What is the proper role of Christian faith in relation to politics?
By John Turner
What is the proper role of Christian faith in relation to politics? That is a question without any one-answer-fits-all solution, but this essay attempts to identify four components that should be considered in all answers.
Component One: We must understand our particular callings.
I recently saw the movie Amazing Grace. The movie is artful, powerful, and pointed. As a rare bonus, it accurately portrays the role of evangelical pietism in the life of former slave trader and later Anglican clergyman John Newton, the writer of the famous hymn for which the movie is named, and especially in the life of the extraordinary politician and statesman, William Wilberforce, whose persistent battle to end the slave trade in the British Empire at last bore fruit. Wilberforce is the main focus of the movie and Newton appears only a few times, but if you see the movie, you will forget neither.
Evangelical pietism refers to an emphasis on spiritual transformation based on personal experience, what we sometimes call being born again. Evangelical pietism emerged in the 17th century and continued at least into the mid-19th century as a major force of cultural change. One cannot understand the cultural progress of this time period without attention to pietism, and Newton and Wilberforce were two of the most influential exponents of pietism.
Grounded in his spiritual vision, Wilberforce perhaps promoted more good causes more effectively than any other figure in history. By our current standards we might not conclude that his batting average was 1.000 on his choices of causes, but, if we allow him to be a man of his times, he shines like the sun breaking through the clouds. Although largely forgotten today, he was a worldwide hero in his times, and rightly so.
Interestingly, both the Christian right and the Christian left of our times have seen the importance of this movie better than have the complacent Christians and the secularists. For right and left, Wilberforce is a model of how to be a Christian politician, a model from which both sides can profit in more ways than they perhaps yet recognize. Right and left come out from viewing this movie ready to re-energize their respective battles for family values, the sanctity of life, social justice, or ecological stewardship. Perhaps before they return to the barricades, they need to search beyond the movie to find a lesson hidden in the lives of these two saints. The lesson is that the role of politics in the life of a Christian may well depend on that Christian’s calling.
Newton had been a blasphemous, drunken, adulterous, murderous slave trader when, in the midst of a 1748 sea storm, he had a religious awakening. He once was blind, but now he saw…sort of. His conversion did not immediately end his participation in the slave trade, but merely by degrees softened his treatment of the slaves. In 1754, a health problem forced him out of the trade. I have not yet seen record of his denouncing the slave trade prior to 1763, although I am fairly certain that it had happened sometime before that. In 1764, he became an Anglican priest. In 1770, he wrote “Amazing Grace.” By 1785, Newton was persuading Wilberforce to enter politics rather than the ministry in order to fight the slave trade, and in 1787 he wrote an abolitionist tract in which he set forth a full case against slavery, attributing his slowness to reject the slave trade as due to his earlier ignorance of true Christian character.
Even as he wrote against the slave trade, Newton was concerned that he not step beyond his appropriate role as a clergyman and that he not come across as self-righteously judging those who were still engaged in the trade he now abhorred. He also made it clear that he was describing the moral problems with the slave trade, not advocating a particular legislative remedy. Newton understood that Christian transformation is a gradual process and that his calling was to nurture people toward Christian faith and character, not to engage firsthand in politics.
Wilberforce, as a politician and statesman, defied easy categorization. He was willing to stand courageously against strong tides of misplaced patriotism and corrupt wealth, and to persist until the verdict of saner times and broader popular interests, but he was also willing to align himself with patriotism and wealth when they furthered his causes. He was flexible enough and focused enough to let his causes cut across lines of party, class, and ideological commitments. He was clear-thinking enough to forge coalitions with people who shared his interest in a particular cause, but who were not of like minds at deeper and broader levels. He managed to do this without compromising his principles or his character. In other words, he was a good Christian and a good politician.
Yes, he was concerned about sharing the saving gospel with unbelievers and leading believers to maturity, and, as he could, he addressed these concerns, but his primary calling was to the political arena. As a champion of controversial causes, he was too polarizing to be an effective evangelist or pastor to those who did not share his commitments.
In other words, I am saying that Newton and Wilberforce had different, but complementary callings. It was as important for them to understand how their jobs were different as it was for them to understand how they were similar.
