Vernon L. Alger
How many memorable speeches have you heard lately? Probably very few. The eloquence of Tom Paine, Patrick Henry, and John F. Kennedy has been replaced with sound bites, MTV, and Rush Limbaugh.
The age of personal persuasion is past. We are a private, mobile society, frequently relocating to areas where we know no one and rarely conversing with our neighbors. We leave the house to go to work and run errands, not much else; we exercise indoors on machines advertised on TV; we are entertained in houses with large-screen video centers; we hire others to do the yardwork; and with air conditioning, we don't even open the windows for fresh air when it's hot.
But in this retreat from social discourse, Americans have also ceased to practice civil discourse. Individual religious and political freedom is the essence of the American ideal, and a sharing of ideals, ideas, and beliefs is necessary to preserving those freedoms. Personal persuasion of belief, door-to-door contact, tent meetings, and other forms of religious evangelism are being ignored in favor of the electronic media, which - although reaching the masses - doesn't carry the impact of a personal discussion.
One result of the change in the way we communicate is that our two-party political system is no longer effective because each elected representative acts independently of the other. When a majority cannot agree on any issue because each representative has a different opinion, majority rule no longer works. The result: gridlock.
Only when we communicate personally can we have the full benefit of each other's knowledge and experience. So often we make the mistake of thinking that because people are different, they are wrong. It's easy to be prejudiced against a group - it's harder to be prejudiced against an individual we know personally.
The result of this change in how we communicate is especially apparent in the church. Still our nation's best source of moral guidance, the church must have a place in the public square. But organized religion seems to have abandoned the use of personal moral persuasion and replaced it with a quest for political power. The preachers can't write God's law in men's hearts, so they try to get it written in statute books. Unable to convince people to act morally on their own, the preachers want to use the law to force them instead. In so doing, however, churches give up the high ground. After all, attempting to use the power of the state instead of the power of the pulpit doesn't say much for the power of the pulpit.
Abortion and school prayer are prime examples. If churches could convince people that abortion is wrong, or that there is a better way, who would need the controversial legislation that is tearing the nation apart? If churches could persuade parents to pray with their children in the morning at home, and to teach them to pray privately during the day, who would need to legislate prayer in schools? It has been said that when liberal churches can't get what they want by persuasion, they go to court; and when conservative churches can't, they go to Congress.
A sad commentary on both, to be sure.
If religion is to be the moral conscience of society, it must be in the role of teacher, through personal persuasion, and not political enforcer. Though organized religion has the right to influence the public square, it does not have the right to control it, to the point of enforcing religious dogma on the nation through law. Americans should follow the tenets of their faith because they have been persuaded that it's true; not because their church has resorted to the power of the government to force them. Unfortunately, even in an age of so-called "user-friendly" churches, many people are no longer listening to what is being said; so, frustrated, the churches are asking the government to do their job for them.
Sure, it's been a long time since we've had a Patrick Henry or a John F. Kennedy. Too long, in fact.
Vernon L. Alger, Esq., is director of public affairs and religious liberty for the Lake Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Berrien Springs, Michigan.