Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, and Jim Wallis represent three widely divergent views concerning the Christian as citizen. Each interacted at length with Christianity Today Institute participants, clarifying their views through a question/answer session. This post is adapted from an article originally published in Christianity Today on April 19, 1985.
A view from the evangelical center
Charles Colson, Chairman of the Board, Prison Fellowship Ministries
How would you respond to those who say an elected official’s faith is a private matter and should not be implemented in his public life?
This is the view advanced by Gov. Mario Cuomo and others. If they mean that we can’t impose what we may think is God’s will upon a pluralistic society, I would agree. But Cuomo went beyond that. He argued that he was under no obligation to help create a consensus toward moral positions in the society. If as Christians we privately believe something but it has no effect on our actions, we have a dreadful denial of the lordship of Christ.
Are you then more attracted to some of the organized Christian political movements?
The danger with Christian political movements per se is that they tend to make the gospel hostage to a particular political agenda. You may wrap the cross in the flag and make God a prop for the state. This is a grave danger.
How can the Christian community determine the public issues worthy of their energies at any point?
I think if you start reading the Bible you will see that there is a whole agenda that God has laid before us on the makeup of a righteous society. Obviously the abortion issue has to be at the top of everyone’s list because we are dealing with human life, and the sanctity of life is such a fundamental biblical principle.
Perhaps a threshold question would be laws that in any way restrain or interfere with the proclamation of the gospel, and I mean not merely its verbal proclamation. The Soviet Union in 1928 made worship officially legal, but they abolished the church’s role in help to the poor, church schools, aid to the needy, and other social functions. “Go ahead and worship, sing your hymns—that’s fine. But if you start helping people, you’re invading the priorities of a sovereign state.”
A view from fundamentalism
Jerry Falwell, President, Moral Majority
You are widely perceived to be intent on installing a theocracy, similar to the Puritan colonies in Massachusetts. How do you deal with that?
I don’t think anybody who believes his Bible would want a theocracy or believes there is going to be one until Christ returns. I think that, because the national media has intentionally painted this picture, the general public looks on Bible-believing Christians as people who want to do what the ayatollah has done in Iran.
I personally could vote for a Jew for president or any other political office, or a Roman Catholic or Protestant as quickly as I could a fundamentalist as long as the person was competent to fill that office, was committed to the principles and values that I believe in, and had a track record of personal behavior and conduct that was becoming to that office.
Do you expect an issue such as abortion to be solved on the legislative or the judicial level? Or should it be addressed in the culture?
I think we have a lot to do before we can turn to the justices in the courts and say, “Change the law.”
Twenty-five years ago Bishop Fulton Sheen said the church has no right to tell a teenage girl who is pregnant out of wedlock, “You cannot have an abortion,” unless, when she asks, “Who is going to take care of me?” the church is willing to say, “We will.”
This is why in the past three years we have started 191 Save a Baby Centers nationally. We plan to start a thousand in the next five years. We’ve worked with 11,000 pregnant girls in the past 35 months, and not one has had an abortion after the first counseling session, and not one has left us without accepting Christ as Savior.
I think in this decade we will have some kind of court ruling on the abortion issue, even if it will never be as absolute as it once was. But when that happens and convenience abortions are history, we’ve got to have in place a structure to handle the 1.4 million girls who are pregnant without any money so they will have an alternative to the back alley abortionist.
The literature of Moral Majority does not present that emphasis.
Moral Majority is a political organization that is involved in one thing only—political change. While we continue that emphasis, we in the churches have got to be consistent in our ministry and go after the creation of the structure I’ve just described. If we do, I think we will succeed on both sides.
A view from the evangelical left
Jim Wallis, Editor, Sojourners
Although you are not formally in politics, you are mainly known for your political positions. How do you unite your biblical and your political interests?
At the heart of everything else, I’m a pastor in a local congregation in Washington, D.C. The gospel has a personal and a public meaning. And we’re trying to understand what that meaning is both on a personal level in our own lives and on the public level.
How does the Bible inform the public side of your Christian mission?
If we want to be biblical, our views and politics should be profoundly shaped by the priority of the poor. In my seminary days, we made a study of the Bible to find everything it said about the poor. We went through the entire Bible to find every passage about poor people. We found the Bible literally filled with the subject, second only to idolatry.
One of us took scissors and cut out of a Bible every reference to poor people, love for enemies, and reconciliation. It took him a long time to do it, and when he was done, the Bible that he was using was falling apart. I used to take that old Bible out with me to preach. I used to hold it high in the air and say to congregations of Christian people, “Brothers and sisters, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out, all we have ignored. Our Bible is full of holes.”
How would you answer those who say you impose your political ideology on the Bible just as Jerry Falwell imposes conservative politics?
It is dangerous to go to the Bible with any ideological framework. I don’t believe that any ideological system or perspective can be justified from the Bible. I think the priority of the poor in the Bible is as clear as anything there, but that it does not prescribe specific solutions.
Those who believe in a liberal welfare state, for example (which I don’t), or a Marxist reordering of things, or the laissez-faire capitalist system have difficulty deriving any justification from the Bible. But the priority of the poor is clear. And that raises a question about our response to the poor in concrete ways.
This post is adapted from Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelism edited by Timothy Padgett (Lexham Press, 2020).