For some time now (like, maybe since before the start of this blog), I’ve been turning over and over in my own mind what a proper Christian perspective is on politics. How political should Christians get? Is it important? Is it helpful? Is it possibly even detrimental to the cause of our faith to get too political? This tossing and turning has been amping up since watching the covid situation go down and watching different Christians take different approaches to it.
I know Christians who think Christianity shouldn’t turn political. They not only believe in the separation of state and church, they believe in the separation of church and state. In other words, not only should the state keep its long nose out of the church, the church should keep its nose out of the state.
The latter is what “separation of church and state” usually means nowadays. And I think I agree with both the state keeping its nose out of the church and the church keeping its nose out of the state (to a degree). Perhaps in the days when there was at least nominal adherence to a sort of nominal Christianity by the majority of citizens of our erstwhile nominally “Christian” countries, reciting the Lord’s prayer (for instance) at the start of the schoolday in our public schools was acceptable. (I’m old enough to remember this happening in Grade 5 in public school under a Catholic teacher). Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to see it happen. Why? Because most parents wouldn’t want to see it happen. And I believe in freedom. I believe in the freedom of religion. In other words, I don’t want to see my religion forced down anyone’s throat.
And it couldn’t be. My “religion” (and most Christians take issue with the term as applied to Christianity, but Christianity is a religion in the sense that religion is an organized system of beliefs about the greater, metaphysical realities) can’t be forced down anyone’s throat.
If Christianity is forced down anyone’s throat, it stops being Christianity. At the start of the Christian worldview is the necessity of freedom. The Christian view is that we got into our mess freely and by human choice. Only God can get us out. But He still apparently refuses to do so against our own freedom and choices. (Whatever any Christian believes about the fitting together of God’s sovereignty and human freedom, I think we can all agree that the choice of Genesis 3 was a human choice, and somehow, whatever it looks like from God’s perspective, from our perspective, human choice is also involved in repentance.) Anyone forced to convert to “Christianity” at gunpoint (or the torture rack), whatever they might be converting to, it will not be Christianity. Historically, anyone who believed in and applied these methods showed that they never understood what a Christian was in the first place and had no right to the title.
So I don’t want someone’s child forced to recite the Lord’s prayer in the public school classroom against that someone’s will because I believe in freedom. I believe (except in the cases of clear abuse or neglect) parents should be free to raise their children how they see fit.
The public school classroom is not the place for indoctrination. And I believe this should hold true for all the various indoctrinations that are pushed on the children of unwilling parents in the classroom today.
“Ah, but teaching little girls in kindergarten that they might really be little boys and vice versa isn’t a religious position, so that’s allowable,” argues the fervent adherent to whatever you want to call today’s prevailing religion of confusion. And plainly, I would disagree. This system of thought is very much an organized (if incoherent) and militant system of beliefs about the greater, metaphysical realities. Keep our public education to the very basics that we all agree on. Them should be the rules. (Flat-earthers can just homeschool.) To this degree, I agree with the separation of church and state.
But there is a degree to which I’m not sure I agree with the separation of church and state. I don’t want to see any kind of state interference in the church (except, again, as with state interference in the home, in the cases of plain and outright abuse), and I don’t want to see any kind of state-enforced-or-endorsed religion. But then I think the state’s nose ought to be kept as short as possible and should be kept out of most matters. Theoretically, its only job should be preserving our freedoms.
On the other hand, I think true religion will and should interfere in every facet of our lives. How could our beliefs about the greater, metaphysical realities do otherwise? I don’t want politics informing our religion, but I think it’s unavoidable, necessary, and even good (depending on the religion) for our religion to inform our politics. My religion doesn’t need to inform your politics, but it will inform mine. Your religion doesn’t need to inform my politics, but it will inform yours. This informing will influence how we treat our neighbours which, with enough of us all taken together, will influence how we live together as a society. How we live together as a society is the sum total of politics proper.
