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Indivisible Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It's Too Late
By Robison, James
FaithWords Copyright © 2012 Robison, James
All right reserved.
Principles, Policies, and Prayer
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!”
In this book we add our voices to those Christians who are calling on believers to pray for a historic outpouring of God’s Spirit on His Church. Without that, there’s no hope. But we shouldn’t just pray or get riled up for a few months, endorse the right policies, and elect politicians who claim to support them. To see our culture restored, Christians must do a lot more. We must understand the sources of the ideas that ail us as well as their alternatives. We must learn to connect and apply these alternatives and think clearly about them. We must argue persuasively in the public square; apply our convictions consistently in our personal lives; build lasting alliances among Christians, other believers, and friends of freedom who share some but not all of our views; and act strategically to influence the people and institutions that shape culture over the long term. First, though, we need to clear out the weeds and fog in our thinking that have kept us from succeeding in the past, and clear a path to understanding and progress in restoring our culture.
Principles, Not Partisanship
A popular bumper sticker says, GOD IS NOT A REPUBLICAN… OR A DEMOCRAT. The statement is certainly true. God isn’t a member of any political party. Hope doesn’t ride on the back of an elephant or a donkey. The Bible and Christian theology don’t provide a detailed blueprint for public policy. No biblical text tells us if we should prefer an income tax or a sales tax, a direct election or an electoral college, a president or a prime minister. Faithful and well-meaning Christians disagree about politics and will do so until the Lord returns in all His glory.
Still, conflicting ideas about politics and economics can’t all be right. Some policies contradict basic Christian principles—even if Christians support them. Some Christians in previous centuries tried to justify chattel slavery from Scripture, but they were wrong to do so. Today, some Christians think there is a right to abortion that the law should protect. Their view flies in the face of the moral truth, almost two thousand years of Christian teaching, and the Founders’ firm conviction of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life comes first.
Other policies have a good purpose and are based on a sound moral principle, but don’t work because they aren’t well thought out. You might believe that since we should care for the poor (a principle), Congress should raise the minimum wage to $100 an hour (a policy) and then everyone will be rich (a purpose). But the policy won’t work the way you believe it will. It will create massive unemployment.
In general, a good public policy will apply a true principle in the right way. That means that if we want to help people, if we want policies that allow people to thrive, then we need to know not just moral truth but economic truth as well.
A Coalition of Faith, Family, and Freedom
We wish every American would read this book; but there are three groups we really want to reach. If all three will come together as allies, with God’s help, we can restore the culture, stabilize the economy, and secure our freedom.
Think Well, Don’t Just Mean Well
First, we’ve spent many hours talking with and hearing from people of faith, including some good-hearted and intelligent people who disagree with us. The contact has sharpened our thinking. We know believers who think their faith requires them to support certain progressive or liberal policies. For instance, many believe free enterprise or capitalism is all about greed and keeping down the poor. Many also are opposed to the use of military force.
We understand these views. One of us (Jay) once shared them. In college, I thought the “free market” economy was based on greed and exploited the poor, so Christians shouldn’t support it. I also thought that Christ’s command to turn the other cheek was impossible to square with military service. I concluded that Christians should be pacifists.
I slowly came to realize that my views on these subjects were a motley mix of good intentions, bad economics, and a misreading of the Bible and the Christian tradition. I’m now convinced that a free economy is the best way to alleviate poverty and create wealth, and that sometimes we should take up arms because we value human life. We’ll explain why in later chapters.
Freedom Is Indivisible
We also have interacted with Americans who prize limited government and free markets, but aren’t so keen on what they call social conservatism. Some libertarians and businesspeople fall into this camp. They are pro-choice on abortion, don’t have a problem with same-sex “marriage,” and aren’t interested in religion. One so-called fiscal conservative, reflecting on Republican losses after the 2008 elections, wrote in a blog forum, “Social conservatives need to understand that their positions on abortion, gay marriage, and creationism are radioactive to many who would otherwise vote Republican. They need to understand that moderates, libertarians, small government conservatives, national security conservatives generally share their values on the issues of lower taxes, reducing government spending, strong defense, gun control, but that the social conservatives’ positions on abortion, gay rights, etc., are seen as government intrusion on personal liberty based on a particular religious belief system.”
All who support limited government and free markets, however, have a stake in defending religious freedom, life, and marriage, even if they aren’t religious. We make that argument throughout the book, connecting the dots among the causes of economic freedom, life, marriage, and religious liberty. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan recently made the connection this way:
A “libertarian” who wants limited government should embrace the means to his freedom: thriving mediating institutions that create the moral preconditions for economic markets and choice. A “social issues” conservative with a zeal for righteousness should insist on a free market economy to supply the material needs for families, schools, and churches that inspire moral and spiritual life. In a nutshell, the notion of separating the social from the economic issues is a false choice. They stem from the same root.
Not to Stand Is to Stand
The third group we encounter and want to reach are those who see politics as useless and corrupt, a distraction from putting in a good day’s work, paying the bills, loving their families, and perhaps serving their local church or synagogue. For such people, Washington, DC, is best ignored. Does it really matter whom we vote for or what policies we support? Yes, it does matter. Politics isn’t everything, and certainly we should tend our own proverbial gardens. But in today’s world, having no political effect is not an option. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Not to stand is to stand. Not to speak is to speak.” The question is, “Will you stand idly by while our culture collapses, or join those who seek to restore it?”
