DO CHRISTIANS BELONG IN POLITICS?
By: Charles W. Colson
Both the City of God and the city of man are vital to society-and they must remain in delicate balance. “All human history and culture,” one historian observed, “may be viewed as the interplay of the competing values of these….two cities.” Wherever they are out of balance, the public good suffers.
I have brooded over this dilemma since the mid ’70s. My concerns deepened each year as the conflict intensified between the body politic and the body spiritual. A variety of questions plagued me: To what extent can Christians affect public policy? Is there a responsible Christian political role? In a pluralistic society, is it right to seek to influence or impose Christian values? How are the rights of the nonreligious protected? Are there mutual interests for both the religious and the secular? Is it possible to find common ground? What does the experience of history say to us today? What would God have us understand about this torn and alienated world-or, considering the mess we’ve made, has He given up on us?
Both church and state assert standards and values in society; both seek authority; both compete for allegiance. As members of both the religious and the political spheres, the Christian is bound to face conflict.
The conflict is particularly apparent in the Judeo-Christian tradition because of the assertion that the God of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures is King. That has been an offense to the proud and powerful since the beginning-and the reason Jews and Christians alike have been systematically persecuted.
The tension between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man runs like an unbroken thread through the history of the past 2,000 years. It began not long after Christ’s birth. Herod, the Roman appointed king over the Jews and as vicious a tyrant as ever lived, was gripped with fear when the Magi arrived from the East seeking the “King of the Jews.” Though not a believer, Herod knew the ancient Jewish prophecies that a child would be born to reign over them, ushering in a Kingdom of peace and might.
Herod called the Magi to his ornate throne room. In what has become common practice in the centuries since, he tried to manipulate the religious leaders for political advantage. He told them to go find this King in Bethlehem so he too could worship Him.
The rest of the story is familiar. The Magi found Jesus but were warned in a dream to avoid Herod and return to the East. Jesus’ parents, similarly warned, escaped with their son to Egypt-just ahead of Herod’s marauding soldiers who massacred all the male children of Jesus’ age in and near Bethlehem.
Herod didn’t fear Jesus because he thought He would become a religious or political leader. He had suppressed such opponents before. Herod feared Christ because He represented a Kingdom greater than his own.
Jesus, on the other hand, grew up to become remarkably indifferent to those who held political power. He had no desire to replace Caesar or Pilate with His apostles Peter or John. He gave civil authority its due, rebuking both the Zealots and Peter for using the sword.
This infuriated the religious right of His day. Eager to discredit Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians tried trapping Him over the question of allegiance to political authority.
“Tell us,” they asked, “is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
The question put Jesus in the middle: If He said no, He would be a threat to the Roman government; if He said yes, He would lose the respect of the masses who hated the Romans.
Jesus asked them for a coin. It was a Roman denarius, the only coin that could be used to pay the hated yearly poll tax. On one side was the image of the Emperor Tiberius, around which were written the words Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.
“Whose portrait is this?” He asked, rubbing His finger over the raised features of the Roman ruler.
“And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied impatiently.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” replied Jesus, handing the coin back to them. They stared at Him in stunned silence.
Not only had He eluded the trap, but He had put Caesar in his place. Christ might simply have said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” That’s all that was at issue. It was Caesar’s image on the coin, and Caesar had authority over the state.
What made Him add the second phrase, “Give….to God what is God’s”?
The answer, I believe, is found on the reverse face of the coin, which showed Tiberius’ mother represented as the goddess of peace, along with the words highest priest. The blasphemous words commanded the worship of Caesar; they thus exceeded the state’s authority.
Jesus’ lesson was not lost on the early church. Government is to be respected, and its rule honored. “It is necessary to submit to the authorities,” wrote the apostle Paul. “If you owe taxes, pay taxes.” But worship is reserved solely for God.
The distinction Christ made is clear; both church and state have clear and distinct roles ordained by God. The issue is how to apply these teachings to each institution in today’s volatile world.
“Christ did not give the keys of the Kingdom to Caesar nor the sword to Peter,” writes a contemporary scholar. In God’s provision the state is not to seize authority over ecclesiastical or spiritual matters, nor is the church to seek authority over political matters. Yet the constant temptation of each is to encroach upon the other.
The American Experiment
The critical dynamic in the church-state tension is separation of institutional authority. Religion and politics can’t be separated-they inevitably overlap- but the institutions of church and state must preserve their separate and distinct roles. In this regard, the American experiment merits closer examination.
