water. It carries with it no moral obligation. Without religion, there is no compelling moral reason for people to do anything. With religion, with the idea of accountability to a transcendent source who will one day judge us on our behavior, there is absolutely need to live correctly. For the purposes of an orderly society, any religion that believes in a transcendent source of morality is therefore useful to this end, including Islam. It is not the state’s job to dictate to people how they should believe, but it is a good idea for the state to encourage religious belief. This is why the attempt to suppress Christian ideas and values is so misguided. Dennis Prager illustrated this in a terrific way. Imagine, he says, you are downtown in the middle of a city at 2am in the morning and your car breaks down. You notice that a group of a dozen or so young men are walking towards you. Would you feel better or worse to know they had just left a Bible study? I imagine even the most ardent secularist reading this, if answering honestly, would say they would feel better because of the recognition that these people have an internal force acting on their behavior. Therefore, religion is so important to a free society. Without it, as in totalitarian states, its absence must be replaced with the strong arm of man. As Mao Zedong observed in such a state “right behavior begins at the end of a gun”.

In the Christian idea of society there are three components each with a separate and vital role. The Family is responsible for the raising of the new generation, the Church is responsible for education and taking care of people and the State is responsible for preserving order, administering justice and protecting the nation. Each of these parts is distinct, yet all work together. The state has a very necessary and legitimate need to do things that are necessary to accomplish its function including, when necessary, to break heads. The church’s function by controlling education is to keep the impulse to be excessive in these ends in check. The church acts as the conscience of the state, so removing its influence is dangerous. Without it much of what the left legitimately fears can be done with impunity.

The left’s ideas of right and wrong are informed by explicitly Christian ideas of justice and mercy, though it is often unrecognized. We therefore agree on many things. For a variety of reasons, they have felt the need to fill the role of state conscience because they legitimately see a vacuum caused by the church’s attempt to use the state as a means of enforcing morality instead of just having the state encourage the church to do its job. They have felt the need to transfer to the state the functions of education and taking care of the people, essentially leaving the church with no function in society at all. This is wrongheaded.

Jefferson tried to reassure the Danbury Baptists by quoting one of their own denomination’s theologians who had spoken of the dangers of what happens when these spheres become blurred. Basically, the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” was to ensure each vital part of society functioned within its own proper sphere. It was more to protect the church from the state than vice versa. It was to prevent the establishment of an actual national denomination owed allegiance to, not because of conscience, but because of compelled obligation.

In my dialogues, I have been asked if I support things like torture and the killing of innocent people, not because folks were trying to be snarky, but because they have legitimately felt that my vote for President Elect Trump is a blank check. It is not. Like many of you, I was faced with a difficult choice because no candidate out there expressed my views perfectly. That means that whoever I voted for would be a compromise of sorts. I focused on the two issues that were important to me, but could not just buy these a la carte. It was a package deal. I cannot like a little boy who doesn’t like peas, just eat around the parts of Trump I don’t like. But I can make sure that while he delivers on the issues I voted for, he does nothing that violates my beliefs about justice and mercy. That is my duty as part of the conscience of the state.

I will ask my new friends on the left to do me one favor though. Remember that the phrase in the constitution has two parts and, as I join you in making sure we do not establish a national religion, I ask you to not try and restrict my free exercise of my beliefs. I can be a powerful ally to you only if I not restricted in that. So, exercise some tolerance when I want to say “Merry Christmas” or put a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. It is for the good of all of us that I do so.

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