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A Resource by Mark D. Roberts

Evangelical Christians and Social Activism:
Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?

Section 2 of 2

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at . Thank you.

Table of Contents
  Go to Section 1 of this series, with Parts 1-10
Part 11 Why Democracy is Better: Some Personal Reflections, Section A
Part 12 Why Democracy is Better: Some Personal Reflections, Section B
Part 13 Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Religious Freedom
Part 14 Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Nurturing Family
Part 15 Principles of Christian Political Engagement: The Sanctity of Human Life
Part 16 Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Justice for the Poor
Part 17 Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Human Rights
Part 18 Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Peace
Part 19 Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Protecting Creation
Part 20 The Final Section: Our Commitment
Part 21 For the Health of the Nation: Concluding Thoughts

Why Democracy is Better: Some Personal Reflections, Section A
Part 11 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Friday, July 8, 2005

Before I got a bit sidetracked by the Boston Globe article that absorbed my attention for the last couple of days, I was examining the fourth part of the NAE Statement called For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility. This part, entitled "The Structures of Public Life," includes several strong statements in support of a democratic form of government:

We thank God for the blessings of representative democracy, which allow all citizens to participate in government by electing their representatives, helping to set the priorities for government, and by sharing publicly the insights derived from their experience.

We support the democratic process in part because people continue to be sufficiently blessed by God’s common grace that they can seek not only their own betterment, but also the welfare of others. We also support democracy because we know that since the Fall, people often abuse power for selfish purposes. . . . Thus we thank God for a constitutional system that decentralizes power through the separation of powers, fair elections, limited terms of office, and division among national, state, and local authorities.

In today's post and the one that follows I want to reflect on the benefits of a democratic form of government. My reflections aren't so much philosophical as personal and practical. I want to speak in terms of my own experience of a representative democracy, not in the political arena, but in the church.

As you probably know, I am a Presbyterian pastor. The Presbyterian system of church government is quite a bit like that of our country. Authority in a particular church is vested in the elders and pastors who serve on the Session, a legislative body rather like the U.S. Senate. Elders and pastors are elected by the congregation. Unlike in the public arena, however, members of Session are charged to seek God's will more than to represent some constituency of the church. An unmarried elder, for example, isn't obliged to represent the singles in the church so much as to seek God's will for the whole church.

As you probably know, I am a Presbyterian pastor. The Presbyterian system of church government is quite a bit like that of our country. Authority in a particular church is vested in the elders and pastors who serve on the Session, a legislative body rather like the U.S. Senate. Elders and pastors are elected by the congregation. Unlike in the public arena, however, members of Session are charged to seek God's will more than to represent some constituency of the church. An unmarried elder, for example, isn't obliged to represent the singles in the church so much as to seek God's will for the whole church.

For 21 years I've served as a participant in a Presbyterian Session, for 7 years as an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood and for 14 years as the senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. In this capacity I am the moderator of the Session, though I have a vote just like every other member, and do not have anything like a veto.

The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood

So then, in light of my experience, here are my thoughts on the benefits of representative democracy.

There is a distinct downside to representative democracy in church as in secular government. It is slow. It is inefficient. For the pastor, who is somewhat like the President though still a member of the Session, democracy can seem like the antithesis of effective, visionary leadership. Though I have complete authority over the content of the worship service (preaching, prayer, music), in every other realm of church life I have to share this with my elders. I don't have the authority to hire or fire a staff member, to start a new program, to change the time of a worship service, to purchase a new piece of equipment, or to determine my church's vision. In practice, many of these functions are cheerfully delegated to the Session. But the Session alone has the authority in almost everything that pertains to the life of the church.

I know many Presbyterian pastors who, at best, pay lip service to our democratic form of church government. For example, some years ago a good friend of mine sought to reframe the leadership of his Presbyterian church to make it more of a pastoral theocracy, in which God was to lead the church through the vision of the pastor. The chief role of elders was to support my friend's vision as pastor. Though Presbyterian in name, he was functioning much more like a bishop in a church-based episcopal system (where pastors have ultimate authority over their churches).

I'll grant that this was a more efficient means of making decisions. I'll even confess that a part of me was envious of my friend's authority, at least at first. He was able to move his church forward quickly in a number of areas, whereas I was lumbering along in what seemed like first gear. But, in time, I came to believe that what my friend was doing was quite wrong, both in principle and in practice.

In principle, my friend was violating the essence of the Presbyterian understanding of how a church is supposed to operate. He was trying to eat his cake and have it too. If a pastor truly believes that God leads a church primarily through the pastor's vision and authority, then this pastor should not be a Presbyterian. He should have the integrity to resign and to seek a position in a church that uses a pastoral theocratic model. Note: I'm not necessarily criticizing this form of leadership. I think God can and does honor it. But I am criticizing my friend for taking a vow to uphold a representative system and then disregarding and undermining it. If he weren't willing to share leadership with his elders, then he should have found a non-Presbyterian church in which to serve. (Ironically, this is what happened, because my friend was asked to resign by the Session of his church, and he left the Presbyterian denomination.)

My practical objection to what my friend was trying to do is this: it doesn't work very well. Sure, at first it allows the pastor to move things along efficiently. Yet there is a danger in all of this. As the NAE Statement observes, it is easy for people – yes, even pastors – to "abuse power for selfish purposes." The more power is vested in a pastor, the more danger for that pastor and for the church that pastor shepherds. Some pastors with genuine humility and solid wisdom can pull it off; most can't, in my opinion.

I'll continue this discussion in a couple of days. Have a great weekend!

Why Democracy is Better: Some Personal Reflections, Section B
Part 12 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Sunday, July 10, 2005

In my last post I began some personal reflections on the benefits of democractic government. I based these on my own experience, not in secular government, but in church leadership. I ended by suggesting that there is a danger, both for a church and for a pastor, when that pastor is given too much authority over a church. The potential for abuse of power is great.

There's another danger inherent in any system that gives exclusive authority to one person. It's the danger of unnecessary errors. Let's face it, even the smartest, wisest, and most spiritual leader can and will make lots of mistakes. If a pastor operates in a system with ample checks and balances, then the likelihood of costly errors is greatly reduced. Suppose, for example, the pastor comes to the elders with some new plan, believing it to be God's will. Yet, upon scrutiny, it turns out that the pastor's plan was more a matter of an overactive imagination than divine direction. Pastors have a hard time admitting this, of course, but it happens all the time.

I know, because I've been this pastor many times. Some of my best and brightest ideas – ones I was sure God had given me – turned out to be much less inspired than they had seemed before I discussed them with my Session (elders and associate pastors). There was a time when I would try to push my ideas through the Session, and sometimes I succeeded. And often I made big messes in my church. Yet, over the years, I've learned to trust my Session. I respect their judgment and the breadth of experience. The decentralization of power in the Presbyterian system has kept me from making lots of unnecessary mistakes, many of which would have been costly to me personally, not to mention to my church.
The sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church

On the positive side, the democratic process in church government also leads to improvements and innovations that would not happen in a pastoral theocracy. I can't tell you how many times my elders have been the initiators of new ministries. If they were waiting for me to come up with their great ideas, they'd still be waiting. Beyond the "common grace" mentioned in the NAE Statement, the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit has been given to all Christians. Therefore all believers can see visions and dream dreams (Acts 2:17). I'm convinced that the church does not exist to implement the pastor's vision. Rather, the pastor exists to help the church become a visionary entity in which all people participate fully in the ministry of Christ.