What Was Right About the Religious Right?
The success and failures of the so-called religious right, which burst onto the scene about thirty years ago, provide some key lessons in that regard. One of us (James) was there at its inception.
Critics often depict the religious right as a bunch of Christians trying to “impose their morality” on everybody else. The truth was, in the 1970s, we felt the secular forces of culture crowding us out of the public square and pushing us to conform. The threat of the Soviet Union had gotten worse after America’s loss of confidence in Vietnam. Inflation was spiraling upward. We struggled with moral decay—the sexual revolution was destroying marriage; divorce and illegitimacy rates were skyrocketing. The Supreme Court had prohibited voluntary school prayer and overturned state laws against abortion, eroding respect for innocent human life. The moral fabric of our country seemed to be tearing apart.
Evangelicals had been active in politics and social reform for more than two centuries. The failure of Prohibition, however, had led many to conclude that politics was a worldly distraction. In 1965, Rev. Jerry Falwell said, “Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else—including the fighting of communism, or participating in the civil rights reform…. Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners.” That was the prevailing attitude: The Lord will return soon and take us to live with Him in heaven, so we should focus on evangelism. As Dwight L. Moody once said, “You don’t polish the brass on a sinking ship.”
By 1980, many of us, including Falwell, saw that we had made a mistake. While millions of Americans were minding their own business, going to work and church, and raising their children, a poisonous ideology had seeped into our schools, courts, government, media, and even churches. We realized that the gospel isn’t just about evangelism; it’s about being salt and light and leaven throughout the whole culture. God came to reconcile not just our souls but everything to Himself (Colossians 1:20).
I (James) had been an evangelist for my entire adult life, but began to feel called to mobilize other Christians to shape the political direction of our country. I was inspired during a private prayer meeting called by evangelist Billy Graham and Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright. Both Billy and Bill said they were convinced that the Soviet threat, unless successfully opposed, would bring an end to freedom as we had known it. We agreed that our nation needed strong principled leadership to avoid this tragedy. So in the summer of 1980, I, along with other Christian leaders, helped organize the National Affairs Briefing in Dallas, Texas. The event brought together more than fifteen thousand pastors, leaders, and members of evangelical churches.
At my invitation, then-Governor Ronald Reagan spoke to the group. He opened with a statement that I had suggested to him privately. “This is a nonpartisan gathering,” he said, “and I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.” It not only cemented his ties to many evangelical Christians and the religious right, but became one of his most famous quotes.
The 1980 briefing drew national headlines and helped catapult Reagan to the lead in the presidential race. National polls indicated that the gathering and subsequent support among Evangelicals gave Reagan the momentum to win the election. Looking back on the event in light of Reagan’s role in helping defeat the Soviet Union and end the Cold War, it seems providential.
Critics said the religious right wanted to impose a theocracy, which was absurd. But I did think the name for the movement, the Moral Majority, struck the wrong chord. It sounded as if we were claiming to be the moral compass for everyone else. Instead, what people often saw in the media were anger and big egos. I struggled with anger myself and, eventually, felt called to go in another direction, although I continued to pray with and counsel political leaders. While I shared the goals of the religious right, I worried about the dangers of Christians being viewed as a wing of one political party.
God led me to spend my time inspiring compassionate expressions of God’s love. For years now I have focused my attention on the ministry I founded, called LIFE Outreach International. We spread the good news to TV audiences around the world and share the love of Christ with hundreds of thousands of destitute people in the poverty-ridden developing world. With the help of faithful viewers, God has used us to save the lives of millions, drill thousands of water wells for poor villages, care for orphans, rescue children from sex trafficking, and encourage more loving and effective social programs.
I will never waver in these efforts. In recent years, however, I’ve started to sense, again, the need to address the direction of our nation and government.
Before Jay and I met, he had been making the case that Christians should embrace free enterprise while also urging free marketers to embrace the causes of life, marriage, and religion. He was convinced, as I was, that the defenders of faith, family, and freedom had to work together. Through a providential turn of events, the two of us connected. It’s unusual for an Evangelical and a Catholic to come together on a project like this, but we hope to provide an example of unity. We haven’t compromised the theological convictions on which we differ, but built on the deep principles that all Christians share.
We do so with an acute awareness of what has been done and how far we have to go. Christian activism since 1980 has helped the country become more pro-life and has slowed the forces that seek to dismantle marriage and secularize society; but we’re still losing the culture. Christians talk a lot about the Church transforming culture, but too often, a hostile culture transforms the Church. If the culture is stampeding toward a cliff, it’s not enough for us to walk more slowly in the same direction while muttering an occasional warning. We must stop, turn around, and march the other way.
“That They May Be One…”
Aside from muddled thinking, though, why has Christian activism failed to turn the culture?
A severe problem is our lack of unity. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus prayed that His disciples might be one, as He and the Father are one. For a thousand years, the Body of Christ was unified. In 1054, however, tensions between East and West led to a tragic split that has never fully healed.
