In the Coen brothers’ modern classic film “O, Brother Where Art Thou,” there is a scene where some escaped prisoners (Delmar and Ulysses) stumble upon a congregation performing baptisms in a river. Delmar wades in to get dunked himself, and afterwards claims to be redeemed of his transgressions. To which, Ulysses pointedly replies “That’s not the issue Delmar. Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”
The first time I saw the movie, years ago, I chucked at this pithy one liner, but now looking back, I realize there is a deep nugget of wisdom buried in this exchange.
There was a movement in American politics a few decades ago in which a large voting bloc of Christians rallied behind chosen conservative candidates in an effort to increase the political clout of the church and institute a rule of law based on Christian morals. This effort was called the Moral Majority, and it was (in my opinion) a huge political and theological mistake, and was very damaging to the Christian brand.
For the record, I’m not the only one who thinks so. “Closely associating the core message of the Christian faith with a political ideology has always been a huge mistake.” ~Tullian Tchividjian
But why, you are probably asking? What is so bad about mobilizing the church to help create a moral and Godly society. On it’s face, it seems a worthy goal.
The first issue I would mention is that in America, there is a bedrock principle of separation of church and state, so any laws based on religious grounds are very likely to be challenged and overturned by the courts. But that is not the real problem.
I point back to the words of Ulysses Everett McGill, who said (paraphrasing) “God may have forgiven you, but the government is less forgiving.”
The core message of Christ, the most important aspect of all of this is the opportunity for forgiveness and redemption. However, as Ulysses pointed out to Delmar, that can come only from Christ, not from the government. If you break the government’s laws, no matter how much Jesus loves and forgives you, you’re still going to jail because Uncle Sam is not really into the forgiveness scene like Jesus is.
That means that, in effect, when Christians lobby the government to enact morality laws, we are asking the government to enforce God’s law, and thus in some small way deprive our brothers and neighbors who transgress the opportunity to be forgiven.
Now then, of course Jesus still offers forgiveness regardless of what the secular law is. However, I think when Christians insist on the government enforcing morality, it sends an implicit message to our neighbors, which says “Even if God will forgive you, we want to be sure you won’t get away scot-free.” This is, of course, completely anti-thetical to the Christian message.
In a sense, it is an effort to go back to the law of Moses, which we were freed from. For some reason, humanity seems to have a strong innate desire to construct laws and rules for ourselves, instead of accepting and rejoicing in the liberty of Christ. It was evident in the early church, throughout the Middle Ages (cue Protestant Reformation), and it still pervades today.
Now, I am not saying we should live in a lawless world where anything goes. I think violent and serious crimes like murder and theft still need to be illegal and prosecuted by the government. Without those laws, society would break down into chaos. But for other things, I think the church should be cautious and ask ourselves if getting the government involved in a specific issue is really necessary and beneficial, or is it potential harmful because it undermines our message of forgiveness?
As a final word, remember the world will continue to become more sinful until Christ returns. We are told this in several prophecies, and so frankly, there’s no point in getting too worked up about it. It’s going to happen. Much of the world will continue to reject Jesus and sink into sin and debauchery. Our job as Christians is not to drag them out of this life, but rather it is to live in joy, fellowship, and love, and show them a better way.