My first post on this blog was called “In Defence of Conservatism” where I somewhat reluctantly owned myself to be interested in politics and then somewhat reluctantly owned myself to be a conservative. I defended this position by saying that, for me, the point of getting political is not for the sake of seeing the conservative kingdom grow but seeing God’s kingdom grow (and the latter is a position I’ve defended in other posts). I certainly wouldn’t agree with everyone calling him or herself conservative on every single issue, but overall, I find myself aligning more and more with the conservative side and less and less with the left. How do I defend the conservative position as being more conducive to seeing God’s kingdom grow? Well, that’s complicated. For a fuller answer, go back and read that original post if you’re curious.
Yes, I care about the world becoming a better place, but I know that ultimately it won’t become a better place. There is a better world coming, but it won’t be this one. So for me, getting more active politically can have value for a couple of reasons: for making this world a better place to live but ultimately for helping more people live in a better world that isn’t this world.
As to making this world a better place to live, what we believe affects how we live. Even what we believe about politics affects how we live. And if we’re believing what’s not true, our lives will be unavoidably be affected negatively. I’m a giant wimp myself and would like to avoid all needless suffering for myself, but I’m also not entirely without empathy, so when I see other people suffering needlessly, I can’t help wanting to see it stop. When people suffer needlessly because they’re busy believing and acting on what isn’t true, I find myself driven to speak up (even in my tiny, timid, squeaky, mouse-like voice).
Those on the conservative side still have goals in common with those across the political aisle (at this point, it’s more like a political Grand Canyon. But anyway. We still have goals in common.). I think we all want to see the world become a better place. We want to find point and purpose to our lives and seek some kind of mission. We want to make a difference. We want to see an end to oppression and injustice. We want to see an end to needless suffering. These are basic, decent human positions for all basically decent humans. However, I also happen to believe the Bible is a true story, so I can’t help but notice that those across the political Grand Canyon have very often bought into ways of thinking that the Bible would tell us are untrue. Building on untruths will not help us, in reality, find a point and purpose and mission, make a positive difference in the world, and end oppression and injustice and needless suffering. Untrue beliefs can only add to the mess.
Still, the point for me to getting political is not just the hope of making this world a better place and seeing people live better lives here and now. This life is short. While there is certainly value in improving this short life, the one that really counts is the one that comes after. And so, many Christians feel that it’s somehow ungodly to get one’s hands dirty with politics because politics is concerned with the stuff of this life rather than the next.
I see that perspective and to some degree share it. I agree, at least, that what we do in this life only has ultimate value if it somehow has some effect on someone’s eternity.
There’s a saying that some Christians are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. Church history has shown us, rather, that the most heavenly minded Christians did the most earthly good. The earthly good they did was with heaven in view, but they still did the earthly good.
Telemachus, a Christian in the days of the Roman empire, nearly single-handedly ended the gladiatorial contests by dying to break up the battle between two gladiators. He saw what was wrong in his culture and was driven to act politically. William Wilberforce, a committed Christian in eighteenth-century England, nearly single-handedly ended the British slave trade through a different kind of battle: a political fight. His decades-long fight with the British parliament ended in the abolition of the slave trade. He saw what was wrong in his culture and was driven to act politically.
There are stories too numerous to tell of Christians dying in foreign countries in their attempts to spread the gospel while making this world a better place through feeding the hungry and establishing schools and hospitals. They seemed driven to do so.
Christianity has always been a political religion in the sense that politics just means how we live together as a collective of humanity.
Here’s my main defence for Christians to be politically active: the cumulative effect of making life better for individuals on this earth can be an attractive one. If living out truth ends up looking like a better way to go, there will be those who will be convinced to embrace the truths of Christianity.
But it rapidly gets complicated. The other day, I was in discussion with a good friend on the subject of, basically, civil disobedience and how much is allowable to or even necessary for the Christian.
The general Christian political doctrine would be that of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 combined with Acts 4:19-20. “We must obey God rather than man” but where obedience to the governing authorities isn’t in direct contravention to obeying God, we obey the governing authorities. This seems clear.