I should emphasize that I am not saying the Presbyterian system of church government is the only correct one. I think Scripture, not to mention church tradition, allows for a variety of options here. But I am saying that there are striking advantages to using a democratic representative system in church government, and this suggests to me the benefits of the same in the secular arena as well.

Another friend of mine was a senior pastor in a pastoral theocratic church. He had complete and sole authority over everything in that church. If he wanted to give a raise, he did it. If he wanted to alter the church mission statement, he did it. Do you know what was one of the first things my friend did with his authority? He formed a board of elders, raising up a number of leaders to share his authority. He made himself accountable to his elders in a number of ways, surrendering some of his exclusive power to them. In my opinion, this was a wise move.

I do not believe that all pastors should become Presbyterian (elder-led) in their view of church polity, however. What matters most, I believe, is that any leader respect the system in which he or she participates. For churches, this means that if the pastor is the recognized authority, then the church should follow that pastor's leadership. And if the pastor is in a Presbyterian system, then that pastor should respect, support, and encourage the genuine leadership of the elders. God will bless our leadership, I believe, when we are faithful in fulfilling the vows we have made to Him when we became leaders.

Let me close by saying that in my early years as a senior pastor, I found it burdensome to share leadership with my elders. I did fulfill my Presbyterian vows, but not happily. Over time, I have come to appreciate the collegiality I share with members of my Session. I've seen great ideas come out of our shared leadership. I've seen potentially great ideas honed and shaped through the process of group discernment, so that what emerges is much better than the original vision. And I've seen some seemingly great ideas, including some of my own, lose their luster and get rejected by the Session. The result of such discernment saved our church a whole lot of hassle and grief. Though there are still times when I find our Presbyterian system to be painfully slow, I value our democratic representative form of government now more than ever. It is a great privilege to be able to share church leadership with such fine, visionary, and discerning leaders. I'm so glad I don't have to go it alone.

Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Religious Freedom and Liberty of Conscience
Part 13 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Monday, July 11, 2005

I'd like to begin today's post with a brief review of where we've been so far in this series. I am in the process of examining a new document produced by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). It is called: For the Health of the Nation: An EvangelicalCall to Civic Responsibility. (To download this document in a PDF format, click here.) It is a broad-based evangelical effort to define the basis for and the focus of conservative Christian activism in the socio-political realm.

The Statement has the following outline:

The Basis for Christian Civic Engagement
The Method of Christian Civic Engagement
            Humility and civility
The Structures of Public Life
            Representative democracy
            Just government and fundamental liberty
Principles of Christian Political Engagement
            We work to protect religious freedom and liberty of conscience
            We work to nurture family life and protect children
            We work to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature
            We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable
            We work to protect human rights
            We seek peace and work to restrain violence
            We labor to protect God's creation
Our Commitment

So far I have examined the first four major sections, through "The Structures of Public Life." Today I begin looking closely at "Principles of Christian Political Engagement."

I've noted before that this section seems to me to be wrongly titled. The whole Statement could be said to spell out "Principles of Christian Political Engagement." The section with that name is really focusing on specific issues or areas of concern. So it should be called something like: "Main Areas of Evangelical Civic Concern."

The first of these main areas is: "We work to protect religious freedom and liberty of conscience." I'll quote several sentences from this area and then add some of my own comments.

God has ordained the two co-existing institutions of church and state as distinct and independent of each other with each having its own areas of responsibility. . . . We affirm the principles of religious freedom and liberty of conscience, which are both historically and logically at the foundation of the American experiment.

As I've said many times throughout this series, the NAE Statement clearly does not endorse a Dominionist view of government, in which the distinction between church and state collapses in a single theocracy. On the contrary, the Statement views both church and state as established by God and operating with considerable independence from each other.

The affirmation of religious liberty leads to a specific reference to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which, according to the Statement, provides "the political space in which we can carry out our differing responsibilities." Debates about freedom in America these days often and rightly refer to the First Amendment. Many debaters, however, seem to forget what that amendment really says. So, to be clear, here it is

Amendment I: Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The NAE Statement expressly understands that the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment apply both to Christians and to those who are not Christian. The Statement envisions a pluralistic society in which persons of varying faiths are free to practice and express their religious convictions.

Participating in the public square does not require people to put aside their beliefs or suspend the practice of their religion. All persons should have equal access to public forums, regardless of the religious content or viewpoint of their speech.

Once again the NAE Statement is responding, and rightly so, to current issues and debates. In the last ten years, as evangelical Christians have become more visibly involved in government, some have suggested that they are not qualified to govern because of their allegiance to Jesus or because they are motivated by religious faith. One of the most obvious instances of this argument came during the confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General. Because Ashcroft, a conservative Christian, was motivated and guided by his religious faith, many of Ashcroft's opponents argued that he was unfit to be the Attorney General. Yet the NAE Statement stands rightly on the side of allowing religious people of all stripes to participate in the public square as people of faith. This allowance includes, not only politically conservative evangelicals, but also people of more liberal Christian faith and/or political persuasion. It's good news for people like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, for example.
Anyone who argues that people should keep their religious convictions private, or that religiously motivated people should stay out of the civic arena, would need to argue that Martin Luther King Jr. should have remained in his pulpit and never bothered with civil rights issues in our society. Few people in the last century have been more obviously motivated by and guided by religious convictions than Dr. King.

The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is directed only at government and restrains its power. Thus, for example, the clause was never intended to shield individuals from exposure to the religious views of nongovernmental speakers.

Here the Statement alludes to one of the more troubling developments in the last twenty years: the tendency in secular quarters to interpret the First Amendment as actually restraining the free exercise of religion and religious speech. Some have argued, for example, that there should be laws that prohibit religious people from talking about their faith in the workplace. Public schools have often fallen victim to this topsy-turvy understanding of the First Amendment. For example, a young Jewish boy in a school in my city was asked to write an essay on the person he most admired. Each student was supposed to read his or her eassy to the class. The Jewish boy wrote his essay on Joseph, the "star" of the biblical book of Genesis. When he turned in his paper, his teacher told him it was unacceptable, and that he'd have to write another essay on some non-religious person. In her view, it was illegal for this boy to read his "religious" paper in class. Unfortunately, this sort of nonsense has become increasingly common these days. The NAE Statement rejects such a misinterpretation of the First Amendment.

Courts should respect church autonomy in matters relating to doctrine, polity, the application of its governing documents, church discipline, clergy and staff employment practices, and other matters within the province of the church.

This sentence plays out curiously in the evangelical world today. On the one hand, it seems to address the possibility that civil courts might dictate church practices that are properly religious in nature. What do I mean? The government does have the right to make sure, for example, that when a church builds a building it is safe. This is a matter of public safety. But the government does not have the right to insist that a church hire people without regard to their sexual orientation. In this case, the NAE Statement would protect evangelicals from government intrusion.

