Is It Time for American Christians to Bow out of the Culture Wars? Part 2

Is It Time for American Christians to Bow out of the Culture Wars? Part 2 December 17, 2018

Is It Time for American Christians to Bow out of the Culture Wars? Part 2

If you did not read Part 1 (the immediately preceding post) please do that before reading this one. This “Part 2” builds on Part 1 and assumes its content.

The question on the “table” is whether Christians in America and other post-Christian societies ought to abandon attempts to manipulate the “levers of power” (legislation) for specifically Christian or specifically religious moral ideals. Using an old phrase, ought we to abandon all attempts to “legislate morality” where “morality” refers to beliefs about right and wrong dependent on Christian or other religious sources not believed to have any authority by many people in the pluralistic, secular and pagan, post-Christian society.

The situation many of us believe we now face is one in which large portions of society no longer take religious morals seriously. Many do not even know or understand them. Many who do know about them flout them, sometimes, seemingly, simply to announce their liberation from them.

Seemingly (to many of us) attempts to impose religious morality (visions of right and wrong dependent on a religious worldview including its revealed sources) backfire. Even some who consider themselves religious observe and rebel.

In the U.S. we now have atheists, Muslims, Hindus and adherents of other religions and worldviews in the halls of power as elected or appointed government officials. There are certainly “pockets” here and there in the U.S. where Christians still sit in all the seats of political-governmental power. (And here by “Christian” I simply mean someone who at least claims to be Christian.) But those pockets are shrinking and attempts there to legislate traditional Christian morality are increasingly being challenged.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

There are Christians in America (and no doubt other countries) who believe we need to band together across denominational divides to “take America back for God.” I suspect that is part of what they mean when they proclaim “Make America great again.” For many of them “great” includes re-establishing Christian morality (much of which is shared by adherents of other religions) as normative, making illegal acts that violate basic Christian ethical norms. Most of them (with some exceptions) do not intend to criminalize lack of church attendance or even adultery. Most of them want to criminalize abortion and re-establish heterosexual marriage as the only legal form of marriage. (One does have to wonder what else they would criminalize if they had their way.)

On the other hand, many American Christians (and Christians in other countries) have argued that it was a mistake for Christians ever to believe they should control non-Christians’ behavior through law. Many of these Christians are informed by a broadly Anabaptist vision of “Christ and culture.” Others of them believe separation of church and state should be taken very seriously such that Christianity should not ever be considered the “state religion” (however informally). Others are simply against what they call “Constantinianism” and believe Christians (including churches) are not called by God to influence society, culture, by law but only by example and persuasion.

Personally, speaking only for myself, I’m not content to abandon all attempts to influence public policy toward a broadly Christian vision of the good life, both individual and collective. And I think there are and always will be times, situations, when Christians ought to step up and attempt to influence public policy as Christians in the political realm. When I say “as Christians” I am rejecting what I call “the Berger option.”

Peter Berger and I became colleagues and friends for the last few years of his life. During that time (and after his death in a book of essays about his thought) I argued with him about this. Peter was arguing that religious people, including Christians, ought to participate in shaping public policy but as if God does not exist. He harked back to the founder of international law Hugo Grotius. (This was articulated and defended in one of his last books entitled The Many Altars of Modernity [de Gruyter, 2014].)

I realize, of course, that I have not expressed Berger’s view in all its nuances and subtleties. However, after talking with him about his proposal personally, and after reading the book and interacting with other scholars who read it, I think what I said above contains the “gist” of his proposal.

I do not believe a Christian ought ever to act “as if God does not exists.” To do so is to step outside of my Christianity which loyalty to Jesus Christ forbids. I cannot “shed my Christian skin” at will just to accommodate others.

On the other hand, I agree with those Christians and non-Christians who believe Christians (and other religious people) cannot and should not attempt to impose specifically Christian morality on others by law. (I have to ask myself what if I lived in a county where the majority of citizens are of some other religion and attempt to manipulate law and public policy to criminalize aspects of their specific religious ethics that I do not share?) I embrace pluralism.

So what to do? Some people would probably say I am on the horns of a dilemma and cannot get off. Perhaps. But I don’t think so.

Here is my proposal in a nutshell. When a devoted Christian (I’m not talking here about merely nominal Christians) wants to influence public policy in a pluralistic society where there is no state religion (as there is in the UK) he or she must discover inter-subjective, rational and experiential arguments for the legislation or public policy promoted.

And here is a key part of my proposal. I am not a nominalist-voluntarist (philosophically, theologically, ethically) so I believe that everything God expects of us as his human creatures is what is best for us. That is, everything God expects of us is rooted in his nature and ours. This is especially true when it comes to matters of human relationships. No divine command or expectation is merely arbitrary.

Therefore, even if we are not aware of it and cannot find it by thought alone, there is always a reason for every divine ethical principle and command. And that reason always has something to do with our own benefit.

God is not a big cosmic killjoy—is what I’m saying. I hope I don’t have to explain that in detail.

So if I enter into the arena of public policy making I do not have to shed my Christianity and put on atheist “skin.” But what I do have to do is find and articulate an argument for a public policy I want implemented that could/should make sense to all reasonable human beings. If I cannot find such, I should not attempt to impose my ethical standard (principle, rule) on others in a pluralistic society such as ours.

There is one more aspect here that is crucial to my argument and proposal. Often the argument I make for a public policy can be based not on a specific moral principle or rule articulated but on inconsistency in others’ proposals (or already existing law or public policy). I personally “see” a great deal of such inconsistency in public policies in America. (I would probably find them in other societies as well, but I will limit my argument here to America.)

“This public policy that you are proposing is entirely inconsistent with other public policies that you defend as right” is a powerful argument too seldom used.

Now I will give an example that I know will be controversial, but I have thought it through for myself and strongly believe it ought to be considered more seriously. If we as a society are going to permit abortion on demand we ought not to ban selling one’s own organs. All the arguments for permitting abortion on demand point to body autonomy and control over one’s own body. Who owns my body but me? Our American public policy with regard to what one can do with one’s own body that does not directly harm another person’s body is fraught with inconsistencies. Another example is prostitution. If a person is not being coerced into selling their body for sex, why should it be illegal (if body autonomy, self-determination over one’s own body and privacy are embraced as reasons for permitting abortion on demand)? (I have seen clips on television “news” programs where self-directed prostitutes (no “pimps” involved) have argued vehemently with pro-choice feminists about this matter. I thought the pro-choice feminists’ arguments for keeping the practice illegal were lame and so did the prostitutes.)

I believe the same is true with marriage. All the arguments for gay marriage point in the direction of permitting close relatives to marry (so long as they do not procreate) and marriage to be plural.

In other words, slippery slope arguments are not prima facie out of bounds in such discussions. In fact, they are often used. They may not have any logical force, but they should have psychological force. And I don’t mean by that false force. (And by “force” I mean influence or impact, not coercion.)

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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