Rethinking Religion and Politics
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.
There is no question that religion is a major force in American life. The question for author Sam Harris is, should it be? In his first book, The End of Faith, written after the 9/11 attacks, and his new book, Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris argues forcefully that religion is such a destructive force in the world today that the goals of civilization are best served by taking religion out of our lives, especially our public lives.
We launched our two-part discussion on religion and politics with an interview with Sam Harris yesterday. Today we hear two voices from the other side, both Christians, both ministers, both activists, but with very different politics.
One is an evangelical pastor who says he was an agnostic who came to God through science. He is now working to organize clergy to support conservative candidates. The other is a minister - a founder of the African-American Ministers Leadership Council - is a long-time civil rights activist.
And we'd like to hear from you. The same question we had yesterday: Is religion the problem or the answer? If religion is based on faith and not reason, what is religion's role in determining public policy? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And joining us now from his office in Lancaster, Ohio, is Russell Johnson. He is pastor of the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Pastor RUSSELL JOHNSON (Pastor, Fairfield Christian Church): It's good to be with you today.
MARTIN: Do you prefer reverend or pastor?
Pastor JOHNSON: Pastor is fine.
MARTIN: Okay, Pastor, Pastor Johnson, thank you. You not only believe that God has a place in politics but you believe the faithful should actively get involved in political life. Why?
Pastor JOHNSON: I sense that faith should be based in reason, and it's very reasonable for people to get their faith beyond stained glass windows and beyond singing a few nice songs on Sunday morning. Our key thing is pray, serve and engage. Pray for your neighbors, serve people down the street and engage. That means get informed, register, vote and take people with you to vote.
MARTIN: Now Harris says that religion is a destructive force in part because there are competing claims to ultimate truth and these claims cannot be reconciled. But if you take seriously the fact that other religious people believe that their religious practices, beliefs offer ultimate truth in the same way that yours does, and you recognize the power of that in your life and you recognize the power of that in their lives, and you recognize that you don't agree necessarily on the same things, that given how combustible that is, the only choice, the only rational choice, is to remove that entirely. How would you respond to that?
Pastor JOHNSON: I just sense it's extreme to say that all religion is destructive and evil and it's not built on reason. I came out of agnosticism because secularism became very dogmatic among some of my teachers. And candidly I began exploring extreme secularism that I, for a while, bought into.
Candidly, I saw architecture in nature. I saw design and I saw engineering in a breath, rods and cones in my eyes that discriminate color. I began to say, you know, there is a creator, there's an artist and there's intelligent design behind the cardiovascular system. You know, molecules clouding in the cosmos don't give us eyesight. So I began to explore - came to faith through reason, through science built on facts. Now...
MARTIN: Because it seems logical to you. It makes sense to you.
Pastor JOHNSON: It makes sense that there's a creator, and windstorms don't go through a junkyard building 747 Boeing jets. You have to be a dogmatic secularist to believe that somehow spontaneous generation has given us from ooze to you by way of the zoo, you know.
I sense candidly that our faith ought to be expressed. I would probably agree with Sam Harris that if all religious expression looked like the Taliban or jihadists - I would certainly say that if you're going to make a sweeping generalization about all people of faith based on isolated incidences, you can come to an extreme conclusion, and that's in a sense what he's done.
MARTIN: But his argument is that - and I understand - and forgive me that I can understand where this would be offensive to some, and so I would apologize for that, but if you'll allow me to give his argument for us so that we can hear your reaction to it.
Pastor JOHNSON: Sure, go ahead.
MARTIN: That his argument is that the Taliban feel that they are right, ultimate - and have ultimate truth in the same way that you feel that you have discovered ultimate truth, and that they have arrived at their ultimate truth through reason and that the two of you don't agree. So since you don't agree and you're not going to ever agree, and if you take each other seriously, the only logical approach here is to remove that worldview from your public discourse. How would you - how do you respond?
Pastor JOHNSON: I would say that he's taken two plus two to equal 22. And I'm telling you it follows no real line of logic. The Taliban wants to impose their ideas, and they use slavery to do it. We want to propose ideas, and that requires freedom, freedom of choice; people are free to choose to believe in God or not. If you were to put a mosque next door to us, we'd probably mow their lawn and play golf together. If you put a church next to a mosque in Islamabad, you could be in for some serious danger. Why? They're into imposing their ideas through slavery, and that's how come women and children are treated like cattle.
We would say Christianity is about proposing an idea that, one, there's a creator; that, two, that Jesus Christ is his resurrected son offering hope and forgiveness for those who will receive that. Now if you choose not to believe that, I'm going to pray for you. I'm not going to burn your house down.
MARTIN: Sam Harris I think would argue that Christians do impose their beliefs on others through public policy initiatives that would restrict abortion and would restrict gay marriage, or would bar gay marriage, and prohibit stem cell research because of their particular values...
Pastor JOHNSON: (unintelligible)
MARTIN: ...that animate their judgments (unintelligible)...
Pastor JOHNSON: Sure.
MARTIN: And his argument would be that that's an imposition of your values onto others who may or may not share your views. How do you respond to that?
Pastor JOHNSON: Yeah. There were people in the Third Reich that thought they had every right to burn Jews because the Jews, they felt, were not quite evolved into the Aryan race. And candidly, the extreme dogmatic evolution of Hitler caused him to be arrogant and abusive of the Jewish people.
Well, I think that our present-day secular arrogance has at times led us to where we think we can decapitate unborn babies in the name of choice. And I would say that's a human right. Just as people stood - Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against those who were abusing Auschwitz - I sense we need to stand against the evil of abortion.
When it comes to marriage, I think it's a time-honored husband and wife, male and female, as a creative miracle of God, and I think we need to honor that. If people choose to live homosexual lifestyles, that's their business. They should not try to have the state to sanction something that the vast majority of us, you know, believe is a deviant lifestyle.
MARTIN: But, Pastor, if I may, the argument that Sam Harris is making is that your objection to abortion is based on your understanding of ultimate truth...
Pastor JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: ...based upon your faith.
Pastor JOHNSON: Sure.
MARTIN: His argument is if I don't share those beliefs, what right do you have to regulate my behavior based on your beliefs?
Pastor JOHNSON: (unintelligible)
MARTIN: And that is what his argument is that it is coercive in the same way. What do you say?
Pastor JOHNSON: No, I think that Sam Harris is the one being coercive. I think Sam is saying in the End of Faith, Christians should not have citizenship and that we secularists, who obviously are more reasonable he'd say, ought to be running the ship of state and not people who are folks who are involved with celebrating Christmas and Resurrection at Easter. And I think that he needs to be more tolerant.
I think when it comes to stem cell research, I think he needs to be more truthful. We're not opposed to stem cell research. We're opposed to embryonic stem cell research, the harvesting of body parts from unborn babies. Now candidly, we're just one step away from creating synthetic wombs and harvesting kidneys and brain tissues, for instance, for Parkinson's research.
I think that what science is capable of doing is not only helping people, I think science can help people through stem cell research with umbilical cord blood, with adult stem cells. But I think the sweeping generalization that we're opposed to science and stem cell research is hyperbole and deception, and they intentionally do it. They know good and well that we're not against science.
Pastor JOHNSON: I'm a benefactor of science.
MARTIN: Pastor, I'm going to try to take a call here from Buffalo, New York, and Eric(ph). Eric, what's your comment or question?
ERIC (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.
MARTIN: You're welcome.
ERIC: I just had - I had a comment. I do, first of all, believe that religion and public life should be separated, but I disagree with the point that all religions are destructive. I believe that religions rather are catalysts for destruction based on the point that they have opposing views and opposing religions. And I don't believe that we could - we can incorporate all religions. And being that they're opposing, we can't pick and choose a few, so it's only fair that we negate them all from public life.
MARTIN: Eric, I'm - your line is breaking up a little bit, so I'm going to let you go, but thank you for your question.
Pastor JOHNSON: And right there, if I might, just for a moment...
MARTIN: Yes. No, Pastor, I want to hear from you.
