Will a Society that Purges Christian Symbols Stay Open to Christian Mandates for Justice?

By Mark Tooley Published on June 11, 2016

In April Tennessee’s governor vetoed an effort to make the Bible the state’s official book, like the tomato is the state’s official fruit and the raccoon the state animal. He essentially took the politically easier route, alluding to possible constitutional problems but stressing that for him the Bible is too sacred for such a pedestrian role, which would trivialize it merely as a historically influential text.

Maybe the governor is right. Or maybe not. Acknowledging centrally influential religious influences in civil life doesn’t necessarily trivialize. Images of Moses, with other historic law makers, appear in the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court. Are Jews and Christians insulted that the chief prophet of the Old Testament is ranked with Confucius, Hammurabi and Muhammad? It would be stranger and more offensive to omit him.

Some Muslims are perhaps offended that Muhammad is personified in the Supreme Court, since Islam prohibits images of its prophet. But Christianity traditionally affirms not only artwork of its central characters but also readily makes its symbols available for wider public life beyond the church. The Pope even cited the portrayal of Moses in the U.S. Capitol as validation of faith’s historic role in perpetuating American moral order, for the betterment of all, of many religions and no religion.

Neither America nor Western Civilization, much less Tennessee, with its own history of revivalism and Christian publishing, would be imaginable without the Bible. Maybe becoming the state book is not quite the right note. But neither is it offensive, or disrespectful. And recognizing the Bible’s formidable culture-shaping role does not theocratically violate constitutional barriers any more than do the images of Moses in Washington, DC.

Offering a different critique of the Bible as potential state book was former United Methodist lobbyist Bill Mefford, who warned that Christian efforts to enshrine religious symbols in public life do “great damage to the Church’s witness to the world.” Mefford is a staunch liberal who last year created controversy by mocking the annual pro-life march in Washington with his own sign: “I March for Sandwiches.” He was required to apologize and no longer works for the denomination’s Capitol Hill office. But there are conservative Evangelicals who share his concern about civil religion, especially his faulting Constantinianism. Mefford elaborates:

The truth is that symbolizing Christian beliefs, practices, or objects hearkens back to the Constantiniazation of the Church, which began in earnest in 313. It was in 313 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine first made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Establishing Christianity as the official religion of the empire effectively transformed Christianity from a counter-cultural movement into a state-sponsored institution. What shifted within the first few generations in the life of the Church was that the concerns of the State went from being important to followers of Jesus to being central and definitive of the institutional church itself. Since we are long past the early life of the Church I am afraid followers of Jesus have no other way of seeing the role of the State as other than central and defining to the life and mission of the Church today. And we are still struggling with the effects of this sponsorship.

Mefford complains the church has become the “official sponsor of Western civilization,” and in perceptions and fears the “decline of one is equal to the decline of the other,” to which the response is further fusion of the two. Amid social distress, the Constantinian Church “responds with statements or press releases and looks only to the state for solutions, while the New Testament Church responds by incarnationally listening to and loving those who are most directly impacted by society’s brokenness.”

Touting the traditional ultra-Protestant narrative that Constantinianism corrupted the church as the handmaiden to secular power, Mefford frets this compromised church primarily preserves the “political and economic status” and loses its prophetic voice. He claims the Tennessee legislators who voted to make the Bible the state book were servants of the “Constantinian missiological framework for the Church.” Their exertions conflate the church’s mission of “manifesting God’s love, grace, mercy and justice for the world” with “ensuring that the interests of the state are equally prioritized,” creating a divided purpose that neutralizes both aspirations.

Naturally as a liberal and statist, Mefford prefers that the Tennessee legislature devote itself to expanding government programs instead of debating the Bible. He frets that “captivity to Constantinianism continues.” And the Constantinian Church “still has a fairly firm hold on the church’s ideas,” while “liberation means that we must become singularly focused on the mission Jesus set out for those who wish to follow him — that being to love the world and to work for justice for those especially most directly impacted by injustice.”  Christians in government should “forget symbolizing Christian objects and practices and instead … serve those most directly impacted by the brokenness of injustice,” living out the Scriptures “rather than memorializ[ing] them.”

This disdain of “Constantinianism” assumes Christians can effectively advocate particular Christian political objectives without helping society understand the underlying moral imperative. Will a society that forgets or negates the Bible and Christian moral teachings be sufficiently open to Christian, biblically informed mandates for justice? In such a moral and spiritual vacuum, why would society heed such appeals?

The critique of so-called Constantinianism, which is also a critique of American civil religion, tends to dismiss the church’s traditional mandate to morally reshape culture, including political and social life. Supposedly honoring spiritual symbols in civil life will corrupt the church, but pursuing power to enact supposedly Christian justice objectives through enlarged government spending and regulation will not.

A more consistent rejection of Constantinianism would abjure all Christian pursuit of political goals and concentrate instead on the church’s own Gospel ministries. That kind of focus of course would be alien to a liberal former Methodist Capitol Hill lobbyist. It also contradicts historic Christian understandings of the church’s social witness duties.

Civilly enshrining Christian and other religious symbols, in Tennessee or in Washington, DC, may risk trivializing them. But homage to such symbols memorializes the vital role of faith in constructing our common life. And it motivates continued societal aspiration of justice inspired by their transcendentally powerful message of divinely ordained human dignity.

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