Then, in 1517, Martin Luther, responding to widespread corruption, sparked the Protestant Reformation in the West—though he didn’t intend to create a split. Since then, Protestants and Catholics have spilled time, energy, and blood fighting each other—to say nothing of how Christians have often treated Jews. There are now some 42,000 denominations worldwide and still counting. We seem to be better at splitting than at working together. But we know that the Lord wants us to discover the unity He prayed for. Surely we can agree on the need to address serious moral and social issues by standing together.
With Christians divided, secularists have pushed believers farther and farther to the margins and turned millions of Americans against free enterprise. What our grandparents treated as common sense—the right to life, the dignity of marriage—are now treated as bigotry. The moral consensus that sustained our country has ceased to exist.
Ironically, the progress of secularism has brought believers together. Though the media often portrayed the religious right as an evangelical and “fundamentalist” concern, it was always ecumenical—including not just Evangelicals but Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Mormons.
People of faith have come together in recent years over issues such as abortion and marriage. Praying outside Planned Parenthood offices, orthodox Catholics have found they have more in common with faithful Lutherans than with liberal Catholics who think like secularists. While campaigning for a state referendum on marriage, Southern Baptists have joined forces with Pentecostals, whom they used to avoid. At crisis pregnancy centers, staunch Calvinists have learned they have a lot more in common with evangelical Methodists than they do with liberal Presbyterians. It’s sad that it’s taken aggressive secularism, abortion on demand, and a frontal attack on marriage for Christians to discover that we have much in common.
Baptist theologian Timothy George has called this phenomenon an “ecumenism of the trenches.” It’s a unity based on certain policies and born of the strategy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If we’re only held together by shared policy opinions and a common opponent, however, then our alliance will look like a weak marriage of convenience.
Believers need to go beyond defensive alliances on public policy and strive for a deeper and more lasting unity. Sure, we have important doctrinal disagreements. Yet we share core beliefs and moral principles and we worship the same God. (There’s only one.) If believers stand on these, we can partly fulfill Jesus’s prayer for our unity, even though we’re still divided by institutions and doctrines.
The two of us are convinced that the Holy Spirit is drawing together all of those in the Judeo-Christian tradition despite our differences. In that spirit, over the last two years, we have met with Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish leaders. We’ve listened to their concerns and tried to write this book to resonate with all Christians and, wherever possible, with Jews and other people of faith as well.
Our goal is highest common denominator ecumenism, which is different from the ecumenical movement of the last century. That movement was centered in the National Council of Churches (NCC) in the United States and the World Council of Churches (WCC) internationally. Despite a hopeful beginning, these organizations ended up as outlets for left-wing political activists in mainline denominations, who were reliably wrong on every major issue. In the 1980s, these bodies denounced Israel and the United States but provided support for the Soviet Union and leftist movements in Latin America. Thankfully, these groups have lost most of their influence. Even the media seem to know that they speak only for themselves and not for Christians in general.
The NCC and WCC were right to strive for unity. Their error was to ground that unity in partisan politics rather than in the Living God, His eternal principles, and fundamental truths about his creation, such as in economics. We must avoid their mistake. Still, Jesus would never have prayed for His followers to be one with Him and perfected in unity if it were impossible or unimportant. Oneness is not sameness. In fact, diversity grounded in unity can be an asset.
Paul also challenged the church at Ephesus to make “every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in a bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Unity is a sign of the kingdom of God; in our division we have reduced God’s kingdom to a future reward rather than a living, present reality. It’s no surprise we have not shaped our culture as we should.
Let’s Try Sanctity
The second problem is a lack of holiness. While the religious right drew conservative Christians into the rough-and-tumble of politics, it didn’t arise from a deeper moral and spiritual renewal in the Church. On many statistical measures, professing Christians are hard to distinguish from the general population. We’re concerned about the moral decay of our culture, but have not done much to reverse the moral decay in the Church. We talk about transforming culture; we should spend more energy on transforming Christians. That can come only through the cross—through suffering.
To restore faith, family, and freedom in America, we need God’s Spirit to transform our individual lives. Our public engagement should be accompanied by tangible, Spirit-filled growth in holiness and humility that others will see. If we were to pray hard for a real outpouring of the Spirit and zealously pursue lives of prayer and heroic virtue, surely we would have a more lasting impact on our culture.
The profound movements of renewal in Western history—from the Christianization of the Roman world to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the American Revolution, and the British and American abolition of slavery—coincided with spiritual renewal. The American Revolution grew out of the First Great Awakening. The abolition of the slave trade in the United States grew out of the Second Great Awakening.
The British statesman William Wilberforce linked public witness and personal holiness with two life causes: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners” (that is, moral behavior). Those weren’t unrelated interests. Wilberforce understood the link between policy and personal conduct, and used his position as a political elite for good. Whether you are in a position to influence millions, like Wilberforce, or just two people, you can make a difference.
Political discussions should never become an excuse for avoiding the question “What should I do?” If you’re concerned about world poverty, the first question should be, “What should I do about it?” Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sad because someone somewhere is in need. It means “to suffer alongside.”
If you’re worried that families are falling apart, you can’t just focus on divorce law, welfare programs, and Internet porn, but should also think about how you treat your spouse and children.
If you’re panicked that the national debt is spiraling out of control, then look at your own finances, and reflect on how you view the costly entitlements that the government has promised you.
