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Religion Is Not Like A Coat, Part 1


Dr. Bruce Ashford, a provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, discusses the relationship between Church and state, and the value of life in both of these arenas.

Bruce Ashford discusses the Christian faith and public life, church and state

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Religion Is Not Like A Coat, Part 1

BRUCE ASHFORD: Truth without grace makes us political bullies and jerks; grace without truth makes us political wimps and not entities. 

What is the relationship between religion and politics? What is the relationship between Church and state? Often these are treated as if they’re the same question, but they’re not. So let’s start with the religion and politics. First, we have to define religion. The Bible says that all people are worshipers–Atheists are worshipers, Agnostics are worshipers, everyone is a worshiper–that if you want to find a person’s religion, look for their god. If you want to find their god, look for whatever they’ve ascribed ultimacy to. It might be the God of Jesus Christ, the Allah of Mohammed, it might be sexual freedom, it might be wealth acquisition, it might be power accumulation, success, the approval of other people, Whatever we’ve ascribed ultimacy to, whatever we’ve absolutized, there’s our god. In the Bible the heart is a central organizer of human existence. So whatever we have ascribed ultimacy to, it’s going to organize our whole existence. So a person’s religion–who they worship, what they worship–is absolutely going to cascade out into their life; it’s going to radiate out into all of life, including political belief, political actions, dispositions and demeanors. So religion cannot be separated from politics, just like it can’t be separated from anything. We shouldn’t try to. Religion is not like a coat that you can take off and put on your chair when you walk into the public square, right? Religion is more like your skin can’t take it off, or more like your heart, you can’t take it out. 

The second question is, what is the proper relationship between church and state? Now that’s a little different. I think we can and should maintain an appropriate separation between church and state. Christians have every business getting involved in politics and public life, but the church itself is not a public policy think-tank, so we want to keep an appropriate separation there. 

Finally, given these realities, how can we as individuals engage in politics and public life? Well, I wrote an entire book about it, but briefly let me give a very big summary statement: That we need to allow Christianity to shape not only our words, but our deeds. Not only our beliefs and public policy beliefs, but our public disposition and demeanor. In other words, we need to combine truth and grace. What do I mean by truth? The truth content of what we believe and how we would apply it to policy, how we would apply it to who we vote for. But grace, by grace I mean a disposition of dependence upon God, thankfulness to him for what He’s done for us. So that we treat all the people around us with dignity, that when we interact, we don’t demean and degrade, ridicule. We don’t tell partial truths and lies about the people we debate with. We don’t treat them as morally reprehensible people in whom nothing good could be found, even if they’re on the other side of the political aisle, especially if they’re on the other side of the political aisle. Truth without grace makes us political bullies and jerks; grace without truth makes us political wimps and non-entities, and each of us is probably going to tend in one direction or the other. What we want to do is we want to exhibit that combination that Jesus exhibited, which is truth and grace together, and that is real strength. 

Give us an example. Let me take one Christian teaching, which is going to be teaching on human dignity, and I want to apply it to three public policy debates or disputes, and I think most people who profess Christ with any kind of sincerity really do want what’s better for the entirety of our nation, not merely for our own tribe. We want to do good, but it’s hard to know how to do good and how to show people our goodwill. So I’m going to show you how human dignity can help us, our belief in human dignity can help us do this. But just very briefly before we do that, talking about morals in our age is pretty difficult and here’s why: once truth is subjective, disagreement feels like hatred. That’s why we have a situation now where when we put forth our sincerely held beliefs in the public square, about half of the country thinks that we hate them, but we don’t hate them. Disagreement is not hatred. So we’re going to have to work overtime to show that we’re not haters and that we’re not bigots. Is it fair that we live in an age where we’re viewed as haters and bigots? No, it’s not. Is it a good response to that, to become hateful and bigoted and to let our sense of injustice about that warp our dispositions so that we behave and act in ways that are ungodly? No, the answer is no, we can’t do that.  

So let’s talk about human dignity for a moment. One thing that human dignity teaches us is that unborn lives matter. I want to address this, I hope, in a way that’s a little bit different from any way you’ve heard it addressed before. I’m going to first draw upon three biblical teachings that tell us that unborn lives matter. Then I want to draw upon legal, medical and sociological rationales to make the same argument, to show you how we can use a combination of these sorts of things to try to persuade. Because public policy debates should be less like martial arts and more like a conversation with a neighbor over a cup of coffee. So let’s talk about biblical passages for a moment. The Bible teaches us in Genesis chapter one, that we are created in the image and likeness of God. This is a striking teaching in the Bible. It was shocking. It doesn’t shock us anymore; you’ve heard it so many times. But our great dignity is that God made us like him so that we can commune with him and know him. That’s our great dignity. Great humility is that we’re not God, and we ought to remember that, okay. But he created everybody in his image and likeness, including unborn beings. 

Number two, we can draw upon teachings like Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments that teach us that is not right, ever, to take innocent life, to shed innocent blood. And there’s no more innocent blood that can be shed than a baby in a womb. In a moment I’m going to say this–listen, in a room like this, there are probably a number of you in here who either yourself, or a close family member, has had an abortion or pressured an abortion, or been at a doctor who’s caused one. In a moment, I’m going to come back and say there is grace at the foot of the cross. There’s not condemnation and judgment coming from me, or from other believers on this issue, but there is deep conviction on this issue. Then finally, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” If God, the cosmic king of the universe, was willing to serve as a homeless itinerate teacher, be stripped naked, beaten and bloodied and crucified to save us from our sin, if he gives us that kind of dignity we ought to ascribe that kind of dignity to the people around us. There are some biblical reasons. 

