Dialogue About Biblical Justice Today
Early last year, the Herald received a letter recently raising concerns about the Church’s statements recent statements regarding various social issues. It was expressed that the Church was inappropriately veering into political matters. The Lake Union Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Director, attorney and professor Nicholas Miller, responded to these concerns in a response letter. We believe that many of our readers will be interested in this exchange, so we have reprinted the letters here, lightly edited for clarity and brevity, to create the form of a dialogue.
Reader:I received the last issue [Jan. 2018] of the Lake Union Heraldand felt the strong sense that I need to write to you after reading it.
I am very disappointed at the opinions expressed along with a continued distinct bias to align with what you deem is politically correct.
Dr. Miller: Dear Reader, thank you for your energetic letter to the Lake Union Heraldregarding last January’s issue. We welcome constructive criticism, and believe that the respectful exchange of ideas and opinions can sharpen our thinking and witness as a Church.
I would begin by noting that in almost all instances, the position taken in the articles you refer to reflect actual position or policy statements made publicly by the church, whether at the Union, Division, or General Conference level. We take seriously our duty not to engage in partisan politics, or advocacy supporting one electoral party or another.
But neither will we let the existence of partisan politics deflect us from our duty to speak to moral issues in our society from a biblical view. Our pioneers did this when they spoke to the great moral issues of their day, such as slavery and prohibition of alcohol, even though both those issues were also caught up in political contests of the day.
Reader: Specifically, I would like to speak to the following issues:
The Johnson Amendment and Political Speech in Church
On page five of the article by Edward Woods III, Mr. Woods asks us to imagine the harm to religious liberty if the Johnson Amendment is repealed. Mr. Woods goes on to say that repealing the Johnson Amendment will turn churches into cesspools of partisan politics. Well, Mr. Woods, I disagree. The Johnson Amendment was passed in 1954 and aimed at tax exempt organizations (such as Constitutional Government and Facts Forum) that Johnson felt were quietly supporting his primary opponent. Winning the primary was a clear path to winning the general election since Republicans were scarce in the state’s political landscape.
Before 1954, churches were not cesspools of partisan politics and I doubt they will be without the amendment. The purpose for repealing the Johnson Amendment is because it is basically unconstitutional and could limit free speech from the pulpit. Could you imagine if Evangelical pastors were hauled off to jail for speaking against abortion (which the Adventist Church hardly ever speaks against), gay marriage, or affirming the Judeo-Christian roots this nation was founded on?
Since I highly doubt you will agree with me, it is better to leave partisan opinions like this out of Adventist publications.
Dr. Miller: Regarding the Johnson Amendment, you are correct in noting the history of that Act being rooted in the politics of the 1950s, and not being based in the Constitution. But the reality is that there was a culture among the churches of that time that they should not promote or endorse candidates from the pulpit, as a matter of ethical and moral restraint. Ellen White expressed these views herself regarding our own church, as did most Protestant leaders of her day. But the reality is that many churches have now lost these moral and ethical principles. Should the Amendment be revoked, it is highly likely that they would become even more aggressive in their politicking than they already are.
This truth was recognized by our North American Division PARL department, and last year they issued a formal statement in opposition to repealing the Johnson Amendment. What Mr. Woods reported was in harmony with this voted position of our Church in North America. Also, it seems that you have too broad a view of what the Johnson Amendment prohibits. It does not prevent the church from speaking to issues, such as abortion, or gay marriage, or welfare reform. Rather, it forbids them from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, which I am sure you will agree is quite a different matter. Be assured that the Johnson Amendment does not impact the witness of our Church in speaking to moral issues. (Which, perhaps ironically, you do not seem to want us to do!)
Dreamers and Undocumented Immigrants
Reader:Your article also stated that DACA (Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals) should not have been canceled by President Trump. It was argued that because we use their labor and efforts to build this country and benefit our homes and businesses, we should treat undocumented immigrants fairly. Examples in the Bible were cited such as Abraham, Ruth, Mary, Joseph and Jesus. In your simplistic stand, you appear to be saying how evil President Trump must be to kick people out of the country that are just like Jesus.
