Mixing Politics and Religion

EDITORS' NOTE: Political questions often generate animated discussions, even anger at times: Should the United States be governed by religious or secular principles? Do Christians have a role in politics? Does our traditional view on the "separation of church and state" mean being silent on issues of moral imperative? What is our divine calling in these last days? Cindy Chamberlin, GLEANER managing editor, recently interviewed Greg Hamilton, Northwest Religious Liberty Association president. Here are several of his responses.

GLEANER: What do you say to those who believe our nation should be a "Christian" nation? Isn't that a good thing?

HAMILTON: 72–77 percent of Americans profess Christianity, but constitutionally and legally we are not a Christian nation, nor did the Founders intend it to be. We are a nation of many religions in which all are guaranteed equal constitutional protection.

To those who suggest the Founders favored only the Christian religion, my question is: "Why didn't they include such language in the Constitution and Bill of Rights?"

The Founding Fathers looked at the Holy Roman Empire and essentially concluded, "We don't want churches or religious movements defining and controlling the secular purpose of government." So they chose a utilitarian approach whereby religious people would be protected in practicing their faith without governmental interference, funding or legal endorsement.

G: But have we erred on the side of protecting government from religion so much that we have threatened religion in the process?

H: Professor Garry Wills demonstrates that church-state separation standards have actually contributed to religious adherence. In his book Head and Heart: American Christianities, Wills states that adherence climbed from 17 percent in 1776, to 62 percent in 2000. He statistically shows how this inspired the growth of so many different religions in the U.S., corresponding directly with the freedom to evangelize in a free and competitive marketplace of ideas.

Wills shows how God's law was the basis for the original constitutional principle of church-state separation. The first table of the Ten Commandments represents the sacred relationship between God and man. No person or civil authority should have the authority to interfere in institutional and personal realms of worship. Government should remain neutral in matters of religion: not allowing either religious moralists or secularists to cross that principled division in forcing government to promote their agendas or diminish free exercise.

G: Should Christians refrain from speaking out on moral issues?

H: No, when it comes to national reform, Christians should be the head, not the tail.

The second table of the Ten Commandments rightly addresses what our approach should be. This table involves man's relationship to man — "Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shalt not steal," etc. These laws require state and civil governance, lest there be societal chaos.

Issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion legitimately fall in the rightful realm of the second table — and therefore state jurisdiction. In a democratic republic, speaking up on these matters does not violate church-state separation constitutional standards. All people of faith have a constitutional role to play in urging support for universal, legal, and moral standards involving man's relationship to man.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment speak to this: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In the same way the first and second tables mirror the intent of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.

The Free Exercise Clause prevents us from going down the slippery slope of decadence and godlessness; while the establishment clause (otherwise known as the church-state separation clause) prevents any religious movement from controlling the government in ways that endorse anything represented by the first table.

Sandra Day O'Connor provides clarity when she said, "The religious zealot and the theocrat frighten us in part because we understand only too well their basic impulse. No less frightening is the totalitarian atheist who aspires to a society in which the exercise of religion has no place."

Our Constitution was designed to specifically avoid mixing government with the first table. Those who claim otherwise may unthinkingly be adopting the Holy Roman Empire model of church and state.

G: That's not the "Protestant" model our country was founded on?

H: No.

G: Do you see a potential problem with government becoming more "parental" toward citizens, slowly encroaching upon our rights?

H: Yes, coming as a legitimate reaction to big government that fosters the slide toward increased social planning, spending and regulation. That said, I think Adventists, in their reaction, need to avoid creating a revolutionary time of trouble beforehand. Ellen White urged us to be wise and not indulge in government conspiracy theories: to presume our leaders are good and not out to get us, unless they seriously demonstrate otherwise.

There are those who feed upon isolationist fears. It's a survivalist mentality that packs a gun and a lot of food and water. There are many good reasons to leave the cities. But fear alone should not be one of them.

