Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Former senator and U.N. Ambassador John Danforth has performed a valuable service between elections by writing about a Christian’s role in contemporary American society.

In an op-ed in the New York Times last Friday, Mr. Danforth, an ordained minister, observed: “Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God’s truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action.”

He writes the “only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.” One can quibble over where Mr. Danforth’s “absolutist” position may lead politically (and I do, given the position of religious moderates and liberals when it comes to a host of other issues in which they are engaged — from antiwar activism and the environment, to civil rights and same-sex “marriage”), but his central thesis is correct: Christians are limited in what government can do for them and for an earthly agenda.

That does not mean government can’t do some things. It simply means it cannot advance a moral and spiritual agenda, because it the church, not the state, is commissioned to preach and observe God’s message.

That much of the country is preoccupied with materialism and pleasure further limits the state’s capabilities in this area. Conservative Christians, while seeking legislation that reflects their moral views, increasingly have found it difficult to impose their morality on themselves.

The pollster George Barna, who regularly checks the spiritual temperature of the Christian church, has chronicled important facts conservative Christians should consider before demanding government act to repair the “moral slide.”

Mr. Barna has noted as many conservative Christians are divorcing as are those of different religious persuasions, or of no religion. And as many of the children of conservative Christians are having sex as non-Christian children.

But the ordained and self-appointed conservative Christian leaders do not seem to preach as much to their own about these shortcomings (or, if they do, they are not heeded) as they do to the rest of the country about theirs.

Wouldn’t these conservative Christians have greater moral power if they put their own houses in order before trying to cure the disorder in other houses? Isn’t that the principle behind Jesus’ story about noticing a speck in the other fellow’s eye, while ignoring the beam in one’s own eye?

In a week when evangelist Billy Graham is visiting New York for what may be the last mass meeting of a long and noble ministry, Richard Ostling of the Associated Press asked him about social issues. Mr. Graham replied: “I don’t give advice. I’m going to stay off these hot-button issues.”

Mr. Graham hasn’t always shied away from those topics, but he learned where the greater power comes from, and it isn’t government. The 86-year-old Mr. Graham “now seeks to shun all public controversies — preferring a simple message of love and unity through Jesus,” writes Mr. Ostling.

John Danforth seems to flirt with universalism when he says he and his fellow religious moderates believe “religion should be inclusive.” Not exactly. Different religions make competing claims and the Christian faith separates “sheep from goats,” the saved from the lost, and heaven from hell.

Jesus said he came to bring a sword. A sword divides. The primary objective for the Christian should be to seek and to point others toward Jesus, not to political parties and agendas.

The social ills confronting us have not produced our collective indifference to a moral code. They reflect that indifference. Fixing social ills does not begin in the halls of Congress or Supreme Court, but in individual human hearts.

Government can’t go there. God can. But if God’s servants prefer government to God, or seek to attach God to political parties and earthly agendas, they are doomed to futility.

Mr. Danforth notes Jesus sat with “tax collectors and sinners” and sees these acts as part of Jesus’ “tolerance” and inclusiveness. But his purpose was not to justify their often corrupt tax-collecting practices and other sins. It was to lead them to repentance and faith in himself. He told the woman taken in adultery that while he did not condemn her, she was to “go and sin no more.” To a moderate, I guess that was intolerant.

These concerns were never raised when religious moderates and liberals had the public square to themselves. They’re upset because they have been marginalized. Still, Mr. Danforth is right about where true power to change people comes from, and it isn’t from the state.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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