Pastor JOHNSON: I sense there's a couple of things. One, I think that people who do not believe that we should have a voice should have a voice. I'm not trying to restrict Sam Harris from writing books or sharing his opinion. But for him to try to say that churches ought to be muzzled and people of faith - Billy Graham and Franklin Graham and people like Russell Johnson, myself, should be silenced because we're people of faith is rather intrusive.
I think the only time that we need to be seriously concerned about religion is when it comes to when they say my religion tells me to kill innocent people in Manhattan. That kind of extreme Islamic fascism, that kind of - should be addressed as evil, and we need to fight against that because I sense when they get weapons of mass destruction - not if, but when - these people have billions to buy things that cost millions. And Musharraf is probably...
MARTIN: Pastor, I'm sorry. We need to take a short break. We're talking about religion and public life. Our guest today is Pastor Russell Johnson. More after this short break, as well as your calls. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. We're talking with Pastor Russell Johnson about the role of religion in public life. Pastor Johnson leads a congregation at the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio.
This is the second part of our conversation that we began yesterday with the author Sam Harris. Right now, we want to hear from you. If religion is based on faith and not reason, what is religion's role in determining public policy? Is religion the problem or the answer? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can e-mail us at email@example.com.
And, Pastor Johnson, before the break, you were making a point. If you would refresh us.
Pastor JOHNSON: Yes, I sense that if terrorists in the name of faith are bent on destroying innocent people, we need to address that. But to lump all religion as jihadist is overstating. And candidly, you have to ignore hospitals - I mean for somebody to make a statement like Sam Harris made you'd have to ignore the missionary work.
My aunt and uncle are buried in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They gave themselves on behalf of hill people between Thailand and China. And my grandfather went as a medical missionary in 1921. There have been missionaries and people who've labored and loved and served. I've got a young man from our church, Chris Hoffman(ph), who went to Africa. I talked to him last week. He'll receive 10 flights a week of food into the southern part of Sudan in the name of his faith.
I just sense that there's not been a lot of reporting on these literally hundreds of thousands of servants in the name of faith. A lady, 38 years, gives her life to the northern African people. Last week she's shot in the back by Islamic jihadists because the pope said something that he didn't approve of. To me that kind of religious expression is dangerous and should be - we need to see that as the face of evil.
MARTIN: Pastor, I don't think that he's ignorant of the good works that these missionaries do. I think his argument is that good works can be done without faith...
Pastor JOHNSON: I think that he needs to do (unintelligible).
MARTIN: ...that, for example, groups like Doctors Without Borders, for example - you're familiar with Doctors Without Borders, which also are people who minister to - I guess they wouldn't use the word minister, would they? - who serve people in very dangerous locations and do risk their lives, do that absent the animation of faith.
Pastor JOHNSON: Doctors Without Borders do use the word minister, minister through medicine.
Pastor JOHNSON: And I sense this...
Pastor JOHNSON: ...candidly, if Sam Harris wants to do good things in the name of Sam Harris, let him do that. But if we have people who want to serve - Mother Teresa in India, in the name of Christ, she needs to have the freedom to do that as well. And for him to criticize the Mother Teresas of the world and the dear people who've given themselves on behalf of their faith is rather arrogant.
MARTIN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Religion and faith have played an important role in shaping the African-American community and its politics. Reverend Timothy MacDonald has been a long-time civil rights activist. He is pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and is president of Concerned Black Clergy. He joins us now from member station WABE FM in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Reverend MacDonald, thank you for joining us.
Reverend TIMOTHY MACDONALD (Pastor, First Iconium Baptist Church): Glad to be with you and just listening and taking it all in.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, what do you - let me start with where we started with Pastor Johnson. What do you make of Sam Harris' argument that religion is a destructive force, and that as a consequence, because it addresses competing and irreconcilable claims to ultimate truth, that the only rational thing to do is to remove it from our public discourse. What's your thought?
Reverend MACDONALD: Religion in and of itself is not dangerous. It's the interpretation of religion that can become dangerous, and that is from Islamic as well as Christian perspective. I mean if we are a literalist in our interpretation of the Bible, then as an African-American I'd probably still be a slave and still be sitting in the back of the bus and be content and no woman would be able to say anything in the church. And in fact, if I shaved my head, I would be going against the commandments of God.
