A Different Way to Do Faith in the Public Square

An important reminder from Joe Biden.

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Now, on to the Sunday French Press

This Wednesday evening I was doing my dreary professional due diligence—watching yet another Democratic townhall on CNN—when a moment with Joe Biden suddenly cut through the noise. Regardless of your politics, it’s impossible not to have deep compassion for Biden. His first wife, Neilia, and his young daughter Naomi died in a car accident in 1972. His oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. He’s buried a wife and two children. It’s almost too much for a man to bear. 

With that as a background, please watch this short clip from Wednesday’s town hall. It’s Biden talking about his faith and his indescribable loss:

This wasn’t Joe Biden the politician. It was Joe Biden the husband and father. He was describing finding grace and purpose in the midst of terrible grief. Putting politics aside, it was a deeply meaningful exchange, and it reminded me how discussion of religion in the public square—especially in the context of politics—is typically so impoverished. It’s stripped of meaning and context and personal connection.

Here’s how discussions of religion typically occur in American politics. A politician will declare his or her  faith, and then declare how that faith informs his or her policies. “As a Christian, I believe all human beings are created in the image of God, thus I cannot support a criminal justice system that systematically dehumanizes the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans.” Or, “Religious believers, from the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition, have been told to ‘choose life,’ thus how can I possibly support the legalized killing of children in the womb?” 

There’s nothing specifically wrong with this common approach. It often has the virtue of transparency and sincerity (though sometimes these faith expressions are no doubt insincere and manipulative). But if that becomes the dominant form of religious communication from any person—including a politician or an activist—it drains faith of its transformative power and reduces it to a legalistic tool of political combat. 

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Leading with policy elevates the secondary consideration (how an imperfect person translates his faith into action) over the primary reality (how a loving God redeems a lost world). When Joe Biden spoke about God’s mercy in his pain and loss, he returned to first principles, and first principles have a power that can and sometimes do cut straight through hate, fear, and rage. 

I’m writing this newsletter in part to myself. I disagree with Biden on many things, but when I saw him open up like he did, I felt a sense of conviction. I spent two decades in the heart of the conservative pro-life and religious liberty movements, and I wondered—by word and deed, did I present myself to the public as conservative first, or Christian first? 

If secondary considerations (even if sincerely motivated by my faith) become my primary message, I present a stumbling block to the Gospel. And this applies not just to public figures. How do people know our faith? What is the dominant form of expression of our faith? If it’s through our policies or our political engagement, I fear we’ve gone awry. Do I want people to think they have to be pro-life before they can believe in Christ? Or that a particular view of religious liberty is somehow a mandatory part of joining Team Jesus? 

I’m going to tell you a story about how a small band of college students taught me this lesson 20 long years ago—a lesson that I forgot all too many times. I’ll tell you the story of the Tufts Christian Fellowship

On April 13, 2000, the Tufts University Student Judiciary met in a late-night session to throw the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) off campus. And what was TCF’s sin? A lesbian student had applied to lead the group, and TCF had rejected her application because she disagreed with TCF’s views of scripture and sexual morality. In other words, TCF asked that its leaders (but not its members) share its religious beliefs. 

Tufts is a private campus, so it had the right to exclude TCF if it wished, but it also provided a right to appeal its decision. I was a lecturer at Cornell Law School at the time, and I volunteered my time to represent the group. But under school rules, my role at the appeal was limited to a short 15-minute closing statement. The students would have to argue their own case.

I’ll never forget the weeks leading up to the appeal. Anti-TCF chalkings covered the sidewalks. Activists handed out “fact sheets” that made false claims about TCF. The evening of the hearing, we showed up at the hearing-room door, only to find the door shut and the halls dark. We were surrounded by protesters, and periodically one of them would walk up to one of TCF’s student leaders and stare him or her down in an act of physical intimidation. One of our student leaders was visibly shaking. It was a moment that would have set Twitter aflame in 2020. In 2000, it happened with minimal public awareness. 

After 40 deeply uncomfortable minutes, we were allowed in the hearing room to start what ultimately became an almost seven-hour marathon appeal. I’ll never forget how the TCF students responded. 

They had policy arguments, yes. They had factual arguments. But they felt deep in their spirits that Christianity itself was on trial, and one doesn’t defend Christianity with policies. One defends Christianity with Christ. And so, time and again, each TCF student stood and not only expressed their love for their opponents—especially for the aggrieved young woman who made the complaint—they described the heart of the group. They made their faith the main thing, their liberty the secondary thing, and then went home seven hours later, utterly drained. 

The hearing happened on a Friday. On Monday, we received the decision. The progressive student judiciary voted to keep TCF on campus, and in their decision—after all the chalkings and protests and activism and “fact sheets”—they said that TCF had a “valuable” voice and presence in the campus community. 

I’m not naïve. The TCF case was but one of many, many legal and political battles I fought in the public square, and it’s not as if one can lead a legal brief with a personal testimony. Quick cable news hits often limit the ability to communicate context, and sometimes the policy argument has to take precedence. Moreover, it’s not as if sincere expressions of faith always win—even if expressed in the most kind and winsome of ways. No one loved more perfectly or expressed truth more effectively than Christ. He faced a brutal execution, and so have innumerable believers in the millennia since. But if the church is to face a setback, it should face a setback leading with Jesus, not leading with politics or the law.

I know I’m far, far afield from the original Biden clip, and I’m not claiming that Biden was trying to make a grand theological statement with his two-minute moment. It struck me as simply a moment of very human vulnerability and transparency—and that’s exactly the moment when faith can and does carry immense power to heal the human heart.  

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One last thing ... 

As I’ve written before, I grew up in the a capella churches of Christ, a branch of restorationist Christianity that rejects the use of musical instruments in worship. I was always puzzled by the doctrine (I remember rather impolitely asking a middle school Sunday School teacher, “Is Psalm 150 not in your Bible?”), but it did create some amusing quirks. For example, in my youth group many of us were free to listen to, say, Van Halen, but we had to pass around Michael W. Smith tapes like they were contraband. 

Last week someone pointed me to the song below, not knowing that this very song had a deep impact on me in college. The original version, by Smith, was one of the first instrumental praise songs I ever heard in my life. It’s very simple, but even simple declarations of praise and adoration can have real spiritual power. Here’s Hillsong’s version of Smith’s 30-year-old song, and I love it: 

Photograph of Joe Biden by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.