In the last Crux, Don Veinot mentioned a discussion he and I are having about Christianity and political involvement.
Over the last few weeks several have contacted me asking if Christians should be involved with politics and if so to what degree. Jonathan Miles and I have been involved in a similar discussion ourselves and are thinking about writing a book on the question.
I thought I would take this opportunity to open up that discussion to you dear readers. Don and I have been having a brotherly tete-a-tete for a few months now. We agree on some things and perhaps disagree on others–all firmly within Christian charity and in the spirit of Christian liberty. In what follows I want to highlight some of the questions Don and I have been wrestling with and also to explain why we think the question of Christians and Political Involvement isn’t something to be settled by appeals to doctrine but really is a matter of conscience (However, unlike the about face the Watchtower made about organ transplants–our “matter of conscience” isn’t clever way of changing our position.) However, it should be noted that what is contained in this post is totally my own attempts to work out my faith (and by extension my politics) with fear and trembling. The reader should not assume that just because Don allows this post, that he agrees with it or that it is the “official” MOCI position on this issue.
So without further ado, let’s plunge into the discussion:
There is some sharp division within the Body of Christ over the issue of being a Christian and political involvement. On the one hand there is a sort of a “Christian Politics” and the urging to be involved to take back the nation for Christ at the political level. On the other hand there is the “Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. It isn’t in the Bible and the early church wasn’t involved. We need to focus on evangelism.”
There is a sharp division and several books have addressed the extremes represented by these two positions. A notable examples is Stephen L. Carter’s book God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics but the question has been studied long before this in Augustine’s City of God . There is a very good reason for this divide. Don mentions it when he says:
In the gospels Christ did not press His followers to be politically involved nor did He suggest to those who came to Him who were politically involved (the Roman Centurion for example) to get out of the political and/or military arena.
Christ didn’t profess a political philosophy and its a good thing too. As one of my smartest friends put it yesterday,”If he had a political philosophy, there would have been a point when the entire Judean countryside would have risen up to implement it.” This deliberate avoidance is the reason that Christianity has been divided about the role of Christians in politics.
In one sense there is an easy answer. If people should be involved in politics and Christians are people, then Christians should be involved in politics. This gets at Don’s point that there is no “Christian Politics” any more than there are “Christian mechanics.” And not to belabor the point, but it’s a good thing too. As C.S. Lewis put into the demonic voice of Screwtape, if Christians begin to think their politics is the most important part of the Christian involvement, then it’s a short step to their Christianity is the most important part of their politics. I should know. By nature I’m a political junkie. I would take intravenous doses of CNN, Fox News, and blogs from the left and right if I could. I thrive on the discussion. But here’s the thing, I care about the political scene for the same reason NASCAR fans care about the Winston Cup. There are heroes and villains, suspense and great crashes with lots of destruction. Sure I care about the country my son will grow up in but that’s not why I get involved with these debates.
And that’s the real question. If you ask me, “ Shouldn’t Christians be involved with politics?” I will ask simply, “What do you mean by ‘involved’?” If you mean “care or be concerned” about what roughly 1,000 elected and appointed officials can do to an entire society and future generations, then absolutely. Christians should be especially concerned that the entire legislative, judicial and executive branches are made up of flawed, sinful, totally depraved human beings who could not do one good thing apart from God’s mercy. But I don’t think that’s what we mean by “Care.”
Instead what we mean is something like, “Christians should care which values are behind laws and policies of our government.” Now we get at the heart of the matter for you see, as Don pointed out in his little stroll through the grave markers of Christian persecution, while Christians have always sought to preserve certain values, it wasn’t until the advent of democracy and republicanism that the average Christian had any say whatsoever as to the values of the laws they lived under. They literally had nothing to hope in but the trust that God would bless the Czar and keep him . . . far from us. Now thanks to all those Christian ideals of liberty we get democratic republics where Christians can influence the values of the laws they live under.
This allows for Christians to be involved with politics in a way that Paul never envisioned when he looked out the window at the Roman senate. The advent of democratic republicanism however like other gifts from the ancient world comes bearing the warning label that says, “Beware of Greeks (and Romans) bearing gifts.” The reason was highlighted so eloquently by one of my agnostic friends, “If you Christians truly think you have the best conception of the good life, why wouldn’t you want to implement it and if necessary by force?” Well I want to say something about grace and free will but his response to me is then why do you want to restrict my pornography?”
Allow me an analogy. Concieve of legislation as a big hammer. It makes dramatic changes in things when its used. It can be used for good purposes like building a house and bad purposes like assualt or just making alot of noise. Many of the Christians I talk to look at government like that. If government is a tool for social change then why not use it. At very least why shouldnt’t Christians influence who uses the hammer and why. We can use our political influence to persuade people that the hammer shouldn’t fall on the unborn. It can fall on porn producers etc. This is a fine analogy up to a point. Except that it overlooks two important things. It assumes that the hammer is a neutral tool that doesn’t take any moral toll as long as its weilded for good and it ignores the fact that if tyrants can be selfish, opportunistic and prideful–all the while sure they are doing good–so can legislatures.
Let me briefly explain. I contend that Christians need to rethink the assumption that government is a morally neutral instrument for inculcating values. I don’t think it is. There is a long tradition that says laws are good teachers of morality. This is mentioned by Norman Geisler and Robert George but it has a venerable pedigree all the way back to Aquinas (Geisler’s favorite philosopher) and Aristotle (Aquinas’ favorite philosopher!). But is was also Aquinas who said that law isn’t the answer for all moral evil. In fact Aquinas may be interpreted to say that the state should not burden its members more than God does. God allows some evils without approving of them. Aquinas applies this to fornication and includes prostitution (I’m not an Aquinas scholar by a long shot and welcome correction on this point).
Let me be blunt. If the justification for using the big hammer of legislation is to ensure virtue and tranquility then that project is not a Christian one specifically. Since our goal is the salvation of souls. It may be that civic virtue is admirable in itself but there is a danger that some non-Christians will settle for civic virtue instead of redemption. That leaves us with little more than better behaved unredeemed sinners. But, more importantly, Christians have a finite amount of social capital to spend with our society. If this is true, then it turns out that the question isn’t whether or not Christians should be concerned with the moral climate they must live in but how concerned should they be?
As for the second problem, ignoring the potential costs of the political method of social change, I will leave for my next post. I think I’ve stirred up enough hornets for one night. I invite your comments as Don and I sort this out.