But, it's not uncommon today for evangelical churches in mainline denominations to look to civic courts for help in various matters. Conservative churches that seek to leave liberal denominations, for example, often file suit in civil court to guarantee that they can keep their property, when the church courts have ruled that the property belongs to the denomination. At least as I read the NAE Statement, it would appear to side with the liberal denominations in these cases.

Religion is not just an individual matter, but also refers to rich communal traditions of ultimate belief and practice. We resist the definition of religion becoming either radically individualized or flattened out to mean anything that passes for a serious conviction.

Once more this statement is clearly addressing issues in the broader culture. Americans, both culturally and legally, have tended to emphasize the individual nature of religion. You can believe whatever you want, it is said, but you can't necessarily do what your beliefs would dictate. If you're a Mormon fundamentalist, for example, you aren't free to have plural wives. The NAE Statement rightly insists that religion is not merely a private, individual matter. But it doesn't tell us where to draw the line when it comes to permissible religious speech and behavior. Does the freedom of religion protect: plural marriage? the religious use of illegal drugs? advocacy of terrorism against the United States by a extremist Muslim clergyman? etc. etc. I'm not really criticizing the Statement for failing to touch upon such questions, because these are terribly tricky issues. I am pointing out, however, places where the NAE Statement leaves things rather fuzzy.

In summary, this part of the Statement seems most concerned to protect religious freedom against the efforts of secularists to limit this freedom through legal means. At the same time, it would squelch the efforts of some Christians to impose Christianity upon non-Christian people. The freedom of religion, according to the Statement, protects all religious people, including evangelicals, Muslims, Rastafarians, and atheists, for that matter.

Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Nurturing Family and Protecting Children
Part 14 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Yesterday I began examining in depth the fifth part of the NAE Statement on evangelical civic activism. Today I will continue this examination, by looking at the next subsection of "Principles of Christian Political Engagement" – "We work to nurture family life and protect children." As I have done before, I will quote a section of the Statement and then add my own comments.

From Genesis onward, the Bible tells us that the family is central to God’s vision for human society.

Not surprisingly, of course, the NAE Statement rests its understanding of family on the Bible, where family life in various forms is an essential element of God's creation. I think the Statement is right on target in its claim about the centrality of the family. However, I think the Statement is negligent in not making it clear that in Scripture the definition of family is often broader than our own. Biblical families included more than just a husband, a wife, two kids, and a dog. Not only could other natural relatives considered to be part of family life, but non-relatives could also be thought of as part of the family. Thus the New Testament household might well include slaves and others who were not natural relatives, but who were nevertheless thought to belong to the household.

Though the Bible surely lends support to the traditional family, it also stretches our sense of who should be included in that family. By failing to mention this, I think the NAE Statement is deficient both in its biblical base and in its effort to correct negative tendencies among some of today's evangelicals. I am not necessarily arguing that we should recognize non-traditional "families," though some, such as single-parent families, surely deserve more attention in evangelical churches. I am concerned, however, that too many evangelicals have limited family life in an unbiblical way. I'm thinking especially of the extent to which non-married people are often excluded from "family" gathering. For example, many Christian singles end up spending Christmas by themselves because nobody thought of them as part of the "family." I do not think this is anything the government should be correcting. But I do think the church needs to be more assertive in teaching people that their families should be more open and welcoming to those who don't have natural families close by.
The Munsters featured a very non-traditional family that upheld quite traditional values in spite of its "monstrous" appearance. The program ran for two years in the mid-60s, shooting 70 black and white episodes.

Marriage, which is a lifetime relationship between one man and one woman, is the predominant biblical icon of God’s relationship with his people.

It's clear that the whole of Scripture envisions marriage as a "lifetime relationshp between one man and one woman," even though some of our Old Testament heroes had more than one wife. Yet I'm not sure I agree that marriage is "the predominant biblical icon of God's relationship with his people." It is one prominent biblical icon, but not "the predominant" one. What other icons would vie for this title? Surely the image of God as parent with His people as the children is a major image, especially in the New Testament. But even more pervasive than this, I would argue, is the image of God as King as the people as God's subjects. Then there is the picture of God as Savior and the people as those being saved. So I think the NAE Statement goes a bit overboard here, though the point is a good one.

The mutuality and service of family life contrast strongly with the hypermodern emphasis on individual freedom and rights. Marriage, sexuality, and family life are fundamental to society. Whether we are married or single, it is in the family that we learn mutual responsibility, we learn to live in an ordered society with complementary and distinct roles, we learn to submit and to obey, we learn to love and to trust, we learn both justice and mercy, and we learn to deny ourselves for the well-being of others. Thus the family is at the heart of the organic functioning of society.

This paragraph fascinates me for several reasons. One is that I'm not sure I would have thought to include it in the Statement if I had been its author, though I think the points deserve the attention they're getting. I am also curious about the idealization of family here. Surely it is in the family that we should learn these things. In fact, however, I'm not sure I'd be able to say that we do necessarily learn them, as the Statement claims. Too many families are too dysfunctional for me to be so buoyant about what people learn in families.

I also wonder about how a statement like this might impact the debate about "gay marriage." If marriage and family are so important for individuals and for society, doesn't denying marriage and family to gay people seem unduly harsh and even hurtful to society? I'm not arguing this point, mind you. But I think the more evangelicals emphasize the importance of marriage, the more we will have a hard time persuading the larger society that gay people should not participate in this relationship.

Government does not have the primary responsibility for guaranteeing wholesome family life.

This counteracts the tendency in some quarters to assign to government the very roles and responsibilities that belong to families, including the provision of "wholesome family life." Yet the NAE Statement affirms that the government has some responsibility here:

While providing individuals with ways to remedy or escape abusive relationships, governments should promote laws and policies that strengthen the well-being of families."

What are these laws and policies? They are alluded to in the next paragraph.

Many social evils—such as alcohol, drug, gambling, or credit-card abuse, pornography, sexual libertinism, spousal or child sexual abuse, easy divorce, abortion on demand— represent the abandonment of responsibility or the violation of trust by family members, and they seriously impair the ability of family members to function in society. . . . Similarly, employment, labor, housing, health care, and educational policies concern not only individuals but seriously affect families. In order to strengthen the family, we must promote biblical moral principles, responsible personal choices, and good public policies on marriage and divorce law, shelter, food, health care, education, and a family wage.

This is an unusually inclusive list of family-related issues. One often hears conservatives talking about the first items mentioned (alcohol, drug [abuse], etc.). While liberals tend to focus more on the second list of items (employment, labor, housing, etc.). One of the salient and laudable strengths of the NAE Statement is its tendency not to fall only in one camp of biblical concern, but to keep together a wide range of biblical concerns.

We also oppose innovations such as same-sex “marriage.”

Anyone who knows anything about evangelicals wouldn't be surprised by this sentence. I do find it a bit odd, however, that the sentence includes nothing by way of biblical defense or rationale (except for what was already said about marriage as between one man and one woman).

