Should Christians Force The Government To Serve As Their Spiritual Savior?

Just as there is a wide swath of American voters who continue to believe that a single man in the office of the U.S. presidency can redeem the U.S. economy, so too are there American voters who believe the U.S. government can be a savior of the moral landscape of America, and this from the very corner of the political spectrum where one would (or should) least expect it.

The conservative Christian voter is well known for his or her stance against legalized abortion and gay marriage. Yet this same conservative voter will express public resentment (and anger) against the U.S. government policy of requiring the coverage of birth control in the health insurance policies of religious organizations. Does this conservative Christian voter not see the double standard? How can Christians attempt to direct the personal decisions and beliefs of others through legislation, yet voice resentment towards government policy when their own decisions and beliefs are not promoted above others’ decisions and beliefs?

There is a far deeper problem with the conservative Christian voters’ intrusion into politics, one that risks their very faith: If the conservative Christian is a believer — one who believes Jesus of Nazareth is his or her savior — then why does the conservative Christian attempt to make a government into a savior?

By the very act of attempting to make abortion or gay marriage illegal, the conservative Christian is placing faith into a secular government role to correct what that Christian believes are threats to the moral fabric of the U.S. From my understanding of the Christian faith, God will not, cannot, hold governments responsible for their actions in the afterlife. He will hold individuals responsible for their individual actions. If the conservative Christian, if conservative Christian churches, do not like the moral landscape that is America today, perhaps some self reflection is in order, a looking into the mirror. If the moral fiber of America is perceived to be in decay, then Christian must ask why the Christian church holds such little sway over the beliefs and conscience of Americans. Turning to a secular government for relief is just an escape hatch from the personal and institutional failures of the Christian church.

Voices from within the conservative Christian church have expressed the same sentiments. In terms of regulating private morals, Johnny Hunt, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, aptly framed this in his interview with Simon Schama in the BBC documentary series, The American Future (Part 3, “American Fervor”):

I don’t believe the answer’s in the White House. I believe it’s in our homes. We’re making the decisions. You can’t legislate morality. You can’t pass laws to make people better… We almost look at a presidential candidate sometimes as a savior, who can come and rescue our country when we really need to be rescued ourselves.

For the record, I am personally pro-life for, if it were otherwise, it would be hard for me to uphold the natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Abortion is an ugly business and I believe most on either side of this infinite debate will agree with that statement. I am consistent with my beliefs, however, and weigh in against all but justified wars (and “justified wars” should require very high standards, but that’s a discussion for another day).

I would never attempt to outlaw abortion, however, for I also understand that if it could be outlawed, such legislation would be the most disregarded since Prohibition. Such decisions cannot be regulated if a majority in a society do not support it. The act of abortion is a very personal one, a decision that should be made by the individual. The consequences of that decision belong to the individual, and the individual alone. It is not for me to ask government to dictate otherwise.

To believe in government as savior is to believe in Mosaic Law. Yet, Jesus of Nazareth clearly stated that the individual should hew to virtue because she or he desires to do so, not because the individual is told to obey or threatened into adhering to a rule. It is living by the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. It is the difference between Mosaic Law and Christian Law.

Occasionally I read of Christian churches or organizations fighting legal battles to have the Ten Commandments erected in public; the Ten Commandments are Mosaic Law. I have yet to ever read of any churches or organizations fighting legal battles to publicly erect a copy of The Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount in public. The Sermon on the Mount is the Christian Manifesto, yet few American Christians seem to believe it pertains to them, or, if they do, the evidence of that belief within their daily lives is very flimsy indeed. Such Christians express dismay over the moral landscape that is America? They wonder why the Christian Church holds such little sway over the hearts and minds of Americans?

Law cannot compel virtue, John Milton argues in Areopagitica (1644), and virtue cannot exist without the voluntary effort of an individual:

Impunity and remissness for certain are the bane of a commonwealth; but here the great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work. If every action which is good or evil in man at ripe years were to be under pittance, prescription, and compulsion, what were virtue but a name, what praise could be then due to well doing, what gramercy [i.e., gratitude] to be sober, just, or continent?… when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing… Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue?

Temptation defines virtue, just as evil defines good. If the individual cannot hold onto virtue unless prescribed by law, then what justification does that individual possess in the eyes of God… or others? As Milton argued, this is why God provided a higher functioning brain, provided reason to humans, and holds that individual responsible as a result.

A secular government can never act as a personal savior.

“Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness…” – Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Section I (1777, 1779)