Archived Posts August 2011 - Page 5 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

Update: If you missed yesterday’s show here is the entire interview with Wayne Grudem.

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Today at 5 p.m. Wayne Grudem will be a guest on the Kresta in the Afternoon radio show on Ave Maria Radio. Grudem was interviewed in the Spring issue of Religion & Liberty . Grudem, the author of many books, also penned Politics According to the Bible and Business for the Glory of God. You can listen live to the interview at 5 p.m. here.

My contribution to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton email newsletter here.

Protect the Poor, Not Poverty Programs

By John Couretas

One of the disturbing aspects of the liberal/progressive faith campaign known as the Circle of Protection is that its organizers have such little regard – indeed are blind to — the innate freedom of the human person.

Their campaign, which has published “A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor,” equates the welfare of the “least of these” in American society to the amount of assistance they receive from the government — a bizarre view from a community that trades in spiritual verities. Circle of Protection supporters see people locked into their circumstances, stratified into masses permanently in a one-down position, thrown into a class struggle where the life saving protection of “powerful lobbies” is nowhere to be found. And while they argue that budgets are moral documents, their metrics for this fiscal morality are all in dollars and cents.

Not only does the Circle of Protection group appear to be oblivious to the power of private charity and church-based outreach to the needy, but they seem to have no hope for the poor outside of bureaucratic remedies. This is a view of the human person not as a composite of flesh and spirit, but as a case number, a statistic and a passive victim of the daily challenges and troubles that life brings.

In response to the Circle of Protection campaign, another faith group has formed with a very different outlook on the budget and debt debates that will consume the political energy of the country in the months ahead. Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) argue for policies that are focused less on protecting poverty programs and more on protecting the poor (I am a supporter). In a letter to President Obama, CASE wrote:

We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.

This is what Fr. Peter-Michael Preble was getting at when he observed that “… the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country.” This is not, he added, an argument to eliminate all government assistance but rather for “a safety net and not a lifestyle.”

In discussing the relative merits of the Circle of Protection and the Christians for a Sustainable Economy campaign, Michael Gerson wrote that “the Circle’s approach is more urgent.” Arguing against “disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable,” he asserted that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt.”

It’s a big and growing “sliver.” According to a Heritage Foundation study of welfare spending, of the 70-odd means-tested programs run by the federal government, “almost all of them have received generous increases in their funding since President Obama took office.” The president’s 2011 budget will increase spending on welfare programs by 42 percent over President Bush’s last year in office. Analyst Katherine Bradley observed that “total spending on the welfare state (including state spending) will rise to $953 billion in 2011.”

Instead of more billions for failed poverty programs, CASE argues that “all Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.” Underlying this is a belief that the human person is able to freely and creatively anticipate what life may bring, rather than wait around for a caseworker or a Washington lobbyist to intervene.

That freedom explains why some people, even in difficult economic times, can move up the income scale despite assertions that they are among the “most vulnerable.” A U.S. Treasury study showed that “nearly 58 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile (the lowest 20 percent) in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of the households in the second-lowest quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005.” In an analysis of income inequality and social mobility, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that there is a confusion “between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.”

Income mobility is debated endlessly by economists, but it is the existential reality for countless Americans who have ever strived for something better — or suffered a setback in their hopes. Yet the one sure thing that will stifle this mobility is an economy in decline, with job creation slowed, and encumbered by ever higher federal budget deficits and debt. And that’s what we’ll get more of if the Circle of Protection’s prescriptions for a “moral budget” hold sway.

When economic systems break down, as they are now unraveling in some European welfare states, those who will be hurt first and hardest will be the poor, the working family living from paycheck to paycheck, the pensioner – those operating at the margins. If we fail to come to grips with the reality of our potentially ruinous fiscal trajectory, we will all learn, as other countries are now learning, what “truly vulnerable” means.

Yesterday it was announced by the State Department that the United States will provide an additional $105 million in aid to famine-stricken East Africa (we had previously contributed $405 million to fight drought in the region). Vice President Biden’s wife has just returned from a humanitarian visit, where she visited a camp of starving refugees and met with Kenyan leaders who are dealing with an influx of famished Somalis. Said Jill of her trip,

One of the reasons to be here is just to ask Americans and people worldwide, the global community, the human family, if they could just reach a little deeper into their pockets and give money to help these poor people, these poor mothers and children.

And another U.S. official: “Hundreds of thousands of kids could die.”

