Dr. Jamie Dew, Dean of the College at Southeastern, recently discussed faith and politics with Dr. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Jamie Dew: Russ, one thing you got to do recently that sounds very exciting is that you got to meet the President, pray with the President and interact with him. What’s he like? Tell us what that experience was like.
Russell Moore: I have a very sharp disagreement with the President on a number of issues, one of them being the sanctity of human life for unborn children, another being the definition of marriage and another being some key questions of religious liberty. We’ve been involved in speaking to the administration quite a bit about, for instance, the HHS contraceptive mandate which we think is a violation of religious liberty. So we’ve been at odds with the administration on many things.
Nonetheless, the President has always been very kind, and his administration has been very open… to what outside groups have to say. And in the meeting in the Oval Office, I was able to have a really frank and honest conversation with the President that was a good conversation, a good back-and-forth. At the end of it, he asked if I would pray for him and the Vice President, who was there as well. I was happy to do that because the Bible instructs us to do that.
[It’s a] difficult thing to do when we have someone in a position of elected authority with whom we disagree. It’s easy to pray for someone who’s making decisions we like. It’s difficult to pray for someone with whom we have disagreements. But the Bible says we are to do that. The Apostle Peter says to honor the emperor and all those who are in authority. As a matter of fact, he says to honor everyone. Which means we have a responsibility to do that and to pray… for kings and all those in authority so that we may live out lives of quietness and peace.
It’s difficult to pray for someone with whom we have disagreements. But the Bible says we are to do that.
So that means having the opportunity to pray for the President, for wisdom, discernment [and] God’s direction as he leads. There are all sorts of issues that I think the President ought to change his mind on. I pray he will. But beyond that, I pray for God’s blessing upon him, on his family and for God’s direction.
I think we ought to model that within our congregations — perhaps especially when we disagree with a particular elected official. And especially… as we’re raising up children. One of the things that can easily happen is that if we like President George W. Bush, we refer to him as President Bush. If we dislike President Obama, we refer to him as Obama.
That’s a subtle difference, but it’s a big difference in teaching children to show honor to whom honor is due. And if what you’re saying to children is, “Show honor when you agree,” then don’t be surprised when you have children who are unwilling to follow the genuine spiritual authority in their churches or in their families. We’re able to teach children, “I disagree with the President on this, but I still love and honor him as a human being and as someone God has put in this position of authority.”
In a democratic republic, we have the freedom to dissent, to change things, … and we do it. At the same time, we’re prayerful. We’re honoring. And I think about this — there was a story recently about a lesbian legislator in Hawaii who was for same-sex marriage, but she had some concerns about religious liberty that she expressed.
She said, “The people on my side were very cruel and played hard-ball on this. But the Christians who disagreed with me showed love, they were praying for me. Even though I disagreed with them, I could sense the fact they were loving towards me.”
I think that’s the witness we ought to have consistently. We disagree honestly and openly — we don’t cower in the face of authority — but we do so with a sense of right honor and right direction of love.
Dew: You mentioned a couple of different ways that religious liberty has been encroached on recently. Do you expect that kind of encroachment will continue?
Dew: If so, is that an opportunity? What are the negatives, the benefits? What should we make of all that?
Moore: I often say to people that as President of the ERLC, I really have two jobs. One of them is to keep us out of jail, and the other is to make sure that if we go to jail, we go to jail for the right reasons.
Now I’m speaking hyperbolically there; I don’t think we’re in any way in danger of going to jail in the United States of America for our beliefs right now. But I do think that we see that we come from a heritage of people — especially as Baptists — a heritage of people who did go to jail for preaching the gospel. And there’s one thing worse than going to jail for your faith, and that’s not going to jail because you’ve denied the faith.
So we need to advocate in the civil sphere for our rights as citizens. The Apostle Paul did that in the book of Acts consistently; that’s a gospel-centered, godly thing to do. At the same time, we’re cultivating people who have the sorts of consciences and convictions that they know when the state has overstepped its bounds and when the state has become a god, and they’re able to dissent from that. That means cultivating churches that know how to value and prize their liberty, and advocating [in] the public square for religious liberty for everybody.
The reason we believe in religious liberty, of course, is not because we want some special arrangement from the state. It’s because we believe the gospel. We believe the gospel cannot be handed down by some beaurocrat; there will be no government beaurocrat standing with people at judgment. Which means we want a free and open marketplace of ideas — so that the gospel is able to come forward in order to save.
We want a free and open marketplace of ideas — so that the gospel is able to come forward.
George W. Truett, a famous Baptist pastor of the last century, used to say that a government-established church can turn people into hypocrites, but it can’t turn people into Christians. That’s the case whether the government is trying to coercively name people Christians, or whether the government is trying to coercively name someone as some generic mush of civil religion, which is what we’re facing right now. So I think we need to be very diligent and to stand firm.
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