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The Quest for a Christian America

Investing our hope in the symbols and practices of our faith is a good thing. Healing and transformation can and do follow their proper use. But they cannot be forced into service.

They are not the only ones. President Bush recently issued an executive order clearing the way for his “faith-based initiatives” to take life. With this order President Bush makes federal money available for use by religious organizations. The president believes that bringing faith and tax dollars together can heal many of our nation’s social ills.              <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
There is more. With a Republican majority in place in both houses of Congress, President Bush will have little trouble getting the judges he wants. In fact, several judicial nominations passed over by last year’s Congress have already been re-submitted by the president. Two of these judges in particular are opposed to the present application of the law in church-state issues.           
It is also likely that President Bush will have an opportunity to nominate one or two Supreme Court justices. Since many of the most recent church-state cases have been decided by a narrow 5-4 margin, one or two justices could easily shift the balance of power and reverse 50 years of judicial opinion on the church-state issue.             
Many in the Christian community applaud these efforts. They will stand and cheer if the wall of separation comes down. Believers in this group are convinced that the current stance toward separation is an impediment to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />America achieving its destiny as a Christian nation.  
In the not-so-distant past, evangelicals led by the likes of Dwight Moody and Billy Graham believed the best way to make America a Christian nation was by means of persuasive preaching and personal witnessing. They believed that if the church was faithful to its mission, a “great awakening” would eventually sweep the nation like a mighty rushing wind, transforming people and institutions as it blew. 
But it now appears that approach has been abandoned. Forget persuasion and conversion. The strategy now calls for evangelicals to truck their faith into American culture by means of a political takeover of the institutions of government. Christianity will be enacted not by a choice of the heart, but by the force of law. 
Of course, this has all been tried before. John Calvin tried to institute Christianity as civil government in Geneva, Switzerland in the 16th century. What he and his followers discovered is that while it is possible to control by force what people do and say, it is not possible to force belief. The 20th-century secular religion of Marxism found out the same thing. 
Investing our hope in the symbols and practices of our faith is a good thing. Healing and transformation can and do follow their proper use. But they cannot be forced into service. We cannot expect the power of God to work simply because we pass a law, build a monument or say a prayer. It’s not that simple.   
The effort to enact faith by means of law is an example of what the New Testament describes as “holding to the outward form of godliness, but denying its power.” The power of our faith to heal and transform only happens when people are able to embrace it freely, without coercion. It does not work any other way.     
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.