Somali Militiaman

This is madness. The United States has funneled untold millions of dollars into Somalia over the years, and the situation is exactly the same: the country is so war-torn that aid we send doesn’t get to the children it’s supposed to help. According to Transparency International, Somalia is the most corrupt country in the world. The U.N.’s top humanitarian officer in the country admitted that aid reaches only 20 percent of needy Somalis, although in the capital, he said, the situation is better; there aid reaches about half the city’s inhabitants.

But there’s a deeper problem—one that the U.N. official doesn’t see, even though he’s surrounded by the data. It shouldn’t be that 50 or 60 or 70 percent of Somalis are considered perpetually “in need,” to be propped up by colonialist aid from the U.S. and Western Europe. In fact, it is exactly that dependent relationship that has rendered Somalia helpless in the face of drought. (Compare it with Texas, for example, where a majority of the state’s crops have been severely damaged by a record drought.)

The question arises then, what if we didn’t send the aid? To be frank, we don’t know the answer to that—the European Union and other countries also send substantial amounts to Somalia, but no one really knows how much food gets to refugees. All that Jill Biden can say is, “There is hope if people start to pay attention to this.”

Somalis don’t need another 20 years of U.S. handouts. They need a civil society and the opportunity to enter into exchange with the developed world. As easy as it is for America to throw money at their problems, that kind of aid can’t really help.

For more on Acton’s solution to global poverty, visit www.PovertyCure.org, where you can sign our Statement of Principles and hear from people who have made a difference in Africa.

Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade the United States’ credit rating has everyone talking. Discussion has ranged from we shouldn’t take Standard and Poor’s decision seriously at all to this could be the beginning of the end for the United States if it doesn’t make immediate changes. In a roundup published by National Review Online, Samuel Gregg weighs in on how the credit downgrade should be understood:

There are many reasons to be cynical about ratings agencies. These are, after all, the same outfits that assured us collateralized-debt-obligation markets were doing fine just before they started imploding in 2007–2008. Their slowness in warning about the fading creditworthiness of corrupt entities such as Enron and government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a matter of record.

That said, Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade America’s creditworthiness shouldn’t surprise us. It simply states in a pseudo-official kind of way what everyone — citizens, investors, politicians, and maybe even Paul Krugman — already knows: The failure of Washington’s neo-Keynesian policies combined with the long-term projections for entitlement-spending have lowered confidence in the U.S.’s ability to meet its fiscal obligations.

While the downgrade shouldn’t surprise anyone, Gregg notes that action needs to be taken in order for the United States to recover its credit rating. Such a change does not just consist of national fiscal policy or a balanced budget, but it also includes a transformation in attitude: Americans will need to adjust the expectations they have for their government.

Click here to read the article and those of other contributors to “Down on the Downgrade?” on NRO.

A recent Rasmussen poll reflects what many are feeling in this country, a deep disconnect with Washington and its leaders. According to the polling firm,

The number of voters who feel the government has the consent of the governed – a foundational principle, contained in the Declaration of Independence – is down from 23% in early May and has fallen to its lowest level measured yet.

Seventeen percent of likely U.S. voters think the government has the consent of the governed and Congress has a record low approval rating with only 6 percent ranking their performance as “excellent” or “good.”

The problem is exacerbated by the massive concentration of power in the Beltway. The model of federalism put forth by the Founders seems like a dim memory. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neil famously declared “All politics is local.” The quote has a wide breadth of meaning for elected officials at all levels of government. But concentrated power is raising the partisan stakes as the jostling for entrenched power gets uglier. So much so, that politicians are now calling concerned citizens sounding the alarm on federal spending “terrorists.” Not only is the virtue of self-restraint dismissed when it comes to spending, but it is similarly dismissed when it comes to rhetoric.

Below is an August 1 clip that aired on ABC World News Tonight that speaks to this disconnect, especially felt by middle America or as some dismiss simply as “Flyover Country.” It is making the famous quip by William F. Buckley that “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than I would be by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University” all the more relevant.

As citizens await state decisions on new state EPA “fracking” regulations, many are worried radical environmentalist may compromise a promising opportunity in the development of gas reserves.

Natural gas advocates say radical environmentalists have long demonized the oil industry in their fight against free enterprise. Environmental groups claim fracking techniques to extract natural gas threatens the cleanliness of ground water, but their attacks contradict EPA studies that report there are no proven cases where fracking has contaminated water.

