Dan Darling, pastor and Vice President of Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in Part 1 of this 2-part series discusses the importance of people of faith being involved in public policy and advocating for justice in our nation and the world.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. I’m Traci DeVette Griggs, Communications Director at NC Family, sitting in this week for John Rustin.
When public policy gets ugly or difficult, many Christians are tempted to opt out, to retreat to their churches and just concentrate on evangelism. Well, I think we can all agree that our top priority as Christians is to make disciples. However, in addition, as citizens of a country where we elect our leaders and where we have input in setting public policy, we are held responsible for what those policies are. Abdicating that responsibility is really not an option. Well, most of us know that but it’s always helpful to be reminded. So, today we’re joined by Dan Darling, a pastor and vice president of Communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. And we’re going to discuss why American Christians have a duty to stay involved in the public policy arena. Dan, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
DAN DARLING: Hey, it’s good to be with you guys, and grateful for the really important work that you all are doing in North Carolina.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you. Dan. Why should we as Christians care about secular laws?
DAN DARLING: I think there are a number of reasons. I think number one, laws ultimately essentially how we order ourselves as a society. You know, how a given society orders itself. Laws affect the flourishing of our neighbors, so if we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves, our laws reflect the way that we think about our neighbors. So, people will say that you can’t legislate morality, but every law is a reflection of our morality. If you have laws, for instance, against murder or laws against embezzlement, you’re saying as a society that those two things are—you’re making a moral statement by saying those things are wrong. We want to have laws that protect the vulnerable from crimes committed against them in that way, and so I think we should care about the laws.
I also think because we are citizens of a representative republic, when we read Romans 13 for instance, about the way that God delegates power to civil authorities and how God will judge civil authorities based on how they rule, and the welfare of their people. He’s not just talking, particularly in our society, about our politicians and our leaders, but in some ways He’s talking to us as well because we have a share in the power. We’re a government of the people, by the people and for the people. So you know, our share of power through our vote or through our voice and any way that we can influence it, we will be held accountable for that as well. So I don’t think there’s an option for us to not care about the laws that govern our communities in our country.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, what specific biblical principles do you feel like regulate our involvement and the relationship between religion and government? You’ve just mentioned Romans 13. Any other things that you can think of that we could take into consideration?
DAN DARLING: At a basic level is the idea of human dignity, that every person is created in the image of the God, and every person has dignity and worth. And so at the very basic level, we want to create societies that recognize that: laws that protect vulnerable image-bearers from being exploited or assaulted; laws that see reflected dignity of image bears. So I think that, at the very basic level, that is something we should care about. You know, the Bible has a very robust vision for human dignity, starting in Genesis, where it talks about how every person is made in the image of God, all the way through King David describing in Psalm 139 that every human being is knit in the womb of their mother and is created with a care and concern by God. And so laws that recognize that, I think is something that Christians should work for.
TRACI GRIGGS: What about justice? So how do we see the Bible’s call for us to bring justice reflected in a way that would then influence how we look at public policy?
DAN DARLING: I think we should care about justice. When you look through the Scriptures, justice is mentioned quite a bit. Justice is, in many ways, equated with righteousness and this idea that what is right and what reflects the glory of God. In many ways, it’s used […] to describe the inequity or imbalances in society. Making things right, justice is about setting things right, we have a God of justice. So Christians should care about justice. And I think in our specific application it’s merely, you know, where are the areas in our civil society where the vulnerable are being exploited or assaulted, where there are gaps in terms of their ability to flourish. I think we should care about that. Now, there are ways that the word justice can be “loaded” when you talk about social justice. Sometimes, people hear that word and think automatically sort of Marxism and all that. But I don’t think we should let that term be hijacked by left-leaning ideologies. I think justice is a very Biblical term that we should care about.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, if we care about it as Christians, what do we do when we are faced with unjust laws?
DAN DARLING: What we should do is try to work to change them. I mean, this is part of the privilege we have of living in a representative republic, that we have an opportunity to make our voices heard. We can speak out on issues, but we can also work to talk to our leaders and try to influence them to pass good legislation that rights those injustices, that creates better laws and better legislation. We can use the ballot box and vote for people who will vote based on the right principles, that will commit to making better laws that are more just.
