Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Daniel Vestal on Religion & Politics

In an op-ed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,[Hat tip: Melissa Rogers] Daniel Vestal, a former pastor and currently Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the larger of the two break-away denominations from the Southern Baptist Convention; I belong to the smaller, more “liberal” of the two break-away groups, the Alliance of Baptists) used the occasion of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death (Vestal called it the “homegoing” of a brother in Christ) to give a brief outline of a “third way” in U.S. society between rampant secularism and hedonistic individualism, and the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right that Falwell represented.  In part, Vestal said:

It seems that we are caught between two horns of a cultural dilemma:

On the one hand is the pervasiveness of a secularist, materialistic and hedonistic society. On the other hand are highly offended people of faith who would seek to impose narrow and strict interpretations of faith on everyone.

I deplore the loss of respect for human life, the decline of private and public morality, the diminishing of personal responsibility and the general permissiveness in our society. On the other hand, I am not comfortable with those who equate Christian faith with only one political perspective, seem blind to racial and economic injustices and allow little room for dissent and disagreement. I also am grieved by the growing polarization in our society, divisive rhetoric and a general “mean- spiritedness” in civil conversation.

Perhaps many of us are seeking a third way, a radical way. We desire to hold our Christian faith close to our hearts, but we also desire to have genuine friendship and dialogue with people of other faiths to build a human community. We desire to be involved in political decision making from our faith perspective, but we don’t believe that any one party has a corner on the truth. We do believe that the story and truth of Scripture come from God, but we want to preserve the freedom of conscience that allows for different interpretations.

In contrast to seeking a “moral majority,” which seems to have the connotation of partisan power, it seems that as followers of Christ we should seek to be bold witnesses, humble servants, compassionate ministers in our society. Of course this will mean engagement in the political process and public advocacy as well as prayer and worship, but not in a way that so clearly identifies the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ with partisan politics.

Given a larger forum than a newspaper op-ed, much more could be said and doubtless should. But in this brief space, Daniel Vestal, with whom I have not always agreed, speaks my mind. The gospel is not merely private; it has public dimensions which are inevitably political.  But it should never be politicized in any partisan sense–as if Christians could only belong to one political party or as if there could be religious tests for public office.  The institutions of church and state must be separate–precisely so that the church is free to offer a prophetic word to the state or other Powers.  Democratic societies are sought not because the gospel is to prop up democracy, nor because the church cannot live in many different forms of government (it can and has), but because democracy is a relative, limited, penultimate good. We seek a pluralistic society where all faiths and persons without faith are equal citizens as relative goods this side of the Rule of God–these things lead to the peace of the earthly polis–itself a good thing.  We do not seek a “Christian nation” (a major theological error–the redeemed citizens of the Rule of God come out from among all nations, tongues, cultures) but a relatively just and peaceful and sustainable society as we bear witness to the greater justice, peace, and perfect sustainability of the New/Renewed Heavens and Earth.


May 18, 2007 - Posted by | Baptists, church-state separation, citizenship, U.S. politics


  1. Very well said.

    Comment by Thom Stark | May 18, 2007

  2. I agree with this in many ways, but I disagree with one element that is at the heart of the argument. It seems to me that you and the Mr. Vestal have fallen into the trap that a 3rd option is needed because the current option on the left is as you describe it “rampant secularism and hedonistic individualism”. That is NOT an accurate characterization of the current choice of liberalism.

    There is already a strong party and set of political ideals that supports your views. Liberalism is NOT hedonistic individualism and secularism is not a monster. I challenge you to name one democratic candidate for office that would advocate the moral decay of our society. The images at either end are straw men but I really find it sad that Christians can’t seem to call themselves “liberal”. We have let bad images, words, and completely fabricated characterization of ideals cause polarization where it is not needed.

    I know you realize this yourself and I know you have no problem with the label of liberal, but isn’t that languaging playing into the stereotype and helping sustain the problem? Do you agree that the word “secular” is a great word when it comes to government and “liberal” is a great word for those that champion the justice promised by Christ?

    Comment by Progression of Faith | May 18, 2007

  3. Prog. of Faith,
    You have obviously not read my blog very often. I am a registered Democrat–have been since I was 18 (longer ago than I want to remember). Further, I used to call myself a political liberal and still do, sometimes. I prefer the term, Progressive, because “liberal” is often used interchangeably with “libertine” and because social liberals sometimes aren’t concerned with economic justice, but progressives always are. Plus, I identify strongly with the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th C.
    Should governments be secular? In the sense of not endorsing any particular religion (or religion in general), sure. But I would hate for U.S. government to become hostile to religion the way France sometimes is–like forbidding Muslim headscarves in public schools. Government should be secular, society need not be. Is “liberal” a great word for championing Christian justice? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not the word I would choose.
    But while “secular” need not be negative, secularism, which is a philosophy that deliberately discounts faith or privatizes (“tames”) it, is a real threat. It is not espoused by any particular U.S. political party (certainly not the Democratic Party!), but it is a force that moves through many segments of our society. Fundamentalism is often a reaction to it. And hedonism and individualism are very much in conjunction with it.
    I don’t know of any presidential (or other) candidate that espouses that. Never said I did. I know of politicians and candidates from many parties (including conservative ones) whose actions show that they are more caught up in such hedonistic individualism than they officially espouse.
    But you seem to think that Christians who are concerned about justice and peace should endorse Democratic candidates for office. No thanks. I plan on voting for one of them. I may even campaign for one. But as an individual, not as a representative of the gospel. Nor do I have any interest in demonizing Republicans as non-Christians–a reverse “moral majority” tactic. I won’t play that game, thanks.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 18, 2007

  4. I just wondered why the words “secularism and hedonistic individualism” was used to characterize the opposite of the religious right. That didn’t make since coming from someone that I felt was a liberal/progressive.

    I really liked your comparison of liberal and progressive. It echos my own feelings and reasoning for also using the term progressive.

    Comment by Progression of Faith | May 18, 2007

  5. I am surprised to see someone who is not part of the right acknowledge that secularism isn’t quite working, unless materialism and hedonism are the goal.

    As a side note, my history books on the Renaissance make some notes about the extent of hedonism in Rome at the time leading up to the Reformation. It seems that the hedonism in this 15th century theocracy was as bad as the hedonism we have today. Materialism was also a major factor and had corrupted the church in a way that formed the motivation for Luther’s 95 theses.

    My main gripe remains that it is impossible to teach a new generation about the evils of hedonism and materialism when secularist institutions monopolize the time and resources dedicated to the young. Dysfunctional families (whether rich or poor) aren’t going to teach values either, so our downwards spiral is inevitable. A third way is desperately needed.

    Comment by Looney | May 18, 2007

  6. Progression of Faith,

    You wrote: “I challenge you to name one democratic candidate for office that would advocate the moral decay of our society.”

    Hillary Clinton. It’s not that she “desires” — her policies would still cause that — or quicken the descent. “The road to hell” … good intentions and all that. I actually believe many (I’m not sure of most) sinbcerely think they help society and desire a “good” society in some Aristotelian sense. There is no “A” for good intentions., however.

    I believe, sincerely and without hate, that Hillary’s support for basically unrestricted abortion (see her blistering dissent from the Court’s partial-birth abortion case — she says it should be rare, but if you can’t express dismay at infanticide then her words are fig leaves). I also sincerely believe Universal Health care to be a bad idea — not evil — just wrong-headed. British NHS is a disaster — fiscally and otherwise. Everyone gets the same bad care.

    Also the “progressive” name is worse than Liberal I believe. it assumes — mistakenly that humankind is getting better, when that is obviously not the case. Read Rummel’s “Death by Government”. Centralized government — and this is a debate for a whole ‘nother day! 🙂 — has killed 100s of millions — right and left. Anything increasing the size of gov’t and faceless Kafkaesque bureaucracy is bad in my mind.

    Your brother (though disagreeing on things we won’t even think about some Day) in Christ,


    Comment by Troy | July 2, 2007

  7. Sorry for the smiley-face… It appears at odds with the book title, but I don’t believe politics is bloodsport so I usually debate with a smile or one at hand anyway!

    Comment by Troy | July 2, 2007

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: