There are countries in which religious authorities have the kind of political control that enables them to enact and enforce laws to promote their religious agendas. For example, some countries have laws against blasphemy. Saying particular words that are judged to be against God or God’s prophetic messengers can lead to the death penalty. Historically religious groups have also used political power to get financial support for their religion. Whether you accept a religion or not, you pay taxes that finance its operation. It is easy to see why some people living in this kind of system might find it objectionable. Someone who adheres to a different religion or no religion at all is likely to regard the use of this kind of coercive power to be oppressive.
Some Christians recognize the problem when another religion is using coercive power to promote its goals, but find it less objectionable when their own religion does so. But, as the saying goes, power corrupts. When Christians have had such power, they have sometimes used it to persecute or kill those who disagreed about religious dogmas. The Inquisition is a particularly horrendous example of using governmental authority to make sure that deviations from accepted beliefs are not allowed. However, even when power is exercised in a more restrained way, there is reason to wonder whether seeking this kind of control over others is good for the church. Many Christians think that Christianity lost its way when the conversion of a Roman Emperor gave this previously oppressed minority the opportunity to use governmental power for their own purposes. When Christianity becomes enmeshed with ruling authorities, its distinctive identity is inevitably distorted. When Christianity has become the official religion of any country, the result has tended to be the decline of Christianity in that country.
According to the temptation stories in Matthew and Luke, one of Jesus’s temptations was to get authority over all the kingdoms of the world by giving worship to Satan. I understand this temptation to be about using the violent methods that earthly kingdoms have always utilized to enact his agenda. Jesus rejects this way of being Messiah. He won’t use coercive power to establish his kingdom. He will instead rely on the power of persuasion to establish communities committed to a different way of living. This distinctive way of living will have its influence by serving as a contrast to prevailing practice that reveals better possibilities for human life.
Even if the way of Jesus is not the way of coercive force, we don’t have to conclude that coercive power is always unacceptable. Any viable society will need to use force to prevent some behaviors. Hardly anyone disputes that murder or theft or fraud should be deterred by threats of punishment. But a system that deters acts that victimize people does not have to be based on a particular set of religious beliefs. While the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was motivated by Christian teaching, the strategy was to make evident the kind of treatment of black people that could be recognized as unjust by anyone.
Some Christians in the United States say that they are not for establishing a theocracy in which religious authorities are the rulers. But they do want Christianity to have a privileged position with regard to the country’s laws and policies. Part of the problem with trying to structure things in this way is that some moral pronouncements made by Christians are disputed by other Christians. Those who speak of a Christian nation are typically talking about a particular version of Christianity shaping the national agenda. But even if there was agreement about how Christian teaching applies, should the freedoms of non-Christians be restricted on the basis of views they do not accept?
There are two thoughts that seem to me important for Christians to keep in mind when they advocate legal restrictions deriving from views that are widely disputed in a multi-cultural society. One is the thought that they could be wrong about some of the positions they take. Christians have sometimes been on the wrong side in holding to traditional ideas that in retrospect were obstacles to achieving a more just society. In the nineteenth century many American Christians defended slaveholding, often appealing to the Bible to justify this practice. At various points in history when black people have protested oppressive governmental policies, conservative Christians have defended these laws and practices. So, even if it seems obvious to some that the Bible supports subordinate social positions for women or opposes same-sex relationships, it is relevant to consider whether this might be another case of Christians being unable to let go of ingrained ways of thinking that at some point will be recognized as misguided. On some matters, we need to let go of the certainty that lies behind efforts to make others conform.
The other thought is that those who disagree with you in a pluralistic society are still your neighbors. So, how should you treat these neighbors? Jesus advocated treating others as you want to be treated. We want to be allowed to live according to our own convictions. So, shouldn’t we allow our neighbors to live by theirs? Of course, there are limits. But not every case where we disapprove of something shows that it involves the kind of harm that justifies legal force. When we contemplate restricting our neighbors’ freedom forcibly with regard to matters where we recognize that our judgment may be flawed, shouldn’t we err on the side of allowing each person to live in accordance with his or her own judgments?
Disputes on matters where people operate on the basis of different views about the best way to live have been central fronts of what has been called the culture wars. What I think is unfortunate is that some Christians have been far too eager to turn disputes on cultural issues where there is considerable disagreement into a kind of warfare where the appropriate action is doing battle against an enemy. Such a hostile stance is surely not the most promising way to demonstrate Christ’s love for our neighbors.