Extreme environmental groups have teamed up with some in the media to push their anti-growth agenda. A Heritage Foundation blog reports,

Environmentalists […] have hijacked media outlets like The New York Times to run biased reports against fracking’s key contributions to America’s current and future energy supplies that would be a tremendous catalyst for the country’s economic recovery.

Though more EPA fracking studies are currently underway, environmentalist accusations contradict solid facts and studies. With almost any human activity, there will be some sort of environmental effect, but the benefits of shale drilling blows the costs out of the water. According to experts, a typical Marcellus Shale well can generate up to $4 million in economic benefits while only creating $14,000 in environmental damage.

If given the chance, the Independent Petroleum Association of America suggests the oil industry has the potential to lift our economy back on its feet again:

Petroleum powers the economy of this nation overall, evidenced by [a] strong correlation between states that have high petroleum use and high output. Petroleum is integral in our daily lives, not just as a fuel, but because it is present in common objects that are crucial to living a high-quality life.

But radical environmental groups often stand in the way. Some of these groups insist on “biological egalitarianism” in which all life forms are considered equal. An Acton publication titled A Biblical Perspective on Environmental Stewardship explains the dangerous connotation of this faulty environmental philosophy:

Instead, this philosophy negates the biblical affirmation of the human person’s unique role as steward and eliminates the very rationale for human care for creation. The quest for the humane treatment of beasts by lowering people to the level of animals leads only to the beastly treatment of humans.

Extreme environmental groups should remember the oil industry is not evil. They fail to see that their radical ideology is hurting the nation’s poor. Increasing oil production can fuel economic growth and provide jobs for the unemployed. To attack the oil industry in such a way is indirectly attacking human development. Cited in Ray Nothstine’s commentary on high gas prices and its impact on the poor are these words from John Paul II,

Besides the earth, man’s principle resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.

Of course, any human action has some effect on the environment; and so we have the responsibility to exercise environmental stewardship rather than prioritizing the fish in the Chesapeake Bay over the welfare of the human person.

Is Islam a religion of extremes? It certainly can appear to be. Muslim women in certain areas of the world cannot appear in public uncovered or without male escort nor are they are not permitted to drive a car. Just last fall, we saw a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. Throw in terrorist factions like Al-Qaeda who have hijacked the name of Islam and an understandable wariness sets in. The question arises: can a religion connected with such extremism be reconciled with the principles of human freedom, justice, and liberty? In his book, Islam Without Extremes, Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol earnestly addresses this pointed question that has undoubtedly become one of the central issues of the modern world.

Akyol believes Islam without extremes is not only possible, but vital to the future of the faith and the global economy.  He also clearly believes that Islam without extremes does not require the compromise of one’s faith. Akyol’s aim in this book is to show that Islam is relevant in today’s world, and is not only NOT a threat to liberty, but a religion that has much to offer the world in terms of stabilizing economies and governments.  For instance, the earliest days of Islam showed that it was a “business-friendly” faith.  The Prophet himself was married to a well-to-do businesswoman, and property rights, inheritance laws and fairness in trade were all strengthened by Islamic teaching.

In the book, Akyol lays out a concise history of Islam (necessary for those who may be unfamiliar with the origins of the faith), and then delves into the intriguing areas of interpretation and application of not only the Qur’an, but the Hadiths, a collection of the “example” (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad (considered by some Muslims to be nearly “on par” with the Qur’an).

The Hadiths, no Muslim would dispute, were compiled by men, unlike the Qur’an, which Muslims (by and large) believe was “received” in recitation by the Prophet Muhammad from God via an angel.  However, the Qur’an is a pretty short book; it doesn’t cover a lot of territory.  In order for Muslims to apply the Qur’an, there are few choices.  Either each person decides how the Qur’an applies, or a tradition of application had to come about.  Thus, the Hadiths were born, in order to answer the question (perhaps crudely), “What would Muhammad do?”

Akyol’s contention is that the Hadiths, while borne out of necessity, were often not infused with reason.  In fact, as the author points out, in early Islamic history, there were two basic schools of thought:  the People of Reason and the People of Tradition, and that Tradition won out, at least in terms of the creation of the Hadiths  Akyol presents one anecdote where a man refused to ever eat watermelon because he could find no record of the Prophet Muhammad doing so.

