Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Commerce Committee, has recently come out strongly in favor of expanding the purview of the FCC and governmental regulation beyond broadcast media outlets. This would be the first time that such regulatory power has been applied to cable and satellite radio and television.
Such an unprecedented move speaks to the growing influence of evangelical Christian political activism. Indeed, some evangelicals have long supported huge increases in FCC fines and expanded powers for the governmental agency. And the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has announced its foray into politics with its statement of purpose, For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility .
Christians should certainly be active participants in every facet of society, including politics. But Christian activists need to be wary of falling prey to the temptation to use political power to impose external standards of morality for a number of interconnected reasons. The first concern relates to a sort of Christianity that places heavy emphasis on the importance of public behavior and conduct, to the detriment of private reflection and discipline.
There is a disturbing trend among American evangelicals to stress public exhibitions of virtue. The furor over the public displays of the 10 Commandments is one example, but the fight over broadcast decency has taken on a similar flavor.
For Christians, the significance of the new covenant means that it is more important that the law be written on our hearts than that it be displayed in our courtrooms. For our concern to be otherwise brings us under Jesus' condemnation of Pharisaical hypocrisy.
This truth flows into a second and closely related problem. Overzealous political activism poses a threat to the fundamental task of the church: proclamation of the Gospel. Many criticize the relief efforts of nominally Christian groups, such as the National Council of Churches, which divorce evangelism and charitable work. But where we rightly decry such inconsistency in other quarters, we should also beware the temptation elsewhere to confuse or obscure the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
The Gospel is not reducible to the institution of laws amenable to Christian morality. And a disproportionate emphasis on such laws tends toward a position that is inimical to Christianity. Yet the perception often remains that the way the church is to “engage culture” is primarily, if not solely, through public policy.
Beyond these theological problems lies a prudential question of the wise use of political power. In the broad area of decency standards, this third problem flows out of the coercive nature of governmental power.
While Christians maintain the influence to form policy in a certain area, the laws are likely to remain in accord with Christian morality. The danger is that once the power of such regulation of speech and free expression has been ceded to the government, it is nearly impossible to get it back. And it is almost certain that the current season of Christian political influence will eventually wane.
Today perhaps the antics of a Howard Stern will be outlawed by increased governmental regulation. But tomorrow it may be that simply reading from Paul's letter to the Romans will be prohibited as hate speech, indecent, or otherwise intolerant. We have already seen threats of this in other countries. In the words of Jesus, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NIV). Zealous Christian activism in the area of speech limitation carries within it the possibility for governmental incursion into the realm of the church itself.
Christians as individuals and in voluntary associations can function as important voices in public debates. But the role of politically active Christian groups should never obscure the primary task of the church. Still less should the proclamation of the Gospel be reduced to political activism.
“The true church of Christ...,” theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, “will never intervene in the state in such a way as to criticize its history-making actions, from the standpoint of some humanitarian ideal.” Instead, the church “can and should, precisely because it does not moralize in individual instances, continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e. as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.”
A far better way than coercing others to adhere to objective standards of morality is to convert them to those standards. It is ultimately only through proclamation of the Gospel that the culture and the nation will be redeemed. For the church is to engage the world not with the sword of the government, but with “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17 NIV).