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Lying to the Nazis?

I'm slow to decide-but think we should back RLPA

Issue: "Madness in the Methodist," July 25, 1998

Every Christian has to decide, thousands of times even in a consistent walk before God, when to lean toward principle and when toward pragmatism. The classic example, of course, comes with the question: "Would you lie to the Nazis if you were hiding Jews in your attic?" But it comes as well in less dramatic and even trifling versions: Would you tell an ugly girl that she's pretty? On a day when you've got indigestion would you tell people who ask you how you feel that you're just fine, thank you? Would you thank your hostess for a great dinner when the food was what gave you that indigestion? The same uncomfortable choice-but this time with profound implications-right now faces Christians with reference to their support of the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) presently before Congress. To back the bill forces many people to set aside important principles to which they are conscientiously committed. Yet not to back the bill means some Americans will pay an incredibly high price for the personal exercise of their own faith. It is late in the game-perhaps too late for most of us to make a difference in the bill's outcome. But I think we ought to support it, and support it vigorously. WORLD has reported to you in detail the disagreements among significant Christian leaders on both sides of this debate. We've done that now in three separate issues of the magazine (June 20, June 27, and July 4/11), in a manner we trust has given you a good handle on the basic issues from both points of view. But WORLD, as a non-profit organization, doesn't do much lobbying for specific legislation. And because WORLD's board of directors hasn't taken a position on this issue, readers should be careful to note that this is only my individual inclination-and not an official endorsement from WORLD. Still, here are two illustrations from personal experience:
The first occurred 38 years ago as I was driving through a residential neighborhood in Levittown, Pa. Noticing a billow of smoke coming from a house (there was no chimney!), I stopped to investigate and found the home on fire. The doors were locked, so I rushed to the next house, where the neighbor lady agreed to call the fire department, but urged me to hurry back: "Check the bedrooms; sometimes she takes her husband to work about now, and leaves their little boy sleeping." So I ignored the locked doors, along with normal rules about personal property. I heaved a big garbage can through the picture window, crawled in, and checked the rooms. Clearly, my pragmatism overwhelmed my principle. Much more recently, we pro-lifers have faced a similar dilemma. Should we back laws that would protect the lives of only some unborn babies, thereby implying there is a difference between early-term and late-term abortions? Good friends of mine have argued that no, the trade-off is not worth it; we should not back any legislation that fails to affirm the sanctity of life from conception on-for such support might someday come back to haunt us. Yet from the earliest days of this column in WORLD, I have rejected such reasoning. I have always argued that even an inferior legislative bill, if it saves a few babies' lives, is better than no bill. We can always work next year on a better bill; that's the nature of politics. There is, as I stressed in this column last week, a context for working out truth; there is another context for applying truth. In working out truth, we should normally resist falling into the trap of pragmatism. But in applying truth, we should almost expect we will have to act pragmatically. And we should always stay sharp in spelling out the difference. I disagree with RLPA backer Charles Colson when he and his colleagues downplay the significance of the disagreement among evangelicals on this issue. And I agree with Michael Farris and other opponents of the bill that RLPA's constitutional footing is faulty. Yet that footing, however slippery it may seem, is the only likely basis for any such act-right now. So we take what we can get. Next year could be different. Mr. Farris overstated the case when he argued in WORLD, "If RLPA is enacted, Christians and other people of faith will not be able to seek legal protection for their worship [on the basis that] God commands it." Says who? We are free to make that very argument even now, and we can make it again next year. Nothing prohibits continued refinement of the debate. The U.S. Constitution itself is a pragmatic compromise. It fails to go as far as principled biblical Christians might wish it would go in spelling out God's role in human governance. Yet the Constitution probably presses those issues as far as they might be expected to be pressed in a modern government. We live with the results. So the question really is: Where do we draw the lines for our pragmatism? Having heard this vigorous debate, I think Christians should line up and be counted on the side of RLPA. Sometimes I'm a slow learner; I hope I wasn't overly slow on this particular issue.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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