Religious scholar argues for better understanding of church and state
In “Religious Freedom in a Secular Age,” Michael Bird takes…
‘Religious freedom is going to get complicated, and we potentially face a more intrusive state apparatus, trying to ensure that religious bodies are compliant with either nationalist or progressive orthodoxies.”
Many Christians likely agree with that grim prediction from New Testament scholar Michael F. Bird.
Fewer may agree with his suggested remedy — a healthy dose of secularism.
Bird, a German-born theologian and lecturer at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, is the author of “Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government.”
From his home in Melbourne, Bird spoke with The Christian Chronicle’s B.T. Irwin to discuss secularism and his “Thessalonian strategy” for living in a world that is increasingly hostile toward religion. Following are edited excerpts from that interview, which can be heard in its entirety on the Chronicle’s podcast.
B.T.: You talk about secularism almost as the thing that we need for a time like this. And secularism is kind of a bad word, I think, in many Churches of Christ. Tell us what you mean by secularism.
Michael Bird: Yeah, a lot of people think of secularism as the equivalent of the godless boogeyman or those movies where there’s a monster hunting down all the teenagers, as if secularism is the monster.
We know there are nasty versions of secularism. You can look at North Korea or China or the old Soviet Union. But we have to remember secularism is not one thing.
You can have a very benign secularism. That means, No. 1, we’re not going to have a theocracy. We’re not going to replace the president with a pope, grand mufti, chief rabbi or a dalai lama. We’re not going to privilege one religion. We’re not going to say you can’t serve in Congress unless you’re a Baptist, or you can’t serve in the Senate unless you’re Methodist.
But here’s the flip side to it: The government doesn’t tell you how to do your religion. The government doesn’t punish you because it doesn’t like your religion. And it’s not going to adjudicate on matters internal to your religion.
What’s more, church and state can still cooperate together in areas of common interest. So that’s why you can have things like chaplains in the military. You can have chaplains in government-run prisons or hospitals. Because religious bodies can do something the state can’t do, which is provide pastoral care.
B.T.: I’ve listened to a lot of my Christian friends insist that America’s only hope is for greater Christian control of government. I think there sometimes is a belief that God will bless the nation that adheres to a biblical worldview.
If Christians see it that way, things like pluralism and secularism seem like things that make the biblical worldview secondary and therefore could expose the nation to God’s displeasure. How do you respond to that?
Michael Bird: That type of analogy assumes that America is basically like a new Israel — as if God has a covenant with America. And if you evangelize everyone, you’ll be blessed. If you watch HBO after 9 p.m., you’ll be cursed.
“There’s no biblical precedent for saying that God has a covenant with America.”
There’s no biblical precedent for saying that God has a covenant with America. If you say, “OK, we’re going to be a Christian nation, and we’re going to enforce Christian values,” which version of Christianity is going to be hegemonic?
You say we want to be a Christian nation, and I say, “Fine. Let’s make Anglicanism the state religion. We will forcibly baptize all of your babies. And the only form of worship you’ll be allowed to do is according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the way God intended. And anyone who worships in any other, inferior, blasphemous way will be tied to a chair, have their eyelids glued open and will be forced to watch 96 hours of Al Gore environmental speeches.”
The reason the Puritans left England and went to America is because they wanted to get away from the Anglican autocracy and have the freedom to worship as Congregationalists, as Baptists, as Presbyterians, as nonconformists.
This is something I learned from John Stackhouse, a Canadian theologian: American evangelicals have one thing that makes them stand out among the world — they think that they are supposed to be in charge. And it really irks them when they are not.
Evangelical Christians in India don’t go around saying, “India is a Christian country, and these Hindus have stolen it from us.” They’re just very happy to go about their life, their faith, without being persecuted by Hindu nationalists. And all sorts of anti-conversion laws are being used to target them.
B.T.: With regard to American evangelicals — and there’s some debate on whether or not Churches of Christ consider themselves to be part of that — being in power, I could hear them arguing, “Well, it’s better to be in power than not to be in power.” Can you make a case to Christians in America why it might be better not to be in charge?
Michael Bird: I want people elected who share my beliefs and values, who won’t give me like preferential treatment, but will just treat me fairly and treat all people fairly.
But if you’re going to say, “Well, we need to have a Christian in charge,” you’ve always got the problem of the corruption of power. And you can get a lot of un-Christian policies and practices, which are kind of wrapped in a thin coat of Christian wrapping paper.
“If you’re going to say, ‘Well, we need to have a Christian in charge,’ you’ve always got the problem of the corruption of power. And you can get a lot of un-Christian policies and practices.”
You end up with what you might say, in its worst sense, is the Caesar-ization of Christianity, where we simply become chaplains to the government. When the government leader speaks, we stand up and say, “This is the word of the Lord.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s unbiblical or un-Christian or unloving, we just have to agree with the political leader because he’s from our party, or she’s from our faction.
It’s one thing to serve, but to invest religious capital in leaders who may be less than godly, less than Christian in ethos and example, just because they promised to give you a privileged position … that is a Faustian pact with the devil. Many Christians have faced that temptation.
And it always, always, always ends badly.
B.T.: You describe several ways that Christians are responding to what you call militant secularism in Western democracies. And you offer a response called the Thessalonian strategy. What is that?
Michael Bird: In Acts 17, Paul and his posse arrive in Thessalonica. And their reputation has preceded them the way lightning precedes thunder. Paul preaches among the Jewish community and gets a few Greek converts, but the majority of people reject him. And then the Jewish association harps up, saying, “Paul has come here. He and his friends are turning the world upside down, saying that there is a king other than Caesar.”
“We’ve got to be willing to turn the world upside down. We’ve got to be willing to point out the brutal hypocrisy, the illegality of the attack on religious freedom.”
And that’s one thing we’ve got to do: We’ve got to be willing to turn the world upside down. We’ve got to be willing to point out the brutal hypocrisy, the illegality of the attack on religious freedom.
This applies not just to Christians but to everyone. Everybody has a stake in religious freedom because religious freedom is a good measurement for the freedom of society. If you have a low view of religious freedom, you will have a low view of freedom of association, a low view of freedom of speech, a poor framework for political freedom.
We need to turn the world upside down. We need to show that there is a better way of being human rather than simply worshiping the progressive gods of sex, death and pleasure.
B.T.: You lead off your book with three little words: “But if not.” What is the significance of those words?
Michael Bird: It all goes back to Dunkirk when a young officer (in London) once said, “So, if you guys can’t evacuate in time, do you have a plan if you can’t get rescued?” And the officer (on the beach in Dunkirk), sent back his response, “But if not.”
If you know your Bible, you’ll know it’s from Daniel 3. You’ve got the three friends there. And Nebuchadnezzar says, “You bow down and worship the image (probably an image of himself) or we’re going to throw you in the furnace.” And the three friends say, “Look, we believe that God is going to rescue us from your hand. But if not, we are not going to bow down and worship your image.”
I think that’s the attitude we’ve got to have. We’re not going to bow down to a 100-foot-tall golden statue of Oprah draped in a rainbow flag.
We’re not going to bow down to a bunch of red-hatted maniacs running around the Capitol building.
We believe that God will rescue us. But if not, we’re not going to prostrate ourselves before false messiahs, secular ayatollahs and the like.
Our allegiance and our faith are connected and are only owed to the Lord Jesus. We’ll give rulers our respect, but the only one who gets our worship is the Lord Jesus. We do that because faith is our defiance — and defiance is contagious.
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