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(Photo Credit: Union University)

(Photo Credit: Union University)

by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)

Tennessee-based Union University and the Witherspoon Institute hosted a May 2-4 conference entitled “Salt and Light in the Public Square: Charles Colson’s Legacy and Vision.” Union, a Southern Baptist college, chose to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Colson’s passing with a powerful line-up of thoughtful Christian speakers that addressed important issues for the public square. Himself a Southern Baptist, Chuck Colson not only worked tirelessly for prison reform, but also built ecumenical coalitions to advocate for life, marriage, and liberty.

Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George talked much of this “ecumenism of the trenches.” In both the Manhattan Declaration and Evangelicals & Catholics Together, George noted that Christians across denominational lines gathered in solidarity for “the protection of life and its dignity from conception until death” as well as the recognition of marriage as a “lifelong, covenantal union between one man and one woman.” This effort received criticism within Christian circles. More liberal naysayers condemned the Manhattan Declaration since “It’s the old right revived. It’s a partisan, political document.” Nevertheless, the seminarian contended, “At this moment in our culture, we are called to come together…across these classical confessional and denominational divides, and to stand together and to speak out together on behalf of life, and family, and liberty…[Since] right now, other questions are liminal issues. These three are a common base we can all agree on.” Fellow Christians critiqued, “This risks armchair, easy-going ecumenism…that minimizes differences.” Timothy George rejected both positions since the Manhattan Declaration is “an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.”

Dr. Timothy George argued that Christian provide the unique perspective that “God’s glory shines throughout all of creation and all people, including the least of these.” “God has put His stamp of approval on every human life as inherently worthy, worthy of dignity and full respect by all persons everywhere…The ‘is’ precedes the ‘ought.’ Before life is a right, it is a gift of Almighty God.” he declared. When asked about evangelical silence during the 1970s life debate, he replied, “We were too pietistic and individualistic at the time…It was never part of our catechesis or our formation.” Dr. Robert George jumped in to reveal the pre-existing rift between Catholics and evangelicals was exploited by the devil, as is the case with all Christian disunity.

Famed Princeton professor and Roman Catholic ethicist Robert P. George continued to explore the reasoning behind the Manhattan Declaration. He updated the audience on the status of important religious liberty court cases springing from the Health and Human Services mandate for religious groups to provide sterilizations, contraception, and abortifacients to employees. With his typical acumen, George explored the philosophical foundations for liberty. Conscience, “not a writer of permission slips,” has transformed from “a stern monitor” to “a right to self-will.” Nevertheless, states need “to overcome the powerful and broad presumption of religious liberty—to be justified in forcing the believer to disobey something contrary to his faith or forbidding the believer from doing something his faith requires, political authority must meet a heavy burden.”

“Certain liberties should be granted a kind of priority,” Professor George surmised. These include the freedom of association, assembly, speech, self-defense, and religion. All other rights are put into jeopardy if these liberties are infringed. “There will always be a tendency by the state to over-reach, co-opt, instrumentalize the institutions of civil society, which after all are competing power structures,” he furthered, “Their power limits central power.”

Indeed, both Georges do well by Colson’s legacy. They represent an erudite, disciplined, and winsome witness in America’s fiery public square. No doubt many Christians–Catholic and evangelical alike–pray that God would raise up more leaders of this stripe and caliber.