In my latest reading of Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America, by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, I started the section of the book entitled “The Interviews”, in which Cal Thomas interviews prominent people on the Right and the Left about the role of religion in politics. In my opinion, this will probably be the best part of the book—-I certainly thought that my latest reading of it was excellent! One reason that I like this section so far is that it goes beyond the usual platitudes that are thrown around in debates regarding this issue, as both sides talk through rather than to one another. “You can’t legislate morality.” “Yes you can, for the law bans murder, which is immoral!” “The church should stay out of politics, and religion should not influence the government!” “But Martin Luther King, Jr. was politically active as a minister, and that was a good thing!” “There’s a moral majority in this country that is upset by America’s moral and spiritual downturn.”
It’s not that all of these platitudes lack merit. I just wish that there were a way to arrive at some ground that took into consideration the merits of the various sides. Yes, legislating morality can be futile, and it’s especially troubling when a group seeks to legally force its moral vision on people who don’t see things in the same way. There are areas in which there are different ideas as to what is moral, and so why should one group be able to force its morality onto others? On the other hand, “You can’t legislate morality” is a problematic statement because the law itself is a codification of beliefs about what is moral and immoral—-murder is immoral, theft is immoral, racial discrimination is immoral, etc.
Yes, there is a problem when religion influences government. Religion, like certain areas of morality, is a matter of personal preference, and so it’s problematic when it is legally forced on people who do not subscribe to it, especially when there is no solid proof that it is true (at least that’s my opinion). Moreover, as Thomas and Dobson argue, there are downsides to the church becoming obsessed with politics: demonization of the other, alienation of those the church is trying (or should be trying) to serve and to reach, etc. And yet, there have been times when religion has influenced politics in positive ways, such as the civil rights movement.
I can’t say that all of these issues were resolved in my latest reading. Perhaps they won’t be resolved in the rest of the book, either! But it was refreshing to see a left-leaning former Senator and critic of the religious right, Mark Hatfield, affirm that legislation often reflects moral principles, or right-wing former Senator Bill Armstrong admit that Christian conservatives are not exactly the majority, or George McGovern say that the religious right, like the religious left, has the right to bring its religious beliefs into the public square. And, when Cal Thomas asked George McGovern if there were any weaknesses to the religious left’s approach, McGovern did not get defensive or act as if his own side was flawless while the other side was demonic. Rather, McGovern attempted to provide a thoughtful reflection in response to Thomas’ question.
Onto another subject, I really appreciated George McGovern’s spiritual reflections in his interview. McGovern relates that his father was a fundamentalist who believed that people had to be saved and sanctified, but McGovern himself believes that it’s important simply to love other people, and he appeals to Matthew 25:31-46 to argue that Jesus will accept those who help the least of these, even if they did not entirely know what God was like or how to communicate with God. Thomas then responds—-in conservative evangelical fashion—-that this is salvation by works, and that we need to believe in Jesus to get into heaven because our works are not good enough. Thomas then appeals to McGovern’s father and asks if McGovern confesses the Lord Jesus and believes that God raised him from the dead, which leads to salvation, according to Romans 10:9. McGovern replies that he does.
Whether McGovern is interpreting Matthew 25:31-46 correctly, I do not know. We’re not told how much the sheep who helped the least of these knew about Jesus—-only that they did not know that they were helping Jesus when they helped the least of these. And yet, the criterion here is service, and faith is not mentioned. But, on the other hand, what is commended is service to Jesus’ brethren, who, in the New Testament, are often believers in Christ, and so even here there may be a Christian focus. The point of Matthew 25:31-36 may be what Matthew 10:42 says: “And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward” (KJV).
I’d like to believe that God honors the good deeds of everyone, even non-Christians. And yet, I recognize that I am flawed and far from perfect, and thus I feel that I need forgiveness. Must a person have an instantaneous moment of salvation in order to be forgiven, however, or can one be forgiven as one continually treads the path of trying to live a good life, recognizing that he or she falls short?