Secular religion. Yes there is such a thing.

We normally do not think of the debates between candidates for public office as a source of spiritual education, but last week we received an important lesson. The debate between the candidates for vice-president surprised me by providing a vivid example of the difference between a biblical definition of commitment to faith in Christ and the secular definition of religion.

People who enter into a relationship with Christ discover immediately that it permeates their lives. In relationship with Christ, everything is touched by that experience. In baptism each new believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, just as the Holy Spirit descended into Christ at baptism. Each of us, like Christ, is the visible in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the world.

In the book of Mark, Jesus found himself in constant conflict with Satan and other secular powers around him as he literally carried the kingdom around to the people of Galilee. Today, Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit, do the same thing at work, at school, in the grocery store, in the voting booth, in the halls of Congress, and so forth. People living in relationship with Christ cannot turn off that relationship when they leave the church building on Sunday morning any more than married people can turn off that relationship when they exit their homes.

Last week at the end of the vice-presidential debate, the moderator asked each candidate to describe how his faith affected his views and actions relative to the issue of abortion and how it would affect his actions in office if he were elected. Paul Ryan said simply that his views and his values are shaped by his faith, and his views would not be changed if he were elected to public office. He said nothing about trying to force anyone to agree with him. He simply stated his position. Joe Biden said that his faith shaped his views, but he wouldn’t try to force his views on anyone. Joe Biden’s words made it very clear that his religious life takes place exclusively inside the walls of church buildings and has no relevance whatsoever to his behavior outside of those buildings. It is reasonable to conclude that he would say that religion is a private matter. The concept that religious people try to “force” their views on others is a common thread in secular comments about religion. When an individual advocates for views rooted in religious conviction, secular thinkers believe that he is “forcing” those views on people who advocate for views rooted in something other than religion. Secular thinkers dismiss values and views rooted in religion, because they view religion as a fairy tale. They demand that religious people find some other source for their values in order to deserve serious consideration in public life.

I describe this observation not to support or attack either candidate. I describe this observation, because the federal government has defined what is religious as the worship, evangelism and teaching that take place in church buildings. Period. The executive administration currently in power has written into regulations a clear definition of religion that confines its scope to religious activities that take place on church property. Joe Biden accepts that definition. Paul Ryan does not. To say this is not to say that Paul Ryan is the perfect candidate, or even to say that Paul Ryan is the perfect Christian. Both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are imperfect and unsaintly human beings. This small segment of the debate was only one view of each candidate, but it is the view that relates to this blog. Every Christian lives in a world where secular thinkers want to confine faith and the views and values of faith inside church buildings. If I had tried to write a dramatic script to show what it means to think about faith from the secular perspective and what it means to think about faith from the Christian perspective, I could not have written a scene that portrayed this difference any more clearly.

Secular thinkers consistently reject the existence of supernatural or “spirit” power. Some secular thinkers tolerate religion within bounds, that is to say, they think people have a right to enjoy the singing, the prayers, the beautiful buildings, the artistry of ancient texts and so forth that are associated with religion. However, even the most religiously tolerant secular thinker rejects any hint that someone’s religious values should play any role in public life. This is Joe Biden’s position. Joe Biden is Catholic in his religious choice, but he restricts the influence of his Catholic values to his life within the church. He has every constitutional right to do that, and voters have no right to say he can’t do that, but every voter has values, too. If voters consider Joe Biden’s candidacy seriously, they need to recognize from his own statements that in his elected office, he operates by secular values, not by Christian values. A voter who chooses the secular worldview will admire Joe Biden for this stance. A voter who believes that a Christian is a little Christ bringing the values of the kingdom of God with him wherever he goes will not admire Joe Biden’s position.

Paul Ryan expressed a view much more in keeping with traditional Christian teaching. He said that his views and values do not change when he acts as an elected official. He did not suggest that he will scoff at or ignore laws that contradict his views, but he did say that he would act in accordance with the views shaped by his faith. A voter who chooses the secular worldview would regard this statement with concern, because he would know that Paul Ryan is unlikely to conform to secular views, even if most of the people want the secular views. Secular thinkers believe that when a group of people gets together to hammer out laws for society, they should recognize that no member of the group has more understanding of what is right than any other. Secular thinkers reject revealed, absolute truth. Secular thinkers believe that society is evolving and that the rules about what is right and what is wrong must evolve with it. Christians, who believe that there are absolute truths revealed by God in the sacred text of the Bible, appear hard-headed and hard-hearted to secular thinkers who want to legislate in keeping with the evolving culture.

You can find comments expressing a secular analysis of the debate here .

You can find comments expressing a Catholic analysis of the debate here.

American culture is definitely changing. A recent Pew study showed that the number of people who are disconnected from any religion is growing rapidly. In this culture, it takes courage for anyone to say that his religion shapes his views and values. What this trend will mean for Christians in the next few years is not clear. It is also not clear how this trend will affect the outcome of elections. After all, values and views certainly shape people’s positions on the issues, but in the end, it is the position, not the philosophy or religion that is important to voters. This blog discusses this issue as a way of asking each reader to do some self-examination. Each reader needs to look within and ask, “Where do my values, my views, my choices come from?” Each reader should look within and ask if Christ sits on the throne of his/her heart, or if self is enthroned at the center of life. As voters, people must evaluate candidates such as Joe Biden and Paul Ryan and make important decisions with impact on the future of a nation. Please do that. But don’t forget to take a look within and ask if the values and views you express in public life are consistent with the values and views you claim when you are in church.

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