A few weeks ago a fellow religious liberty activist and I exchanged words on the topic of California’s Proposition 8, and how Bible-believing Christians should react to negative social change. He was troubled at my efforts to distinguish between the obligations of the faith community and the freedom of a secular community to choose a very ungodly path.
“I think you are a pietist,” said my friend. Of course he is my friend. That is why I think he was couching his criticism in a seemingly innocuous but possibly damning appellation.
“Thank you,” I answered. He had flattered me. Stripped of its historical excesses, Pietism seems an admirable model of religious behavior.
The Britannica Online Encyclopedia identifies Pietism as beginning in Germany in the seventeenth century: “It emphasized personal faith against the main Lutheran church’s perceived stress on doctrine and theology over Christian living.” The Britannica calls Pietism “a phenomenon of personal religious renewal.” I could not help noting that both the Britannica and the sometimes maligned Wikipedia draw a bright line from Pietism to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. I know that my Seventh-day Adventist lineage owes much to Wesley and the Holiness movement. On a broader scale, the Britannica concludes that “the religious revival movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were influenced by Pietism and in turn influenced it.” Looking up the movement in the Catholic Encyclopedia, I found a generally upbeat explanation of a Protestant movement that “aim[ed] at the revival of devotion and practical Christianity.”
How to relate the best of Pietism’s calls to our society under siege?
I am quite convinced that reflex religious legislation can only be counterproductive.
Let’s take as exhibit A Islamic fundamentalism, and look at Afghanistan as a case study.
Most people have forgotten what led to our overthrow of the Taliban. In the 1970s the traditional tribal society of Afghanistan was dragged into the modern world by a weak but determined monarchy. The internal stress was enormous. It was agitated further by Soviet Communist meddling from the north. Socialist factions eventually seized power and removed the king, but lost popular support when the Soviets were seen to be propping up the government. At that point the West recruited religious zealots to drive out the secular oppressors. The tactic worked, but morphed into something unforeseen. In the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal, various fundamentalist and nationalist groups vied for power, none having enough support to remain in power for long—until the Taliban, meaning quite literally “students of Islam,” took control and imposed an unyielding orthodoxy.
Did the Taliban have valid religious concerns? Well, yes. Modernization was itself a threat to the form of Islam they espoused. Communism was diametrically opposed to their faith view. The very fabric of their society, and its religious assumptions, were tearing apart.
Their solution: a reign of religious terror and intimidation. Kite-flying and football outlawed. Stone Buddhas destroyed. Women lashed into submission and kept behind lattice and mud-brick walls. But for endless Koranic recitation, education terminated. The result was a truly faithless, dysfunctional regime.
We are not Afghanistan, and even the most ardent protectors of the “Christian West” are not to be confused with the Taliban. But the underlying tensions are similar, and the question of how faith deals with shifts in society is very much ours today.
To Christians there can be no greater sign of a slide toward godless secularity than the emerging power and boldness of the gay movement. It evokes the sins of Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, and pagan Rome. It cuts to the great theme of a pure church and a profligate past; it contrasts the demure sexuality that the Bible uses to illustrate the relationship between God and His church with the unbridled sensuality that medieval artists were wont to hint at in their depiction of the horned and fleshy-tailed Lucifer and his sybaritic minions.
What do they do about this moral outrage in what they took to be a Christian society?
Clever revisionist historians aside, there is no basis for thinking the United States was ever structured as a religious state.
I would be less than consistent with a theme that Liberty has long pursued if I did not bring up the Christian society conundrum. The disillusion, even rage, that many Christians in the United States show is heightened by their misapprehension about the structure we have inherited. Clever revisionist historians aside, there is no basis for thinking the United States was ever structured as a religious state. There is a delicious irony in the fact that it has been the very secularity of the Constitution—particularly its separation of church and state—that has freed faith to flourish here.
Like it or not, our Western society has drifted
considerably from religious, moral norms. Do we talibanize it back on track, or is there another way?
We must recognize the shifts for what they are: changes in thinking. We must recognize the greatest weakness of secular government: it is bad at changing thinking. In fact, the more democratic the system the more likely it is to act on that changed thinking. Remember, too, that when a government is thwarted by too much oppositional thinking it has little recourse but repression.
Back to Pietism. I still believe, several decades on from my youth, when like all the young I thought ideals could be realized—I still believe that the greatest power is the power of ideas. I still believe that the idea of faith in God can transform the behavior of anyone. I still believe that the greatest privilege I can exercise in a free society is to call my fellows to the absolute liberty of a faith-filled life.
Back to Prop. 8 and gay marriage. It saddens me that our society has so forgotten the norms of most every other culture on the face of the earth that under a misbegotten rubric of civil rights it is enabling something that by the models of history will end badly.
It saddens me too that so many people of “faith” are so ready to let the state decide what is marriage. As though it could! Not since the Middle Ages and a Western form of Taliban rule have we entered that merry way. It is anything but the road to religious freedom. It is absolutely dismissed by the Christ holding up a coin and asking whose face is on the coin. Can we ever put His face on our modern society?
In reality the state is happy to legitimize serial heterosexual marriages that would be the “envy” of the woman at the well. In reality the state is happy to have you sign the civil contract before witnesses, give a little blood, and send your progeny to school on pain of removing them if it deems you unfit. It cares little about your faith—your piety or your lewdness. In reality the state merely manages the ever-present greed and class oppression—it does not deal with moral absolutes other than its own collective needs. The state is secular. It should never be a controlling moral authority.
My call for people of faith is for them to see the issue as less legislative and more communicative. Let’s really use the religious liberty we have. Tell it like it is. Speak to public attitudes. Give reasons for your faith that persuade.
And if you are so moved, take advantage of the obligation a democratic, representative system gives to participate. Vote when most do not. Let your representatives know your views. Become involved on any level allowed. Thank God we live in a benign system that encourages us to participate. Just don’t confuse what Caesar grants with what your faith requires.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."