Of note: Atheist Austin Cline has recently linked to my post with his own. He caricatures my argument as saying “Christians should reject secular government.” In fact, I explicitly deny this in my post, as anyone who reads it could see.
I take issue with 3 parts of Cline’s critique. First, he attacks my view that the government can have authority to restrict unrepentant sin. Yet the authority for that restriction is based upon my assumption granted for the sake of this post; that the government gets its authority from God (Romans 13:1). Cline, being an atheist, obviously will reject that basis for authority. He did not outline his own position on the authority of government, so I cannot comment upon it, but it begs the question to assume that government should be secular, and then use that to critique a theo-centric government I explicate below. Second, he caricatures my argument as being a theocracy, which I deny explicitly, see below. Finally, he frames his post in a way that is clearly meant to induce panic, by calling it “J.W. Wartick: Christians should reject secular government.” There is nowhere that I have advocated that extreme position. In fact, that is also something I deny explicitly, agreeing with the apostle Paul in Romans, who said “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:5-7).
Recently, I was discussing the death of Osama bin Laden and the topic came up about whether he deserved to die, what role it played, and the like. Interestingly, the conversation opened up a discussion I’ve been contemplating. Namely, Why are so many Christians politically atheists?
Consider the death penalty. It was agreed upon that people can deserve the death penalty. Bin Laden, for example, was said to deserve such a penalty, along with serial killers and many murderers. But then the discussion turned to whether the government should deal out such punishment.
The friend offered following principle as normative for Christians:
1) If (some position such as the death penalty) cannot be justified by purely secular means, then it should not be forced onto others.
My immediate and somewhat snarky rejoinder to this argument was/is “Why?”
Why should I be a Christian in every aspect of my life, but when it comes to politics, be secular? Several answers are possible. For example, it could be asserted that “We (Christians) should not force our views onto others.” I think this is a fairly good response. But whence the principle? Perhaps it comes from the idea of living a Christlike life. But I don’t see anything in the example of Christ which said we had to conform to secularism or take religion out of politics. It would take an interesting argument to say that Christ advocated secularism in the realm of politics.
Or take Paul, for example, who states clearly that the government is God’s servant and doesn’t carry the sword “for nothing” (Romans 13:4). Not only that, but the reason the government carries the sword is in case “you do wrong.”
And what, exactly, is wrong? I think it would have to be obvious that, for a Christian, that which is wrong is defined by that which goes against God’s nature and/or commands. But then it seems as though Paul is charging the government to follow that same standard, not some supposedly neutral standard. I’ve argued elsewhere against the plausibility of atheism as a neutral ground. I think it should be clear that atheism is not neutral in regards to religion; rather, it is against religion.
Therefore, it seems strange to me that secularism is chosen as the grounds for determining politics. Why should I, a theist, choose to be atheistic in my politics? I suppose the accusation could then fly that I advocate a theocracy. But what exactly is a theocracy? It’s a political system in which God rules and the laws are divine commands. I never argued that’s what I would like the United States to turn into. My view is simply that Christians should cast their votes for those positions which are favored by Biblical teaching and against those which are condemned. I don’t see any reason to divorce that which I hold most dear (Christian theism) as something from which I must be divorced when it comes to the ballot box.
Consider the following argument, which is admittedly somewhat consequentialist:
A) A life of unrepentant sin often leads to unbelief. (w=>y)
B) Unbelief is the only sin which condemns people to hell. (If y, then z)
C) Advocating some policy, x, permits or encourages lives of unrepentant sin. (x=>w)
D) Therefore, advocating x by extension opens the way for more unbelief and condemnation to hell. (1-3)
E) Therefore, Christians should not advocate x.
So I’m advocating a theo-centric view of politics, not a theocracy. On this view, one’s theism takes center stage. Sincere belief in everlasting life and death leads Christians to take steps within the law to prohibit behaviors which would lead to lives of unrepentant sin.
How would this cash out? Would we have to be prohibitionists or go around making lying illegal? I think that the answer to this second question is pretty clear. Within Scripture there is no prohibition of drinking alcohol (quite the opposite, in some cases). Rather, drunkenness is prohibited and/or discouraged. With the damage alcoholism has done to our society, I doubt that laws which took measures to prevent drunkenness would be a bad thing. I think the laws which would go into effect based upon the argument above would look mostly like what we have now. Now take the case of lying. While lying is clearly discouraged in the Bible, I don’t see any precedent therein for making it illegal in a broad sense. To be perfectly clear, lying already is illegal in some senses: take perjury, for example, or slander. I think these are derivative of a Christian worldview anyway, and laws against libel, slander, and perjury seem to fulfill the requirements of the above argument.
