Religion & Government

03-20-2016Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

We are gearing up for our first ever-formal course on Religion and Politics sponsored by the ASU Center for Political Thought and Leadership and co-sponsored by the University of Mary. (You can register for the class through our website). This is a great chance to clear up any confusion you might have about the relationship between religion and government and also to learn some effective ways to discuss this perennially important and often divisive issue.

As we approach another campaign cycle some of the hot button issues of past election years while still pertinent assume a somewhat less urgent role. For instance abortion: it does not seem likely that Roe v Wade will be seriously challenged anytime soon and most of the Pro-life gains that have been made and continue to be made are on the state or local level. On the issue of marriage, our side lost, unfairly as the US Supreme Court invalidated the democratic votes of millions of voters. Likewise on the Federal level we can't expect that ruling to be overturned anytime soon. The question now becomes in light of the redefinition of marriage how can both sides coexist? This gets to the question of religious liberty, which is an issue that shoots to the top in this election. Whether the next leadership will lead in defending the religious liberty of all Americans or whether the next leadership will seek to further diminish it is what really is at stake.

Still many people get squeamish about these issues and many think religion should have nothing to do with public policy and that the wall of separation between Church and state is absolute. There are lots of wrong views about the relationship between religion and government that cause otherwise clear thinking people to get massively confused.
For much of history one of the wrong views was that government should compel religion. Just read western history, particularly from the Middle Ages or the Wars of Religion to see how nasty it can get when government uses its force to compel belief. The fact is that faith cannot be compelled. If you have raised children you know this well. Faith is an act of the will so conversion at the end of the sword is not a true conversion.

On the other end is the wrong view that government should exclude religion. This is one we hear a lot today. Yet this view is at odds with the founding principles of our nation that make plenty of room for faith in the public square. Just because government should not establish a religion it also should not be hostile to religion. In the Bible Paul tells us in Romans 13 that the civil authorities are God's servants for our good. So at least from a Biblical point of view, elected officials and others are permitted power to serve the common good which includes the free exercise of religion.

One of the more tempting wrong views is to see government as demonic. While we can have distaste for government intrusion it certainly is not under the realm of Satan. Some like to quote Luke 4, when during the temptation of Jesus in the desert, Satan makes Jesus the offer to give him all the kingdoms of the world as if they were his. Satan of course is the Father of lies so we shouldn't take his word for it. God as we are told in the scriptures is the author of all power and grants it to whom he wills for his purposes.

Then there are those who only want to preach the gospel and avoid politics completely. Sounds good since politics can't get people to heaven. But at the same time we are suppose to "abound in good works". The historical record shows that Christianity influenced government and public policy for the good over the centuries. Whether that was helping to advance the rights of men and women, standing against the slave trade or in recent times when Rev. Dr. King used the pulpit to show how the Bible rejected racial segregation and pushed for our laws to be changed, Christianity has been a force for good in the world of public policy and government.

More recently we have those who only want to do politics and not evangelization. They preach the Social Gospel. This way of thinking hopes that if we only get the right leaders with the right set of laws and policies all will be well. Corporate salvation and not individual salvation. Social justice detached from individual redemption brings us right back to government-compelled religion.

The correct view on religion and government is for religion to influence public policy and not for government to compel religion nor for religion to shy away from involvement in public affairs. In light of the issues that we face: abortion, marriage, family, religious liberty, immigration, terrorism, economics what should Christian influence look like and what action do we as Christians take to bring that about?

Come and learn more about it and in the process make yourself a faith-filled citizen.

Love, Fr. John B.

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