The sentence immediately following the one about "gay marriage" reads:

We will work for measures that strengthen the economic viability of marriages and families, especially among the poor.

Once again I'm impressed by the diversity of concerns in this subsection on family. It's rare in today's world to find places where opposition to gay marriage is complemented by a concern for economic opportunity for poor families.

The most peculiar thing about this subsection, which is entitled, "We work to nurture family life and protect children" is the absence of specifics about protecting children. Sure, many of the issues mentioned contribute to this sort of protection, but I find it odd that the "protecting children" stuff seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. I realize that one can't say everything in such a short subsection, but the title and the content don't seem to match.

It may also be that the whole issue of protecting children is so vast that it just didn't seem to fit in such a short subsection. I find it interesting to think about what we need to protect children from in today's world. My list would include such things as (in no special order): crimes of violence, the ravages of poverty, the ravages of materialism, sexual predators, terrorism, addiction to electronic media, obesity, pornography, too much academic pressure, and growing up too fast.

Principles of Christian Political Engagement: The Sanctity of Human Life
Part 15 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The next of the so-called "Principles of Christian Political Engagement" in the NAE Statement of evangelical civic activism is a predictable one:

We work to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature.

Perhaps more than anything else, conservative Christian activists have been known for their commitment to the sanctity of life, especially as this plays out in the debate about abortion. In this application the NAE Statement is clear:

Because God created human beings in his image, all people share in the divine dignity. And because the Bible reveals God’s calling and care of persons before they are born, the preborn share in this dignity (Ps. 139:13). We believe that abortion, euthanasia, and unethical human experimentation violate the God-given dignity of human beings.

Understandably, given the NAE position, the beings whom others would call "fetuses" are here referred to as "preborn persons." The sanctity of their life derives from the fact of God's creation, calling, and care for all persons.

Once again we see that the NAE Statement is not trying to persuade the unconvinced. There is no argument for its pro-life stance, and only one Bible verse is mentioned. This Statement is meant to guide those who already agree with it, more or less, rather than to argue for its positions.

Christians base the dignity of human life upon the fact of creation, especially God's creation of human beings in His own image. The Statement doesn't explain how this creation happened, nor does it compel someone to adopt one particular kind of creationism. So, allowing for much freedom in the scientific details, the Statement ties the worth of each person to the fact that each person bears God's image.

Human dignity is indivisible. A threat to the aged, to the very young, to the unborn, to those with disabilities, or to those with genetic diseases is a threat to all.

Here is a principled version of the so-called "slippery slope" argument. If you allow people to terminate "preborn" human life, or to practice euthanasia on the terminally ill, etc., before long people who are not on the ethical edges will find their lives in jeopardy.

There have been times in my life when I have found this argument to be unpersuasive. The "threat to all" seemed far-fetched. But I no longer find this argument to be scaremongering. One the one hand, I'm now more aware of how easy it has been throughout history for people who devalue some kinds of human life to los their ethical bearings completely (the Nazis, for an obvious example). On the other hand, last fall I did a short series called Euthanasia in the Netherlands. There I examined and commented on the Groningen Protocol, a document produced by medical experts which allows doctors to euthanize children under twelve if they are suffering or have an illness believed to be incurable. So the Netherlands, a leading nation in allowing euthanasia for adults who seek it, now permits the "mercy killing" for children who do not seek it. Hardly mercy!

As many others in the West, we have had such faith in science and its doctrine of progress that we are unprepared for the choices biotechnology now brings us. We urge evangelicals with specialized scientific knowledge to help Christians and policymakers to think through these issues.

The NAE Statement rightly and wisely focuses on the mess of biotech issues that now confront us. These include: euthanasia, experimentation on humans, cloning, genetic modification, and so forth.

I appreciate and endorse the call for "evangelicals with specialized scientific knowledge" to help us think through these issues. This plea recognizes that careful and wise responses to the biotech challenges will require a high level of scientific understanding, something that eludes scientific lay people like me. (I would add, however, that evangelicals can certainly learn from thoughtful people who don't share our exact theology. During the Terri Schiavo controversy, I learned a great deal from a dialogue between two Jewish men, radio talk show host Dennis Prager and his brother, Dr. Kenneth Prager, who is a professor in the med school of Columbia University. Though they are not evangelical Christians, the Prager brothers shed considerable light on this complicated issue.)

Where the negative implications of biotechnology are unknown, government ought to err on the side of caution.

This is a point often made by conservatives (Christians and otherwise) when talking about bioethical issues. In the Schiavo case, for example, some argued that if we can't be absolutely positive that Terri Schiavo is completely brain dead, then we shouldn't allow her to die, or else we run the risk of failing to protect a living person. Similarly, many have argued concerning abortion that if we're unsure of the life status of a fetus, whether the fetus is a human person or not, then we should always seek to keep the fetus alive, lest we end up killing a real person. Individual people and the government should always seek to protect and preserve human life. This entails "erring on the side of caution."

What I find most impressive about this subsection on the sanctity of life is its scope. I'm impressed that abortion, though clearly mentioned and opposed, is not the main subject here. The NAE Statement transcends the tendency in some conservative Christian circles to act as if abortion is the whole ball game. It rightly stretches our vision concerning the implications of the God-given sanctity of human life.

Yet I wonder if the Statement goes far enough in this regard. From my point of view, the sanctity of human life requires protection and preservation not only in the medical and biotechnological realm, but also in the social, economic, and political realms as well. So, for example, from the fact of the dignity of human life I'd argue for such things as the need to alleviate poverty, fight oppression, protect human rights, and so forth. The NAE Statement will address these matters, I'm glad to say, even tying human rights to God's creation. But I think a more explicit connection between sanctify of life issues and other social issues would be helpful, especially as a corrective against Christians who limit the implications of the sanctity of life. One who truly believes that human life is sacred will be as concerned about genocide and slavery in the Sudan, or famine and oppression in North Korea, as about abortion in the United States.

Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Justice for the Poor
Part 16 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Thursday, July 14, 2005

The next subsection of the NAE Statement begins with this title:

We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable.

The first three paragraphs of the subsection lay out a biblical basis for this commitment. This foundation includes:

• Jesus's command to love our neighbors, which includes anyone in need.
• The creation of people in the image of God.
• God's identification with the poor (Psalm 146:5-9, Prov 19:17).
• Jesus's saying that those who don't care for the needy will depart eternally from
   the living God (Matt 25:31-46)
• The call of the Old Testament prophets to create just societies.

The NAE Statement rightly shows that God cares for justice and calls His people to share this concern and act upon it.

Yet the Statement also makes it clear that seeking justice in God's name does not necessarily lead one to join either liberal or socialist camps. The Bible, we are told, calls for equality of opportunity, not equality of results in the form of economic equality.

Moreover, the solutions for social and economic problems are the responsibility of more than just the government:

Christians reach out to help others in various ways: through personal charity, effective faith-based ministries, and other nongovernmental associations, and by advocating for effective government programs and structural changes.

