I would like to say a word in defense of the American Civil Liberties Union. Christiansincluding me, both in the pages of CT and elsewhereoften criticize the ACLU for advocating separation of church and state in ways that seem less grounded in the Constitution and in history than in an ideological desire for a religion-free public arena. On the other hand, I shudder when fellow Christians blithely dismiss the organization as fundamentally biased against them. Some call it the Anti-Christian Liberals Union or the Anti-Christian Litigation Unit. There are other, less friendly acronyms as well. I think the ACLU is wrong to oppose religious expression in the public square, but being wrong is not the same as being evil.
More to the point, the ACLU is often right about the First Amendment's free exercise clause, taking on fights that others refuse. It might surprise some critics that the ACLU defends the free speech and free exercise rights of, well, Christians.
For example, in 2001, the group interceded with a school district in Michigan that had deleted a high school senior's yearbook entry because she included a Bible verse. In 2002, the ACLU filed a brief on behalf of a pastor associated with Operation Rescue who was prevented from participating in a parade because his pro-life poster showed a photograph of an aborted baby. And last September, the organization joined a lawsuit on behalf of a New Jersey second-grader who was not allowed to sing "Awesome God" in a school talent show. (All of these examples are easily accessible on several Web pages now devoted to defending the ACLU 's record on Christianity.)
Yet I must confess that, although I am pleased to balance the record, defending the ACLU is not my primary purpose here. I am more concerned about a habit of mind that seems to be growing among my fellow Christians, both political liberals and conservatives. That is, we seem to mimic the secular world's conflation of disagreement with wickedness, as if not sharing my worldview places my critic outside the realm of rational discourse.
I spend most of my driving time nowadays listening to Christian radio. Most of what I hear is edifying and uplifting. But now and then a genuine clunker comes along, often in the form of a politically active Christian who derides anyone who disagrees with his version of biblical wisdom. One of the nastiest words, at least for many radio preachers, seems to be liberal.
Now, I have often been described as a liberal myselfalthough rarely by liberals. Once, after I gave a talk at a small Christian college in the Bible Belt, a concerned student carrying one of my books approached me. He had enjoyed the lecture, he assured me, but something in my book troubled him. He flipped to a page on which I had complimented something President Bill Clinton had said. The student then turned to me, the look of worry still on his face, and told me I must have written this because I was, really, a liberal. This student believed it was impossible for the good guysthe way he said liberal told me that liberals were not among themto say anything positive about President Clinton.
The host of a popular syndicated Christian radio program once told me that he had received death threatsnot just a few, but a lotduring the Clinton administration. His sin? Reminding listeners of their obligation to pray for those God had placed in positions of authority, whether or not they happened to agree with their policies.
Yes, we live in a polarized time. The screechy hatefulness emanating from many on the secular Left during the Bush administration has sullied our public discourse. Many Christians feel under assault by the uncompromising secularism of the culture. This includes the queries, on the heels of every bit of bad news, about how one can believe in a God who would allow certain things (this hurricane, this genocide, this war, this tsunami).
As an antidote to these uninformed arguments, I recommend David Bentley Hart's startlingly exquisite 2005 book, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? As an antidote to the screechy hatefulness, I recommend Christian love. While our fallen nature makes all of us, whether on the Left or the Right, prone to hating our enemies, we Christians know that Christ calls us to a higher standard.
Want a practical example? The next time a fellow Christian disparages the ACLU , try answering with something like this: "Sure, they're on the wrong side sometimes, but I thank God for the times when they're right."
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Web pages dedicated to highlighting the ACLU's work on behalf of Christians includes The ACLU Fights for Christians and The ACLU Defends Freedom of Religion. The ACLU also recently defended street preacher Jim Webber's right to speaking in Las Vegas.
Recent Christianity Today columns by Stephen L. Carter include:
The 'Judicial Philosophy' Dodge | Why opposing 'activist judges' isn't as straightforward as you'd think. (Jan. 3, 2006)
Evolution, Not Revolution | Christians need to lower their Supreme Court expectations. (Nov. 1, 2005)
Sticker Shock | When a judge violated the church-state peace treaty. (March 02, 2005)
Politics for Adults | A Supreme Court justice showed us how to "do business" with opponents. (Jan. 12, 2005)
Defending Our Neighbor | Can we start a war to protect others? (Nov. 10, 2004)
Loving Military Enemies | War does not exempt Christians from the second-greatest commandment. (Sept. 07, 2004)
Hope Deferred | Christians are uniquely positioned to further racial equality. (June 29, 2004)
A Politics of Gratitude | Stop whining, count your blessings, and love your global neighbors. (March 08, 2004)
Sports Mobs and Manners | There's a difference between cheering the home team and being boorish. (Aug. 25, 2003)
Roe vs. Judicial Sense | Forget briefly its immoralityit's just bad law (July 1, 2003)
Willing to Lose | By voting we place our hope in the next world. (March 4, 2003)
Virtue via Vouchers | The Supreme Court's recent decision can help prevent more corporate scandals. (Dec. 4, 2002)
Remedial History | The educational establishment seems confused about our spiritual heritage. (July 10, 2002)
Uncle Sam Is Not Your Dad | The separation of church and state protects families too. (March 22, 2002)
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