Religion and Republic: Politics as Stewardship

Note: The following is from a recent paper I wrote for a course I recently completed called ‘Christian Ethics’. I sought to explore a Christian’s relationship to the state that avoids Nationalism (i.e. USA as a “Christian nation” – it’s not) on the one hand and antipathy or disinterest on the other.

From Constantine to the Protestant Reformation Christianity enjoyed a privileged position in political authority. Even with the decline of Christendom around the time of the Reformation the Reformers still saw the church as having an influence upon the realm of kings and rulers. “From the outset, Protestanism was bound to cause political ripples” writes Alister McGrath. The effects of the Reformation were not limited to the realm of religious ideas. They directly affected the entire culture including politics. Many in the contemporary world have seen this as problematic and antithetical to the nature of the church . They would argue that there should be a very clear distinction between the church and the state. Gregory Boyd wrote his Myth of A Christian Nation precisely because he saw an American Christianity that too closely related itself with the Nation of the United States. In his words,

For many in America and around the world, the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ. Because the myth that America is a Christian nation has led many to associate America with Christ, many now hear the good news of Jesus only as American news, capitalistic news, imperialistic news, exploitive news, antigay news, or Republican news. And whether justified or not, many people want nothing to do with any of it.

The illustration of the cross smothered by the flag is powerful. Chuck Colson also warns against using the tools of politics to bring about the Kingdom of Christ.

This is an important and powerful corrective to much of Evangelical political thought. David Gushee published an incitful article at the website of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University. He identifies an unarticulated view of America that some Evangelicals hold that equates the United States with the Old Testament Nation of Israel. This is the mindset that Boyd, Colson and others are arguing against. It is usually expressed in language that seeks to “take back America”. David Gushee explains that this analogy (America as Israel) is inappropriate on two levels. “It makes for bad theology…[and] it makes for bad policy.” The bad theology informs and shapes the bad policy.

However, this does not mean Christians ought not have any involvement in politics. On the contrary, we have a responsibility to work for the good of those around us – Christian or not. Despite what they have been quoted as saying above both Boyd and Colson see Christian participation in politics as a necessary stewardship that is informed and shaped by the Gospel of Christ. These men, among others, are warning against identifying the church with the state. Carl Trueman in his Republocrat states this issue succinctly: “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” In a sermon on Matthew 5:13-14 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes a similar statement: “As Christians we are citizens of a country, and it is our business to play our part as citizens, and thereby act as salt indirectly in innumberable respects. But that is a very different thing from the Church’s doing so.” What is being envisioned in this paper is a Christian political involvement that avoids the extremes. Those extremes being the flag wrapped cross and the Christian-less public square.

Following the public embarrassment of the Scopes Trial of 1925 many fundamentalists removed themselves from the public square. Beginning in the 1940s a split began to take place among their ranks. The result was a fundamentalism that refused social action and the neo-evangelicals who saw it as their Christian responsibility to fight evil and social ills. McGrath explains this well,

In the 1920s and 1930s, fundamentalism turned its back on any attempt at social outreach. For reasons that are not entirely persuasive and rest more on imagined associations than on demonstrable convergences, many influential fundamentalists saw efforts to help the poor as betraying a commitment to liberal theology. After all, were not the proponents of the “social gospel” during the modernist controvery of the 1920s theological liberals? Until recently, fundamenalists tended to see Christian social action as limited purely to struggles for religious freedom and against abortion. For evangelicals, in contrast, the gospel clearly calls Christians to fight racism, sexism, and poverty as well.

The difference between the two was the issue of social action as a result of bad theology. As a result of their distorted view of the Kingdom the fundamentalists hung to their isolationism and removed themselves from cultural and political engagement. The evangelicals began to search for proper ways to “live out” the gospel while still proclaiming the gospel.

The reason the brief foray into american religious history is important for the purpose of this paper is that it is highly illustrative and helpful. Fundamentalists saw themselves as tasked with the purpose of redeeming Christian America and saving it from the Communists and Darwinists. When they failed (according to public consensus following the Scopes Trial) they retreated and are only heard from when one of their own does something absurd or rediculous. They embody the seclusion that is being argued against in this paper. The divergent group (Evangelicals) advocated a distinct approach. Casting off both the seclusion of their fundamentalist heritage and condemning the Christ-less social gospel they forged a path ahead that was both engaging and orthodox.

Russell Moore interacts with the well known Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry in his book The Kingdom of Christ. In the introductory chapter he comments on Henry’s new evangelical approach: “The new evangelical theologians maintained that their agenda was far from a capitulation to the Social Gospel, but was instead the conservative antidote to it. This was because, Henry argued, evangelicalism was a theology calling for engagement, not a program for engagement calling for a theology.” The reason this paper began with a look at the Scriptures was the embodiment of this exact statement. Evangelical political involvement is first determined by the Scriptures. The theology it teaches then shapes Christians involvement. And, as it concerns Evangelicals, theology makes engagement necessary.

As referenced in the above section on Scripture and the State, Romans 13 gives us a picture that is well summarized in the immortal words of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not…an inch in the entire domain of our human life of which Christ, who is sovereign of all, does not proclaim ‘Mine’”. Christians must acknowledge the absolute rule of Christ over all areas of human life on this planet. Second, we must avoid the mistakes of our fundamentalist forefathers in secluding ourselves from any involvement. Salt is worthless if it has no saltiness and if it’s kept in isolation in pantry. Salt’s preserving power and seasoning ability is found only in contact.

The words of Francis Beckwith are very helpful in this regard.

It seems clear that because Christians in a liberal democracy have the historically unique power to enact laws that advance the common good, they have a special obligation to take their citizenship seriously and use good judgment in voting and supporting legislation and poitical candidates. This is not to say that Christians will always agree on the proper route by which the government ought to advance the common good. But there is no doubt that they have a biblical mandate to advance it.

The truth of the American situation is that Christians can accomplish great moral good through political means. It is hard to avoid the example of William Wilberforce who used his political position to bring about moral reform in England over the issue of the slave trade. Christians ought to avoid the thought that we should not attempt to legislate morality. John and Paul Feinberg are helpful in this regard when they point out that morality is legislated every day. They issue the corrective that, “If Christians refuse to work for programs and policies that reflect their morality, they may find themselves legally forced to live under the immorality of the non-believing!”

It is precisely in this regard that Christians must be gospel-centered in our approach to politics. If our work of moral improvement becomes solely about morals we have betrayed our own fundamental commitment to the gospel which enables sinful humanity to seek to live a godly (i.e. moral) life. What is essential for Christian participation in the public square is a relenteless, articulate commitment to the gospel. It was the death and resurrection of Christ that shaped the Apostles understanding of the state and the Christians relationship to it.

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