is the threat of having committed Christians in public life? The
usual answer is that they will sneakily attempt to impose a theocracy.
That�s absurd. The dominant political concern among Christians is not to
impose their world view on others but to stop having the government�s
world view imposed on them. The U.S. Constitution bars religious tests for
public office, but it wasn�t until the postwar period when that rule was
applied to the states. The religious majority in many states that retained
such tests feared that atheists (or Catholics, Mormons or Jews) in office
would lead to an unspeakable corruption of the public well being. But
permitting people with a range of faith commitments (or lack thereof) to
serve in government office brought no noticeable catastrophe. It only
ended up underscoring our national commitment to religious freedom, which
I believe is the foundation of the current religious revival.
It is with some degree of irony, then, that we observe the wailing from the left side of the political spectrum about the religious convictions of John Ashcroft, George W. Bush, and many others in the new administration. Their deep faith has been cited by editorial writers and advocates of various viewpoints as a threat to the American way of life. In other words, we are seeing that old mark of intolerance -a religious test for public office - resurrected in the, name of freedom itself, and by people who once worked so hard to repeal such tests.
We must remember that Christianity was born as a religious movement in a time of grave political oppression. Not only was Jesus murdered by the state, but his followers suffered for three centuries at the hands of the Roman emperors who demanded conformity to pagan practice. This history has infused the Christian spirit with a deep suspicion of power, especially powerful states that believe themselves to be unencumbered by any law higher than themselves.
If you look at the Christian political tradition, you find two main strands of belief that stand firmly opposed to attempts to use the state to impose belief. The first is the idea of subsidiary, the Catholic principle that social functions ought to be handled first by those closest to the problem: individuals and civic institutions. The second is the Reformed Protestant idea of sphere sovereignty, which says that institutions such as the family, state and church, have specific functions to which they are best suited; they are not permitted to arbitrarily override the authority of the other institutions.
What�s more, Christianity has never been temperamentally inclined toward revolutionary activity, even if its anthropology undermines every tyranny. That is because the primary core of its belief structure is spiritual, not political. That doesn�t mean that every political regime governs according to God�s will or that Christians are somehow obligated to celebrate every command of every despot. But it does imply that Christians face no moral obligation to make public life conform to every tiny or insignificant part of the Christian moral code or to use the state as some sort of tool of conversion. Coercion and conversion are antithetical; this is a sad lesson the church has learned very well, and for which the pope himself has sought forgiveness.
At the same time, the efforts of people to purge public life of any hint that Christianity exists as something other than a personal belief system should be resisted as well. Given the level of intolerance and even hate we have seen being directed against evangelicals in recent years, even to the point that some want to bar anyone with a firm faith from public life, one wonders precisely who is imposing values on whom.
What would be the effect of having more committed Christians in public office? Based on the history of the faith and what I know about the underlying rationale behind current religious activism, the result would be precisely the opposite of what we are being told: We would not have more value imposition by government but less; not more government involvement in religion but less; not more rules that impact on our consciences but ever fewer. Christians seek to propose their values, not impose them.
The long-term effect of more Christianity in public life would be to more strictly define the proper role of government; which isn�t to manage society as if the state were omniscient and omnipotent, but to permit greater freedoms for individuals, families and civic institutions to flourish without unnecessary restraint from secular authority.
The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Action Institute. This article first appeared on www.action.org, a production of the Action Institute, (161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503), and is reprinted with permission.