For instance, you take one particular issue like the abortion issue. That’s an issue where the current law of the land today as it stands is that the unborn people in most states, unborn people from conception to birth, really are unprotected from death, that they are not considered full human beings. The Supreme Court doesn’t consider them full human beings. We believe that’s injustice based on what the Scripture says, that every human being is created in the image of God. So we as citizens of this Republic, of a representative republic, we should work hard to create laws that recognize the dignity of the unborn.
I don’t think laws are all we need to do. I don’t think that’s the full extent of our activism. I think there are other areas in terms of changing hearts and minds, in terms of spreading the Gospel, in terms of discipleship, making arguments in the public square. But I think laws are a big part of that. And so I think we should work to change laws that are unjust.
TRACI GRIGGS: We hear people say quite often that religious liberty or religion is fine within the church walls, but we don’t have a right to bring our religion into government discussions, or perhaps in discussions about law and policy. Why is this a dangerous trap for believers to allow that kind of language to be used, but also what do we do in the face of that?
DAN DARLING: Obviously, laws can’t do everything, right? You can pass laws and you still have injustice, you still have crimes. But I think laws at least reflect morality and they help, I think, rightly order a society. I think the Founders understood that you need both law, you need the rule of law, you need liberty, but you also need the kind of mediating institutions like the Church and other institutions that help inform people in ways that laws can and can’t.
I’m reading a terrific book right now by Tim Carney called, Alienated America, and one of the things he does is he walks through some of the data that—there’s a whole range of social ills that follow when civil society is disrupted in communities, when you don’t have people—particularly people attending church, but also other metrics like marriage and other things like that. And so I think all those things work to really help people flourish.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, I think I’m hearing you say that the partnership between people of faith and their church and public policy can be a really good partnership.
DAN DARLING: Yeah, it can be, and obviously there are different callings, right? So, not every Christian is called to be a legislator. Not every Christian is called to be an activist in terms of the level of making and creating public policy, but many are. We need people at all levels of society. We need Christians in every sector, really kind of applying the Gospel to their calling. We do need good people in government. We need people on congressional staffs, and in all these agencies, to help create good policy and good law. We need people who are activists. We need people who are thinkers and scholars, like think tanks, to really think deeply and long-term about some really intractable problems and how we can solve them. So, I think the relationship of Christians and government, Christians and public policy is really important. There’s a thought that, because we want separation of church and state, which means we want the government to stay out of the church’s business in terms of infringing on the church’s right to practice religion freely, sometimes we interpret that to mean the opposite, that Christians should not be involved in levels of government, that Christians should not apply their faith to their work, or to public policy. And I think really that’s—number one, I don’t think that’s even possible because everybody that comes to the table when it comes to government policy has a worldview, has a faith system. And so I think to tell Christians they need to set that aside is really wrong. I think it’s really important for Christians to be involved in all levels of society. I do think that the most important thing that happens every week though, is what happens when people gather in church. So as Christians, even though we’re involved in all levels of society, and even though what we’re doing is more than what we’re doing on Sunday, it’s never less. So gathering weekly as the people of God is always the most important thing that’s happening that week.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right. Do you think that people that are involved in public policy understand, or maybe minimize, the power of prayer that is brought to these issues? I mean, we’re commanded specifically to pray for our government and our leaders.
DAN DARLING: Yeah, I think so. I really think so. All of us who are involved in these public policy issues, or involved on a day-to-day basis thinking about these things, it’s very easy for us to forget that we’re not all-powerful. Strategy and policy are vital and important, but ultimately, our biggest and most important duty is to pray, to acknowledge our dependence on the Lord. We cannot do our jobs; we cannot do what God has called us to do without being dependent on the Lord. And I think, you know, I personally believe that our spiritual disciplines shape us for our life in the world. And so, you can’t have one without the other. I think God calls us to mission in the world, but he also calls us to maintain healthy spiritual disciplines of hearing the Word, prayer, reading our Bibles, of walking with him. And those things form us in powerful ways that then enable us to do the work he’s called us to do, and do it with a healthy dependence on Him.
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