America is not the New Jerusalem or a “city upon a hill,” though some of its founders harbored that vision. Nor are Americans God’s chosen people. The Kingdom of God is universal, bound by neither race nor nation. But Abraham Lincoln used an interesting phrase; Americans, he said, were the “almost chosen people.” If there is any justification for that term-not theologically but historically-it is because in the hammering out of a new republic, the combination of wisdom, reason and providence produced a church-state relationship that uniquely respected the differing roles of each.
The basis of this radical idea came from the partial convergence of at least two conflicting ideologies: confidence in the 18th-century Enlightenment belief that both public and private virtue were possible without religion, and a reaction against the excesses of the state church in Europe. The first view was help by the Deists among America’s founders, while the second particularly motivated the avowed Christians among them.
These men and women believed that Christ had given the church its own structures and charter, and the state, ordained in God’s providence for the maintenance of public order, was not to tamper with it. The church was ordained principally for the conversion of men and women-conversion grounded in individual conscience wrought by the supernatural work of a sovereign God upon the soul. So the state could neither successfully establish nor destroy the church, since it could not rule conscience nor transform people’s hearts and souls.
Thus two typically mortal enemies, the Enlightenment and the Christian faith, found a patch of common ground on American soil. Both agreed (for different reasons) that the new government should neither establish nor interfere with the church. It was this reasoning that led to the adoption of the First Amendment, expressly to protect the individual’s right to freedom of conscience and expression, and to prevent the establishment of a state church.
But contrary to the belief of many today, this separation of church and state did not mean that America was to be a nation free of religious influence. From the very beginning, the American Revolution itself was seen by many as a rebellion fueled by the conviction that man is a creature of God, and his political life is conditioned by that truth. As James Madison insisted, “This duty [homage to the Creator] is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of civil society. Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the governor of the universe.” A nation under God was no idle phrase.
Nor did the separation of church and state mean religion and politics could be separated or religious values removed from the public arena. For one’s political life is an expression of values, and religion, by definition, most profoundly influences values.
The Founding Fathers were well aware that the form of limited government they were adopting could only succeed if there was an underlying consensus of values shared by the populace. I am always reminded of this when I visit the House of Representatives. A beautiful fresco on the upper walls of the chamber itself contains the portraits of history’s great lawmakers. Standing at the speaker’s desk and looking straight ahead over the main entrance, one’s eyes meet the piercing eyes of the first figure in the series: Moses, the one who recorded the Law from the original Lawgiver.
John Adams eloquently acknowledged the understanding of our constitutional framers when in 1798 he wrote: “We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion….Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
Many of these original American visionaries believed that Christian citizens would actively bring their religious values to the public forum. George Washington faintly echoed Augustine when he asserted, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to a political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim that tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”
Thus, when laws were passed reflecting the consensus of Christian values in the land, no one panicked supposing that the Christian religion was being “established” or that a sectarian morality was being imposed on an unwilling people. The point of the First Amendment was that such convictions could only become the law of the land if a majority of citizens could be persuaded (without coercion), whether they shared the religious foundation or not, of the merits of a particular proposition.
Today’s widespread relegation of religion to merely something people do only in the privacy of their homes or churches would have been unimaginable to the founders of the republic-even those who personally repudiated orthodox Christian faith. Though America has drifted far from its founders, this system continues to offer one of the world’s most hopeful models in an otherwise contentious history of conflict.
What Role for Christians?
Christians who are faithful to Scripture should be patriots in the best sense of the word. They are “the salvation of the commonwealth,”said Augustine,for they fulfill the highest role of citizenship.” Not because they are forced to or even choose to, not out of any chauvinistic motivations or allegiance to a political leader, but because they love and obey the King who is above all temporal leaders. Out of that love and obedience they live in subjection to governing authorities, love their neighbors, and promote justice. Since the state cannot legislate love, Christian citizens bring a humanizing element to civic life, helping to produce the spirit by which people do good out of compassion, not compulsion.
But Christians, at least in the United States, have all too often been confused about their biblical mandates and have therefore always had trouble with the concept of patriotism. They have vacillated between two extremes-the God-and-country, wrap-the-flag-around-the-cross mentality and the simply-passing-through mindset.
The former was illustrated a century ago by the president of Amherst College who said that the nation had achieved the “true American union, that sort of union which makes every patriot a Christian and every Christian a patriot.” This form of civil religion has endured as a peculiar American phenomenon supported by politicians who welcome it as a prop for the state and by Christians who see it enshrining the fulfillment of the vision of the early Pilgrims.
The passing-through mindset is represented by those who believe they are simply sojourners with loyalties only in the Kingdom beyond. Patriotism has become a dirty word to them, particularly in the wake of Vietnam, and they believe it their real duty to oppose the United States in just about every endeavor on just about every front-from nuclear power to Nicaraguan policy to welfare for the homeless.
