Christianity and Political Change

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I recently came across this quotation from George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796), which seems very relevant to the political situation on both sides of the Atlantic:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington argues that ‘religious principle’ is essential for ‘national morality.’ In other words, a nation cannot reliably know the difference between right and wrong without religion. It’s possible that he had the recent French Revolution in mind, which rejected France’s Christian heritage, and quickly gave way to the horrific mass executions of the Reign of Terror. Washington has since been proved right, time and again, on every continent. The words of Harry Wu, imprisoned for nineteen years in China’s system of labor camps, have stuck in my mind ever since I read them. One day during his imprisonment he realized, ‘Human life has no value here. It has no more importance than cigarette ash flicked in the wind.’ God’s laws are designed for our protection and our good; when nations reject them, anything goes.

But of course there are many in the West today who say that lawmaking shouldn’t have anything to do with Christianity. One example is the British judge Lord Justice Laws, who made the following argument when rejecting Gary McFarlane’s appeal against his dismissal as a relationship counselor (he had refused to advise gay couples on their sex life):

The conferment of any legal protection or preference … on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence.

This kind of thinking forgets the truth that Washington grasped: ultimately, morality depends upon religion. Lord Justice Laws talks of ‘objective grounds,’ and (elsewhere in his ruling) ‘reason,’ as if human beings are perfectly capable of determining what is best when left to themselves. Yet in reality people can justify anything on the basis of ‘objective grounds’ and ‘reason’ – the atheistic regimes of the 20th century did, as they sent millions to their deaths. Those who look for justice to spring from mankind ignore history, which demonstrates so clearly the truth of Jeremiah 17:9: ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.’ Mankind can only be kept in check by reverence for God’s commands. ‘Where there is no revelation people cast off restraint’ (Prov. 29:18). Human laws are best when they reflect God’s ‘perfect law’ (James 1:25), which Paul insists is not designed simply for the Christian community but for everyone (1 Tim. 1:9).

Many Christians are calling for the Church to stop fighting so-called culture wars and simply spread the gospel. It’s true that by far the best kind of social change comes when the gospel has been widely received. But that insight shouldn’t stop us from speaking out on moral and legal issues. Paul urges us to do good to everyone (Galatians 6:10) and improving a nation’s laws certainly has that effect. Here are some specific things that Christians can do: 1) Let’s work on our arguments. Putting them in the form of a question makes it easier for people to adjust without losing face: e.g. ‘How would you feel about your daughter being taught at school that she can marry either a boy or a girl when she grows up?’ People can be persuaded. 2) Support a Christian organization that lobbies politicians – in the UK the Christian Institute is superb. 3) Pray regularly for those in authority, and make sure that your church does too (1 Tim. 2:1-4). 4) Pray for Christians in politics whom you know personally and send them an encouraging note once in a while. 5) Write letters to those in authority, and (in the UK) consider visiting your MP. Imagine being a politician and only ever receiving letters and visits from those on the unbiblical side of the issues.

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