Villem Visser t’ Hooft, a Dutch theologian, was Secretary General of the United Nations from its 1948 inception until his retirement in 1966. (The Free World wasn’t afraid of Christians in those days.) During the 30s and throughout the Second World War he was a careful observer of what was happening in Germany, conferring often with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others who kept him informed.
In March of 1941, in an essay entitled “Notes on the State of the Church in Europe,” he made many comments about the relation between the Nazis, the official “German Christian” Church (which was Nazi dominated), and the much weaker resistant church, known as the Confessing Church.
He noted the great number of Nazi directives over the past eight years aimed at limiting the work of the churches in Germany and commented, “The purpose is clear. It is to make the Church into an innocuous sect which is imprisoned in its church building and cannot exert any influence in public life.”
We look back in horror, of course, at the way the Nazis treated the church (and all the rest of Germany) but perhaps we ought to read Visser ‘t Hooft’s comment again, this time thinking of the United States. There is a rapidly increasing pressure on Christians in America to stay out of politics and even political discussions. The old Enlightenment idea of “non-overlapping magisteria,” made popular again in our day by biologist Stephan Jay, held that the church and the secular world have different and totally separated realms of concern and therefore ought not to interfere in one another’s business.
As that idea came to be expressed in the early days of our nation (which were concurrent with the peak of the Enlightenment in much of Europe), we seemed to favor the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.” You won’t need more than the fingers of one hand to count the number of times that phrase was used in the New World in the 18th and 19th century. There was an understanding that America, while officially neutral toward religion, was in fact quite thoroughly saturated with a fundamental Christian mindset. This was so true that in 1892 the U.S. Supreme Court even said that there is no denying we are a Christian nation.
Yet today we hear and read over and over again that Christians are not supposed to be “imposing religion” on America. Can we argue that abortion should be illegal except in the most extreme of cases? We are told to stop imposing religious views on the U.S.This is a profoundly dishonest response, just a cover for telling us to shut up when we hold unpopular views. A view cannot be relegated to “religion” just because Christians believe it.
What is happening in America, without the coercion of anyone as evil as Hitler, is that Christians are being pushed into being “an innocuous sect which is imprisoned in its church building and cannot exert any influence in public life.” We are being told that we are second-class citizens with no right to take part in the public forum unless we hide our faith. It is a long and totally inexcusable leap from saying the United States cannot formally favor religion to saying people of faith have fewer rights than others.
Clearly evil can grow in a society even without an evil leader.
I must add a footnote, an idea which I express very often in these pages: I believe that one of the reasons our society is turning against us is that so many Christians make loud fools of themselves, thinking that shouting one’s ignorance will make it sound more reasonable. Much of the reason the church is losing influence is that we have so often shown more condemnation than grace, more parroting of cliches than thoughtful observations about life, and more elitism than love.