These two extremes miss the kind of patriotism Augustine had in mind. He believed that while as Christians we are commanded to love the whole world, practically speaking we cannot do so. Since we are placed as if by “divine lot” in a particular nation state, it is God’s calling that we “pay special regard” to those around us in that state. We love the world by loving the specific community in which we live.
C.S. Lewis likened love of country to our love for the home and community in which we were raised. It is a natural love of the place where we grew up, he said, “love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds , smells.” He also pointed out, however, that in love of country, as in love of family, we don’t love our spouses only when they are good. Similarly, a patriot sees the flaws of his country, acknowledges them, weeps for them, but remains faithful in love.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of love for his country even as he attempted to change its laws. “Whom you would change, you must first love,” he said.”
That’s the kind of tough love Christians must have for their country. To love the land faithfully, but not at the expense of suspending moral judgment. Indeed, it is the addition of that moral judgment that makes Christian patriotism responsible. “Loyalty to the civitas can safely be nurtured only if the civitas is not the object of highest loyalty,” is the way Richard Neuhaus expresses it.
In these days of delicate international tensions and the instant communications ability of an almost omnipresent press, deceit is a common instrument of foreign policy. The press even accepts it. In a 1987 Newsweek interview, crack ABC interviewer Ted Koppel acknowledged that government officials must be “prepared to mislead and….sometimes even to lie.”
Deliberate lies, the corruption of power, compromise with ideological opponents, temptations on all sides-these appear to be the mechanisms of modern government. Should the Christian circumvent the messy business of politics altogether?
The answer must be an emphatic no. As Robert L. Dabney wrote, “Every Christian….whether lawmaker or law executor or voter, should carry his Christian conscience, enlightened by God’s Word, into his political duty. We must ask less what party caucuses and leaders dictate, and more what duty dictates.”
There are at least three compelling reasons Christians must be involved in politics and government. First, as citizens of the nation-state, Christians have the same civic duties all citizens have: to serve on juries, to pay taxes, to vote, to support candidates they think are best qualified. They are commanded to pray for and respect governing authorities. (For years many Christian fundamentalists shunned the “sinful” political process, even to the extent of not voting. Whatever else may be said about it, the Moral Majority performed a valuable public service in bringing these citizens back into the mainstream.)
Second, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, they are to bring God’s standards of righteousness and justice to bear on the kingdoms of this world. This is the cultural commission discussed earlier. As former Michigan state senator and college professor Stephen Monsma says, Christian political involvement has the “potential to move the political system away from….the brokering of the self-interest of powerful persons and groups into a renewed concern for the public interest.”
Third, Christians have an obligation to bring transcendent moral values into the public debate. All law implicitly involves morality; the popular idea that “you can’t legislate morality” is a myth. Morality is legislated every day from the vantage point of one value system or another. The question is not whether we will legislate morality, but whose morality we will legislate.
Law is but a body of rules regulating human behavior; it establishes, from the view of the state, the rightness or wrongness of human behavior. Most laws, therefore, have moral implications. Statutes prohibiting murder, mandates for seat belts, or regulations for industrial safety are all designed to protect human life-a reflection of the particular moral view that values the dignity and worth of human life. And efficacy doesn’t affect morality. If in America we have more homicides per capita than in any other country, it’s not reason to repeal the laws making murder a crime.
The common argument against the legislation of morality is Prohibition, which conjures up such caricatures as Billy Sunday waving a chair over his head and Carrie Nation chopping up whiskey barrels. The church has taken an undeserved bad rap for this. No one entity imposed Prohibition; it was voted in by a clear majority after a lengthy national debate.
Admittedly, over the years of its existence Prohibition became increasingly difficult to enforce; it encouraged organized crime and ultimately led to widespread disrespect for the law. Eventually the costs outweighed the benefits.
But was it morally justified? Certainly one’s personal decision to drink alcohol is a private matter. When millions do it to such excess that public safety is endangered, however, it becomes a public concern. That was the case in the pre-Prohibition era. Thousands reported to their factory jobs under the influence and were maimed or killed by the heavy industrial machines then being introduced in the American economy. The tavern trade spawned prostitution rings at a time when, like AIDS today, there was no cure for the raging epidemic of venereal disease.
Though many write off Prohibition as a complete failure, the facts are that industrial safety improved dramatically as per capita drinking, particularly among working people, dropped precipitously, and the VD epidemic slowed. Not until 1970 did per capita consumption of alcohol again reach pre-Prohibition levels.”
With one person being killed every 27 minutes in the United States by a drunk driver and the majority of crimes being committed by people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, can anyone really argue realistically today that moral issues are not matters of public interest?
