Integrating Personal Faith and Public Policy

Like many of you, I have long wrestled with the question of how to best integrate my personal faith with my stance on public policy. What follows is a sketch of my thinking on some aspects of this issue, presented in the form of a series of postulates and provisional conclusions.

Postulate One: The separation of church and state is not a policy designed to marginalize or persecute Christians. It is quite the opposite.

The United States of America is a constitutional, representative democracy. Democracy is a political system wherein the majority rules and, in turn, wherein the minority accepts as legitimate and binding the fair decisions of the majority. One of the core tenets of democracy is that the voting public is fluid, meaning that today’s majority could be tomorrow’s minority.

The separation of church and state is not a post-constitutional fabrication of a secularist Thomas Jefferson. The principle is stated explicitly in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment, and it is implicit in the rest of the Constitution and documents from the founding era.

The separation of church and state is good for Christianity, even for Bible thumpers, breakroom evangelists, or Christian talk radio hosts.

Those who decry the separation of church and state as a malignant ploy of anti-christian secularists are blinded by their present majority status. Imagine a world fifty or a hundred years from now where another faith besides evangelical Protestantism claims majority status in the United States. (You can’t believe the Book of Revelation and tell me that won’t happen at some point.) Imagine that this new religious order wants to pass all sorts of laws imposing its views on your Bible-believing children and grandchildren. Those laws include prescriptions about worshiping the majority’s god, swearing upon the majority’s sacred texts, and pledging allegiance to the majority’s divinely-sanctioned laws. Their new majority rule also includes proscriptions against possessing other holy books, against assembling for worship of dissenting religions, and against speaking the name of Jesus. Wouldn’t you wish that separation of church and state existed then? Then, work to preserve it now.

Provisional Conclusion One: If you would chafe at a law if you were in an affected minority, you should rethink your position on it.

Postulate Two: The institutional separation of church and state does not demand the personal segregation of faith and policy.

One beautiful aspect of Christianity is that it does not require institutional sanction in order to flourish. In fact, from a historical and global perspective, you could make a strong case that the Christian faith is at its best when its adherents are a persecuted minority. To be frank, Christian majorities tend to pollute the essence of the faith and slide easily into systemic corruption.

How then should a person integrate his or her personal faith with public policy? The answer is simply one of deep integration. By way of analogy, if I am a Christian plumber, does that mean that I only plumb for Christians or that I only work on Christian pipes? Probably not. Does it mean simply that I put an ichthus on my plumber’s van and a cross on my Dickies workshirt? Maybe, but not exclusively. Or does it mean that I work with excellence and humility, that I treat my customers and coworkers with kindness, generosity, and sacrificial love? Definitely. A Christian plumber who integrates his faith and his plumbing is one who submits every personal and business decision to the lordship of Christ and who thinks, speaks, and acts according to the momentary prompting of the Holy Spirit. A Christian politician or a Christian citizen should be the same, regardless of party affiliation or scope of influence.

I am not advocating a simplistic WWJD approach to architecting public policy. Many well-meaning Christians assume that there should be a one-to-one translation between Bible verses and federal statutes. Proper biblical exegesis requires that we see the forest and the trees of scripture, that we recognize the recurring themes of God’s heart as well as the specific commands for our lives. One of the themes of scripture is that man looks on outward appearances, while God looks at inward heart conditions. We could imagine a nation with giant Soviet-style statues of the Ten Commandments on every courthouse lawn, while Americans are, as Jesus called the Pharisees, “whitewashed tombs.” We could also imagine a nation where, in lieu of squabbles over plastic manger scenes on the courthouse lawn, Christians were consumed with caring for the outcasts like those bumpkin shepherds to whom the angels first heralded news of Jesus’ birth. An integrated, authentically Christian approach to public policy is based upon sound Biblical principles but is nuanced and compassionate in its application.

An integrated, Christian public policy arises out of intimate familiarity with God’s priorities as they are assimilated into our lives through scripture. Through study, prayer, and meditation, we can assemble a framework of unshakeable principles based upon biblical revelation. Some of these might even seem counterintuitive. For instance, the Bible describes humankind’s innate condition as sinful and depraved and God demands moral purity from his followers, a dichotomy that must be reconciled. True righteousness, though, is not obtained by adherence to the law, but rather from a transformative, wholehearted belief in Jesus’ sacrifice in our place. Attempts to legislate morality without organic heart change are bound to fail, because the strictures of the law, Paul says in Romans, provoke our natural tendency toward rebellion. We can conclude, scripturally, that hollow, restrictive laws that attempt to foist morality upon an unregenerate people will, like the Prohibition Movement, fail spectacularly.

