I Changed My Mind About...Mandating Morality.
Updated: Aug 5, 2022
“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside...”
Paul the Apostle, 1 Corinthians 5:12-13
I grew up in a home where religion and politics weren’t subjects of conversation, at least not to any significant extent. If the nightly news was turned on at all it was usually long enough to catch the weather and the latest local happenings, and then was switched off when things transitioned to the national scene. Who cared about crooked politicians and office break-ins? My parents didn’t vote, we didn’t attend church, and there was an underlying sentiment that the best approach to life was to leave people alone and let them do life as they saw fit. After all, we didn’t want anyone telling us how to live, so who were we to tell others how to live? I mean, if we started allowing that to happen someone might eventually force us to drive a Chevy, and well, that just wasn’t going to work.
It wasn’t until I entered the world of the conservative, evangelical church that I began to hear conversations and sermons from visiting preachers about morality, politics, “our country going to hell in a handbasket” and our need to “stand up and take our nation back from godlessness.” That was in the late 80’s and the Moral Majority was at full steam, calling for Christians to get involved in politics and to vote for candidates that would “stand up for righteousness” and stem the tide of the “moral decline” in America.
Because we were assured, that was how we were to practically live out Jesus’ command to be “salt and light” in the world. Through our moral presence and exertion of political influence, we were to be the “salt” that kept the “meat” of the nation from rotting. And being the passionate new disciple of Jesus who wanted nothing more than to know and please God, I accepted the church’s worldview and approach to national morality as an integral part of what it meant to be Christian.
The subject was everywhere; on Christian radio talk shows and the Old Time Gospel Hour, in the Focus on the Family magazine, in the revival pulpit, and on the lips of the little old men in the pews. We were called to be the moral conscience and compass of the country and being faithful and vocal in that cause was synonymous with being faithful to God. Because, our God had “eyes too holy to look upon sin” (Habakkuk 1:13) and it was our job to remove it from our nation through any political or legislative means possible so that He could “turn his face toward us” (Psalm 80:3) and continue blessing America.
But over time, my study of the Bible and especially the life and teachings of Jesus began to slowly grind against the religious worldview I was being taught. The irony was that it was the SAME university with the goal to teach me the Bible that was the loudest proponent of this save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action-worldview. Many of my conservative evangelical family would respond, “well, yes, of course! That’s what being a Christian in America is all about.” Because they were taught the same things I was.
Unfortunately, not only is what we were all taught not true, it runs contrary to the arc of Jesus’s life, to all of his central teachings, and to the balance of the New Testament.
The save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action-worldview has twin sources, neither of which is the gospel of Grace or the New Covenant established by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The first source is, rather, the misapplication of many Old Testament scriptures to America, which were written to a specific covenant race and nation of people, who by virtue of being born into that race and nation, were beholden to God’s Law and governance.
One glaringly relevant fact, however, is that America is not that nation and Americans are not those people.
We are not Israel. We are not a covenant nation. We as Americans are not covenant people in the same fundamental way that the Israelites are. America is a human-based, earth-bound entity just like any other nation that has ever existed in the world's history.
We are not Israel. Their national promises are not ours to claim, and their laws are not ours to mandate.
The second source of the save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action-worldview is the deep need of the Fallen Self within every human heart to morally elevate ourselves while judging and condemning others. It’s a universal flaw and no one is immune.
The influence of the Fallen Self is, in fact, the reason we take the aforementioned approach to the Old Testament scriptures (and some from the New Testament); because they allow us to give biblical justification for our moral superiority and outrage. Pride is the foundational sin of humanity and is the basis of self-righteousness. And pride and self-righteousness are always on full display in the save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action agenda.
There are many edges and subjects entangled in this mindset. And I’ll explore many of them in upcoming posts. But where I want to focus here is the tragic result of this decades-long, wrong-headed crusade to “save America.”
The truth is, as disciples, we’ve Lost the Plot.
We like Esau of old, we have sold our birthright for a bowl of stew.
Do you recall the scene in the gospels where Jesus told his disciples,
“Blessed are you when you look down on and condemn 'sinners', for that is what they deserve.”
“Blessed are you when you ignore your own sin and imperfections, and rather, create laws to punish others for theirs.”
“Blessed are you when you leave the teachings of my Kingdom behind in favor of earthly values that allow you to place yourself above others, for that is where you belong.”
“Blessed are you when you proclaim others as godless and treat them as less than human since that is what I’ve demonstrated for you.”
And his final, most important call,
“Go into America, and through legislative and political action, force my moral law on everyone who doesn’t know me, teaching them how to “act like a Christian” so that you can be more comfortable and feel victorious in this temporal world.”
Yeah, me either.
And yet, if we have the integrity to be brutally honest with ourselves, based on our words, actions, and priorities as the church in America, that’s the “gospel” we’ve often lived out, to the great detriment of our testimony, our influence, and to the cause of Christ.
This politio-religious locomotive set in motion in the late 70s by Jerry Falwell and his colleagues, which influenced me and the church I was involved in, has turned into a runaway freight train that has completely reshaped and reframed the Gospel of Jesus. That reframing has blinded many of us self-proclaimed followers of Jesus to the fact that the ways and means being advocated by this mindset are completely antithetical to everything Jesus taught, and what was echoed by Paul and other writers of the New Testament.