I think the difference is is whether or not we are literalists in our interpretation or whether we leave room for our faith to be dynamic, whether or not we leave room for God to speak to us just as he spoke in the days of Noah and Moses and others.
What I think brother Dr. Harris missed is that even atheism, in my opinion - I was a philosophy major myself - is a form of religion, and we need to be careful.
My religion comes out of my faith and my belief. His religion comes out of his non-faith and his non-belief. But it is his ultimate concern, as Kierkegaard said, that which is your ultimate concern indeed is your religion. So for him to think that he is excused just because he claims to be an atheist from religious expression. And his expression wants us to not be involved; his expression, religious expression, wants us to understand that we can be extremists and cause all kind of things to happen is a form of religion in and of itself.
There are competing sides in the faith community, absolutely. I am not a literalist interpreter of the word of God. I do have some problem with the radical religious right, who, on occasion, have sought to impose their faith beliefs on the rest of American society. People used the Bible to justify slavery for years and years and years, and then they go to church on Sunday morning and say praise God, from whom all blessings flow. And they would come back on Monday and whip and rape and saw no contradictions whatsoever.
I think that our religion is evolving as God is speaking to us in new and dynamic ways, and we have to be open to the spirit. We don't serve a dead God. We serve a God who is involved in our history, that God who calls us to diversity and to understanding that if he wanted us all to be alike, he would have created us alike.
MARTIN: Pastor, hold on a second. Okay? Because I want to address - you've given us a lot to work with here - but I want to go back to Sam Harris' argument. He clearly is highly critical of fundamentalists and/or conservative Christians. But he is equally critical of liberal or moderate Christians who he says are so tolerant that they don't really take religion seriously, they don't take their own beliefs seriously and that they don't really take seriously the claims, the ultimate claims of truth that are being made other religions.
And he believes that this kind of religious tolerance that is embraced by liberal Christians actually stops discussion of the kinds of things that Pastor Johnson was talking about, about the violence that we have seen expressed by persons (unintelligible).
Reverend MACDONALD: Well, I think that's absurd.
MARTIN: What do you say to that?
Reverend MACDONALD: That's absurd, because we're having a discussion even now. Because one is tolerant doesn't mean that you stop discussing. I had a professor who was an atheist, and some of my best discussions and my best theological exchange was with the atheist. Because we are tolerant doesn't mean that we tolerate everything. I mean nobody in their right mind would tolerate the killing of innocent people and do it as an act of faith. I think he takes it to the extreme.
What I disagree with Dr. Harris on, for him it's either black or white, it's either or, and he doesn't leave room for discussion for growth, for exchange. He wants a simplistic answer to everything, and life just is not that simple.
Pastor JOHNSON: (unintelligible)
MARTIN: But - Pastor Johnson, you want to get back in but hold on a second. I want to go to a caller for second. Let's go to Charlotte, North Carolina, and Melissa(ph). And, Pastor Johnson, I promise to get you back in.
Pastor JOHNSON: Yeah, that's fine.
MELISSA (Caller): Yeah, hi. Sorry, my kids are screaming. I just was calling to say that I think people of faith have a responsibility to take part in social action, and so I would disagree with Sam Harris, and I would agree with your - the pastors that are on today. Even though I disagree with the positions that the pastor from Lancaster takes on things like gay marriage, I still think that there's a really big role, big and important role, that churches as voluntary associations take in our democracy.
MARTIN: Melissa, can I just ask you - and I understand that you're multitasking here. You're taking care of the little ones and trying to talk to us, and we appreciate it. But do you - what about Sam Harris' argument that liberal Christians are providing a fig leaf, in essence, for persons whose views are less tolerant and making it harder to - really, in essence, making it harder to take seriously the intolerance of other religions, that they actually provide cover for folks whose views are more divisive than theirs and make it harder to call them to account? What would you say to that?
MELISSA: I guess I would agree with your - the second pastor that was talking about just that - I don't know. That's kind of tough question. I'm sorry. I don't really understand the question.
