Staying in the Lines

“Stay between the lines,” says a teacher to her little pupils as they color the pictures in their workbooks. The scene is part of a recent commercial for an automobile. The commercial fast-forwards to show the future, and one of the students, now grown up, is driving off the road and into the mud in his new sport utility vehicle. The message is clear: Sometimes you just can’t stay inside the lines. I recently discovered the price of not staying between the lines—the political lines, that is—when I took part in a symposium in the journal First Things. It was titled “The End of Democracy?” and the theme was the usurpation of the political process by an imperial judiciary. The most important questions in public life today are not being decided by the democratic process, as the Constitution’s framers intended. Instead, they’re being decided by activist judges. And when the decisions contravene God’s teachings, we have to consider our allegiance. When the symposium hit print, I was stunned by the outrage—not from liberals, which I expected, but from conservatives. “Absurd and irresponsible,” said conservative philosopher Gertrude Himmelfarb. Another critic said it was “careless radicalism.” “Counterproductive radicalizing,” said sociologist Peter Berger. In effect, they were accusing us of “coloring outside the lines”—and they were furious. Why? For one thing, it’s clear that they don’t appreciate how far the Supreme Court has gone to enshrine its own opinions as constitutional liberties beyond appeal. It started with abortion, then gay rights, and, of late, euthanasia. Worse, the Court has adopted a philosophy that rules any moral challenge out-of-bounds. But the second reason is that secular conservatives, while allied with us on many issues, have a different worldview and different priorities, particularly on what are called the social issues. This debate ought to remind us of how transient political alliances are. After all, these same conservatives had only lately defended us. In a 1995 Commentary symposium, a dozen scholars called for religious renewal to reverse cultural decay. So why are they suddenly baring their teeth at us? The truth is, most American conservatives are actually Lockean liberals. That is, they value civil religion when it cements social bonds. But they’re wary of any idea of religion as a transcendent truth—one that stands in judgment on the political order. As Ashley Woodiwiss writes in the magazine Books & Culture, both liberals and conservatives judge “Christianity exclusively in terms of its impact on the success of American democratic institutions.” For secular conservatives, then, religious folk are a useful constituency—until in First Things we showed too much independence of mind. It’s a reminder that for Christians God’s law is immutable, and nations are judged by it. And we have to deal with our dual citizenship in the City of God and the City of Man. Well, you and I have to be prepared, as this debate shows us, to face hostility when even our allies don’t understand the idea of transcendent allegiance—why Christians sometimes have no choice... but to go outside the lines.


Chuck Colson


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