Christianity and Contemporary Social Debates

Three areas, in particular, may be singled out as examples of the role of Christianity in contemporary social debates: the place of Christianity (if any) in the educational system; pacifism or participation in war-making by Christians; and the regulation of sexual conduct (including rules for married persons).

In the Protestant established churches in Scandinavia and Britain, much of primary and secondary education and all universities were originally under religious auspices; now that these states and their populations are largely secular, religious teaching is still an accepted part of state-supported schools and the ancient universities maintain some traditions from their Christian past. In France, the struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the state established by the French revolution dominated politics in much of the nineteenth century. In Africa and Asia, missionary schools played a remarkable part in the education of indigenous political leadership (and therefore sometimes attracted the hostile attentions of the imperial powers, or white settler regimes). Established churches all had some history of persecuting Christian minorities (as well as Jews); it was to prevent this that the United States constitution forbids Congress to make an established church. This constitutional prohibition has since been considerably extended, first to keep state and local governments from establishing religion, and now to prohibit prayers in schools, keep religious symbols off public property, and the like. The distinctively American form of this debate is thus whether the public schools should be entirely secular, and whether religious schools (especially Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant ones) are entitled to any access to public funding.

Since there was no educational system in the Roman Empire, there is no guidance from the earliest Christian documents about Christianity’s role in education. The situation is different with respect to pacifism; but it is far from clear exactly what Christianity teaches about participation in wars, since various passages in the New Testament seem to support pacifism and others suggest that there is nothing inherently wrong with being a soldier. The early Christians objected to serving in the imperial armies, but such service would have entailed religious devotions to the emperor, which were considered idolatrous. The Emperor Constantine, however, received a sign which he considered of divine origin and which promised him military victory; subsequent pagan (or heretical) rulers were converted in a similar way. In practice, most Christians have felt it morally acceptable, or even mandatory, to take part in some wars. Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers have worked out an elaborate set of criteria for “just wars,” which would justify Christian participation in them (though Christians have participated with varying degrees of enthusiasm in many wars which could not satisfy these criteria). The soldiers who fought these wars were volunteers, or mercenaries. When mass conscription was introduced in the twentieth century, Christians faced for the first time the issue whether they could conscientiously serve in the army. A “conscientious objector” status has been created in many Western countries, but usually reserved for adherents of the traditional “peace churches” (Quakers and Mennonites being the largest). The larger issue, however, is whether violence should be used in pursuit of any political goal, or whether the reliance on non-violence advocated by such figures as Martin Luther King is both tactically and morally necessary. This continues to provoke lively debate among Christians, and between them and those who are not Christians.

In the United States questions about sexual conduct sometimes appear to be the principal ones where interpretations of Christian values are most vigorously in conflict. At issue are what are the moral obligations of Christians in this realm, and whether they should try to make these obligations bind every citizen. The present pope has articulated a theology of the “sanctity of life,” forbidding the taking of life (except in just wars). Life is defined as beginning at the moment of conception. (The pope also opposes the death penalty.) Furthermore, traditional Roman Catholic opposition to artificial means of contraception has not changed. It is part of a coherent position: all sexual activity should be confined to marriage, and there should be no “unnatural” interference with its divinely appointed purpose, which is to produce children. Hence there should be no abortions, no use of contraceptives, no homosexual sex, no extra-uterine fertilization. (Aristotle provided no guidance about divorce, but the Roman church, relying on statements on Jesus and St. Paul, has historically valued virginity above marriage and prohibited divorce—although annulments are allowed.)

Fornication, adultery, abortions, sale of contraceptive devices, and homosexual intercourse have in the past been against the law in most European countries and American states. Divorce (in Europe and some American states) was extremely hard to obtain. Such prohibitions have been most vigorously enforced during periods when zealous Christians controlled the state; all of them have now been relaxed or entirely eliminated.

Evangelical Protestants share the Roman Catholic objections to abortion, though not the entire Catholic position; most other Christians, based on different interpretations of the New Testament and Christian tradition, have accommodated themselves in varying degrees to the more permissive laws. Some, however, consider some activities now legal to be sinful, and some think that at least some sins should also be crimes. Formulation of a coherent Christian position on these issues, and others created by modern reproductive technology (possible human cloning, for example) confronts contemporary Christianity with one of its most important challenges.