Linking public witness to personal holiness means someone is bound to ask: Who are you to call Christians to a change of mind and spirit? Our exhortations convict us as we write them! The pursuit of holiness is a challenge for us. We’re reminded of a story by the great British author G. K. Chesterton. About a century ago, the London Times asked him and some other writers to submit essays on the topic “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s essay was brief. “Dear Sirs,” he wrote, “I am.” The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
We point to the ideal, even though we fail. Strong character is often shaped in the crucible of failure. Some of the greatest leaders in history missed the mark at one point in their lives; but they did not try to move the standard. The standard moved them. They repented and became stronger as a result.
The standard of holiness, though lofty, is not otherworldly. God calls each of us to a holy life overflowing with His Spirit. Kingdom life isn’t just reserved for the distant future. It’s living in His presence in the present.
Saint Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire.” Our world needs a multitude of torches aflame with the Spirit of God. Jesus said believers are to be salt and light. Salt preserves what it touches. Light reveals the dangers we must avoid, as well as the path to safety. Let us pray that we can, by our public witness and our personal holiness, preserve the good in our culture, expose the bad, and give guidance to those who are headed for disaster.
What Is Freedom?
The truth shall make you free.
Americans value freedom, but many have a hard time defining it. For instance, if you ask a teenager who keeps breaking her curfew what freedom means, she’ll probably say something like, “Not having to obey the rules” or “Getting to choose whatever you want.” If she thinks of a dictionary definition, she might say it is getting to choose between alternatives. If she can choose whatever she wants from the dinner buffet, she’s free. If she’s forced to start with a salad and not to go back for seconds on dessert, she’s not free. But if freedom means everyone does whatever he wants, then the meaner or stronger person will soon prevail, and force everybody else to do what he wants. That’s oppression, not freedom.
The problem here is a bad definition. Freedom does include choice, of course, but even the staunchest libertarian will say a free society allows people to do what they want to do as long as they don’t harm anyone else. Your freedom to fling your fist ends just short of your neighbor’s nose.
This view of freedom is still not complete, however, since it suggests that freedom and law are at odds, when in fact, the right law gives us more freedom.
The American Founders had a much broader idea in mind, called ordered liberty. In her great hymn “America the Beautiful,” Katherine Lee Bates says, “Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law.” When the Founders defended liberty, that is what they meant. Freedom is the power to do what you don’t want to do, and not to do what you want to do.
This thicker view of freedom is what distinguished the American from the French Revolution. A few of the Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, saw the French Revolution of 1789 as continuing in the spirit of the American Revolution. John Adams, however, worried that the French experiment would end in grief. Adams was right. While the French revolutionaries toasted to liberty, fraternity, and equality, they cut off the roots of those ideals. They were vehemently anti-Christian. At one point they even dressed up a woman as the goddess “Reason” and placed her on the high altar at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Their view of liberty had more to do with freedom from restraint than with the ordered liberty championed by American patriots. So it’s no surprise that the French Revolution quickly descended into terror. The French Revolutionaries started by beheading priests, royalty, and aristocrats, and ended by killing each other. Order was only restored by the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799.
In 1823, John Adams, writing to his fellow Founder Benjamin Rush, described the French Revolution as producing “all the calamities and desolations to the human race.” The American Revolution had a quite different ending because it was based on a better view of liberty.
Unfortunately, even ardent defenders of freedom can talk as if freedom is just getting to do what you want to do, as if freedom and rules were on opposite sides. This is a mistake. Imagine a young girl, Mary, who has never had a violin lesson. Mary can pick up a violin and grind out some sounds. No one forces her to pull the bow across any particular string, so she’s “free” to play as she wants, and to drive her parents crazy in the process. But is she free to make beautiful music? Is she free to play Mozart in the New York Philharmonic? Is she free to get a full scholarship to the Juilliard School or even to entertain friends and family in the backyard? No, of course not. She can’t express either her own or the violin’s potential, because she hasn’t submitted to years of disciplined practice. She hasn’t gotten the rules for excellent violin playing into her mind, her fingers, and her bones. Only then will she be truly free to play the violin. Only then will she enjoy freedom for excellence.
Freedom for Excellence
So, rather than limiting our freedom, the right rules allow us to enjoy a much richer freedom. They are the rules that allow us to become what we’re supposed to become—to do what we’re designed to do.
A while back, I (Jay) was driving my wife and daughters to church. I decided to use the long drive over the bridge from Seattle to Mercer Island (where we go to church) to get a lesson in. “Girls, what do you think eyes are for?” “For seeing,” they said. “And what about ears?” They replied, “For hearing.” “And what about a heart?” “For pumping blood.” “And feet?” “For walking.” I did this for a few minutes, until I had exhausted my knowledge of anatomy. Then I asked, “Okay, now I want you to think really hard. What are you for?” The inside of the car became as silent as the grave. They thought it was a trick question and wouldn’t venture a guess. I told them to think about it.
After church, on the way home, our younger daughter, Ellie, said, “Daddy, I’m still thinking about that question, but I’m really stumped.” With their interest piqued, I finally told them, “Well, if you look at the very beginning of the Catholic Catechism, it says that our purpose is to seek, know, and love God. And the very first question of the Westminster Confession, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ says, ‘To glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ So we’re supposed to love, seek, know, glorify, and enjoy God forever. That’s what we’re for.” Both girls were glad to get an answer, though I had the feeling we would need to go through the lesson a few dozen more times before it really sank in.
