Religious Liberty — By Joe Carter on April 17, 2004 at 9:41 pm
Separation and the City: An ‘Inconsistent Conservative’s” View of Religious Liberty
Baylor professor Francis Beckwith has recently come under fire from the crowd over at Panda’s Thumb for his writings on the Establishment Clause. One curious criticism from Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Timothy Sandefur is that Beckwith is espousing an ‘extreme view” of separationism that clashes with conservatism. In response, Beckwith posts on his blog:
I am first a Christian and then a conservative. And whenever the former conflicts with the latter, I lean toward the former. I’m more convinced that Jesus was right than I am about William F. Buckley, Jr.’s opinions. Part of my understanding of Christian theology and its relationship to the state is that the state should not be in the business of coercing people to be Christians, either directly or indirectly. It should respect the rights of all believers and unbelievers to believe as they will and to make life choices consistent with these beliefs as long as they do not violate the public good or infringe on the rights of others (I know that there is a can of worms here with ‘public good,” but I’m just articulating the general principles). So, in that sense I am a church-state separationist.*
This corresponds with both my own uneasy alliance with conservatism and with my view of religious liberty. As fellow blogger David T. Koyzis writes in his excellent book Political Visions and Illusions,
‘Our desire to protect such religious freedom issues not out of indifference or skepticism toward our ultimate beliefs but out of a recognition that in the present age, in [Leslie] Newbignin’s words, God wills to provide a space and time for people freely to give their allegiance to his kingdom. The state thus refrains from prematurely foreclosing on this divinely permitted freedom. This implies considerable tolerance of religious diversity in between the times.” (pg. 204)
This is one of the reasons that idea of a ‘theocracy” is anathema to me and why I feel so strongly that Christians should be hesitant to embrace the idea that America once was or should be a ‘Christian nation.” As an evangelical I believe that we have a responsibility to be politically engaged and carve out our place in the public square. We should be model citizens and, in a liberal democracy, that requires that we challenge and work to transform our culture. But we should never lose focus on our mission in this world. For we should constantly remind ourselves that our calling is not to build a ‘city on a hill” but rather to seek the ‘kingdom of God”.
*Hat tip: Our Daily Thread for the link to Dr. Beckwith’s blog.