Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What is the source of freedom?

According to Michael Steele, former Lt. Governor of Maryland and a candidate for chair of the RNC, "Our freedom is from God, not government." As a Christian, I'm inclined to agree in that complicated way that activists who are religious agree with such broad statements.

There's a certain pedigree to the statement and it's a zig-zag that runs through Christian thought. St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians talks a great deal about freedom and Martin Luther wrote a treatise called "The Freedom of a Christian." Neither St. Paul nor Luther meant precisely what Mr. Steele is saying, though. For both, the powers of the government themselves are from God, just as our freedom is. So it's a curious development over 2000 years that so many Evangelicals happen to be so anti-government and simultaneously for expanded government with respect to social issues.

A lot of the complication comes from differing interpretations of the "uses of the law" in Christian thought. For Luther, the law convicts one of sin and makes one conscious of the need for grace. It also exists to restrain the effects of sin so that society doesn't plunge into chaos. In the Calvinist tradition, there is a third use of the law. It provides a model for the regenerated life. Luther, always suspicious of the way people try to achieve their own justification, would have none of that, of course. We could further complicate the picture with the Catholic conception of natural law and its implications for civil law.

So while all Christians at some level can agree that freedom is from God, the disagreements that still drive the culture wars really center on law. What is divine law, what is natural law, and how much of it should be reflected in civil law? Secularists would say, "That's irrelevant" or perhaps "None of the above."

But for Christian progressives and Christian social conservatives, the question matters. And it requires a great deal more fruitful discussion between the two groups than it is currently receiving. It would require Christian progressives to do a great deal more in engaging Christian social conservatives on their own ground. Publications like First Things and Christianity Today have large followings and are supplying the intellectual resources for one side of the debate. My sense is that the Christian Century just doesn't compete at the same level.

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