A free society allows us to love, seek, and enjoy God. It frees us to fulfill our other God-given purposes as free beings made in the image of God—to love our families and fellow human beings and exercise the virtues required to do that. It lets us be fruitful and multiply, and exercise our dominion as God’s stewards over His creation.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love that is coerced is not love. To fully obey Christ’s commandments, then, we must be free.
The Law Is Written on the Heart, Stone, and Parchment
The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.
—C. S. LEWIS
We enjoy a greater freedom when our society is based on the rules that allow us to become what we are meant to become. But not everyone knows that his chief end is to love and glorify God and, therefore, to love others. Many reject the idea of Godly purpose; but because everyone has some grasp of universal moral truth, a free society is possible even among those who have different beliefs.
The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God
The Founders, following Christian tradition, referred to these unchanging moral truths as the natural law. That’s why Thomas Jefferson appealed to the “laws of nature and nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. He was talking about moral principles that everyone knows, or ought to know. In the words of one philosopher, the natural law is “what we can’t not know.” It’s natural because it’s built into the structure of things and fits our created nature. The natural law is like the instruction manual for how we’re supposed to live.
Natural law stands above even the law of the land. As Rev. Samuel West told the Massachusetts legislature in 1776, in a sermon encouraging the American Revolution, “The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law.”
We all know that it’s wrong to murder. We know that parents should care for their children and husbands should care for their wives. Our moral knowledge is reinforced by “witnesses” such as our conscience, the design of the world and our bodies, and the natural consequences of our actions. We discover that the world is set up a certain way. We see that children generally prosper best with a mother and a father, that the male body fits with the female body, that sex outside of marriage causes problems, that gluttony leads to obesity, and promiscuity to venereal disease. In these and thousands of other ways, we learn the basic contours of the natural law. At some point, through these witnesses, we come to know certain moral truths, just as we know—once we’ve been taught—that two plus two equals four. We know these moral truths as well, if not better, than any truth of history or science.
Natural Law and Divine Law
The Bible teaches that the natural law exists in so many words. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul says that we can clearly see enough of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” from the creation so that we are “without excuse” when we violate God’s laws. Later in the same letter, Paul says, “When Gentiles who have not the law [given to the Jews through Moses] do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14–16). If Gentiles knew nothing of the natural law, God would be unfair to hold them accountable. Since they know enough of that law even if they don’t have the Ten Commandments written on tablets, they are accountable for their sins.
But if we already know the natural law, why did God bother revealing the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai? Why give us Scripture? Paul answers these questions, too. Earlier in Romans, he says that although human beings “knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:21–23). In other words, the creation transmits the truth loudly and clearly, but we, in our rebellion against God, aren’t tuned to the right frequency. The heavens declare the glory of God always and everywhere (as Psalm 19 says), but sin blinds us to it, so we see only stars and empty space when we look at the night sky.
As a consequence of sin, Paul says, we do things that are “unnatural”—men lie with men, women with women. Our sin causes us to wage war against our bodies. We devise clever ways to deny what we know of the natural law. For example, rather than defending murder by name, human beings often try to define certain groups of people out of membership in the human race. Nazis tried to pretend Jews were subhuman, some whites once did the same thing with blacks, and it’s now popular to refer to unborn babies as nonpersons. Notice that few defenders of legal abortion say murder is okay. They say that abortion isn’t murder, but rather “reproductive rights” or a “choice.” These word games betray their half-remembered sense of the natural law.
We see examples of this guilty knowledge every day. A second-grade boy pretends not to know that it’s unfair for him to take more than his allotted share of cookies. First he’ll deny what he’s done, and then he’ll complain that his sister took more than her fair share the day before. A college professor who claims morality is relative is outraged when his car is stolen. Darwinists who insist our morality is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes” denounce teachers as moral reprobates for suggesting to kids that God created the heavens and the earth. Even when we’re denying the natural moral law, we assume it.
Concocting a bevy of rationalizations based on a half-remembered natural law is a far cry from clear moral thinking and clear moral action. That’s why God’s special revelation is such a precious gift: it helps us to see the natural law with far greater clarity than we might otherwise. What we might know vaguely and confusedly by nature, we see more clearly when it is declared to us, when it is the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone, not just the natural law seen dimly through our conscience. Deists such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine could clearly see the natural law because they still had the benefit of special revelation as an amplifier. But without it, natural law grows faint.
The Founders were so confident in the truths of natural law that Thomas Jefferson claimed in the Declaration of Independence that they were self-evident. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he wrote, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson’s words are true but incomplete. These truths are written on the human heart and might have been self-evident to the American Founders. It still took hundreds of years of Europeans being told that all men are created in God’s image for that truth to become the cornerstone of a nation. And even the Founders didn’t apply it consistently.
The Founders wanted a political order consistent with natural law and natural rights. With the Constitution, they sought to establish a federal government that respected the God-given rights of man, to prevent it from gaining too much power, and to preserve space for the free exercise of religion. The law of the land would not create rights, but would recognize and respect the rights we already have. “The rights essential to happiness… are not annexed to us by parchment and seals,” said John Dickinson of the Pennsylvania colony in 1776. “They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature.”