Reflecting on the ideas about bin Laden, above, it would appear there is another principle as well: that of honoring the image of God in man. Osama bin Laden did not honor that image, and for the blood he spilled, his blood was forfeit. Therefore, in addition to E), I would suggest:
2) The intrinsic value of humans (which only makes sense on theism anyway) is such that we should vote for issues which place honor of this value first.
To nuance it for Christians,
2′) The image of God in humans should be respected, and Christians should vote for issues which respect this image.
Finally, a note on Biblical ethics. It is extremely important for Christians to realize the distinctions between Law and Gospel and practice correct exegesis when it comes to these issues. I favor a Lutheran view with some theonomic tilt, but it is important to note that almost no Biblical scholars believe the Levitical and most of the other laws within the Old Testament are applicable today in any literal sense. But the question for this post is not which laws apply and which do not; rather it is a challenge to my fellow Christians.
So my question remains: Christians, why are you politically atheists?
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Is unbelief really the only sin that condmens people to to hell? I thought there were a variety of sins that did that.
Some Christians disagree on this position. I think that it is the case that only unbelief condemns to hell based upon Jesus’ words that “people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is most often interpreted as unbelief because faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit.
I see that this post is several months old but, as Providence would have it, I’ve just been reading/thinking about this, about unbelief and faith. So I can’t resist a brief reflection on it. For what it’s worth.
“But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin” (DRB, Mark 3:29).
I’m thinking about it this way. You can look at it this way: If you do this, then that happens; if you blaspheme against the Spirit, then you go straight to hell. And you can look at it this way: If you do not believe (or *will* not believe) that the Spirit of God is Who He says He is and can do what He says He can do, then you will never have faith, will never repent, will never ask for forgiveness and so will not be given it and will not have it.
God doesn’t force Himself on us, He gives us free will. He is also rich in mercy and desires that the sinner shall not die but turn back to Him and have everlasting life. The sins that are called deadly sins (sometimes translated as “sin unto death”) in John’s first epistle would lead to damnation…if the sinner did not repent. If he repents, then our loving God grants him mercy. But the one who sins against the Spirit denies that the Spirit can forgive him. He refuses to allow the Spirit to forgive him. And so he does not receive forgiveness. Because he shuts himself off from asking for and receiving it. And from receiving eternal life, resulting in eternal death.
That’s how I understand it now. Does that make sense, does it help a little?
Good post. All laws are based on *someone’s* ethics. Why not Christian ethics.
For point B, I think you meant to say “if y, then z”.
Thanks for the comment Mary! I corrected the problem–sharp eye!
I think more people need to be honest and admit that their religion is secularism. And a good many Christians need to come clean and ‘fess up to it right now. Like my friend who introduced me to Catholic Christianity and demanded that I convert (yes, it happened and no, I didn’t convert because of that demand) and then proceeded to teach me things about the faith which weren’t particularly kosher. Or Catholic or any other sort of Christian. She told me that we all choose the teachings we can accept and forget about the rest. I told her I was pretty sure that that was precisely what we were not supposed to do and that it said so right there in the Catechism.
“Well, if you wanna be a fanatic…”
(Don’t even get me started on her view of the pro-life issues. She was profoundly influenced by socialist ideas when she was younger and she carried these ideas with her into her work in the Church. What is one to do when someone responsible for the teaching of Christian doctrine to youth in a CCD class (Catholic version of Sunday School) and sponsoring one’s own self in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) rejects the very thing she is supposed to be handing on to others?)
And what about atheists and the way they pronounce the word “secular” with such bated breath? Would probably blow their irreligious minds to realize that there are priests who are secular. No, not priests who have gone apostate. It just means that they’re not members of a religious order and so not bound by the vows of an order. Are they still members of the clergy? Yup. Still living according to their religion? One would hope so. There is more richness in the word “secular” than the atheist suspects.
But I still don’t wanna worship it.
Peace be with you, JW. Enjoyed your post. Thanks for letting me riff on it. 🙂
Thanks for your comments, Disciple! I think you definitely have some points about secularism there.