Posted on September 12th, by Doug Ponder in Culture. No Comments


Written by on September 12, 2013

When Private Is Impossible

The spirit of the times always changes with time, meaning the battles of previous generations are not the same issues facing us today. And while you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, you might not a firm shelter if you plan to withstand them. The latest winds from Zeitgeist Bay are fixed on the silly notion that your faith is OK, as long as it remains private. That is, you’re free to believe what you want to believe so long as you keep those beliefs to yourself and you don’t let them affect how you think, vote, or live.

Good luck with that.

Here’s the truth that is so obvious it pains us to say it: you can’t help letting your beliefs affect what you do. No one can. Everyone thinks, speaks, and acts the way they do because of what they believe (or don’t believe). This is unavoidably the case for all persons in all places and times, regardless of what they believe.

This is even true when our beliefs are wrong. My grandfather sincerely believed that going outdoors with wet hair would give you pneumonia. Not “increase your chances for pneumonia,” but actually cause you to contract pneumonia. It was a 2 + 2 = 4 kind of certainty. Wet hair + outdoors = pneumonia. Because of this belief, he never went outside with wet hair (and he wouldn’t let us do it either).

The Naked Public Square

Since it’s clearly impossible for beliefs not to affect actions, then why do people insist on saying that your faith should be private?

Some say this because they believe in the fictitious concept of ideological neutrality. This fanciful notion goes by many names, but the most common is secularism.

Secularists think that by keeping “religion” out of places like schools, courthouses, public office, etc., they will create a neutral, all-inclusive society for everyone. What they fail to realize, with unbelievable inconsistency, is that the belief that beliefs should not affect public life is itself a belief. Not only that, the “absence of belief” is not really the absence of all beliefs; it is just the absence of a particular belief. For example, an atheist politician will vote the way they vote because of their beliefs—there’s no God, so there’s no fixed morality, so laws are but a reflection of the people’s will, so we can change laws to make them whatever we want, etc.

Yet there are others who say we must keep our beliefs to ourselves not because they think the idea of secularism isn’t a belief (they are too smart to say such things), but because they don’t like what you believe. They are convinced you are wrong, but instead of dialogue they silence discussion with their insistence on maintaining a “religion free” zone. What they accomplish is keeping one set of beliefs out of the public square, while injecting a different set of beliefs into the same place. They don’t mind, of course, because these are their beliefs, and they like them.

Moving the Discussion Forward

The basic principle of secularism is little more than the resolute belief that “religion” (whatever they mean by that) must not be allowed into any arena of public life. By so doing, they become the narrow-minded bigots that they so loudly warn against. “Watch out for those dogmatic religious people,” they say. “They’re not content to keep their faith to themselves, always trying to push it on others.” Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle.

The main difference between Christianity and secularism is this: at least Christians are honest about our bias. We openly acknowledge that our faith can’t be kept private. We believe that Jesus is Lord, and not just in our hearts.

But we believe the same things about secularism, too. It can’t be a purely private matter, affecting nothing but how you feel about certain matters. Beliefs always affect what we do.

Since everyone’s beliefs affect what they do, unavoidably so, then the conversation must move away from whether or not belief should be allowed into aspects of public life, shifting instead to discussion about which beliefs should govern the way we live. That conversation is a long one (much too long for this post), but it can’t happen until all sides drop the delusional notion of neutrality.

Christians begin with the idea that Jesus is Lord, which we believe radically reshapes social structures and impresses upon us a sense of true justice. For this is the same Jesus who healed the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the poor, and died to spare his enemies from the punishment they deserved. This Jesus is the Lord of life, and he is radically committed to our good. He judges evil because he loves us, and ushers commands that stop us from destroying ourselves and each other. He said that all people have value, not because of what they believe or what they do, but because of who they are: people made in the image of God. And he summarized the entire duty of our lives with the simple commands to love God and love your neighbor.

Jesus provides us with an unbelievably robust and cohesive starting point. Secularists, it’s your move.

Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

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