The Rule of Law Versus the Rule of Men
Sin—our tendency to do evil that separates us from God and others—is the only Christian doctrine that you can verify by simple observation. From special revelation (the Bible), we learn that God called Abraham and raised Jesus from the dead. We encounter sin when we get cut off on the drive to work, spend time in our thoughts, read the taglines on the Drudge Report, and tell our children for the thousandth time to keep their hands to themselves. Because of sin, we need governments and other institutions that can enforce a rule of law. Otherwise, the strongest and most wicked will enslave the weak.
In the book of Romans, where the Apostle Paul talks about the law written on our hearts, he also explains that government’s authority comes from God:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. (Romans 13:1–6)
Paul wrote this when Rome was an imperial dictatorship! Apparently even bad government is better than no government.
Peter gives the same advice. In his first letter, he writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13–14). Does that mean Christians must always obey the dictates of government, that every government is legitimate? No. Tyranny is not government, and ought to be resisted, even overthrown. Might doesn’t make right. Short of revolution, we can resist immoral commands. Peter and the other apostles recognized this. When the Jewish authorities forbade them from preaching the gospel, they replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). (Fortunately, we live in a country where we can redress our grievances peacefully.)
As a practical matter, societies must have some rule of law that reflects, to some degree, natural law. A society that completely ignores the natural law has no way to suppress the worst excesses of sin and destroys itself. Any society that has lasted for any length of time has laws against murder and theft. Every society has rules for marriages. And versions of the Golden Rule can be found in every major religion.
For most societies in history, there might have been a code of laws, written or unwritten, but that code was subject to the authority of a person or group of people who could overrule it. The American Experiment is different because the Founders made the basis for law a document that appealed to a transcendent source—natural rights and nature’s God—rather than to a person or group of people. In the United States, all government officials and military personnel, as well as new citizens, pledge an oath not to a king or a tribe, but to the Constitution. The American Founders wanted everyone to be protected by, and subject to, the rule of law, rather than the rule of men. As Thomas Paine said in his classic Common Sense, “In America, THE LAW IS KING.” Since most countries now have something like a constitution, it’s hard to imagine how unusual this was at the time.
Watching the Watchmen
The Founders saw the paradox that many earlier political experiments had failed to appreciate: Sin is the main reason we need government and also the main reason to limit government. They knew about the failed republics in ancient Greece and Rome, where the line between majority and mob rule was thin and fragile. They had studied biblical history and the history of Europe. And they took sin seriously. “If men were angels,” said Founder James Madison, “no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The Founders didn’t make up the constitutional system from whole cloth. They modeled their document on what was best in the British tradition, the Magna Carta. First issued in 1215, the Magna Carta required King John to allow his British subjects certain liberties, and established the principle that even the king was subject to a higher law.
The Founders worried about the concentration of power. They understood, as Lord Acton said a hundred years after the American founding, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They set up a balance between the president, the courts, and the Congress—the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. They created a further balance of powers between two chambers of Congress—the House and the Senate—elected in different ways; between the states and the federal government; and between the states themselves.
The Bill of Rights, which followed shortly after the Constitution was ratified, was designed to protect private interests—the press and religious and minority groups—against tyranny from the government and from the majority. The Tenth Amendment gave the states and the people all authority not delegated to the federal government in the Constitution. The system, called federalism, was an ingenious way to disperse power and limit the reach of the federal government. Together, it’s like a maze of booby traps designed to stop the tyrannical impulse in its tracks.
The framers of the Constitution did not seek to create a heaven on earth, but to put into practice the principles they had learned as British citizens that Britain had not implemented consistently and had begun to deny to their colonial brothers in America. Slavery contradicted the ideals of the American founding, but the governing principles the Founders put in place would eventually come to include blacks and former slaves as well. The Founders’ sacrifice has led, over time, to the greatest flowering of freedom the world has ever known.
A Few Enumerated Powers
The Constitution disperses power, but it doesn’t leave the central government powerless. It gives the federal government “enumerated powers.” As the economist John Tamny puts it, “Basically Washington is empowered to provide a military to defend us, a stable currency, protection of our property from unreasonable search and seizure, plus it must secure our right to live as we want so long as our actions don’t encroach on the rights of others.” That’s too simple, but pretty close. The Founders believed that the federal government should do a few crucial things and leave the rest to the states and the people.
The Founders saw human beings as sinners who could be shaped by society but who have a nature that men can’t change. This founding philosophy could not be more different from the so-called “progressive” philosophy that now dominates our public life. Socialists and progressives assume that man can be molded and transformed like a soft lump of clay. You just need society to be set up correctly and run by really smart people. But even in an ideal environment, human beings can fall into sin. That’s how we got where we are to begin with. Even when Adam and Eve were placed in a garden prepared by God, they still managed to get into trouble.
The progressive left has depended on generations of judges and justices to twist and squeeze the meaning of the Constitution to fit their vision of unconstrained state power. This is often done in the name of liberty or privacy. This tactic reached its low point when the Supreme Court reaffirmed in 1992 the “right” to kill unborn babies by proclaiming, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” When the Founders defended the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they meant the right not to have your life snuffed out before you are born. But this view of liberty had no place with a majority of Supreme Court justices who resolved the competing interests between an unborn child and a mother by ignoring the child. This is the worst possible defense of liberty. It denies that human nature, and nature itself, has any objective reality that government must respect. It undercuts the constitutional basis on which our liberties are secured.
