America’s identity crisis: How Christians view separation of church and state (pt 2)

Last month before the Afghanistan debacle temporarily derailed the discussion, I was attempting to answer the question of how Christians should respond to America’s identity crisis.

It should be clear by now that America is indeed involved in what amounts to a genuine identity crisis over what America is and what should America be in the future.

Richard Land
The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan

In part I, I addressed the truth that Jesus mandated His followers to evangelize the world and disciple all people. As transformed men and women, Christians are to be ministers of reconciliation, bringing Gospel reconciliation to a fallen and sinful world.

How are Christians to interact with and view their role in civil society and in relation to government?

God ordained civil government to reward those who do what is good and punish those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-7). Furthermore, Romans clearly teaches that civil government is one of three divinely ordained institutions in human society, along with the family and the church.

Early in Part I, I quoted the Vision and Mission Statement of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), which I was privileged to lead for a quarter century (1988-2013). I believe these statements articulate what a significant majority of America’s Christians desire for America and the processes through which it could be achieved.

The Vision Statement envisions “An American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority.”

How to achieve this vision was spelled out in the ERLC’s Mission Statement: “To awaken, inform, energize, equip, and mobilize Christians to be the catalysts for the biblically-based transformation of their families, churches, communities, and the nation.”

The other side in our culture war is an alliance of groups of Americans roughly analogous to the “progressive left.” Their goal is to profoundly alter and change an American society they believe to be hopelessly compromised by its racist and sexist past. The society they envision is very different from the one articulated by the ERLC. 

After Part I was published, one reader’s response took me by surprise. The responder said, “Sounds like Christian Dominionism to me.” Really? Does this person understand Christian Dominionism?

There is nothing in the ERLC’s Vision and Mission Statement that could remotely be connected to Christian Dominionism.

In neither the Vision or Mission Statement is there even a hint of the Church-State cooperation or coercion implicit and explicit in Christian Dominionism.

The ERLC’s Vision Statement envisions an American “society” that “affirms” and “practices Judeo-Christian values.” There is no thought or mention of the government mandating such values and practices.

The mission statement explains that the means of implementing the vision involved evangelizing, discipling, energizing, and mobilizing Christians to transform “their families, churches, communities and the nation.” In other words, the transformation into such a society would be through spiritual revival and awakening, not government edict. Once the revival and awakening takes place, the society and the government will reflect that change, since we have a representative government “of the people, for the people, by the people.”

As it has often been explained, government is not a locomotive, but a caboose. When the people change (the locomotive), the caboose of government will ultimately reflect that.

It must always be remembered that in a nation as committed to representative self-government as America has been and is, culture wars are conducted in the public square through political debate and the electoral process. As students of this process have observed, “Politics is downstream from culture and culture is downstream from religion.”

As I noted in Part I, “this is true whether your religion is monotheistic, polytheistic, agnostic, or atheistic.”

Whatever your ultimate source of truth or authority is, that becomes the “religion” that informs your views of culture and politics.

During the course of America’s development from colonial days through the early Federal period of our U.S. history, the Baptist concept of religious freedom and the separation of the institution of the church and the institution of the state triumphed over other more statist models, first at the federal level and then through the various states. It must always be remembered that nine of the original thirteen states had tax-supported, official state churches which discriminated against and often persecuted dissenters, whether they were Baptist, or Catholic, or Quaker.

The Baptist model became the model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbade a federal official state church or any federal interference with the “free exercise” of religion.

Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, have expounded at length over the centuries as to their understanding of this model of religious freedom, declaring, “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” (The Baptist Faith & Message, Article XVII, “Religious Liberty”).

The Baptists’ confessional statement declares that “Church and state should be separate” with no religious group being “favored by the state more than others.” (BF&M, Article XVII).

The Baptist confessional statement also declares that “Every Christian is under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in his own life and in human society.” (BF&M, Article XV, “The Christian and the Social Order”).

The Baptist Faith & Message then explains that “Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love.” (BF&M, “The Christian and the Social Order”).

In this vision of American society, a significant majority of the population would voluntarily have become professing and faithful Christians, and the culture and the legal system would reflect those moral values. At the same time, no one would be coerced into profession of any faith and there would be significant latitude toward private consensual behavior among adults.

Yes, there would be legislation of Judeo-Christian morality. The reality is that all legal codes and government legislation are based on someone’s morality (i.e. their ultimate value system). Laws against murder, theft, rape, and racial discrimination are based on a morality that believes these behaviors are wrong. The goal of such legislation is not so much to impose a morality on the murderer, the thief, the rapist, or the bigot, but to keep them from imposing their immorality on their victims, because in each case the perpetrator is doing something to the victim against their will.

As Americans navigate the debate over our national identity, we should always remember that we have the right and the obligation to bring our shared moral values to that debate, and nothing about church-state separation should impede that discussion.

I, for one, welcome the debate, and I will not be deterred from sharing my vision for America’s future. When I was a teenager over a half century ago, God called me into His ministry and He made it quite clear to me that the mission field He had assigned me was the United States of America. I will not abandon my post or my Heavenly Father’s assignment as long as I draw breath. Multitudes of my fellow Evangelicals and many Catholics and I will see you on the hustings and in the various forums in which this identity crisis is being contested.

I fervently pray God will give us a renewed sense of being “a moral and a religious people” whose God has revealed Himself to us in Holy Scripture.*

*In the interest of full disclosure, Dr. Land was one of the 15 members of the study committee assigned to recommend a revision to the Baptist Faith & Message, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Southern Baptist Convention in June, 2000.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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