ARLINGTON, Va. - John C. Danforth, a former U.S. senator and ambassador to the United Nations, has performed a valuable service between elections by writing about a Christian's role in contemporary American society.
In an op-ed for The New York Times on Friday, Mr. Danforth, an ordained minister, observed: "Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God's truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action."
He writes that the "only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves." One can quibble over where Mr. Danforth's "absolutist" position may lead politically (and I do, given the position of religious moderates and liberals when it comes to a host of other issues in which they are engaged - from anti-war activism and the environment to civil rights and same-sex "marriage"). But his central thesis is correct: Christians are limited in what government can do for them and for an earthly agenda.
That does not mean government can't do some things. It simply means government cannot advance a moral and spiritual agenda, because it is the church, not the state, that is commissioned to preach and observe God's message.
The pollster George Barna, who regularly checks the spiritual temperature of the Christian church, has chronicled important facts conservative Christians should consider before demanding government act to repair the "moral slide."
Mr. Barna has noted that as many conservative Christians are divorcing as those who are of different religious persuasions, or of no religion, and as many of the children of conservative Christians are having sex as non-Christian children.
But the ordained and self-appointed conservative Christian leaders do not seem to preach as much to their own about these shortcomings as they do to the rest of the country about theirs. Wouldn't these conservative Christians have greater moral power if they put their own houses in order before trying to cure the disorder in other houses?
Mr. Danforth seems to flirt with universalism when he says that he and his fellow religious moderates believe "religion should be inclusive." Not exactly. Different religions make competing claims, and the Christian faith separates "sheep from goats," the saved from the lost and heaven from hell. Jesus said he came to bring a sword. A sword divides. The primary objective for the Christian should be to seek and to point others toward Jesus, not to political parties and agendas.
The social ills confronting us have not produced our collective indifference to a moral code. They reflect that indifference. Fixing social ills does not begin in the halls of Congress or in the Supreme Court, but in individual human hearts.
Government can't go there. God can. But if God's servants prefer government to God, or seek to attach God to political parties and earthly agendas, they are doomed to futility.
Mr. Danforth notes that Jesus sat with "tax collectors and sinners" and sees these acts as part of Jesus' "tolerance" and inclusiveness. But his purpose was not to justify their often-corrupt tax collecting practices and other sins. It was to lead them to repentance and faith in himself. He told the woman taken in adultery that while he did not condemn her, she was to "go and sin no more." To a moderate, I guess that was intolerant.
These concerns were never raised when religious moderates and liberals had the public square to themselves. They're upset because they have been marginalized. Still, Mr. Danforth is right about where true power to change people comes from, and it isn't from the state.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.