Thus the NAE Statement steers a middle course between those who see the alleviation of poverty mainly as a governmental matter, and those who see it as the responsibility of individuals and the church, but not the government.

The Statement sees the issue of economic justice broadly:

Economic justice includes both the mitigation of suffering and also the restoration of wholeness. . . . Health care, nutrition, and education are important ingredients in helping people transcend the stigma and agony of poverty and re-enter community. Since healthy family systems are important for nurturing healthy individuals and overcoming poverty, public policy should encourage marriage and sexual abstinence outside marriage, while discouraging early onset of sexual activity, out-of-wedlock births, and easy divorce. Government should also hold fathers and mothers responsible for the maintenance of their families, enforcing where necessary the collection of child-support payments.

I'm impressed by the wide scope of this vision. It brings together perspectives that are often associated with conservative politics or liberal politics, but not both. Once more, the Statement sees a role for government in bringing about economic justice. But personal responsibility also counts considerably.

Of course this brings up the whole question of the welfare state. The NAE Statement addresses that question succinctly:

Restoring people to wholeness means that governmental social welfare must aim to provide opportunity and restore people to self-sufficiency. While basic standards of support must be put in place to provide for those who cannot care for their families and themselves, incentives and training in marketable skills must be part of any well-rounded program.

Unlike some Libertarians or arch-conservatives who would deny that government should provide any assistance to the poor, the NAE Statement affirms the value of this governmental role. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of "self-sufficiency." Too often, especially in the past, governmental programs fostered dependence on the government, and perpetuated poverty rather than helping to end it.

The final paragraphs concerning justice for the poor and vulnerable emphasizes the trans-national dimensions of evangelical concern:

We further believe that care for the vulnerable should extend beyond our national borders. . . . We should try to persuade our leaders to change patterns of trade that harm the poor and to make the reduction of global poverty a central concern of American foreign policy. . . .

Especially in the developing world, extreme poverty, lack of health care, the spread of HIV/AIDS, inadequate nutrition, unjust and unstable economies, slavery and sexual trafficking, the use of rape as a tool of terror and oppression, civil war, and government cronyism and graft create the conditions in which large populations become vulnerable. We support Christian agencies and American foreign policy that effectively correct these political problems and promote just, democratic structures.

This global concern is consistent with what we have seen elsewhere in the NAE Statement. Though we are citizens of one country, our care for the poor doesn't stop at our national borders. Recent efforts by evangelicals and other Christians to get the United States to increase economic assistance for countries in Africa and to forgive their debt are consistent with this sort of worldwide vision.

There may be no organization in the world that is doing more to alleviate world hunger than the evangelical Christian organization, World Vision. To get involved with this fine group, click here.

I've saved for last one of the lines from this subsection on justice that I find most telling and quotable:

God measures societies by how they treat the people at the bottom.

The vulernable who are "at the bottom" include: "not only the poor, but women, children, the aged, persons with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, minorities, the persecuted, and prisoners." I think this accurately portrays God's self-revelation in Scripture, though I'm a little surprised the NAE Statement didn't include the "unborn" in its list of vulnerable people who deserve our care. As I said in my last post, I think the Statement would be stronger and more biblical if it linked the sanctity of life and justice issues more closely.

No matter who you are, no matter what your politics, there is something in this NAE Statement that will challenge you. Perhaps it will anger you. My hope is that it will urge all of us who consider ourselves to be guided by the Bible to take a second look at our socio-political convictions. My guess is that almost all of us – including me – could do a much better job of formulating and evaluating our positions in light of the whole of Scripture, and not just our pet verses.

Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Human Rights
Part 17 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Friday, July 15, 2005

The next subsection of the NAE Statement focuses on another "principle of Christian political engagement":

We work to protect human rights.

As in the cases of the sanctity of human life and justice for the poor, the biblical/theological basis of the commitment to human rights comes from the fact of divine creation:

Because God created human beings in his image, we are endowed with rights and responsibilities. In order to carry out these responsibilities, human beings need the freedom to form associations, formulate and express beliefs, and act on conscientiously held commitments.

So, among basic, God-given human rights are the right of assembly, the right of expression, and the right to act according to conscience. Yet are there more rights than these?

As recipients of God’s gift of embodied life, people need food, nurture, shelter, and care. In order to fulfill their God-given tasks, all people have a right to private property. God’s design for human existence also implies a right to marry, enjoy family life, and raise and educate children.

Basic human rights include the right to that which makes human life possible (food, shelter), the right to own property, as well as the rights associated with family life. Although I would certainly defend the right to private property, I'm not sure this follows necessarily from "God's give of embodied life." Throughout human history there have been communities of faithful Christians where individuals own nothing, and everything is shared by the community. I suppose one could argue that this is a form of private ownership, however.

These days, as soon as one mentions the "right to marry" we're immediately thrown into the debate about so-called "gay marriage." Does the right to marry imply the right to marry anyone you want, or only a person of the opposite sex? The NAE Statement is clear in its opposition to "gay marriage":

We also oppose the expansion of “rights talk” to encompass so-called rights such as “same-sex marriage” or “the right to die.” Inappropriately expanded rights language has begun to function as a trump card in American discourse that unfairly shuts down needed discussion

The Statement is surely correct in asserting that we need more discussion about basic human rights in our nation. It is true that many who argue for the "right" to marry a person of the same sex don't so much argue as simply play the "trump card" of rights language. This challenges our society's fundamental understanding of our rights, where they come from, and how they are defined.

There's not too much question about what the sellers of this t-shirt think of the right to marry.

So what is the government's responsibility when it comes to human rights?

While it is not the primary role of government to provide everything that humans need for their well-being, governments are obligated to ensure that people are not unjustly deprived of them and to strengthen families, schools, businesses, hospitals, social-service organizations, and other institutions so they can contribute to human welfare. . . .

Governments should be constitutionally obligated to protect basic human rights.

I find this portion of the Statement to be somewhat unclear. It is not advocating a kind of statism in which the government guarantees the well-being of all citizens. Instead, government's chief role is to protect human rights and make sure that individuals are not deprived of them. But I wonder what it means, aside from not interfering, for governments to "strengthen families, schools, businesses, etc. . . ." This last thought seems to imply much more government involvement than is suggested elsewhere in the Statement.

This subsection on rights touches upon three specific, current issues in our world today: foreign policy, religious liberty, and racism.

1. Foreign Policy.

American foreign policy should reward those countries that respect human rights and should not reward . . . those countries that abuse or deny such rights.

The Statement does not clarify how this commitment to human rights should be balanced with other national interests. Yet it does add another sentence that I find quite striking:

We urge the United States to increase its commitments to developing democracy and civil society in former colonial lands, Muslim nations, and countries emerging from Communism.

Though not mentioning the Iraq war specifically, this sentence certainly seems to support American involvement in that nation, since it is claimed by supporters to be an effort to "develop democracy" in a "Muslim nation."

2. Religious Liberty

Because the Creator gave human beings liberty, we believe that religious liberty, including the right to change one’s religion, is a foundational right that must be respected by governments.