Outside the courtroom, the left has recently felt less need to appeal to the Constitution at all. When former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked where the Constitution gave Congress the authority to take over health care, she didn’t mount a defense; she sneered, “Are you serious?” This from an elected official who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution.
The primary goal of our laws is to legislate our deepest shared moral judgments—what we deem just and unjust, what can and should be coerced, if necessary, and what should be left up to personal choice. Contrary to the cliché that you can’t legislate morality, morality is exactly what we legislate.
There is, of course, a grain of truth in that cliché. We can’t legislate every jot and tittle of every moral principle, because often we would do greater evil by trying to enforce it than by tolerating it. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas even argued that, in some circumstances, a government might have to tolerate an evil like prostitution! Because of human sin, we should always hesitate to give the government power beyond its core competence. That’s why we don’t have laws against greed, envy, anger, lust, lying other than fraud or perjury, and even private drunkenness. Any state powerful enough to prohibit such sins would be tyrannical, since it would require vast coercive power in the hands of sinful humans.
When the costs exceed the benefits of some law or regulation, or when a law gets too far removed from the natural law and public morality, it will do more harm than good. Prohibition in the United States is a good example. In the early twentieth century, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, outlawing the sale and consumption of alcohol nationwide. It was ratified in 1919. Many well-meaning Christians who witnessed the scourge of drunkenness supported the amendment. It reduced public drunkenness and probably alcoholism, but it also spawned organized crime and a sprawling black market, and made criminals of millions of ordinary citizens who weren’t drunkards. The Twenty-first Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, and alcohol sale and consumption went back to being local and state concerns. The debacle led millions of Evangelicals to drop out of politics for decades afterward.
Prohibition reminds us of the dangers of using the federal government to enforce private morality. Still, our laws will always reflect, to some degree, our moral beliefs, our religious and cultural ideas.
At the same time, laws shape our morality. Scholars refer to this as the teaching function of law. There is a relationship between what we believe and the laws we have on the books. As someone once said, “It’s true that people support the hanging of thieves primarily because they think theft is wrong, not because theft is against the law; however, one of the reasons people think theft is wrong is they see thieves hung.”
Did the abolition of slavery and the passage of civil rights laws affect people’s attitudes about slavery and race? Did Roe v. Wade, which struck down state restrictions on abortion, influence people’s views on abortion? If same-sex “marriage” is made the law of the land, do you think that will affect the sexual attitudes and actions of schoolchildren? If suicide for the terminally ill becomes widely accepted, do you think this will affect how we view the sick and the elderly? If the sale of marijuana is legalized, will that influence views on the morality of smoking pot? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
No Rule of Law, No Free Markets
If you’re mainly interested in free enterprise, this talk about rule of law and morality might seem unimportant. But without the rule of law, without some public morality, neither free markets nor free enterprise are sustainable.
The stereotype of the free market is that it’s “unbridled” or “unfettered capitalism.” It’s dog-eat-dog competition, survival of the fittest. The stereotype is seriously misleading. Sure, a free market allows competition, which is just the opposite of a monopoly; but it’s competition according to rules—like the competition in a game of baseball. If the strong can steal, enslave, or kill the weak, they have no reason to trade freely. It’s only when people must compete according to the rules that true economic freedom exists.
Long-term prosperity depends on the rule of law. It’s the stable rule of law, as opposed to the arbitrary rule of men, that distinguishes the economies of the wealthy developed world from the corrupt and chaotic societies in much of the developing world. According to The Economist magazine, “Economists have repeatedly found that the better the rule of law, the richer the nation.” An open, independent, and reasonably honest judiciary system that can mediate contract and property disputes makes it much easier to do business because it creates a predictable environment for long-term investment. This allows more wealth to be created.
Perhaps the most tangible sign of rule of law is widespread private property rights, which are vital for creating wealth. The proof is among the poor. Where the poor don’t enjoy property rights, they usually stay poor generation after generation. (More on that later.)
All of this is to say that, contrary to stereotype, a truly free market economy is not a free-for-all. It exists only where rule of law prevails.
What Should We Do?
The American Founders knew that a sound government needed a virtuous citizenry. George Washington insisted that we distinguish “the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last.” Similarly, Founder and statesman Samuel Adams said, “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.” Without decent citizens and politicians, the Constitution is just ink and parchment. It can’t secure our liberties if politicians and judges ignore it.
The rule of law depends on us, too. Adams refers not merely to politicians, but to a people. Charles Colson has often talked about the trade-off between cops and conscience. The more cops we have inside, the fewer we need outside. Imagine a country where every child was born into a loving family headed by a mother and a father. All parents raised up their children in the way they should go with the perfect balance of love and discipline. The adults always did their duty, not for fear of punishment but from well-developed consciences. Even when no one was watching, everyone still did the right thing. As long as the country was sealed from outsiders, it wouldn’t require any cops and prisons. The more a people freely obey the rule of law, the less need there is for the state to coerce us. The eighteenth-century Irish statesman Edmund Burke made the same point when he said, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”
If we all do whatever we feel like doing, we won’t have a limited government for long. If we can’t make our passions submit to our moral reason, they will have to submit to the sword. This is why Lord Acton said, “Liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” If we all do whatever we want, we won’t be free to do what we ought.
