The Conscience of Society

Over the last few years, there’s been increasing political and cultural pressure to keep Christian influence out of public affairs. We’ve seen it in restrictions on prayer at public events, on posting of the Ten Commandments and the recent Supreme Court case. We see it when politicians or the media describe evangelical Christians as “bigots.” One of my greatest worries is that the Church will oblige the secularists by retreating into our safe sanctuaries. I’ve had religious leaders tell me that all we need to do is lead people to Christ and keep them in our churches, and that’s the end of our biblical responsibility. Nonsense. This is a profoundly dangerous point of view because it would undermine the balance between church and state that is vital for the protection and the rights of all citizens. We live in a democracy, remember, where the will of the majority is enacted into law. Most people believe that this is the best way to guarantee freedom and to promote the common welfare. And democracy has been hugely successful in the American experiment. But our founders recognized that unrestrained democracy can lead to a tyranny of the majority. Let’s say that the majority believes that it’s fine to kill people who are designated by doctors as within their last six months of life. What’s to stop them? The Constitution? We’ve seen how judges reinterpret the Constitution, and how the so-called “right to die” is increasingly being recognized in public policy. It’s a short step from a “right to die” to an obligation to die. The point, you see, is that there must be restraints on democracy. That’s why our founders described the American founding as an experiment in “ordered liberty.” That is, order must be maintained for freedom to be enjoyed by everyone. That’s why our founders relied on a prevailing consensus that there was an absolute moral law. Some people thought it came from the Enlightenment, but most recognized it as our biblical heritage. You may have heard the Church described as the conscience of society. It is the only institution that can provide a moral restraint against the excesses of a tyrannical regime. Therefore, it is essential to preserving human freedom. Our government, whenever it passes laws, makes moral judgments. But it is in no position to enforce a moral code in today’s highly pluralistic environment. That’s why a strong, vibrant Church is required—not necessary just so you and I can exercise our religious freedom, but so that we can be an influence for the common good in society. In a way, this is God’s gift for the freedom and welfare of all people. William Wilberforce, the man for whom our Wilberforce Forum is named, wrote that God had laid before him two great objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners. He knew that both were needed. And our founders, men and women of the same era, understood this as well. The events of July 4, 1776, that we celebrate today began the experiment to see if this balance could be preserved. This is why the Church today must take its stand: be the Church, with all that means. We ought to be explaining, as well, to our secular neighbors that they don’t have anything to fear from the much-maligned “Religious Right.” Rather they should welcome Christian influence for the common good of all and the preservation of freedom.


Chuck Colson


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