This sentence is obviously directed at governments that limit religious liberty. The part about "the right to change one's religion" is directed in particular at the Muslim nations in which it is a crime, indeed, a capital crime, to convert from Islam to any other religion, including Christianity.

3. Racism

The last paragraph in the subsection on human rights reads:

America has a tragic history of mistreating Native Americans, the cruel practice of slavery, and the subsequent segregation and exploitation of the descendants of slaves. While the United States has achieved legal and social equality in principle, the legacy of racism still makes many African Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnic minorities particularly vulnerable to a variety of social ills. Our churches have a special responsibility to model good race relations (Rom. 10:12). To correct the lingering effects of our racist history, Christians should support well-conceived efforts that foster dignity and responsibility.

I find it both notable and laudable that the NAE Statement mentions both historic and current racism in the U.S. Yet I find the proposed remedies to be curiously minimalistic. Yes, of course I agree that the church should model good race relations. But, I wonder, what would count as "well-conceived efforts that foster dignity and responsibility"? What about reparations for slavery? And for Native Americans deprived of their lands? What about preferential treatment for minorities in matters of hiring, etc.? Of course it may be that there is no unanimity among the writers of the NAE Statement about what specific steps should be taken in legal terms to combat racism. But I would at least have looked for a much stronger statement calling Christians to oppose racism in our society, beginning in the church. Maybe even a call to repentance would be in order. The current response seems to me rather anemic, given the ugliness of racism in our country and the extent to which the church has sometimes been a breeding ground for it.

Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Peace
Part 18 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Tuesday, July 19, 2005

For those who are just joining this series, I'd like to begin today's post with a brief review of where we've been so far. If you've been reading along, you can skip down a couple of paragraphs.

I am in the process of examining a new document produced by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). It is called: For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility. (To download this document in a PDF format, click here.) It is a broad-based evangelical effort to define the basis for and the focus of conservative Christian activism in the socio-political realm.

The Statement has the following outline:

The Basis for Christian Civic Engagement
The Method of Christian Civic Engagement
            Humility and civility
The Structures of Public Life
            Representative democracy
            Just government and fundamental liberty
Principles of Christian Political Engagement
            We work to protect religious freedom and liberty of conscience
            We work to nurture family life and protect children
            We work to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature
            We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable
            We work to protect human rights

----- (where I am in my examination) -----
            We seek peace and work to restrain violence
            We labor to protect God's creation
Our Commitment

So far I have examined all of the major sections, through "The Structures of Public Life." Recently I've been scrutinizing the subsections of "Principles of Christian Political Engagement," and have finished "We work to protect human rights." It looks today like my series will have three more parts, including today's post.

Today's subsection has this heading:

We seek peace and work to restrain violence.

The subsection begins its appraisal of the biblical basis for peace:

Jesus and the prophets looked forward to the time when God’s reign would bring about just and peaceful societies in which people would enjoy the fruits of their labor without interference from foreign oppressors or unjust rulers.

While this sentence is true, and rightly connects peace with God's reign (or kingdom), it is rather superficial. The biblical foundation for peace is much deeper and wider than the prophetic visions of Jesus and the prophets, however significant these may be. The Old Testament notion of shalom (literally, "peace") includes profound wholeness in this world, including healing and justice. This peace is part of what Jesus accomplished in the cross, according to Ephesians 2. Thus it stands at the very center of God's saving work in the cosmos. I wish the NAE Statement had said more about the pervasive nature of biblical peace and its centrality in God's plan for the world.

But from the beginning, Christians have recognized that God did not call them to bring in God’s kingdom by force.

This is true. The early Christian recognition came, of course, from Jesus Himself, who taught his followers to "turn the other cheek" (Matt 5:39), and who exemplified non-violence in his own life and death. So, Christians should always reject violence as a means of advancing God's kingdom. But this does not necessarily explain how Christians should or should not use force when they are part of a secular nation or even involved in ruling that nation. Hence the next sentence in the NAE Statement:

While all Christians have agreed that governments should protect and restore just and peaceful social orders, we have long differed on when governments may use force and whether we may participate in government-authorized force to defend our homelands, rescue others from attack, or liberate other people from oppression.

This is an essential statement, because it rightly recognizes the vast diversity among Christians when it comes to the whole issue of the use of force. I remember in the 80's when some of my conservative Christian friends, faced with the specter of nuclear annihilation, argued that the U.S. must have weapons of mass destruction in order to preserve world peace. Yet other Christian friends argued that we are "better off Red than dead," in their effort to get the U.S. to unilaterally disarm. Today, some evangelicals are full pacifists, who argue it's never right for our nation to use military power. Conversely, many evangelicals support, not only the theoretical use of American military power, but the specific uses to which it is being used today, in Iraq and elsewhere. The NAE Statement doesn't try to sort out the differences among Christians in this matter.

The Mennonites are one of the classic "peace churches." They are orthodox theologically and ardent pacifists. Even if one is not persuaded to join them in their hardcore pacifism, the Mennonites have much to teach us about the centrality of peace in God's plan for salvation, and about how Christians can live as peacemakers in today's world. This issue of the Canadian Mennonite has some representative articles.

So when might it be right for a government to use military force, if ever? Here's what the Statement says:

The peaceful settling of disputes is a gift of common grace. We urge governments to pursue thoroughly nonviolent paths to peace before resorting to military force. We believe that if governments are going to use military force, they must use it in the service of peace and not merely in their national interest. Military force must be guided by the classical just-war principles, which are designed to restrain violence by establishing the right conditions for and right conduct in fighting a war. In an age of nuclear and biological terrorism, such principles are more important than ever.

Most Christians I know, including many non-evangelicals and Roman Catholics, would affirm this whole paragraph. The tricky part, of course, is application. How long should a government pursue nonviolent paths before it uses force? Some Christians argue that the U.S. acted too quickly in Iraq; others argue that the nonviolent possibilities had been exhausted. When can we tell if a government is acting for peace or, instead, for national interest? You can hear folks take either side concerning U.S. involvement in Iraq. Similarly with whether the Iraq war is a just war or not. The Statement, while noting the issue of terrorism, does not deal with the struggle to make classic just war theory fit today's world. How do we fight a just war against an enemy that is as slippery Al-Qaeda and willing to engage in suicide bombings against civilians? There is not an easy or obvious answer to this question, in my opinion.

We urge followers of Jesus to engage in practical peacemaking locally, nationally, and internationally. As followers of Jesus, we should, in our civic capacity, work to reduce conflict by promoting international understanding and engaging in non-violent conflict resolution.

Though this final paragraph in the "peace" subsection is right, I find it inadequate. It almost feels as if the writers of the Statement are getting tired. There is so much more Christians can and should do as peacemakers, beginning in families, neighborhoods, schools, soccer teams, city councils, etc. etc. This is a matter of Christians being salt and light in the world. And, given the centrality of peace in God's plan for the world, peacemaking deserves a much more central role in evangelical civic activism. Though I agree with almost every word in this subsection, if find it to be one of the least satisfactory in the whole Statement. (If you'd like to see what a broader conception of peace looks like and what some of the implications might be, I'm going to do an extended series called Seeking the Peace of Christ: Peacemaking and Christianity after this current series is over. The new series will begin next week.)

