Adventists were involved in public policy advocacy from the inception of our church. Not only were Adventists on the forefront of the effort to secure the God-given fundamental human right of religious freedom, but many Adventists were involved in the struggle for the abolition of slavery in the United States and the early women’s rights movement. The Adventist Church has long been at the forefront of the public health movement and has steadfastly worked to promote peace. Today, the Department of Public Affairs & Religious Liberty aims to not only continue in this tradition, but to increase the profile and impact of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the societies in which we exist.
In this effort, we adhere to three general principles:
1. Silence in the face of evil is not neutrality, it’s complicity
As Christians, we are called to be a voice for the voiceless, and a force for those who have no influence. In Isaiah 58 we are exhorted to “shout aloud” against the exploitation of the vulnerable. Ellen White echoed this sentiment, stating we fail to do the will of God if we sit quietly “doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience.” She further instructed good men and women that they “fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example – by voice and pen…” Today, the public affairs and religious liberty team aims to use our voice and our pen, video, audio and the internet, to effectively advocate for those who are mistreated in society.
A major focus of the PARL department is working to ensure that the God-given universal human right of religious freedom becomes a universal reality. It also works in cooperation with other church departments to advocate public policy positions on issues in areas as diverse as health, education, peace issues, environmental protection, women’s’ issues, children’s’ issues, the rights of prisoners, and aid and development.
2. While all laws should be moral, not all morality should be law
As Adventist Christians, we base our understanding of morality on Scripture. But that does not mean that we advocate for all injunctions found in the Bible to be enacted into state law. Rather, we follow a threefold approach to determining our view on whether a law or the manner in which a law is enforced is appropriate. First, we reject all laws that aim to regulate the relationship between God and humankind. Second, we support the careful analysis of the morality of all laws and the means in which they are enforced. Third, we respect that a free society requires space for individuals to engage in morally wrong conduct.
a) Adventists reject all laws designed to regulate the relationship between human beings and their Creator
Adventists reject entirely the idea that it is the State’s responsibility to regulate the relationship between human beings and their Creator. Hence we reject blasphemy laws, laws that mandate religious observances and rest days, State efforts to endorse one faith over another, and all other efforts that enmesh the State in regulating its citizens disposition towards faith.
b) Adventists support careful consideration of the moral implications of public policy that regulates individuals’ relationships between each other and between the individual and society
It is sometimes claimed that it is impossible to legislate morality. This simplistic slogan is based on a substantial misunderstanding of the relationship between law and morality. Not only can states regulate morality, but every piece of legislation and every enforcement decision is inevitably based on complex moral choices. Everything from tax policy through to social welfare programs, from foreign policy through to family law, from civil regulations through to criminal prosecutions are based on a moral reference. Even in the rare case that a policy maker may attempt to be completely amoral, he or she would be making a profound moral choice to do so.
Once it is acknowledged that all law is based on moral choices, the question naturally arises “who’s morality?” There are many competing theories of. and sources for, morality, but there is no “neutral” morality. That is to say, there is no way to make moral decisions without selecting the source of that morality, and in the process, lifting up one source over another.
It can be argued that only “secular” sources of morality are legitimate for analyzing the laws of secular nations. But secular nations are secular not because they actively reject religious morality and thereby become active in promoting an alternate morality, but because they remain neutral on matters of religion, relying on the democratic process to determine the morality that informs public policy (as noted in the previous section, this neutrality mandates that the state refrain from regulating the relationship between human beings and God). The Seventh-day Adventist Church makes no apology for promoting the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as the best moral reference for not just individual lives, but, within the constraints of the critical caveats included in the proceeding and subsequent sections, the public policy that shapes the way in which society is organized and individuals relate to each other.