Pastors and churches are to stand first for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, second for training those who believe the gospel to grow in Christlikeness so that they may winningly join the mission of representing the gospel. There are no greater causes than these. Pastors and churches are not to allow lesser causes to get in the way of their primary callings. Once pastors and churches begin to align themselves too closely with public policy issues, with political parties and candidates, or even with moral crusades, they begin to limit the people to whom they can effectively speak.
Newton pastored and encouraged Wilberforce, and helped him as he could, but he did not actively enter the political fray that would have distracted him from his calling to win souls and to superintend their growth into Christlikeness.
William Wilberforce, on the other hand, was called to live out his faith and morality in the public and political arena where ever-shifting coalitions and constant compromise are the name of the game. Although a man of faith, he had to fight with worldly weapons. It was important to the cause of Christ and of humanity generally that Wilberforce fulfilled his calling in the political realm. We need more Wilberforces today, but we do not need Newtons playing at being Wilberforces. It is important to understand our particular callings before we determine whether we are to engage in political battle.
Component Two: Moral concerns may have their moments in politics, but they will not dominate politics.
One of the things that Wilberforce had to come to understand is that political battles are not won by moral outrage alone. Moral outrage may be a component in a political battle, but it will not by itself determine many outcomes.
To use a figure of speech, politics is mostly about pie, how the pie is baked, protected, sliced, and distributed. Pie issues are resolved by building coalitions and selecting the most advantageous compromises that are available. In American society, the Republicans represent the pie interests of the wealthy, the high-level corporate leaders, the comfortable, and the ambitious entrepreneurs. The Democrats represent the pie interests of the wage laborers, the unemployed, the educators, and the social servants. Since the core pie interests of neither party form a majority of the populace, the two parties contest for the support of the rest of the country, seeking to persuade the rest of us that they can best represent our pie interests too (for instance, keeping our taxes lower or helping us get better health care). They may also try to persuade us that they can best represent our non-pie interests. They may even hope to hit on a non-pie interest that will persuade some of us to vote for them against our pie interests.
Morality is one of the non-pie interests. Morality is about how people should live. Moral issues are resolved by persuading people to do right. Moral issues do not fit very easily with the coalitions and the compromises by which pie issues are resolved. So it is not wise to put all our moral eggs in the political basket; our eggs will only be used for the pie.
When it comes to hard choices, most successful politicians of both parties will stick with the pie issues and jettison the moral issues. Politicians of either party who do not focus on the pie issues will be either ineffective or defeated or both.
Moralists will often end up frustrated by their ventures into politics. They need to understand that they serve as a leavening effect on the political culture even when they do not prevail. They need to measure their effectiveness through a realistic understanding of the nature of politics.
In order to win in his battle against the slave trade and ultimately against slavery itself, Wilberforce had to consider the economic issues and how to get them aligned with the moral issues. He succeeded because he was willing to think in that manner. We need to pay attention to that lesson from his life.
Component Three: What are the politically relevant moral issues about which Christians should be concerned?
Wilberforce was not a one issue politician. At one point, he was involved in 69 reform organizations, each representing a different cause. His issues cut across party lines and across all the usual alignments of his day. His primary motive was to represent a Christian vision in his practical concerns. How would we begin to compose such a list of causes for our day.
One helpful list of the purposes of Christian political action was adopted by the National Association of Evangelicals in 2003. Here is my much abbreviated summary of the causes that the N.A.E. lists:
1. We work to protect religious freedom and liberty of conscience.
Freedom of speech, association, and religion provide the space in which we can carry out culturally significant activities. These freedoms are foundational to all other causes.
2. We work to nurture family life and protect children. Families based on strong marriage covenants are the basic building blocks of ordered society. We must support policies that encourage or at least allow the moral principles, personal choices, and economic circumstances in which families can thrive.
3. We work to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature. Because God created human beings in his image, human dignity is indivisible. A threat to the aged, to the very young, to the unborn, to those with disabilities, or to those with genetic diseases is a threat to all.