G: Is there a corresponding problem with compulsively joining popular uprisings to correct governmental power?

H: Certainly. Reactive forces can sometimes be more harmful than the problem.

In the French Revolution, the people beheaded their King and Queen. Once in power, they could not govern effectively. This created a leadership vacuum, leading to chaos. Napoleon waltzed in, restored order and economic services. Life returned to normal, the people again chose to be dictated to, and they loved him for it. These kinds of scenarios are created by the fickle will of the people.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, as well as Edmund Burke from England, warned about this outcome, but few listened. The greatest fear of our constitutional Founders wasn't the government they were creating, or states' rights. It was the uprising of the people in an undiscerning and fickle way. These kinds of scenarios are what led them to create a strong, constitutionally checked, central government.

G: Should we side with those who oppose government sponsorship of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and prayer in schools?

H: As a diplomatic means of educating the public, yes. Don't forget our discussion of the proper roles of church and state based on the two tables of God's law in which any form of government sponsorship of worship represented in the first table would violate that sacred division between the two.

Besides, prayer is allowed in all kinds of public school settings as long as it is student-led and voluntary; and whose version of the Ten Commandments would we insist the government endorse and post?

G: How can Adventists speak up for what is right without compromising our religious liberty principles?

H: Follow the two tables' approach that we just discussed. Let that be your principled guide.

In spite of some disturbing evangelical trends of our own, I believe Adventists are uniquely positioned to focus on the overarching principles of religious liberty. We are perhaps the only remaining religious movement that's truly Protestant in terms of message and practice. Our world church leadership has enormous challenges in keeping our course steady in the midst of the growing tendency to drift from our prophetic message and calling given to us by Christ.

G: Should Adventists stand back and watch evil? Should we push for God in schools and courtrooms? Or, is there another alternative?

H: The political choices each individual makes are private and should be discerned prayerfully, along with much research and study.

There's a trend right now by politicians to dismantle large government and fix — in their thinking — our Supreme Court's mistaken rulings with regard to religion. While the first part sounds good, the second is dangerous and represents exactly what Ellen White warned about in Testimonies, volume 5, p. 451. Here she referred to the future "repudiation of our Constitution" that leads to the "propagation of papal falsehoods and delusions." This should concern all of us. If it doesn't, then perhaps we ought to place our cherished political prejudices at the altar of God.

Additionally, she says in The Great Controversy, p. 443, "In order for the United States to form an image of the beast (as referenced in Revelation 13:14–15), the religious power(s) must so control the civil government that the authority of the state will also be employed by the church (or united religious powers) to accomplish her own ends."

So it seems Adventist Christians should be asking: "Are we aiding and abetting the path toward establishing the prophetic image to the beast, or are we proclaiming with urgency the three angels' messages of Revelation 14? Which revolution are we actively involved in?"

G: So that's why popular movements are alarming to you?

H: Yes. Notice that Ellen White's caution just referenced doesn't refer to atheists, secular humanists, socialists, etc. Instead, the well-intentioned dragons will be religious people we often agree with. Therefore, I believe the evangelical right and interfaith left will find common cause and merge to form the most powerful political influence on all three branches of government. Remember, it was the Sadducees and Pharisees who put their differences aside to address a perceived common threat, resulting in Christ's crucifixion.

Ultimately, the prophecies of Scripture will prove true. But it's up to us to remain committed to our prophetic calling, speaking up for the great principles of religious liberty and asking God to grant additional time for the gospel of Jesus to be proclaimed to the whole world — especially our neighbors.

Greg Hamilton is the Northwest Religious Liberty Association president. Established in 1906, the NRLA champions religious freedom for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, judicial, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas. For more about NRLA, go to: www.nrla.com.

When it comes to national reform, Christians should be the head, not the tail.

I believe Adventists are uniquely positioned to focus on the overarching principles of religious liberty.

May 01, 2011 / Feature