The challenge of any book-based religion, bound in history, is to meet modern challenges and remain relevant in any time and place.  For instance, how does a Catholic deal with in-vitro fertilization when the Bible says nothing about it?  Is a Jew bound to each and every law prescribed in Scripture?  Akyol’s contention is that much of the Hadiths and Shariah law were formed in a particular time and place (based on political and not religious convictions) and often are not Qur’anically based, or rooted in any actual example of Muhammad’s.   They are, Akyol argues, apocryphal at best, politically- and personally-motivated at worst. Therefore, they lose their relevancy to the modern Muslim believer.

However, shortly after the death of the Prophet, Akyol proposes that the School of Tradition cut off the young Islamic community from the economic mainstream that was flowing through the Arabian Peninsula, effectively isolating Muslims from doing trade with non-believers.  This type of isolation affected not only economy, but art, language, science and many resources.  It was not until the Ottoman Empire (beginning in the late 13th century and stretching into the 20th) that Islam began to regain its economic footing.  The Ottoman Empire, of course, was a “Renaissance age”, if you will, for Islam:  a time of great innovation in many areas of thought, art, philosophy and culture.  However, there has remained skepticism of free-market enterprise within Islam and many Islamic nations.

It is here the author directs his focus on Turkey (and stays there for most of the remainder of the book).  Turkey’s unique political history (its sympathy for the West, for example, and its governmental roots in both constitutional and parliamentary rule) certainly made for a sound basis for a free-market economy.  Akyol credits men like Said Nursi and especially Turgut Ozal with creating not only a far-more stable political situation than most Muslim-majority countries enjoy, but with liberalizing the nation’s understanding of what it took to compete financially on a global scale.

Ozal’s policies were based on the freedom of ideas, religion and enterprise.  Ozal believed, according to Akyol, that a planned economy built on free trade would lay the foundation for a robust Turkish economy.  His era, ending with an untimely (natural) death, is known as the Ozal Revolution.

Of course, economic freedom does not occur in a vacuum.  Free trade brings with it exposure to travel, communication with people from all over the world, information, money to buy luxury items, and the experience of other cultural norms, fashions, mores and ways of life.  Whether one experiences such exposures as “good” or “bad” is based on many things, but the exposure is there nonetheless.  Islam, if it is to be open to the free-market economy in other places in the world, will also have to learn to deal with all of these.  Islam, Akyol asserts, must embrace democracy.

 

Once we start looking for “a state for Muslims”, we will soon end

            up with a commonsense solution.  Since no particular Muslim

            can claim to have theocratic authority, and since there are all

            sorts of Muslims with diverse views, ideas, and aspirations, the

            only system that will be fair to all would be one that would include

            all of them in the political process:  a democracy….

Akyol very clearly states that democracy cannot be based on Shariah law, as that would be a theocracy.  And, he strenuously makes the point that a secular state and a secularist state are two different things:  a secular state remains neutral to religion, while a secularist state is hostile to religion.  It is the secular state, Akyol contends, that will allow every Muslim true freedom: the freedom to pray as he or she ought, to follow the example of Muhammad as he or she sees fit, the freedom to submit to the will of God as he or she understands that.  It is also this secular state, this democratic state, that will allow Muslim men and women – so inclined – to be entrepreneurs in business, to compete fairly in the global marketplace and to bring the commandment to do good and avoid evil with them into that market.  It would also considerably strengthen the Muslim ability to bring charity to those less fortunate – a strong enjoinder in the Muslim faith.

Mustafa Akyol does a thorough job of illustrating that Islam is not a religion of extremes, but a religion of personal goodness, provided that goodness is a free choice.  The book is accessible to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Islam, as Akyol provides a succinct history lesson.  It is clear that his point of view is Turkish, and moderate in terms of politics and faith, but that moderate view is the view that leads one to conclude that Islam and its adherents can become profound contributors to the realm of free-trade and global economics.  Akyol’s book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to answer the question of whether or not Islam is an “extreme” or viable option when examining issues of liberty, freedom and justice.  Akyol’s answer is that Islam offers a coherent and vibrant addition to this global dialogue.

In an article appearing in the American Spectator, Samuel Gregg discusses the growth of religion in China, its system of crony capitalism, and its need to accept freedom. Opening the column, Gregg describes how the Catholic Church’s freedom from state control in China is at stake. Gregg later explains that there isn’t just corruption in China’s crony system of capitalism, but also in its society:

It’s abundantly clear, for instance, that China’s economy is hardly the capitalism envisaged by Adam Smith. Instead, it’s a crony-capitalist arrangement. One symptom of this is the extensive corruption prevailing throughout Chinese society.