Provisional Conclusion Two: Integration and transformation happen from the inside out, and attempting to legislate righteousness is a fool’s errand.

Postulate Three: The founders were not all evangelical Christians, and America is not and never was a Christian nation.

I am not a raving lunatic liberal. I am a committed evangelical Christian. I am a person who spent the better part of a decade reading the journals and letters of the founders. I’m telling you: the founding of the American republic was not a kum-ba-yah moment from church camp. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either amateurish, delusional, or duplicitous.

Many of the founders were moral and virtuous people, by and large. They were not, however, your Evangelism Explosion set. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, hagiographies such as Pastor Mason Weems’ biography of George Washington patched fact and fiction together into a narrative quilt designed to convey a sense of mythical legitimacy upon the young republic. Weems famously invented the morality tale of the cherry tree to suit his narrative agenda and to sell lots of books. We should be wary of modern authors who cherry-pick out-of-context quotes to build an alluring, “lost” founding narrative that is conveniently aligned with their predisposed notions of an imaginary past.

The Second Great Awakening of the 1740s was an important religious precursor to the democratic uprisings of the American Revolution, but it was not directly responsible for the birth of the nation. Some founders, like Rev. John Witherspoon, were very Christian in their thinking, but their political actions were not necessarily religious in nature. While many of the founders were affiliated with various Protestant denominations or with Catholicism, their religious fervor was all over the map. The influence of deism, freemasonry, and Enlightenment science on the leaders of the American Revolution cannot be overstated. “The Almighty” was, for most of the founders, an important religious idea but certainly not the kind of “Creator” whom they could nuzzle up to in a personal way. Like today, the founders who attended services most regularly were not necessarily the godliest of the lot. The founding generation had been henpecked and betrayed by loyalist ministers from the officially-sanctioned Church of England, and so most of them felt strongly that the state should not promote a particular religion over any other. They did this to protect religions from meddling by government, because they recognized (from ancient history to their personal experience) that government-supported denominations are vehicles for government-mandated agendas.

Provisional Conclusion Three: By George, don’t rewrite history as a crutch for your ideology.

Postulate Four: If biblical citations are indispensable to your public policy argument, you should identify other premises.

If your public policy argument cannot be accepted without your audience first assenting to an explicit biblical premise, then your proposal should be targeted at the church rather than the voting public. If I don’t accept the Bible as a source of legitimate and binding authority, then you can shout “The Bible says that…” all you want, and I can dismiss your argument as irrelevant. You might as well be shouting, “The aliens told me!” or “Winnie the Pooh strongly recommends…”, since your premise will carry zero weight with a nonbeliever.

Provisional Conclusion Four: You may have arrived at a particular conclusion through exclusively biblical means, but if you’re serious about shaping public policy, you must map a compelling, alternative, secular path to your conclusion.  

Postulate Five: The Golden Rule and the Posterity Principle pass the lowest common denominator test for acceptable premises for public policy arguments.

In closing, two foundational principles of my public policy framework are the Golden Rule and what I call the Posterity Principle. The Golden Rule—Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31)—is a principle common to almost every religious or moral code in the world. It is a useful lowest common denominator that builds bridges between citizens of different faiths. It is also a great litmus test for legal ethics. By the same token, the Posterity Principle, or governing for posterity, is a principle of making decisions and laws in light of their impact on future generations. The Posterity Principle brings a great deal of clarity to debates about policies ranging from energy and the environment to the economy and education. Put simply, it asks: will the impact of this law or policy be a blessing or a curse one century from now? It is also founded in key biblical principles: that God blesses us that we might be a blessing to others (Psalm 67 and Zechariah 8:13) and that one generation’s righteousness can reverberate into the future for a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9).

Provisional Conclusion Five: Imagine how American politics and public discourse would be transformed if we applied the Golden Rule and the Posterity Principle, if we treated other people as we would like to be treated, both today and a century from now.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.

Comments

  1. This essay is, without question, one of the most formative articles I’ve read in a long time. I look forward to unpacking the numerous contributions of the piece, especially considering the upcoming election season.

  2. 100% agree.