Is it true that our greatest danger is keeping God out? I think it is and will offer some examples in just a moment, but I hesitate in going further at this point under the weight of objection which I sense at the claim that we need God in our national conscience (including our political considerations). What about the Salem witch trials? Won’t it mean we will execute people for their beliefs (or unbelief)? What about the Inquisition? The Crusades? It seems there will be no end to the bloodshed once theology enters the discussion, right?
Well, what about the Salem witch trials? The Salem Witch Trials are much more easily tossed out as fodder for feeding anti-Christian animosity than they are understood in their political significance. Sure, it is not good to burn witches. On that point, Christians and secularists agree. Indeed, one will search long and hard attempting to find a Christian who will advocate burning anyone to death for any reason. Still, the trials did happen, and people did die; it was tragic.
The Salem Witch Trials were sparked by Samuel Parris when a group of young girls suffered from unexplained delusions. The enigmatic expressions gave Mr. Parris an opportunity to exact vengeance on his unsuspecting enemies. From there, the hysteria grew. More and more folks besides Mr. Parris began hurling witchcraft accusations against those labeled enemies or those deemed enigmatic. At the conclusion of the hysteria, 20 people had been hanged: 14 women and 6 men, with some others having died in prison.
I neither wish to condone such abhorrent behavior nor defend it. However, if one is inclined to allude to these trials as an example of why God and faith ought to be kept out of public policy debate, then three further points ought to be considered. First, Christians are the very ones who appealed for the practices to stop. Cotton Mather, who himself opposed witchcraft, urged restraint, arguing that it would be much better for 10 accused witches to go free than it would for even one innocent witch to be burned. Christians held other Christians to account for these wrongs which were committed.
There was a very public call for repentance in Salem; there was a day of public prayer and fasting for forgiveness. Anne Putnam, one of the original delusional girls, publicly confessed her guilt and sought repentance and restoration, as did Samuel Sewall. Sewall—as a magistrate—judged the witch trials and was very much broken by a confrontation he had with Matthew 12:7. He confessed his guilt publicly, repented, and sought forgiveness and reconciliation with the people of Salem. He would later become the chief justice of Massachusetts. So, Christians—because they believe very much in a higher order of law than either themselves or the state—recognize that each man individually and all societies corporately have another authority—a higher justice—to which they are bound. The reality of higher justice serves to offer correction for errors along the way. Salem corrected herself.
Second, arguments which appeal to the Salem affair must acknowledge that it was not a major event on the scale of even the smaller wars and conflicts we have faced as a nation. I do not mean here to diminish the value of the two dozen lives lost—not at all—for that would itself be a non-Christian thing to do, since each human life is created in the image of God and, thus, has great value. What I am saying, however, is that Christians will make mistakes just like non-Christians. Though Christians have access to the revealed truth from God, they don’t always act rightly upon such revelation. This is a fair and honest assessment. The mistake of wrongful execution is serious, but this particular case of it pales in comparison to the wrongful executions committed by non-Christians. And, this kind of argument is a two-edged sword which would, if followed faithfully, rule science out of political discourse along with religion.
Scientists, like Christians, make mistakes, too. I don’t mean simply that scientists make mistakes such as the mathematical one which recently shut down the 2 billion dollar CERN collider project. I mean tragic human mistakes such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, which left 400 patients untreated for scientific purposes. Approximately 140 of these patients died as a direct result of not being treated. In addition, forty of their wives and 19 of their children were infected, all of which could have been avoided with simple penicillin (which had become available, but the victims were neither told about it nor offered it… for scientific reasons). Whatever weight one gives to Salem for keeping God out of public policy debate, he has 5 times the weight of evidence to keep science out. As Christians, however, we do not wish to keep either out, for both are indications not of inherent problems with science or with Christianity, rather, inherent problems with humanity. We are born under sin, and we will sin. Thus, we need correctives. We need higher order authority. This is true whether we are Christian ministers or lab technicians. This is why we have checks and balances in our government.
Third, as has been hinted at with the above reference to Samuel Sewall, the trials were carried out by civil authorities, not the church. Obviously, church and state were too intertwined to speak of much of a difference between them, and, being a Baptist, I would agree that such an intertwined affinity is unhelpful both for the church and the state. However, this conviction does not at all lead to the conclusion that earnest Christians should be barred from public policy. If the hard line is maintained between the Christian church and the state, then how might a Christian serve at all in public office? The anti-Christian zealot may quickly reply, “He shouldn’t. If he can’t keep his religious beliefs to himself, then he ought not be allowed to serve in office.”
My reply is simply to ask what kind of a public servant is able to serve while keeping his beliefs to himself. If one is able to accomplish such a thing, he is a hypocrite. Would we say that only hypocrites can run for office? Maybe only hypocrites do run for office. Sometimes it seems that way, but we know it isn’t true. And—more importantly—we do not desire for it to be true. We elect people who we believe will keep their word and deliver on their promises. The Christian ought not be hypocritical about his Christianity, and he ought to be welcomed in the public policy debate. If he is not, then the political climate has become the opposite of what Mr. Meacham has argued for—free. It is not free if a significant proportion of the population is ruled out of bounds simply because they believe just about the same thing most of the history of our nation believes.