That said, we recognized that the state is not the source of morality and that it is neither feasible nor desirable for the state to legislate many facets of interpersonal morality.
c) In a free society, individuals must be able to make bad moral choices that do not cause serious proximate harm to others
In a free society, individuals must be permitted do make both good and bad moral choices, just as Christ Himself permitted those around Him to freely accept or reject Him and his teachings. While Christ permitted individuals to make bad moral choices, however, He castigated those who stand by and do nothing to protect those seriously impacted by bad moral choices (see, e.g., Matthew 25). Hence, while the PARL Department recognizes the need for society to permit individuals the freedom to make bad moral choices, it simultaneously supports public policy designed to protect the innocent victims of such bad moral choices.
As all immoral activity creates some level of third party harms, it can be difficult to draw a precise line when society should act to protect victims and when it should not. In performing its policy analysis, the PARL Department considers how direct and how severe the third party harm created by a given bad moral choice is. Due to the sometimes complex judgment necessary in such situations, the decisions to become involved on a given issue can sometimes be controversial. It is better to have an honest analysis and make the best judgment call possible in a complicated world, however, than to abrogate the responsibilities to contribute our insights and our influence to the communities in which we are citizens. As Ellen White put it, “Every individual exerts an influence in society... Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue?”
3. Just because we can say something, doesn’t mean we have something to say
In tension with the first principle that guides our work, is this third principle. While the Seventh-day Adventist Church has a remarkably broad range of interests, there is a limit to number of issues our public policy team can focus on and make a meaningful contribution. As we determine on an ongoing basis the issues we will focus on, we keep in mind our relevant expertise, the level of unanimity of our members on a given issue, the level of resources already invested on a given issue, and whether speaking publicly in a specific instance is the best means to accomplish our goals.
There is nothing less attractive, or more common, than entities weighing in with a pretense of authority on matters on which they enjoy little expertise. For example, Ellen White reproved early Adventist church officials for advocating various aspects of monetary policy – something that while it has a tremendous impact on poverty, the church leaders were ill equipped to analyze. Today we have to face with humility that while the Adventist Church has a tremendous depth of expertise on some issues, for example preventative health, education and religious freedom, there are many questions of public policy on which we have no greater insight than any other entity.
Related to the question of expertise, is the question of whether there is substantial membership support for a particular position on a question of public policy. There are many issues upon which the range of views within the church makes enunciating a unified view on the nuances of public policy virtually impossible. While church leaders must lead, leaders should not create dissonance with the membership unless there is a clear and compelling moral imperative to do so. On many public policy questions on which Adventists lack substantial agreement, such a clear and compelling moral imperative does not exist.
Another limitation that assists the PARL Department focus its efforts is that we do not want to put our limited resources into issues that have already attracted a crowded field. Adventists could put all our public policy effort into environmental issues, for example, but there are many well staffed, well financed entities with deep expertise, well refined positions and who are well integrated into the public policy debates on this issue. Thus, even if we dedicated all our public policy efforts on the issue, it would amount to a rather small contribution to an already very crowded field. There are many other similarly well resourced issue areas. We want to use our resources where we can make the most impact. And, as it turns out, the areas we have traditionally emphasized – freedom of conscience, preventative healthcare, holistic education and non-combatancy, are areas that are generally not well resourced.
Finally, our work requires wisdom and a deft touch. Unlike many advocacy organizations, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has the strength of an international constituency that is very real and growing rapidly. This means that we have to consider the impact of our public advocacy on our church’s mission in total, and specifically on our members in the nations on which we advocate. When we speak publicaly on repression in a given nation, for example, we must always be mindful of the likely impact our public advocacy will have on our members in that nation. We therefore consult continually with our colleagues around the world, and carefully consider the cultural and political realities in each nation before we determine how best to engage repressive governments. Sometimes the best way to act is quietly and other times it is to work through intermediaries. And sometimes the best path is to publicize the abuse. We pray daily for the wisdom to know when to use which method.
The General Conference Department of Public Affairs & Religious Liberty aims to, as Ellen White put it, “raise high the banner of truth and religious liberty.” It is a complex work that comes with many challenges and, at time, substantial frustrations. But it is a very exciting and rewarding work. Together with our other church Departments and working hand in hand with our membership around the world, our goal is to be a positive influence to lift up society and, in the process, lift up our Savior.