Should an evangelical church encourage its parishioners to attend a class on "constitutional government and the promotion of freedom”?
My church has, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Right-wing politics oozes out of the assumption that studying one of our country's core documents is something churchgoers need to do.
Constitution of the Church?
Not that I'm against all right-wing politics. Shucks, some of my best friends attend church and are right-wingers. My church, Park Cities Presbyterian, boasts a highly-visible location bordering one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in one of the most conservative areas of Texas. While you don’t have to be a Republican to be a member of Park Cities Prez, a lot of church members think the two are synonymous.
True, conservative politics constantly lap at the shores of evangelical Christianity, but they virtually pound the beachheads at Park Cities Prez. In fact, I’m almost surprised somebody at my church thinks anybody's left in the pews who even needs to attend a class on the US Constitution!
Nevertheless, my church has seen fit to advertise a “Making of America” seminar by the National Center for Constitutional Studies.
All things considered, a seminar on the Constitution of the United States doesn’t rate among the worst things churchgoers could attend. Indeed, no matter the country they live in, people of faith have an obligation to be as active in civic life as they possibly can be. This means Americans, with our rich legacy of freedoms and living standards, actually risk being disobedient when we shirk opportunities to vote, run for office, and educate ourselves on issues in a non-partisan way.
Should Church-Goers Be Non-Partisan About the Constitution?
But it’s that non-partisan thing that’s throwing me on this seminar. The group sponsoring it, the National Center for Constitutional Studies, claims to be unaffiliated with any political party. However, its website’s homepage features an endorsement by right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck, who is not known for his bipartisan opinions. Among the books they sell on their site is “America’s God and Country” which features quotes equating references to Christian themes as salvific proofs. You already know what I think about the incessant need some conservative pundits have for practically cannonizing our Founding Fathers.
If the NCCS can conduct an impartial, balanced, and historically accurate seminar on the Constitution, I certainly can’t oppose it. But I still don’t think an evangelical American church has any business promoting such a class. That is not the purpose of Christ's body, neither does it glorify His divine sovereignty. Of all the wonderful things the Constitution is, it is neither doctrinal nor infallible. God did not author it. Granted, Presbyterians place great stock in the Westminster Confession and other creeds - documents written without divine inspiration - but at least our Reformed creeds and confessions employ proof texts from the Bible to qualify their theology.
Knowing what I know about Glenn Beck, too, doesn’t convince me that he would endorse an organization that doesn’t put a conservative political spin on something as important as the Constitution. Glenn Beck says many things I actually agree with, but he also pontificates a lot on issues he perceives through the narrow lens of WASP traditionalism. Pluralism isn't necessarily good, but neither is conventional neo-conservative ideology. Many Republicans today find considerable solace in what they believe to be the original intentions of America's early leaders, but what is the extent to which we replace our trust in the sovereign God of the universe with an idealized version of our country's past?
Liberals Aren't Uneducated, but Other-Opinioned
Not that left-wingers have a better grasp on our Founding Fathers’ intentions for the Constitution than conservatives. I believe Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and the rest were flawed people with some good ideas and some really bad ones. But liberals want to be just as impertinent about core tenants of our history as conservatives are, only with different motives.
Indeed, this is the basic problem with our country’s growing debate over government and law. Even a well-meaning seminar on constitutional history can be subject to significant interpretation based on the instructor's political preferences. Conservatives such as the NCCS insinuate the reason our government faces a pending constitutional crisis is because their opponents don’t know our Constitution. But that’s not the problem, is it? Liberals aren't as ignorant of the Constitution as they are opposite of the interpretation conservatives espouse.
Having an electorate which is educated on what the Constitution says and doesn’t say could itself become a tug-of-war between conservatives and liberals, each of which thinks their interpretation is right and the other’s wrong. In this vein, I’m not sure how the NCCS can help, since by all appearances, they are at least right of center, if not veering far right. Objectivity has become a commodity in scarce supply these days, which while not negating the value in studying the Constitution, certainly redefines it.
A Global Perspective
Which brings us back to my original question. My church isn’t the only one promoting NCCS and studies of the Constitution. But should churches be doing that at all? How much is too much when it comes to churches getting involved in the political life of our country?
What about our global perspective as people of faith? After all, the Kingdom of God is far greater than the United States. While we have fundamental problems in our country, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world would still love to trade places with us. Do communities of faith get too bogged-down in non-essentials when politics gets interwoven with doctrine?
If believers individually wish to attend events like a seminar on the Constitution, that's one thing. However, I don’t think churches should officially endorse them. The Gospel we’re supposed to be proclaiming is greater than our country and its Constitution. After all, Biblical freedom isn't so much about political freedom as it is freedom in Christ. Yes, a fine line does exist between teaching Christ’s expectations of His followers as national citizens and advocating particular political preferences. But isn't it a line we cross at our own risk?
The problems we have in the United States don't stem from a misunderstanding or misapplication of the Constitution; they stem from sin, don’t they? Presidents, judges, and legislatures who appear to be re-drawing the boundaries of our government’s three branches do so because of greed and lust for power. Friction between states and the Federal government take place because somebody wants what somebody else has. National borders aren’t protected because people bristle at laws. Take any negative headline from today’s newspaper and prove the root of the story doesn’t come from sin.
That doesn’t mean people of faith shouldn’t work for justice and peace, particularly here in America, where we have so many opportunities to do so. Learning more about our Constitution can be a good way of doing that, but applying what we know to be true from God’s Word is an even better way. Putting our faith into practice may involve learning about crucial documents related to our country's history, but more importantly, it means exercising the Fruits of the Spirit:
Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Gentleness. Goodness. Meekness. Self-control.
How people interpret the Constitution helps explain our current national dialogue. How we demonstrate Christlikeness to people who interpret the Constitution differently than us would make a better seminar.
After all, God is our refuge, not George Washington.