In the last few blogs I have been saying that idolatry is the reason we get so angry over political differences. We commit idolatry whenever we shift our deepest hopes and allegiances from God and to something (or someone) else—say a candidate or a political strategy or an ideal—like privacy at all costs. Idolatry is an addiction, a habit of the heart, pulling at us like gravity. We have a very difficult time shaking it.
Why did the congressional super committee just fail? There are lots of complex reasons I am sure. But if we could see down to the foundations of the heart we would see idolatry at work. And I am not just picking on those twelve. Had I been given the misfortune of sitting on that committee I would have been as susceptible as any of them to the forces of my heart’s misplaced affection—political ambition, fear of people, or something else.
The beginning of the way out of idolatry, and of the log-jams it creates, is a trust in God that is sufficiently strong to warrant living aggressively by the Golden Rule. We are not very good at this. Many activist believers, for example, have sought to redress the anti-Christian bias in textbooks, or to make public school facilities available after hours for Christian meetings (often with good results), or to pursue litigation in defense of Christian conscience, or to expose the anti-Christian bias in the academy. These are, of course, all worthy undertakings, as far as they go. If Christians do not blow the whistle on anti-Christian bias, who will?
The difficulty, as I see it, is that we often do not go far enough. Our active interest in the freedom of conscience often extends only as far as we have felt our rights and freedoms as Christians being threatened. Assuming that you desire prayer in public schools (I realize that Christians differ on the wisdom of doing so at all), would you do so with as much fervor if you lived in Honolulu, where praying would as likely be to a Hindu deity as to Christ, as you would if you lived in Memphis, which is in a heavily Christian part of our country)? Perhaps not. Sadly, in our valid concern over the decay of faith in our society, we may find ourselves advocating action that marginalizes the faith of the lonely Jewish kid in the otherwise Christian fourth grade classroom in rural Mississippi.
Do you see the problem? Christians are, or appear to be, religiously self-serving when it comes to their engagement with public life. We can make such an idol of the freedom of our own conscience that we become blind to the fact that freedom of every conscience is a Christian principle worth fighting for.
One need not be a religious relativist to acknowledge this. The Jesus who claimed he was the only way to the Father never forced anyone to believe him. He has no place in his kingdom for coerced disciples, but says instead, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In a day when so many angrily assert their rights, Christians have a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate a totally different mindset, the mindset of a statesman—one that firmly defends the non-Christian’s right to believe as he or she does.
I am not suggesting that we cease bringing what we believe into the public discussion. Nor am I suggesting that we cease believing that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. But I am suggesting that we trust his Lordship enough to obey him when he commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we want our voices to be heard in the public debates, we will also want the voices of our Muslim, secular, and atheist neighbors to be heard. We will look for ways to say, in effect, “I think you are dead wrong in what you believe, but I will go to the wall for your freedom to argue for it.” We will see as equally worthy of legal consideration the rights of a Caribbean cult to sacrifice chickens in Miami and the rights of a fundamentalist church in rural Ohio to start a school. With a love undergirded by confidence in Christ’s ability to promote his kingdom in any setting, we will resist the temptation to be selfish in our religious advocacy, concerned only to defend our turf from our enemies. We will always have an eye on the common good.
If the Golden Rule should apply in the broad world of public life, should it not also apply in the narrower world of church life? Should not Republicans, Democrats, and Independents be able to worship together under the same roof? And should they not be able genuinely to listen to each other, and to disagree without blowing the church apart? Should they not want to?
Living by the Golden Rule is not easy. It provides no clear-cut answers for how to hold to and advance our deep convictions while also honoring the neighbor who disagrees with us, whether that neighbor is an atheist or a fellow believer. The Golden Rule offers no blueprint for building a safe and godly America (which should be OK, since we have decided not to worship America—right?). The Golden rule, rather, charts a path for us, a path whose end we cannot see, full of difficult turns (complex thinking), steep climbs (the hard work of listening), and sudden descents (humble apologies). But it is the path that Jesus commands and for that reason we should follow it. Most important, the Golden Rule gives to us the antidote to the self-protective and community-compromising worship of ourselves and our views, for by taking this path we demonstrate that we are worshiping the true God, the God who is big enough to vindicate what is true and real in his own way and in his own time.