Have you gotten the rule of law into your habits and conscience, as virtues, so that you would do the right thing even if you knew you wouldn’t get caught? Maybe you’d never steal an iPad from the Apple store, or use your neighbor’s credit card, but do you fudge on your tax returns? Have you used software that you were supposed to pay for? Have you “enhanced” your résumé when applying for a job? Have you blurred the truth when selling a house or a business, or when applying for a mortgage? Do you respect traffic rules even when you’re really, really in a hurry? Have your children seen you do these things? If so, you’re not just committing private sins; in a way, you’re helping chip away at the foundations of freedom.
To restore freedom, we must restore respect for the rule of law. That should start with us. If those submitted to the Holy Spirit won’t do it, how can we expect it from anyone else?
God in Public
There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.
You may have heard that the Constitution established a “wall of separation between church and state.” But the phrase isn’t in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights; it comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The Baptists were being persecuted by the Congregationalists—who were the state-sanctioned, established religion in Connecticut at the time. Jefferson was writing to Baptist ministers who were suffering discrimination by a religious establishment. He did not object to the public display of religion; he defended religious liberty. And he didn’t invent the image of a wall of separation, but borrowed it from Baptist Roger Williams, who had founded Providence, Rhode Island, after being kicked out of Puritan Massachusetts.
The First Amendment to the Bill of Rights begins with this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Those words are meant to protect religion from the encroachments of government, and prevent the federal government from establishing a single, official religion—which at the time of the Founding would have been a Protestant denomination such as Congregationalism or Episcopalianism.
Secularists today invoke a “wall of separation” to purge our public life of religious influence, especially Christian. We’ve almost reached the point of what Archbishop Charles Chaput calls “unofficial state atheism.” This is not what the Founders—including Jefferson—intended. A proper separation between the church and the state was a Christian idea in the first place. Even the distinction between a “sacred” and a “secular” realm comes from Christian history. These days many secularists fear that if too many Christians gain political influence, we will establish a theocracy, where God is the head of state and clergy control everything. This can intimidate believers who are active in politics.
Christian history is pockmarked by bad behavior, of course. Christians have owned slaves, violated the Ten Commandments, misused political authority, and in a few cases, established small cultish communities. If we use the word “theocracy” liberally, some small Puritan communities, as well as England under Oliver Cromwell, and Robert Mainz in Germany, may qualify., But there have been few theocracies in Christian history. The word doesn’t just mean that a society has an established religion—that’s called establishment.
Render unto Caesar…
When Jesus walked the earth, the Jewish homeland of Judea was part of the Roman Empire. In His earthly ministry, Jesus had little to do with politics. He said that His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:3), and during His forty days of fasting in the desert, He rejected the devil’s offers of political power. But He did voice a principle that, over the centuries, slowly transformed how Christians and much of the world understands government.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe an incident that occurred when Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, just before His arrest. While He was teaching in the Temple, the Pharisees tried to trap Him with a trick question:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15–22)
Jesus’s answer is astonishing. Just a few days before, He had entered Jerusalem to much fanfare. The crowds cheered Him as the long-awaited Messiah, who would deliver them from their Roman oppressors. Obviously such talk of a Jewish deliverer would have worried the Romans. The Pharisees, who were plotting to kill Jesus, knew this, and hoped to get Him to say something treasonous so the Roman authorities would do the job for them. Jesus managed to avoid the trap. As He handled many trick questions put to Him during His ministry, Jesus didn’t directly answer. At the same time, He said a lot more than simply, “Yeah, go ahead and pay your taxes. Not much else you can do.”
Notice that Jesus had to ask His interrogators for a denarius—which was worth about a day’s wages for a common laborer. He apparently didn’t have one. Since His interrogators had a denarius, they were already participating in Rome’s monetary system, which involved paying taxes. They even carried the coins into the temple. Why is that a big deal? Because Roman coins not only had Caesar’s image on them, but declared his absolute sovereignty and divinity! Jesus would not have agreed to that. Sovereignty and divinity belong to God, not to Caesar. So when Jesus says to give to God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, He’s claiming that Caesar isn’t God, and that God’s authority is outside Caesar’s jurisdiction. Caesar has some legitimate claim to taxes if one participates in the Roman monetary system, but he has no claim on our ultimate allegiance. God is God. Caesar is not.
Any Roman leader who understood what Jesus was saying would have found it subversive. Religious rituals and sacrifices were a central part of Roman life. But these practices were designed to reinforce the loyalty of citizens and subjects to Caesar. Religion for the Romans needed to unify the state. So worshipping a God who was not under the authority of Rome sniffed of treason.
Rome persecuted the Jews, at times brutally. Jews understood themselves much as the Romans understood them: as a distinct nation and ethnic group with its own religion. While there was the occasional convert to Judaism, the Jews lacked evangelical zeal. Rome didn’t see them as a threat.
Only with Christianity did a religion appear that transcended the boundaries of race and nation. It posed a threat to Caesar. It’s no surprise that Rome brutally persecuted Christians off and on until the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century.
Excerpted from Indivisible by Robison, James Copyright © 2012 by Robison, James. Excerpted by permission.
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