The real issue for Christians is not whether they should be involved in politics or contend for laws that affect moral behavior. The question is how.
A Time to Speak Up
On an individual level, political involvement for the Christian entails not only voting and other basic responsibilities of citizenship, but dealing directly with political issues, particularly where justice and human dignity are at stake. A friend of mine, a prominent attorney in Ecuador, experienced this firsthand.
Dr. Jorge Crespo has always been an activist. For years he was an attorney for labor unions, fighting for justice and humane working conditions for Ecuador’s laborers. Later he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of his country. Then, after meeting with Prison Fellowship’s South American regional director, Javier Bustamante, he agreed to consider prison ministry, even though he had always seen prisons as places where delinquents-and some clients-ended up.
But as soon as Dr. Crespo walked the cellblock of a Quito prison, he felt “a deep sensation of pain, something like an echo of the pain of the prisoners. Since we are made in His image, we have been given His compassion toward our neighbor,” he explained.
So Dr. Crespo became president of Prison Fellowship Ecuador. As he investigated prison conditions, he uncovered, to his horror, instances of cruelty, deprivation and misery. In one prison 20 prisoners were wedged into a cell the size of a small bedroom. In another, inmates received less care than animals; their food budget was less than that of the officer’s guard dogs. In most women’s prisons, children were incarcerated along with their mothers. In some cases, they were being used as pawns in child prostitution rings to make profits for their parents, the prison guards, or both.
There were also reports of inhumane treatment. Some prisoners had confessed to crimes of which they were innocent in order to escape such measures.
Dr. Crespo and his colleagues documented their case, then began to educate the public through press, radio and television. They sent letters to the prison wardens with copies to the minister of government; they met with ministers of social rehabilitation and justice. Their campaign was not without personal sacrifice and political risk.
Finally, they approached the tribunal overseeing constitutional enforcement, a governmental committee safeguarding Ecuador’s provisions for human rights.
Crespo spent two hours testifying about the despicable prison conditions, as well as the inhumane treatment of inmates and those who had been detained for crimes but not yet proven guilty.
The justices were shocked. Never before had such ugly topics been addressed in their ornate chambers. At the conclusion, the vice president leaned forward to Dr. Crespo. “You have come here as
Christians,” he said, “and what you have done today is truly Christian.”
As a result of Dr. Crespo’s boldness, a series of reforms have been adopted in Ecuador. He has also organized a group of Christian police officers who are working to assure humane police investigation that does not rely on brutality.
Dr. Crespo is seeing slow but deliberate progress in the prisons.
The political and personal risks have been worth it, he says. “To act as Christians we have to stand against injustice, and with prophetic voice talk courageously about truth, justice, fear, love. We ought not to bear infamy or atrocities. I believe a Christian who will remain silent is not a Christian.”
Activist Christians like Jorge Crespo who work as private citizens to address problems within the structures of government do so, as Stephen Monsma has written, “not as moral busybodies who are seeking to foist their morals onto all of society by the force of law, but as those who have a passion for justice, as those who respect all persons as unique image bearers of God and who therefore seek to treat them with justice.”
I would like to end on a triumphant note, announcing that ultimate peace and harmony can be achieved through human efforts. But that utopian illusion is shattered by the splintered history of the human race. Governments rise; even the most powerful fall. The battle for people’s hearts and minds will continue.
Where then is hope? It is in the fact that the Kingdom of God has come to earth-the Kingdom announced by Jesus Christ in that obscure Nazareth synagogue 2,000 years ago. It is a Kingdom that comes not in a temporary takeover of political structures, but in the lasting takeover of the human heart by the rule of a holy God.
Certainly, the fact that God reigns can be manifest through political means, whenever the citizens of the Kingdom of God bring His light to bear on the institutions of the kingdoms of man. But His rule is even more powerfully evident in ordinary, individual lives, in the breaking of cycles of violence and evil, in the paradoxical power of forgiveness, in the actions of those little platoons who live by the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, loving their God and loving their neighbor.
Thus in the midst of the dark and habitual chaos of earth, a light penetrates the darkness. It cannot be extinguished; it is the light of the Kingdom of God. His Kingdom has come, in His people today, and is yet to come as well, in the great consummation of human history. While the battle rages on planet Earth, we can take heart-not in the fleeting fortunes of men or nations, but rather in the promise so beautifully captured in Handel’s Messiah.
Stop. Listen. Over the din of the conflict, if you listen carefully, you will hear the chorus echoing in the distance: “The kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.”
Listen. For in that glorious refrain is man’s one hope.
(The above material was published by Focus on the Family, Vancouver, British Columbia.)
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