4. We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable. God measures societies by how they treat vulnerable people such as the poor, the aged, women, children, persons with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, minorities, the persecuted, and prisoners. In the developing world, extreme poverty, lack of health care, the spread of HIV/AIDS, inadequate nutrition, unjust and unstable political and economic institutions, slavery and sexual trafficking, terrorism, oppression, and so forth create the conditions in which large populations become vulnerable. Churches and governments alike must address these problems.
5. We work to protect human rights. We need to work to create an international climate that respects human rights, especially seeking to develop human rights in countries with a history of totalitarianism. Here in America, we believe that our churches have a special obligation to help eliminate the lingering effects of race-based injustices of the past. In keeping with purposes 2 and 3 above, we do not believe that human rights language should be extended to support things that are not inherent human rights, such as : (1) taking life through abortion or euthanasia and (2) winning social recognition for sexual acts outside traditional marriage.
6. We seek peace and work to restrain violence. Although Christians have long differed on when governments may use force and when Christian citizens may participate in the use of force, we should agree to urge governments to pursue thoroughly nonviolent paths to peace before resorting to military force. Military force must be guided by the classical just-war principles, which are designed to restrain violence by establishing the right conditions for and the right conduct in fighting a war.
7. We labor to protect God’s creation. While we worship only the Creator and not the creation, our God-given dominion over the earth and its species is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part. This implies the principle of sustainability: our uses of the earth must be designed to conserve and renew the earth rather than to deplete or destroy it (Personal note: In addition to the general moral issue of environmental stewardship, global warming will impact civilization and especially the vulnerable in ways that will connect with many of the moral issues above).
It strikes me that the N.A.E. has offered a fairly balanced and nonpartisan statement of Christian political values. In the United States, some of the above issues are more readily identified with the Republicans and some with the Democrats. Probably each one of us would differ on some points, but all of us should be challenged to think freshly about some issues we may have ignored. There is a link to the full N.A.E. statement at the end of this article.
Component 4: What would Jesus do?
We need to step back and take a lesson from Jesus. Jesus’ faith and values certainly had an impact on the political world. He would not have been crucified otherwise. But he did not focus on political action. His mission was introducing broken people to the redeeming love and reigning power of God. Among his closest disciples were a former Zealot revolutionary against Rome and a former tax collector for Rome. He must have asked his disciples to keep their focus on his kingdom mission and off politics, because, despite their differences, he was able to send them out, two-by-two, to proclaim the kingdom of God, healing and delivering people, and calling them to repent and to believe the gospel.
Jesus understood that what people most need is a living relationship with a loving and reigning God. When they have that, God will guide and empower them to make good moral choices. Society does not have rewards and punishments that can compare in influence to the transforming power of God. When the church gets involved in politics, it obscures its most powerful tool for change (the gospel) in exchange for highlighting a less effective one (legislation). The politically partisan church undermines the power of its own message that we can be born anew through faith in Jesus Christ.
Just as politicians focus on pie, churches ought to focus on the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. We ought to let nothing distract us from that focus. Our clear priority should be evangelism, bringing people to God. Our moral teaching ought to be part of our in-house training programs for bringing believers to maturity in Christ. Let’s keep first things first. Gospel first, morality second.
What then do we Christians do about family values and sexual morality? We should do such a good job of teaching those values to our church members that others will see our stable lives and want to find out how we do it.
What then do we do about ecology, war and peace, alleviation of poverty and so forth? Again, I believe that we train our members in the values that fit with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and trust that those values will have an impact on society around us. Christians will often have different ideas about what government ought to do about such issues, but there ought to be some basic values that can unite us.
Of course, when Christians step into the voting booth or feel called by God to run for elective office, they will take their Christian values with them, and those values will have an impact on the laws of our society. We should rejoice when that happens. But we ought never to assume that we will thereby build the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God grows one disciple at a time as disciples come to faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, I believe that Jesus would challenge any of his disciples who enter the political arena to live out their Christian values in the ways they exercise their political power. There is something to challenge and stretch all of us here, as there usually is when we really hear from Jesus. Maybe it is time for us to ask our Lord and Savior for a fresh vision of how we relate to politics.