MARTIN: No, it's okay. No, but it's OK, Melissa. Thank you so much for calling.
MELISSA: Thank you.
MARTIN: These are hard things.
MARTIN: Right? Important things are worth grappling over, wouldn't you agree, pastors both? Pastor Johnson?
Pastor JOHNSON: (unintelligible) Dr. Harris...
Pastor JOHNSON: ...has at times become dogmatic in his atheism.
Reverend MACDONALD: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pastor JOHNSON: ...and really needs to be a little more open. And I think it's been easy for some folks to whitewash, in a sense, conservatives as to those who protected slavery when in fact some of our finest friends are like Ken Blackwell, who's running for governor here in Ohio, is a black man who certainly appreciates the freedom and the Emancipation Proclamation and considers himself a conservative.
I think that for our liberal friends to assume that the only ones with compassion are those who are on the left side of the ledger, I think that's overstating it. I think we can learn from each other, we can grow from each other. But it is myopic, it is nearsighted historically to say that people of faith should not have a place of the public table.
MARTIN: Reverend MacDonald, can I ask you to grapple with the question, since I take it you disagree with Pastor Johnson on some of these policy issues that concern us today, like stem cell research and perhaps abortion. And so, the question then becomes - I asked Pastor Johnson this earlier - when you have points of view that cannot be reconciled, the argument that Sam Harris makes is that religion then becomes coercive, that it becomes a vehicle by which some impose their beliefs on others who do not share them. And how do you as man of faith address that?
Reverend MACDONALD: Well, I don't that public policy religion should be in the bedroom, period. And I think that any time when we seek to impose legislation that becomes public policy for the whole nation as diverse as America is, then we're treading on dangerous grounds.
Certainly I think that Pastor Johnson and myself probably are much closer on issues of abortion and some other issues, but I don't think we should be legislating that. I don't think that we should be passing constitutional amendments. I don't think that the government should be getting in the business of people's personal individual choices and freedoms. Let the churches do that. I mean, let the imams, let the rabbis, let the pastors, let the reverends, handle that. And not have government seek to legislate that.
On stem cell research, I mean, clearly the community of faith is divided on that issue. Christians are divided on that issue. George Bush and Nancy Regan are divided on that issue. Members of the religious right are even divided on the issue. And so that when we find theses kinds of division, don't think that it's all or nothing, and that's where I disagree with Dr. Harris. That he wants to throw the baby out with the bath because religious folk can't get their act together.
Religious folk can't ever have their act together. We've never been homogenous, except that we, you know, say we believe in God. Once you get beyond that -even talking about Jesus - you're going to find a great deal of division. So keep our faith in the faith quarters and not in legislation. And now we're trying to pass legislation that pastors can endorse from the pulpits and can raise money and give to candidates. That violates separation of church and state.
And what concerns me is not so much the state, as what is going to happen to the church. And so we have to be very careful that those of us who have been identified as on the left hold in check those religious leaders who are on the right. That they don't go over too far and be in the pockets of politicians, carrying the water or imposing their faith beliefs on politicians until it gets to the point of legislation.
MARTIN: Excuse me, gentlemen - I'm sorry, gentleman - I need to just pause briefly to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Pastor Johnson, please go ahead - and when you hear Reverend MacDonald say that, you know, we agree on the morality of these questions, but I don't agree that we should be legislating, what do you say?
Pastor JOHNSON: Well, it's like Abraham Lincoln saying that I can't take my convictions about faith and slavery to the White House. His convictions about slavery brought the Emancipation Proclamation. And to say I can divorce morality from my public service, I can divorce my faith from public service, is somewhat - let me say you can't separate life that easily.
And I think Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton have been very active in the political field and some of my friends on the left have said nothing. In fact, some of my religious friends on the left own some of the most expensive real estate in the world in downtown Washington, D.C. And they're upset because conservatives have begun to organize.
I think if they're serious about becoming non-political, they should sell their headquarters that are across from the Capitol building that is really a veneer for lobbyists. And it's been there for 40 years.
MARTIN: Pastor Johnson, if someone were to say to you that we need you to stop participating in public life, could you do that? I mean, would you feel that you were not fulfilling your Christian witness?