In 2010, Transparency International ranked China as 78th out of 179 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index. That made China only slightly less-corrupt than Russia! Moreover, as Yashen Huang illustrates in Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (2008), apparatchiks from China’s Communist party, government, and military exercise far-reaching control over thousands of the businesses powering China’s development in the special economic zones. That’s a recipe for a growing culture of accelerating bribes, nepotism, and fraud.

Wiser heads in China, however, know crony capitalism isn’t infinitely sustainable. In the long-term, China needs the rule of law and a stable system of property rights — all of which implies limiting the capacity of those with political power to act arbitrarily.

But while rule of law and property rights are essential for sustainable economic growth, they are not enough. Equally important is a generally accepted moral culture that most people have internalized and generally follow.

The moral culture in China has been dismantled by the government. Gregg argues the rule of law and property rights are not enough for economic growth, China also needs a moral law. After the decimation of Confucianism, which provided the moral glue for the Chinese society, many are now turning to religion:

And religion is plainly on the rise in China. Five years ago, the English language version of the Communist Party’s newspaper, China Daily, reported on the results of studies done by Shanghai University professors which indicated that millions of Chinese — especially the young and particularly in the special economic zones — were becoming Christian.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. It is materialism that leads to atheism, not the growth of wealth per se. Economic liberty requires and encourages people to think and choose freely. But such thoughts can’t be quarantined to commercial considerations. With increasing wealth, many Chinese now have the time and resources to explore life’s more important questions. Many have found answers in Christianity.

Such developments, according to some Chinese officials, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Back in 2006, the then-head of China’s religious affairs ministry, Ye Xiaowen, begrudgingly acknowledged the various Christian churches’ contributions to helping Chinese society cope with the effects of increasing wealth.

While China will benefit from a strong moral presence within its borders, which will aid in solving its corruption problems, Gregg foresees the Catholic Church and the Chinese government being at odds when the government questions doctrines or bishop appointments. There is a way out for China, as Gregg concludes, and that is by accepting freedom:

The way out, of course, is for China’s rulers to accept freedom’s indivisible character. Once you concede religious or economic liberty, it’s hard to quarantine its effects. Acknowledging this, however, would require China’s Communist Party to self-terminate its grip on political power. Regrettably, as history illustrates, Communists never do that — or at least not until it’s truly inevitable.

To read the full article click here.

Blog author: lglinzak
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
By

The recent budget battle may have sparked new questions for Americans to answer, such as what is poverty and who falls under such a classification? Furthermore, due to its massive debt, government may need a limited role in helping the poor. While Christians who stood behind the Circle of Protection advocated for the protection of programs they claim that benefit the poor, other Christians looked at the debate differently arguing for another way to help the poor. However, despite how we decide to help the poor, is our understanding of what it means to be poor misleading?

In the Washington Examiner, Thomas Sowell answers this question with a resounding yes as he explains how the definition of poverty has been politicized and changed:

Each of us may have his own idea of what poverty means, especially those of us who grew up in poverty. But what poverty means politically and in the media is whatever the people who collect statistics choose to define as poverty.

This is not just a question of semantics. The whole future of the welfare state depends on how poverty is defined. “The poor” are the human shields behind whom advocates of ever-bigger spending for ever-bigger government advance toward their goal.

If poverty meant what most people think of as poverty — people who are “ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-nourished,” in FDR’s phrase — there would not be nearly enough people in poverty today to justify the vastly expanded powers and runaway spending of the federal government.

Sowell goes further in-depth in his column supporting his arguments with a study from the Heritage Foundation which shows what it means to be “poor” in America.

Using the same study from the Heritage Foundation, Anthony Bradley argues in World Magazine that we need wealth creation to help the poor. Bradley explains how being poor in a wealthy nation is drastically different from being poor in a developing one:

“As the rich get richer, the poor get richer”

That may sound like a ridiculous overstatement but it’s true in the sense that nations that create wealth redefine what it means to be poor. Being poor in a wealthy nation is radically different than being poor in a developing one. The above statement also challenges the zero-sum myth: “As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” which has so tainted the understanding of economic imaginations of those in the West.

[…]

In fact, to be more specific, 99.6 percent of individuals the federal government defines as “poor” have refrigerators, 97.7 percent have televisions, 78.3 percent live in homes with air-conditioning, and 62 percent live in homes with washing machines. These percentages are only possible in a nation as wealthy as the United States; it certainly is not the case in Sudan.

[…]

Political liberals and progressive Christians are vulnerable to accepting zero-sum ideology without taking the time to test those theories against real data and facts. The argument here is not that American poverty is “OK”; the point is to highlight the fact that making public policy decisions about “helping the poor” and “ending poverty” in America needs to take into account how “the poor” actually live in reality. Otherwise we will continue to miss the mark and not help the truly disadvantaged. Our public policy needs to be directed toward people who are truly suffering and stuck in cycles of poverty so that we create the conditions that allow for the possibility of sustainable economic mobility.

Bradley raises a valid point, and based on what it means to be “poor” in America is there an injustice and disservice being committed to the poor in developing countries?

Both authors demonstrate the battle is over how we definite what it means to be poor. Unfortunately though, we are now faced with asking ourselves how politics have affected our definition of poverty, and, with the politicization of poverty, have we forgotten what it really means to be disadvantaged? In terms of what poverty means, the questions we face are not easy to answer, they’ll need a prudential approach rooted in Christian values.

The debate over the separation of church and state as well as religion’s role in politics has been intense and ongoing for years. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Tony Oleck seeks to add clarity to the debate. In his commentary, Oleck balances the desires of the Founding Fathers with what it means to be a Christian. Get Acton News and Commentary every Wednesday in your email inbox. Click here to sign up today.

Controversial Christianity: Understanding Faith and Politics

By Tony Oleck

As the race for the 2012 party nominations for president heats up, the question of religion and its place in politics surfaces yet again.  Whether the controversy is over mosques or Mormonism, religion permeates much of today’s political talk, despite various pleas for a “separation of church and state” from both the secular and religious worlds.  But what does the separation of church and state truly mean?

While many use the phrase to refer to a complete isolation of religion from politics, history tells us that the most famous advocate of this principle in America, Thomas Jefferson, may have had a different idea of what a “wall of separation between church and state” really meant.  In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson writes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship. . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church & state.

What Jefferson sought to prevent was state intervention into religious affairs. And the separation of church and state, as our founding fathers understood the phrase, meant the avoidance of a church-state.  A church that acts as or controls the state is not in accordance with Christ’s message, but a church that informs the state is.  If the role of the state is to allow for and to promote the freedom and well-being of its citizens, then it has only to benefit from the Christian understandings of truth, freedom and God’s undying love for the world.

I am reminded of something a former English teacher once told me about religion and politics.  “It’s like when I go to get my car fixed,” he said, “I don’t determine which mechanic to go to by what religion he practices.”  While I would agree, I tend to take the leadership and future of my country a little bit more seriously than whether or not my radio works.  Granted, a candidate should never be excluded from office for solely religious purposes, but a Christian nevertheless need not feel ashamed for supporting a particular candidate because of his or her religiously-based position on certain social issues.

Why did our founding fathers describe man as “being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”? And why were the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation under God” added eventually to our currency and our pledge of allegiance, respectively? It was because they realized that only in recognizing man as having been created in God’s own image as a species set apart could America grow and prosper.  It was this common Christian heritage that allowed the state to grow in the first place.  While not all of America’s founding fathers were necessarily practicing Christians, they understood that for the American experiment to succeed it must at the very least be founded on Christian principles; on both faith and reason. They understood the transformative nature of Christ’s teachings and the dignity and truth which they expounded to human beings.

This is not to say, of course, that the United States only has room for Christianity as a system of belief.  Religious freedom is a necessary condition for a just and prosperous society.  As Pope Benedict XVI said in his World Day of Peace address this past New Year’s, “Where religious freedom is acknowledged the dignity of the human person is respected at its roots and through a sincere search for truth and good, moral conscience and institutions are strengthened.  For this religious freedom is a privileged path to peace.”

But while religious freedom is necessary for peace, it is never an excuse for inaction.  Christians often feel the need to separate their religious beliefs from their political views so as not to “impose” their beliefs on others, but this separation is contrary to the Gospel message.  Because acceptance of the Gospel and the subsequent sharing of the Gospel go hand-in-hand, a Christian who is content to confine his faith to the walls of his own home may be a Christian by name, but he is an atheist by practice.

Christianity is more than a moral code. It is by its nature both transformative and truth-seeking. And if Christianity is meant to transform our lives and to expound truth (whether that truth is culturally attractive or not), then it becomes necessary that we allow our faith to inform our politics.  It offers the lens of a true enlightenment, through which we can understand the meaning and purpose of political action in the first place.