Principles of Christian Political Engagement: Protecting Creation
Part 19 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Wednesday, July 20, 2005

In the larger section on "Principles of Christian Political Engagement," the next and last subsection begins:

We labor to protect God's creation.

The first sentence beneath this subtitle reads:

As we embrace our responsibility to care for God’s earth, we reaffirm the important truth that we worship only the Creator and not the creation.

Now that's a striking and somewhat surprising corrective! I've said many times throughout this series that the NAE Statement is responding to current issues both among Christians and in the wider world. But here we see a stunning example. What is this statement responding to? On the one hand, to the tendency among many pro-environment folk to be nature worshipers, either explicitly or implicitly. On the other hand, the Statement is responding to conservative Christian fears that environmentalism necessarily goes hand-in-hand with some version of creation worship. I think the latter concern is in fact more prominent here. The Statement's authors were well aware that a subsection on the environment would be controversial among many evangelicals, so they sought to allay fears right at the beginning.

After a defensive opening move, the Statement gets on the offensive:

God gave the care of his earth and its species to our first parents. That responsibility has passed into our hands. We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part.

A concern for creation, therefore, is not a liberal add-on to genuine Christian conviction, but something right at the heart of our divine calling. Environmentalism shouldn't be an afterthought for Christians, but something all believers take seriously.

We are not the owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to “watch over and care for it” (Gen. 2:15). This implies the principle of sustainability: our uses of the Earth must be designed to conserve and renew the Earth rather than to deplete or destroy it.

If you hang around Presbyterian churches very much, you're bound to hear about stewardship. Usually we talk about this when we're raising money, rightly proclaiming that we should exercise responsible stewardship by giving money to the church, but wrongly narrowing the discussion of stewardship to matters of finance.

If we are stewards of God's creation, then we are not free to use it up for our own benefit. From this the NAE Statement gets the "principle of sustainability." But what this means in practice is debatable. It may be that some of the what the earth produces, like fossil fuel, for example, is meant to be used up in time.

The Bible teaches us that God is not only redeeming his people, but is also restoring the whole creation (Rom. 8:18-23). Just as we show our love for the Savior by reaching out to the lost, we believe that we show our love for the Creator by caring for his creation.

My favorite phrase is this subsection on creation is: "[We urge Christians to shape their personal lives in creation friendly ways:] . . . experiencing the joy of contact with nature." Now that deserves a hearty "Amen!" The more time I spend in God's creation, the more I am apt to want to protect it, though not in some of the ways of today's environmentalists. But just think of where we'd be today if the government had not stepped in to preserve our national parks, which were at one time in our history destined for commercialism.

This is an enormously important paragraph in an evangelical statement. If anything, evangelicals are known for their evangelistic efforts. Yet the NAE Statement virtually equates evangelism with environmentalism in this paragraph. Both are expressions of our love for God.

Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation. This involves both the urgent need to relieve human suffering caused by bad environmental practice.

Now the Statement defines the role of government in caring for the environment. This role, it seems, has more to do with protection than promotion. It is based upon the basic duty of government to promote civic order.

Human beings have responsibility for creation in a variety of ways. We urge Christians to shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways: practicing effective recycling, conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats.

This paragraph advocates environmentalism in terms that most all people would accept, Christian or non-Christian, Democrat or Republican. The tough part will be working this out in action. What does it mean for Christians who drive SUVs to conserve resources? Sell the SUV? Slow down? Or . . . ? And just how much natural habitat should be proteced, and how much should be used for business or other human endeavors?

I wouldn’t expect the NAE Statement to weigh in on such controversial matters, of course. In fact, I'm rather impressed that such a strong environmentalist section made it into the Statement at all, since this tends to be one of those issues that is associated with the left side of the political spectrum. But I fully agree with the fact that concern for God's creation is right there in Genesis, and therefore can't be ceded to one or the other political side. If Christians truly take their lead from Scripture, and not from the current political map in America, then we should be on the forefront of environmental concern, not lagging behind somewhere.

The Final Section: Our Commitment
Part 20 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Thursday, July 21, 2005

We have now come to the final section of the NAE Statement of evangelical civic activism. As usual, I'll reproduce portions of this section and add some of my own comments.

We commit ourselves to support Christians who engage in political and social action in a manner consistent with biblical teachings.

This makes perfect sense, of course. But it leaves out the juicier issues, like: What should we do if a Christian engages in political action in a manner inconsistent with biblical teaching? Or, as is usually the case, only partly consistent with biblical teaching? And should evangelicals support non-Christian politicians whose views are consistent with Scripture? What the Statement affirms is fine, but is relatively unhelpful in the real world where political lines are often unclearly drawn.

We call on Christian leaders in public office or with expertise in public policy and political life, to help us deepen our perspective on public policy and political life so that we might better fulfill our civic responsibility.

Though skeptics on both sides have plenty of doubts, both of these men have claimed to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior, and both claim to be Bible-believing Christians. If there's any truth in this whatsoever, then it seems like we ought to care more about a leader's stated positions and real actions than about purported religious beliefs.

This sentence reaffirms something mentioned earlier in the Statement. Issues of public policy and politics are rarely simple, though some Christian leaders on both sides of the aisle have a knack for speaking of them simplistically. If we really want to engage in meaningful and God-honoring efforts in the public arena, then we should take the time to be genuinely informed. My personal hope, by the way, is that we Christians would learn to listen to responsible leaders (Christian and otherwise) from all sides of the political spectrum, rather than merely listening to those with whom we tend to agree.

We call on all Christians to become informed and then to vote, as well as to regularly communicate biblical values to their government representatives.

This is obvious, but well-worth saying. Christians, along with all American citizens, need to exercise their vote, and to do so after becoming informed.

We call churches and transdenominational agencies to cultivate an understanding of civic responsibility and public justice among their members. Seminaries and Christian colleges have a special responsibility to imbue future leaders with a sense of civic responsibility.

Although it makes sense that "transdenominational agencies" are mentioned in a statement written by a transdenominational agency, the National Association of Evangelicals, I believe that the responsibility for cultivating civic commitment among Christians lies most heavily upon the churches. Though our calling is spiritual, churches and Christian leaders must teach our people that the spiritual is not separate from this world and its political, economic, and social systems. On the most obvious level, pastors and other church leaders should ask: What difference are we making our our city, as part of our calling to preach and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ? We must also help our people to see their efforts outside of the church as part and parcel of their Christian discipleship.

We call all Christians to a renewed political engagement that aims to protect the vulnerable and poor, to guard the sanctity of human life, to further racial reconciliation and justice, to renew the family, to care for creation, and to promote justice, freedom, and peace for all.

