Impose virtue? The attempt will & should fail

Editor: Bill Watson, a theocrat? Not hardly. But he recalls being charged as such, in the context of reflections upon how Christian citizens in America should balance their aspirations to liberty and virtue, a topic explored by Kevin Miller at CCU on 8/28 (marginally favoring liberty) and by Greg Schaller on this blog 8/30 (marginally favoring virtue). Here’s the Watson piece:

To what degree can we force virtue on those who care not for God’s virtue?

Two years ago while debating at Oxford the renowned atheist Peter Atkins (who was interviewed in Ben Stein’s movie Expelled) I was accused of trying to institute a theocracy, for advocating that not just Darwinism but also its shortcomings be taught in schools. I assured those present that the West had little chance of sliding into a theocracy. We are rooted too deeply in freedom.

Victor Davis Hanson explained what made Classical Greece different from the Persian Empire: “the West, ancient and modern, placed far fewer religious, cultural, and political impediments to natural inquiry, capital formation, and individual expression than did other societies, which often were theocracies, centralized palatial dynasties, or tribal unions.” [Carnage and Culture, p.19]

Modern Persia, now known as Iran, is still mired in oppression and slavery as it was 25 centuries ago. According to Martin Kramer, “most young Iranians are fed up with creaky mullah double-talk” and see the greatest “threat to their freedom” as “their own unelected class of clerical overlords, driven by a will to total power.” (on his blog Sandbox 6/22/09) Roger Cohen suggests that modern Iranians were “prepared to tolerate a system they disliked, provided they had a small margin of freedom” but “are now muttering about making Molotov cocktails.” [“Life & Death in Teheran”, New York Times, 6/22/09]

According to Elam (a Christian ministry to Iran), “Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranians have become increasingly disillusioned with Islam. The political, economic, and spiritual situation in Iran has resulted in a deep spiritual hunger for truth. Iran may be a closed land, but the people have open hearts. Iranians today are seen as the most open Muslim people to the Gospel in the world. More have become Christians since the revolution than the previous 1,300 years put together. In 1979, there were less than 500 known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. Today the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 100,000 believers in the nation. Church leaders believe that millions can be added to the church in the next few years-such is the spiritual hunger that exists and the disillusionment with the Islamic regime. If we remain faithful to our calling, our conviction is that it is possible to see the nation transformed within our lifetime. Because Iran is a strategic gateway nation, the growing church in Iran will impact Muslim nations across the Islamic world.” [www.elam.com]

If Christians in the West were even able to impose their morality, the result would be a rejection of Christianity similar to what is happening now in Iran. Having shared my faith often with Muslims, I have discovered what attracts them most to Jesus Christ—hearing about his love and grace. They are fascinated when reading of the exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees, whom they equate with the repressive religious legalism under which they suffer.

We should present the gospel, rather than enforce morality. If people become Christians, then the Holy Spirit indwells them. God can work then on the inside more effectively than any force we exert on the outside. Salt and Light are only implicit statements of fact (“You are the light of the world… You are the salt of the earth…”), but the Great Commission is an explicit command for action (“Go and make disciples of all nations…”). God’s top priority is evangelical outreach, not morality control. Unlike Islam, in Christianity God wants our hearts, not our submission. We should reprove those within the Christian community, but there is no mandate to impose morality upon the world.

As Kevin Miller cited in his presentation at CCU, Jerry Falwell once warned about being too involved in politics. “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners. … Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals. The gospel does not clean up the outside but rather regenerates the inside.” Unfortunately, he later got caught up rearranging chairs on the Titanic, when he should have been getting people into the lifeboats.

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