Pastor JOHNSON: Jesus said, Be the light of the world, sit on a hill. Be the salt of the Earth. And he says refuse to be hid. And I think when it comes to life and marriage and embryonic stem cell research or harvesting body parts of unborn babies, we sense that we have a place that we need to make a stand. I would agree with our friend there, Reverend MacDonald, that we don't endorse the candidates from the pulpit.
We don't do that. I do personally as a citizen feel I still have a responsibility there. I do not from the pulpit campaign for certain people, but I do stand for biblical issues. When politics like slavery - slavery was a political and a moral and a faith issue and America needed to repent of her selfishness in abusing my black brothers and sisters. And that's where you see some of that that does cross over the line occasionally.
Reverend MACDONALD: Yeah, I think we have far more in common than we have that is dissimilar, but again it's a matter of interpretation. Even when you talk about Abraham Lincoln, because you will find a number of African American pastors and parishioners who believe that Lincoln did not free slaves. It was to save the Union. It had nothing to do with his views about slavery. And I think I'm pretty much in that category myself, though I still admire and respect Abraham Lincoln.
We have Watch Night services. Many of my white friends ask me what is Watch Night service. We had Watch Night services because blacks assembled on January the 1st - at night of January the 1st, starting on December 31st - because that's when slavery officially was supposed to end. So since the Emancipation Proclamation, in most black churches across the churches across the country we have Watch Night services. And our white brothers and sisters don't have a clue what we're talking about.
So what we have to do is find out where we agree. And there are going to be times when we disagree. I disagree when we talk about vouchers. I disagree when we talk about welfare and the myths around welfare. I disagree when we impose certain rules around Medicaid and the most vulnerable that the Bible has called us to take care of, the children, the poor and the elderly. And we are hurting them rather than helping them - in the name of God we are hurting them.
Then I think there has to be a voice that cries in the wilderness.
MARTIN: Gentlemen, I'm sorry, gentlemen, we need to take another short break. My guests are Reverend Timothy MacDonald. He's pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. And Pastor Russell Johnson.
We're going to come back from a short break. Plus, a survivor of a midair collision over the Amazon and your letters. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: Right now we're wrapping up our conversation about religion and public policy. Our guests are Russell Johnson. He is pastor of the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio. And Reverend Timothy MacDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He's joining us from member station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia.
Reverend MacDonald, will you please pronounce the name of your church for me so I can get it right one time before we -
Reverend MACDONALD: Iconium, it comes from the word icon - Iconium - and it's the Book of Acts, one of the cities that Paul was kicked out of, believe it or not.
MARTIN: Okay. All right. Thank you. Thank you for clarifying that. I was going to say we need to get right one time at least in this hour.
Let's go to Buffalo, New York and Kathleen.
KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was listening to your program yesterday with Sam Harris and he made a passing comment. Something to the effect of if we were all to live by the Bible, you know, we would start stoning people who had committed adultery.
And the first thing I thought of was yes, that's true, that is in the Bible, which I believe to be the word of God, but it was also in the Old Testament before the coming of Jesus Christ who, you know, taught us things like do onto others and turn the other cheek.
And it got me started thinking about stereotypes and misconceptions and I'm wondering if your guests can speak to how things like stereotypes and misconceptions can serve to sort of undermine the purpose of Christians today.
MARTIN: Okay. Kathleen, thank you.
KATHLEEN: You're welcome.
Pastor JOHNSON: A form of, Michel, of intellectual deception, candidly it's been forwarded by Sam Harris being an exceptional student of a secular system that was more intent on social engineering than education. And I think that the radical and dogmatic secular educational system at times has raised up a lot of folks who have some misconceptions about Bible believing people like your listener.
MARTIN: Reverend MacDonald?
Reverend MACDONALD: Yeah. And I just understand that regardless to what Sam Harris says, his atheism is a religion and he needs to understand that.
Pastor JOHNSON: Right.
Reverend MACDONALD: And he is seeking to impose his will upon Christians who disbelieve in what he believes in. I wanted to make a couple of other points that in terms of contradictions that we sometimes see. I think that Dr. Harris does raise some legitimate points.