What was their message?
What did they believe would positively impact the world and other human beings? The simple, straightforward answer is internal change within the heart of individual human beings, instigated through a living experience with Jesus and the ongoing transformational power of the Word and Spirit of God.
That is the story of the New Testament.
That is how the faith of a small, ragtag bunch of disciples in a Podunk corner of the Roman Empire grew to be a force that ultimately reshaped the Western world. It was the radical process of living out Jesus’ call to be transformed, to become more and more like him in his grace, love, humility, and service to others that remade the world. Those transformed lives, operating in direct opposition to the ways and means of this world’s system of dominance, pride, force, power, and control drew others to Jesus.
In 21st Century America, our agenda is having the opposite effect.
The line of save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action freight cars has now become a runaway train headed for the wreck of the century. In our religious and political culture, this agenda has risen to a fever pitch. The overturn of Roe v. Wade and other controversial moral conflicts have been like blood in the water for advocates of the save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action agenda, with more and more public figures and politicians vowing to keep pushing until we “return America to God.” The train is already running over many, leaving them dead or dying in its wake. And the greatest number of casualties, I fear, is still yet to come. If the goals of the rising “Christian” nationalism are realized, the result will be the most devastating blow to evangelism and the cause of Christ in America’s history.
Lest one feel I overstate; I merely point to recent statistics and the average social media newsfeed. The damage is already escalating.
In all the years that I have pursued life as a disciple of Jesus, I have never experienced the level of animosity and contempt for all things “Christian” that we are seeing today. Contempt for faith, church, the Bible, and Jesus is at an all-time high. Church attendance, especially among 18-25 year-olds is at an all-time low. When polled regarding why this is the case, people inexorably point to the words, actions, and attitudes surrounding the save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action version of “Christianity” in America and the individual adherents of it.
People outside the faith see and hear what we’ve been saying and doing, and in the words of one poster in my news feed, their response is “F*ck your Jesus.”
I hope that’s disturbing to you. Not because of the allusion to a vulgar word, but because of what it means for the hearts and souls of people whom God loves.
There’s a question I’d like each of us to ponder together. What happens in your heart, mind, and emotions when someone condemns or criticizes you? What emotions arise when someone treats you in a way that’s intended to make you feel inferior, and them superior? What’s your automatic emotional response to being belittled, dismissed, or treated as “less” or worse “dirty.”
Now, ponder the reaction of millions of human hearts to this image; human beings for whom Christ died and who he loves as much as he loves you and me.
The face is blurred because the “who” doesn’t matter. It’s the message we need to address.
How does someone who isn’t a “Christian” see and receive this? How do they receive judgmental attacks by pastors and politicians on their dignity and value as human beings? And how does that affect their perception of Jesus when we do and say all of those things in his name? How does it color their ability to hear Jesus’ invitation to Life when we moralize and legislate action against their “sin”, while covering up, explaining away, or downplaying the basest of sins involving “our” pastors and politicians?
As disciples of Jesus, we were never called to “save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action.” We aren’t called to save America – or any other earthly nation - at all. Jesus said quite clearly, “my Kingdom is not of this world.” Our allegiance and loyalty belong to another King and another Kingdom.
There isn’t a single passage of scripture that directs us as disciples to use earthly means of manipulation and control to force moral standards on others in any earthly realm.
Not one. For those who hold the conviction that the Bible is the authority on everything regarding “faith and practice”, that’s a problem.
On the contrary, however, there are myriad passages that call us as disciples of Jesus to be transformed into his reflection, to exhibit his values, goals, and priorities, and to be conscious of how we interact with those outside the faith. Here’s a short sampling:
“…seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness”
24 “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
I Peter 3
15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,
I Corinthians 5:12-13
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside...
These scriptures and many others simply do not square with the “save-America-through-moral-legislation-and-political-action” rhetoric. They are in fact, the exact opposite in both spirit and content.
And as I’ve read, studied, learned, and listened over the years, I’ve had no choice but to jump from the train.
History and experience tell us that trying to mandate/legislate morality in order to force it on others in the name of God is a failing, flailing, and self-destructive effort. Not only does it not work in terms of generating compliance and goodwill toward whatever moral issue is on offer, but when done in self-righteousness and in Jesus’ name, it generates hostility and contempt toward Jesus himself and the Body of Christ.
But more importantly, it builds a barrier between Christ and the hearts of people, some of whom are my close, personal friends.
One is left to wonder, however, what force in the universe might be behind such an arrangement, where we’re lured to operate from our fallen nature, to abandon our primary calling as disciples and ambassadors of the Kingdom God, and instead serve as the catalyst for other human beings holding Jesus in contempt? If one could orchestrate that, well, that would be the win of the century, would it not?
Based on how I see Jesus operating in the gospels, I’ve come to believe that when publicly addressing morality outside the Body of Christ, the best approach is the one I grew up with; to, as much as possible, gracefully allow people to live their lives as they see fit and leave moral judgment to God.
And we as disciples of Jesus should do the same, while intentionally loving and serving all people, so that if/when the life they chose for themselves brings tragedy, hardship, or heartbreak – and all lives do - we have the relationship basis and the credibility to speak a message worth hearing about.
Then, the Good News will truly sound like Good News, rather than a train horn.