Religion in the Public Sphere

One of the frequent objections made to using the Bible as a source of public policy is that the United States is not a Christian nation and should not take its policy guidance from sacred scripture. This is an entirely correct reply to an argument that I have never made.  The problem on both sides of this debate is that it’s entirely too simplistic to say that the Bible is either supposed to guide public policy or it’s not. The Bible is supposed to guide Christian views of public policy, but not to guide the U.S. government’s view of public policy.

While perusing the internet for writings on the Bible and public policy I came across an article in the Christian Century objecting to a sermon on public policy. The author objects on religious pluralism grounds, pointing out that the U.S. is not exclusively Christian. This is an acceptable argument, but overlooks the fact that the pastor was not speaking to a religiously plural group, he was speaking to his congregation. The message is that you, as Christians, who hold the Bible to be your sacred scripture, ought to oppose U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.  As citizens of a democracy, Christians can then vote and lobby based on public policy views that are formed from scriptural exegesis and study. Since no one party represents the Christian view this is something that is best done on an issue by issue basis, not a partisan one.

Religious pluralism does not require Christians (or any other religious groups) to ignore the public policy implications of their theology and scripture, it simply requires that if they wish to be persuasive in public debate they use arguments that will resonate with their audience. If I were speaking to a large group about immigration reform I would talk about the economic benefits to immigration as well as a fairness argument arising from the lottery of birthplace. If I were speaking to my congregation about immigration, I would start with theology (and also probably mention economics).

The Bible really does have a lot to say about public policy, but no one who doesn’t consider the Bible to be their sacred scripture needs to listen.


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