In the Christian faith we don't always agree on everything. But our Congress just passed a voter ID bill that was spearheaded primarily by the radical religious right - in my opinion - who put pressure on certain legislators who are afraid that they're about to lose power. And it's easier to vote now in Iraq than it is to vote in certain states in the United States. And if we pass that bill it will be even harder. And it's said in the name of fraud. There's never been documented one person who went to the polls to vote claiming to be somebody that they're not.
Another contradiction in my opinion is the whole immigration issue, which is looming large in our country. Well, the Bible speaks in the Old and the New Testament about strangers and hospitality to strangers and how Jesus sent out his disciples and told them not to carry anything with them. And now all of this hate and hostility towards our Hispanic and African and Asian brothers and sisters. I don't understand it coming from Christians.
Pastor JOHNSON: I'll agree with you, Reverend MacDonald, about immigration. That certainly we need to be hospitable. I think that candidly we need to make sure that we're not allowing drugs to come into America and terrorism to come into America through the name of hospitality.
And I certainly - my aunt and uncle have helped many Asian people come out of communist China and other places to be here. They're buried now in northern Thailand. And yet, immigration I would fully agree, but we also need some rhyme and reason to make sure we're not allowing terrorists and drug dealers, you know, to come in through the name of immigration.
MARTIN: I'd like to take one more call, if we can. I'd like to go to Lawrence, Kansas and Jason. Jason, what's your comment or question?
JASON (Caller): Hi.
JASON: Hi, can you hear me?
MARTIN: We can.
JASON: My comment was something about you had talked a little bit about earlier. I do agree with one of the reverends, you know, as a person of faith that you do - it's unavoidable. I mean, you have to take your beliefs to the ballot box. I mean, you can't just leave them behind. But at the same time, I think there's something to be said for not stepping beyond that and trying to recruit legislators to do what you want them to do, you know, and to go beyond that and try to impose your views on people, as you said, who don't share them.
I think there was an article that I read recently that talked about how, you know, the more we involve - the more Christians involve themselves in politics, the more they become like the world, instead of becoming separate from the world, and I didn't know if your pastors wanted to talk about that.
MARTIN: Jason, may I ask you a question, though? What about Pastor Johnson's point, which is that at some point, pursuing your ultimate truth through your faith does require change and the example that he cites, has cited repeatedly, is that of slavery, that this country did have a policy of tolerance. You know, slavery was permitted in some areas but not permitted in others and that the -and you know, we can argue about whether the ultimate purpose of the Civil War was to free the slaves, but the effect is it did, and that that struggle was animated through faith, which did impose a belief system on others who did not share it, i.e., slaveholders. So how do you reconcile that?
JASON: Oh no, I mean, I agree. I agree that that was a real problem, and I agree that Christians have, unlike the first pastor who spoke - I agree with the second pastor that Christians have often used the Bible to justify lots of horrendous things, and I think we need to acknowledge that. I mean, it's not just the Taliban that have done bad things, so.
MARTIN: Okay, Jason. Thank you so much for calling. Pastor Johnson and Reverend MacDonald, I would like us to grapple again if we can in the last couple of minutes that we have left over this question or what is to occur when we have competing claims to ultimate truth that animate out beliefs.
Pastor JOHNSON: I think we ought to pray for each other. I think we hear other, listen. I certainly believe that Reverend MacDonald and Sam Harris have their views, and that's wonderful. I would hope that I have the right to express mine, and if Christians are expressing their views against slavery or against abortion, that shouldn't be - they shouldn't muzzle the church, and we still have a responsibility to be citizens.
MARTIN: I think we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you. Pastor Russell Johnson, he's pastor of the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio. He joined us from his office in Lancaster, Ohio. Pastor, thank you so much. And Reverend Timothy MacDonald is Pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He joined us from member station WABE FM in Atlanta, Georgia. Reverend, thank you so much for being with us, also.
Reverend MACDONALD: Thank you. I enjoyed the conversation.
Pastor JOHNSON: Have a good day.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.