This is a fine summary sentence, one that puts in a nutshell many of the themes of the NAE Statement. I find it telling that something is missing from this conclusion, something that I would have expected to be there. What is this missing bit? It would go something like this: "We call all Christians . . . to defend the traditional family . . . ." Now I suppose one could argue that this is implied in the phrase "to renew the family." But, nevertheless, I do find it interesting that the NAE Statement does not emphasize one of the current issues that most dominates evangelical activism. I'm not necessarily criticizing the NAE here, I might add. I'm merely noting something that I find curious. I wonder what it means.

The final sentence in the NAE Statement reads:

Above all, we commit ourselves to regular prayer for those who govern, that God may prosper their efforts to nurture life, justice, freedom, and peace.

This commitment is derived from the clear teaching of Scripture.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

It is right for Christians, therefore, to pray for their political leaders. Ironically, I find that many Christians tend to pray more vigorously for leaders with whom they agree. Though I can't prove it, I'll bet that George W. Bush gets more evangelical prayers per minute than Bill Clinton got. I say this is ironic because, if you think about it, you should be more inclined to pray even more emphatically for the leader with whom you disagree. Surely, from your point of view, this leader needs more divine help!

In my church we pray for our leaders in almost every single worship service. Often I will go through an informal litany that includes, "the President and the administration, the Congress and the courts, our leaders on the state, county, and local level." Sometimes I'll add in teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Since we have open prayers in my church, where members of the congregation can say anything aloud, I've always wondered whether people will pray in partisan ways. But they almost never do, I'm glad to say. They seem to understand that in church our prayers should represent the whole congregation, and not only the Republicans or the Democrats in the service.

I am completely supportive of the NAE Statement's saying that we should pray for our leaders. I'm not sure, however, that I would have begun the last sentence with "above all," as if praying for our leaders is our number one civic obligation as Christians. I'd probably have opted for another "above all" sentence, perhaps something about living as salt and light in the world, or seeking first the kingdom of God, or something like this. The pietistic conclusion of the Statement seems to me a bit inconsistent with what precedes it, but this is a tiny quibble.

In my next and final post in this series I'll offer some general observations and conclusions.

For the Health of the Nation: Concluding Thoughts
Part 21 of the series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism: Will a New Statement Promote the Health of the Nation?
Posted for Friday, July 22, 2005

This, believe it or not, is my last post in this series: Evangelical Christians and Social Activism. For four weeks (minus weekends) I've been blogging on the new statement from the National Association of Evangelicals, called: For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility. . (To download this document in a PDF format, click here.) With a couple of detours, one to critique an article from the Boston Globe and one to reflection on the value of democracy, I've spent most of this series examining the NAE Statement in detail. Now I'd like to close with a few general comments.

1. This Statement is timely.

By all accounts, evangelicals are becoming more active in civic causes now. Some of this is motivated, it seems, by a growing sense among conservative Christians that we have considerable political clout, and ought to use it to advance our agenda. So this is perfect time for a respected evangelical association to publish a Statement that says what that agenda should be and how evangelicals should work to advance it.

2. This Statement is biblical.

The NAE Statement is biblical, not only in the superficial sense that it quotes the Bible, but also in a deeper and more important sense as well. It tries to base its vision for evangelical activism upon the bedrock of biblical revelation. In my opinion, it largely succeeds in this effort, even though the language of the Statement is often adapted to current needs and issues. Because the writers of the Statement were guided by Scripture, more than by the vagaries of contemporary political life, the main points tend to transcend many of today's political divides.

3. This Statement offers a broad, inclusive vision.

I don't mean that the Statement is balanced in the sense that it includes liberal Christian viewpoints, or a broad ecumenical perspective, or something even broader than these. It is inclusive, given its intent to reflect and guide evangelical activism. Within contemporary evangelicalism in America there is a wide range of political conviction, and it would be easy for the Statement to reflect only a narrow swath of opinion. But the writers of the Statement found a way to include many common commitments without becoming so inclusive as to say nothing of value. I expect that most evangelicals will have problems with some part or other of the Statement. I've included a couple dozen of my own criticisms along the way. But, still, this Statement, on the whole, expresses what biblically-guided civic activism should be. It offers an especially broad vision of Christian concern for the world and its peoples.
This is a portion of the panorama from the top of Mt. Everest, arguably widest view on earth. I borrowed this from an amazing website full of video panoramas. You'll want to check it out!

4. This Statement is not Dominionist.

If you've been reading my blog for some time, you know that I got into this whole issue by way of a column in LA Weekly that claimed conservative Christians had a stealth Dominionist agenda. Dominionism, in a nutshell, is the view that secular government should be run by Christian men who, among other things, implement Old Testament laws. (It's rather like a conservative Christian version of fundamentalist Islam that seeks to impose Sharia law on nations under its authority.) Given the fact that many of the leading evangelicals in America have endorsed the NAE Statement (James Dobson, Charles Colson, Rick Warren, etc.), one who reads it must conclude one of two things: 1. That the leaders of conservative Christianity in America do not have a Dominionist agenda; or 2. that this Statement is really just a smoke scree, to hide the true agenda of conservative Christian leaders. I find the latter to be highly unlikely, especially given the thoughtful and integrity of the Statement.

5. This Statement is more didactic than descriptive.

The NAE Statement is not attempting to describe evangelical activism in American today. Instead, it is trying to guide that activism with biblically-based theological and practical teaching. Very few Christians, I'd imagine, and very few Christian organizations, currently embrace the broad vision for civic engagement put forth by this Statement. (World Vision is one organization that just might do this now.)

6. This Statement, though written primarily for evangelical Christians, can help the non-evangelical media to understand us.

In the middle of this series to took a detour to examine a recent article by Nina Easton in the Boston Globe. In a couple of blog posts I showed how her article misunderstands what is motivating evangelical activists in America. I suggested that Ms. Easton would do well to read the NAE Statement and take it seriously. But, of course, she is not alone in her confusion about evangelicalism. Relatively few secular pundits seem to "get" conservative Christians. There are lots of reasons for this, and a close reading of the NAE Statement won't remedy them all, but it will certainly help.

7. This Statement offers many important correctives.

I've mentioned this opinion throughout my series. Time and again the language of the Statement is obviously intended to correct some evangelical (or secular) mistake. Perhaps the most important corrective of all comes from the breadth of the vision of this Statement. The so-called "Principles of Christian Political Engagement," which are really areas of broad concern more than principles, do not focus on one or two pet issues, but cut across all sorts of party lines with an expansive biblical vision.

8. This Statement is basically right, in my opinion.

At points along the way I wish I had a crack at editing the NAE Statement. I know that sounds arrogant, but I am being honest. A few sections (like the one on peace) deserve a second edition, in my view. However, having said this, I must add that, overall, I find this Statement to be an exceptional piece of readily available biblical theology. The writers are to be applauded for their effort and for the results.

9. This Statement should be widely read in Christian circles.

I hope this Statement will be read by individuals, by people in adult classes at church, in small groups, by leadership boards, etc. etc. It has much to offer all readers, especially those who are evangelical in their theology. If the NAE is smart, and they seem to be about many things, they will prepare some sort of study guide, with Bible passages, background information, and discussion questions, to help Christian groups process the Statement. (Once again, if you're looking for the original of this Statement, click here for a PDF file.)