The Divided States of America: What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match. By Richard Land. Foreword by Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007. Hardcover, 243 pp.
Every American should read this book. While not every American will agree with all of Richard Land’s assessments and solutions, including probably some of his closest friends and allies, Dr. Land sets out for all Americans a wider view and clarity of understanding church-state issues and the roadblocks to a broader consensus on these thorny questions.
Richard Land has served as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention for more than twenty years. A native of Houston, Texas, Dr. Land received his Bachelor of Arts from Princeton, his Master of Theology from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and his Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford. He has authored numerous books and articles and served from 1999-2000 on the committee to revise the Baptist Faith and Message, Southern Baptists’ statement of faith. Land was appointed three times to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and was named in 2005 as one of “The Twenty-five Most Influential Evangelicals in America” by Time Magazine. The father of three, Land has been married for over 35 years to his wife, Rebekah.
Land begins the book with the question that is the title of the first chapter, “What’s God Got to Do with America?” followed by chapters entitled, “What Liberals Are Missing” and “What Conservatives Are Missing.” In these chapters, Land lays out the essence and the causes of the polarization that characterizes American debate on the relationship of church and state. Land asserts, among other things, that liberals do not understand that
Adopting such a posture is not assuming that God is on your side or that you are God’s personal emissary.
However, it does assume that God has a side. God is not neutral about abortion. God is not neutral about marriage. God is not neutral about pornography. Conservatives believe that God has a side, that everything is not relative, that good and evil are real and it is possible to distinguish between them just as we distinguish noonday and midnight. Moral issues cannot be neatly filed away under shades of gray. That is the big difference between liberals and conservatives (27).
And Land’s fellow conservatives are not immune to his critique and even his criticism.
The conservative liability is to conflate nationalism with God’s cause. The liberal liability is such weak belief in God that it slides into relativism. The answer is the Christocentric theology that Barth espoused and that Evangelical Christians are supposed to espouse—but many of them, perhaps without being aware of it, have shifted from a Christocentric to an America-centric theology. This is what conservatives too often miss in the God-and-country shouting match (52).
Land’s answer to the church-state debate is what he terms “accommodation” as opposed to either “avoidance” or “acknowledgement.” “What we need is ‘accommodation’ (of individuals’ right to public religious expression)—a middle way between ‘avoidance’ (strict separation) and ‘acknowledgment’ (government affirmation)” (55). In Appendix F, he sets out a chart comparing the three positions by definition, as applied to religious expression, as applied to public prayer at public school events, and as applied to public displays of religious monuments or symbols (298).
In the book’s last chapter, Land asks the question, “What Does It Mean to Say, ‘God Bless America’?” After an illuminating discussion, Land concludes
So when we say, “God bless America,” we are not just saying, God bless this nation of people who inhabit this geographical territory. We are saying, God bless and spread the idea of America, so that all people—Arab, Jew, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, African—can live in the equality and human dignity and freedom to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them. We are reciting, together, a prayer, a hope, a dream, a vision—that all men and women yearning to breathe freely may live in the liberty and equality that are their God-given birthrights—not just here, but everywhere.
Indeed—God bless America, and God bless everyone!
While liberals will not hold all of Land’s conclusions, they will be challenged to consider and will better understand the church-state issue and the conservative Christian response to it. At the same time, conservatives will be challenged to rethink the matter from an historical and more complete perspective.
Land’s approach is bound to draw criticism, both earnest and capricious. With the inauguration of a new president, the book is in need of updating, but this work, even in its present form, is important for all Americans. The appendices alone, which include, among other useful items, important “Presidential Addresses,” “Bibles and Scripture Passages Used by Presidents in Taking the Oath of Office,” and Land’s chart comparing and contrasting the three views of church-state relations are worth the price of the book.
Yet perhaps the most significant contribution of the book is the chapter, “Soul Freedom—a Divine Mandate?” Demonstrating the breadth of his knowledge and understanding of this doctrine and its concomitant universal “right” of religious freedom, Land carefully leads the reader on a journey through history, demonstrating that “America’s legacy of freedom is rooted in religiously informed convictions. The freedom we have been given is the same freedom to which all human beings—not just Americans—are entitled.”
Agree or disagree, every American should read this book.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary