Hemant Mehta posted a blog over at Friendly Atheist yesterday covering the story of the Assistant House Whip Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), a Tea Party member elected in 2010, sending a Bible to every member of Congress this week. Along with a copy of the Bible, Palazzo sent the following note:
On a daily basis, we contemplate policy decisions that impact America’s future. Our staffs provide us with policy memos, statistics, and recommendations that help us make informed decisions. However, I find that the best advice comes through meditating on God’s Word.
Please find a copy of the Holy Bible to help guide you in your decision-making. This copy is provided as an inspirational and informational resource to you by Mr. J.B. Atchison, a constituent of mind from South Mississippi.
If there is ever anything I can do for you, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
What a nice gesture, eh?
Well, maybe not actually. While I totally understand that for Rep. Palazzo, the Bible is a source of inspiration for his spiritual life (as it is to mine); I have some very serious reservations about this seemingly generous act of “encouragement”.
I firmly believe in the first amendment and the right of every American to practice their religion freely and to be able to speak freely on whatever beliefs or opinions they have. This is the foundation of our nation’s wonderful legacy. But for many decades, Christians have been working very hard to make our “Biblical values” mainstream through having them legislated through the government. Throughout much of America’s history, conservative Christians have worked hard to create legislation based on their interpretation of the Bible and have those values imposed upon every citizen in our non-Christian, pluralistic nation.
There are two major problems with that.
First, it is un-American. Our politicians should not be looking to the Bible, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or any other sacred text as a source for new legislation. They should not be trying to legislate any morality that is based on their own religious convictions. That is not their job. They have been elected to represent the diverse peoples of the United States of America and though most Americans may identify as “Christian”, that doesn’t mean that the majority of Americans are interested in a fundamentalist interpretation of Biblical Morality being the law of the land. If any other religious groups were to attempt such a feat, our Christian politicians would be horrified. Can you imagine a Muslim Congressman sending a copy of the Quran to every member of Congress and asking for Sharia Law to be the basis of American law? Every Christian politician would plea the first amendment and be horribly offended by such a proposition. Why? Because our nation was founded, not on Judeo-Christian values, but on the principle of Freedom of Religion- that every one of every faith could practice in this land freely, without fear of persecution or condemnation from the government. What message is sent when our most powerful leaders are attempting to use one religions sacred text as the basis of their legislation? We have ceased to be a nation for all people. In fact, we have become the very thing that the earliest settlers of America fled from.
Second, it is un-Christian. It is far too easy for American Christians to lose sight of what we have been called to do when we live in a nation that gives so much privilege to our faith. But I think it is well worth remembering that we were never called to Christianize nations, legislate the Gospel, or impose Kingdom of God values on the Kingdoms of man. All of those things actually run quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the actions of the early Church. The Jewish people were expecting a political Messiah, but instead, they got Jesus. Jesus didn’t come attempting to restructure the Roman Government. He wasn’t interested in getting appointed to be King. He didn’t call his disciples to work to make his teachings the law of land. Instead, Jesus seemed to call his followers to live within whatever political or cultural system they found themselves in and to work to transform it from the bottom up. Christians were called to begin with the poorest of poor, the outcasts, and the marginalized. We were called to establish the Kingdom of God, not through Congress, but through one small subversive act of Love at a time.
I firmly believe that when Christians in leadership try to legislate their faith that they are actually doing more harm to the Kingdom of God than good. To use Biblical language, I believe they are placing “stumbling blocks” in front of our culture. Instead of inviting them into a relationship with the God who loves them just as they are, we instead communicate that unless they submit to our high standard of Biblical morality, they cannot be a follower of Jesus. Instead of inviting them into the radically counter-cultural way of Jesus, we demonstrate to the world that the Christian way is actually no better than the way of the world- we’re about power, money, position, and forcing others to adhere to our religion. That is the way of Constantine, not the way of Christ.
So while I believe that all of the members of Congress can indeed find great strength, motivation, and Truth through meditating on the Bible, I ultimately don’t believe it’s a very American or Christian thing to do to suggest that our leaders should base their decisions on the sacred texts of one religion in a spiritually diverse nation. Instead, we, the Church, should seek to transform our communities, nations, and world in ways that are much more difficult but much more effective- loving God, our neighbor, and our enemy tangibly every day. Forgiving those who offend us. Feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Living self-sacrificially as disciples of Jesus to everyone we encounter. That’s how the Kingdom of God is established. That is how the world is transformed. The radically subversive way of Jesus that is foolishness to man. That’s the Christian way.
So, while I can sympathize with Rep. Steven Palazzo’s gesture, I also think it’s important that the mindset behind his action is really quite damaging both to America’s strong commitment of religious diversity and liberty and more importantly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a time where our nation is more divided than ever and the Church seems to constantly be in crisis, I think we would be wise to heed the wisdom of the early Church Fathers Origen and Tertullian:
“Celsus also urges us to “take office in the government of the country, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.” But we recognise in each state the existence of another national organization founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches. Those who are ambitious of ruling we reject; but we constrain those who, through excess of modesty, are not easily induced to take a public charge in the Church of God…And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God–for the salvation of men. And this service is at once necessary and right. They take charge of all–of those that are within, that they may day by day lead better lives, and of those that are without, that they may come to abound in holy words and in deeds of piety; and that, while thus worshipping God truly, and training up as many as they can in the same way, they may be filled with the word of God and the law of God, and thus be united with the Supreme God through His Son the Word, Wisdom, Truth, and Righteousness, who unites to God all who are resolved to conform their lives in all things to the law of God.”
“I owe no duty to forum, campaign, or senate. I stay awake for no public function. I make no effort to occupy a platform. I am no office seeker. I have no desire to smell out political corruption. I shun the voter’s booth, the juryman’s bench. I break no laws and push no lawsuits; I will not serve as a magistrate or judge. I refuse to do military service. I desire to rule over no one – I have withdrawn from worldly politics! Now my only politics is spiritual – how that I might be anxious for nothing except to root out all worldly anxieties and care.”
May our focus be on transforming the world through love, justice, and the Gospel of peace and not through power, conquest, and legislation. For our hope is not in congress or the President, but in Jesus Christ and him alone. So let’s keep our Bible’s out of congress and instead use the power of the word to transform the hearts of our nation through our embodying it’s truth in everything we think, say, and do. It’s the harder way by far, but it is the only path of true and lasting transformation.
Are you with me?