Dr. Miller: First of all, we are not alone in our views that DACA immigrants should be treated fairly, but are echoing an official Church position on the issue. Last year, the North American Division released a statement in support of the dreamers, some of whom even pastor in our churches on DACA certificates. Even President Trump himself called on Congress to fix the issue, so our call to do so can hardly be viewed as politically partisan. Rather, it is a question of humanity around which all people of good will, irrespective of political party, should be able to gather.
Reader:Well, consider that DACA is an executive order that bypassed the Congress that failed to pass this into law. President Trump rescinded the basically illegal executive order. Do you want the President to issue executive orders when legislation does not go his/her way? You will be surprised what kind of doors this will open up and your religious liberty may not like it. The Congress is closest to the people and, therefore, all laws must be passed by Congress. In 2014, President Obama attempted to expand this program by expanding this protection to illegal parents of lawful citizens. This would have added millions more to the list of illegal residents for not being deported.
Dr. Miller: You are correct about the origins of DACA, and the need to be concerned about law-making through executive order, whether it be by Democrats or Republicans. But we were not defending the start of the program. Rather, once it is in place, and tens of thousands of people have begun to rely on it, we believe that it is simply unfair to tear it up overnight, and jeopardize the basic livelihood and security of tens of thousands of people, many who have no memory or knowledge of the countries to which they will be exiled. Again, the Bible has much to say about treating aliens and sojourners fairly and equitably, especially those who have helped build up your land. Ex. 12:49 (one law for resident and stranger); Lev. 19:33-34 (do no wrong to the stranger, but love them); Num. 15:15-16 (treat strangers equally and fairly.).
Reader:But much of the “building of this country and benefiting our businesses and homes” also comes at a cost of jobs and wages for citizens here. In California, legal citizens of all ethnic backgrounds complain as to how crime from illegals is allowed to go unchecked and resources for taxpaying citizens go unsupplied.
Dr. Miller: As to additional costs and crime of immigrants, many unfair myths are spread about these topics. Studies show that most undocumented immigrant workers do pay taxes, but are not eligible for most public benefits. Thus, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office noted in a recent review of studies that these workers produce moretax revenue than they withdrawin services. Also, various studies show that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S. Residents or Citizens.
The truth is that many immigrants undertake jobs that Residents and Citizens are simply unwilling to undertake, and their absence would significantly impact various agricultural and industrial enterprises. But even more to the point, it would be against biblical principles of equity and fairness to draw on people’s efforts to build our enterprises, and then discard them when it becomes politically popular.
Reader:But in your biblical examples, the sojourner is legal. Illegal and unchecked immigration are huge issues in European countries, like England, which voted for Brexit.
Dr. Miller: As far as our biblical discussion of “illegal immigrants,” you are too quick to suggest that all biblical “sojourners” are somehow legal. An “illegal immigrant” is anyone who enters or exits the country against the will of the civil authorities. There are a number of biblical men and women of faith who did this, including Moses, the Children of Israel, Paul, and even Jesus, Mary and Joseph fit this definition.
This is not to say that our countries immigration laws should not be respected. But it is to say that the Bible itself recognizes that sometimes moral principles of protecting human health, safety and life will outweigh the technical requirements of immigration laws. We should be careful lest we judge all immigrants too quickly, as we may be ignorant of the kinds of threats and problems they faced that caused them to migrate.
Limitations on Assault Weapons
Reader:In your article, you take the stand of gun control. Christ did not come to kill, you say, so outlawing guns will keep killing from happening. In reality, tens of gun laws are already broken in most cases where there is a mass shooting. Gun laws do not keep guns from criminals; they keep guns from law-abiding citizens. Furthermore, many mass shootings have been stopped by a citizen with a legal handgun, such as the Texas Church example you cited.
While your stand sounds better, it is not realistic. The human heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things. Who can know it? Checks and balances have kept this experiment in self-government alive so long. Based on the complexity of the issue, the Church probably should not take a stand on this. Also, your claim about an “unholy alliance between the gun manufacturers, gun lobby, and politicians who are willing to be bought”? Where did you get this from? The New York Timesor the Washington Post? Do nott worry, many politicians who push for gun control have been bought off for some time.
Dr. Miller: On gun control, I think you should recognize that the article was not anti-guns. Rather, we took the careful position of staying within the parameters of the statement that the General Conference has already made on this topic, when it published a statement opposing the sale of assault weapons to civilians. You may find that statement instructive, it can be found here: https://www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/statements/article/go/-/ban-on-sales-of-assault-weapons-to-civilians/
I believe that school children should not have to fear for their basic safety in the school environment, which should be safe and secure. I’m amazed that most schools now have “duck and cover” drills to prepare for the event of an active shooter in the halls and classrooms. Is all we can offer our dear children, “thoughts and prayers,” and no concrete action to protect them from the weapons of mass destruction that our laws allow to be so easily and readily available? The experience of other countries, including England and Australia, says that controlling assault weapons can make a big difference. Our Church has already agreed with this in its formal statement. We did not get our position from the Timesor the Post, but from biblical principles and from the world Church.
LGBT+ Issues, Religious Freedom, and Abortion
Reader:you do side with the baker in the wedding cake for a lesbian couple, but you almost apologize for it. You do not state that the court has found that this bakery was targeted for its Christian beliefs and that Muslim bakeries that refuse to decorate cakes for Christians, much less make the cake have not been prosecuted. The law is unfairly applied. In any case, I do agree with you that this is very important for religious freedom going forward.
Dr. Miller: I’m glad that you are happy with our positions on the Christian baker and the wedding cake. We are not apologetic about supporting his rights of conscience in not being forced to bake a cake to celebrate an event that is against his conscience. But we do need to be respectful of those that hold different moral views than us, even on questions of marriage and sexuality. Many LGBT+ persons have been and still are mistreated and discriminated against, and we must recognize their fundamental dignity; even as we protect the rights of our church and its members to stand for the teachings of biblical sexuality.
The fact that we are for some issues that Democrats support, and for others that Republicans support, shows that our moral positions are neither from the RNC or the DNC, but from the KJV, or the NIV, or RSV, etc. You can be assured that we have and will speak out on issues of family, marriage and life as the opportunities present themselves. But we will do so in a responsible and careful manner.
Reader: Also, how come the Church never speaks up about abortion? The argument for abortion is the same argument used for slavery. The fetus is not a real person.
Dr. Miller: This need for care applies especially to the issue of abortion that you raise. The difficulty with that question is that it has been removed from the larger life ethic with which it belongs, and been made a litmus test for a single political party. You can support the death penalty, military spending, foreign wars, torturing terrorists, oppose funding for children in poverty, cut medical coverage for poor people, and yet somehow, as long as you protect fetal life, you qualify as “pro-life.”
The Church does not support abortion on demand or as a form of birth control, and perhaps we are at fault for not more robustly proclaiming this fact. But we should do that as part of a larger ethic of life that also sees the value of life that is already born, and yet lacks the basic necessities to live a life of adequate care and nurture. We need to do more discussion and study as a church on how we can more effectively advance a full life ethic that includes pre-natal life and extends throughout life until old age. I’m glad you are wanting to be a part of that discussion.
Reader:I have seen a big movement of the Church becoming more aligned to current political trends to get the widest acceptance. You can look at the Old Testament to see how that has always worked out. I doubt you will listen to what I am saying, but I felt strongly impressed to write to you.
May the Lord bless you and give you insight and discernment.
Sincerely with love,
Dr. Miller: I hope this exchange can convince you that we actually do listen to the cares and concerns of our readers. I hope it also reveals to you that we take seriously the task of applying biblical principles to social issues today, and that we want to responsibly stay within the framework of church beliefs, policies, and statements that help keep us together as a national and world Church.
The Lord’s blessings to you,
Nicholas Miller, JD, PhD
Public Affairs and Religious Liberty
Lake Union Conference
Cover photo by rawpixel