Voices > Soul Food

How much is enough?

All the talk of public religion threatens to trivialize God

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

The premillennial year is already one for the books: a presidential impeachment trial, war in the Balkans, carnage in the schools, and Chinese espionage-and it's only half over. Doubt and anxiety have jolted the nation into a revival mode, or so it might seem. Why else would Al Gore suddenly begin speaking out on the value of religion to society and its importance in his personal life? Why is one of his staffers vowing to "take God back from the Republican Party in the year 2000?"

The notion of "taking back" reminds me of my favorite P.E. game in elementary school, "Capture the Flag." There were few rules and the object was simple: to secure the other team's token and carry it to safety on your own turf. The game was perfect for unskilled team-fodder like me-noisy, confused, exciting. It allowed those of us who weren't athletically gifted to run around purposefully and yell when our team scored.

The coming presidential campaign stands to become an especially rowdy and confusing game of Capture the Flag, with the flag representing some idea of traditional religion. Or worse: some idea of God. Liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats can play on a wide-open field, and teams are forming already. Some have been waving this flag for years; others are new to the game. Radio talk-show hosts fulminate regularly on how "America needs more God." Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) urges his fellow congressmen to "allow God back into the classroom." Newsweek reports on God as the "hottest idea in crime fighting." Conservative columnist Don Feder proposes religion as "God for what ails you." Nobody has to know much about the rules or develop any particular skills, and sincerity is nice but optional. All that's required is to move and make noise and try to be in the right place at the right time.

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But it's still just a game. Any effects on society will be skin-deep and short-term, unless the Sovereign Lord Himself decrees otherwise. I do not doubt the sincere motives of many of these people, and there's no question that a society based on God's law will be much more peaceful, stable, and just than a society based on self-indulgence. Christians are to love and base their lives on God's law, and prepare themselves to give an answer to anyone who asks for the hope that is within them. Most Christians influence their own homes, offices, and neighborhoods; others are called to serve in public office and affect public policy in godly ways. Wherever they are, Christians are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. That is precisely why they should be very careful how they speak and think about God.

It's an insult, if not blasphemy, to talk of "allowing" God back into the classroom, as though He had been waiting anxiously outside the door. Or of "taking Him back" from the Republican Party, which has no hammerlock on the Lord of the universe. It's equally misleading to speak of God as a quantity we need more of (for how much is enough?) or the ideal remedy for society's ills (do we put Him away when we're cured?).

All these statements make a dangerous presumption: that God is there to make our lives better, to give us stability and purpose, to bind up our wounds. There's enough truth in the assumption to seduce the unwary, for God will indeed heal wounds and infuse glorious purpose into the lives of His people. But that is ultimately for His glory, not ours. We are here for Him, and not the other way around.

The Christian mandate is not to leaven society by getting God into it-God will leaven society by us, to whatever degree He chooses. While praying earnestly for revival, living just and humble lives, and shining where He places us, we know that what happens is His will, no matter how unfathomable. Never, never should we fall to the temptation of seizing Him as a token, or waving Him like a flag.

Habakkuk gives a clue to our attitude: that thundering, outraged prophet, who nonetheless knew his position before the Almighty when all was said and done: "Though the fig tree does not bud and there no grapes on the vine ... yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior" (Habakkuk 3:17-18). The earth belongs to Him, in drought and harvest, and so do we.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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