Are there other reasons to believe that abortion is harmful? Yes, let me focus on Roe v. Wade, which I think was something like an environmental disaster on the moral ecology of our country. I was a candidate for abortion. I was born in 1974, my parents were almost at the borderline of divorcing and they could have very easily chosen to view me as the product of conception and to terminate me, and they didn’t. The first thing I want to say is this—reflecting on this as a former fetus, speaking to you as a former embryo—is that abortion is lethal violence against a baby. Medical technology has advanced so that we can see the horrible pain that a baby is in–and I’m not going to describe it–but when an abortion happens. I want you to consider this for a moment and reflect on it, but an unborn baby in the United States of America enjoys far less legal protection than endangered species of bird in a forest outside of our house. And that’s got to change.  

Abortion is also very bad for women. It’s bad for women because it creates an environment that encourages men to do what they’re already prone to do, which is to be sexual predators, and morally and sexually irresponsible people. Because we’ve not only severed sex from marriage, we’ve also severed childbearing from sex. And so it just encourages men to prey on women. And if you think there’s not a connection between a Harvey Weinstein culture and Roe v. Wade, then you need to do some reflection, because there is, there’s a strong connection. 

Abortion is bad for men. It marginalizes men, it strips them of responsibility for the greatest thing they could do on earth, which is to be a husband and a father. A man has zero input in whether or not the child that he helped to create is killed. Abortion is bad for families; it teaches a family that if you have a problem bad enough, you can solve it with lethal violence. Abortion is bad for law-governed democracy. The greatest irony in American history: just after the 1960’s, when it looked like our nation had turned a corner on serious forms of racism, that maybe we could really and truly say, “Justice and equality for all.” Just a few years after that, five black-gown, Ivy League lawyers on the Supreme Court determined that there would not be justice equality for all, that in fact, there was an entire class of human beings, not blacks, but unborns, that would not receive justice or equality. Roe v. Wade was bad for checks and balances, because it was five gowned lawyers taking upon themselves what the legislators should have done; in other words, bypassing “We the people.” 

And then finally, abortion was bad for society-at-large in that it eroded our moral foundations. Mary Ann Glendon, professor at Harvard Law School, is the one who said that Roe v. Wade was something like an environmental disaster in the moral ecology of our country. It numbed our collective consciences. It eroded our moral foundations. It blunted our most basic moral intuitions that we’re to protect the weakest, most vulnerable among us. I mean, when you hold a baby for the first time–I remember holding my oldest daughter for the first time–I was actually scared. I sat in the chair beside the hospital bed before I held the baby. I didn’t want to stand up for fear that I would drop my baby, and babies are more resilient than I knew at the time. We know intuitionally to treasure the weakest and most vulnerable. But Roe v. Wade taught us that we don’t have to. So, we use linguistic gymnastics to hide what we really know is going on. Instead of referring to a baby as a baby, we refer to him or her as products of conception, masking from other people, and even from ourselves, trying to evade what it is we’ve really done as a society.  

But also human dignity teaches us that Black lives matter. I’ve been a conservative in America for 44 years. I’m farther to the right then Sam Donaldson’s park. Those of you of a certain age will remember Sam Donaldson. I’m farther to the right than a tricycle on the Autobahn. So I can’t affirm the rather left-leaning, socialist agenda of the BLM movement, but what I can affirm and what we ought to affirm and what ought to come out of our lips regularly, is that Black lives matter. What we see on the media outlets is not what most black people think. When they say Black lives matter, what they’re saying is, “Would you just affirm to me that you do view me on the same level as your white brothers and sisters?” 

Conservatives, we haven’t done well with that, we haven’t done as well as we could. We need to lead with that kind of comment–I’m just speaking to conservatives and we probably have people on every side of the spectrum here, but let me speak as a conservative to conservatives. We need to lead out with that. We need to be at the front of the parade, affirming the God-given dignity of our Black brothers and sisters. I’ve got Black colleagues and friends whose wives don’t want them to go out at night to Walmart after dark. You may think that’s founded or unfounded, but it’s a real feeling, and we need to find ways of reaching out and loving our Black brothers and sisters and affirming that. Any sin in the Bible comes in two forms: personal–it’s committed by individuals–but when enough individuals in a society commit that sin, it coalesces to warp society’s institutions. So with racism, like with any other sin, it is likely that our institutions have been warped. We need to be willing to admit that. We don’t need to go overboard with it, we need to process it correctly, but I think as conservatives it would behoove us and do us really well to admit it where we find it and to work against it where we find it.  

And then finally, I want to say that undocumented lives matter. So I write on immigration, I’m a secure the borders guy. You want to see my articles go to The Daily Caller, I write for them. I also think that as we secure the borders, which every nation has a right and usually the responsibility to do, that the language we use in explaining why we’re securing the borders, and the way we treat people at the borders, needs to be deeply and genuinely Christian. We can do justice and mercy at the same time.

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