It was obedience to God rather than man that drove Telemachus to jump in front of the gladiators in spite of the government-sanctioned murder and Wilberforce to jump in front of his parliament in spite of the government-sanctioned oppression of Africans. But his government wasn’t forcing Telemachus to kill anyone. His government wasn’t forcing Wilberforce to enslave anyone. Did they really have the duty to interfere if they themselves weren’t being instructed by their governments to disobey God in His laws against murder (Ex. 20:13) and kidnapping for the purposes of slavery (Ex. 21:16)?
I expect Telemachus and Wilberforce must have seen silence on the matters of these injustices as disobedience to God based on passages like Proverbs 31:8-9 where we are instructed to open our mouths for the speechless, in the cause of those appointed to death and to open our mouths to plead the cause of the poor and needy. It’s verses such as these that have driven me to hold my tiny, timid, squeaky, mouse-like signs at “life chain” protests or write my tiny, timid, squeaky, mouse-like letter to the editor when my local paper published a front-pager on the subject of abortion or start my tiny, timid, squeaky, mouse-like blog. Truly, I think Christians are called to just “mind their own business.” But not in the way it’s usually meant. Our business is playing some part in the building of God’s kingdom. And that often means acting politically in some way.
But Telemachus’ and Wilberforce’s sacrifices didn’t require civil disobedience. Their actions required extreme sacrifice but not outright disobedience to their governments. However, whenever and wherever Christians have been told they couldn’t meet together for the purposes of practising their Christianity communally, history tells us they did see this as a matter of obedience to God rather than man and they chose to disobey. Christians take the Hebrews 10:25 admonition to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together for the purposes of exhorting each other to stir up love and good works as a command of God. Where I live (as in many other parts of the globe) we’ve now been told as Christians to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.
My friend and I, in our discussion, could agree that the government has overstepped. The regulations it’s laid on us (as Christians or just general citizens) is government overreach and an invasion of the freedoms its job is to uphold rather than invade. My friend expressed the idea that her goal in treading her way through this quagmire of government overregulation was to “…lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence,” the goal of 2 Timothy 2:1-2 and the reason we’re instructed that, “… supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority…” She didn’t want to stray from that path of quietness and personal peace. Obviously a noble goal (if it’s the reason we’re supposed to pray for and obey our governments).
After thinking through our discussion later, I was thinking about how many centuries we’ve had of the blessing of being able to live that quiet, peaceable life as Christians in our former “Christian” countries. While no country has ever been truly Christian (nations can’t be Christian; only individuals), our freedom was not disconnected from these countries giving at least a nod to being built on biblical principles. The reason “Christian” countries instituted freedom of religion and freedom generally was because of that Judeo-Christian principle of freedom.
Inevitably, we’re leaving behind our freedom as we leave behind biblical principles. It’s not shocking to me to see our freedoms being eroded at a mad pace these past decades (and particularly this past year), knowing the principles they were built on and knowing how eroded those principles are in our modern political culture.
But other than forbidding the assembling of ourselves together, the government, while quashing other freedoms, hasn’t issued any edicts on this covid situation that require disobedience to God. How far should Christians go to fight the quashing of our freedoms? The apostles and other early Christians seemed to take the quashing of their freedoms in stride. They didn’t expect any freedoms, not having the blessing of living in a country built on God’s principles. But modern Christians from the west are used to these freedoms. And we’re losing them rapidly. How far should we go in hanging onto them as long as we can? For the sake of preserving that quiet, peaceable life we’ve enjoyed for so long for some other future generations? We still, after all, have enough freedom left that peacably protesting the erosion of our freedoms is one of those freedoms.
It’s a question I’ve pondered often these days. It’s a question I think every individual Christian will have to find their own answers to. Instead of fighting amongst ourselves (something against the clear commands of God), maybe we can recognize that we might be called in different directions because God has different plans for us. Telemachus was called to be a Telemachus. Wilberforce was called to be a Wilberforce. Not everyone was called to be a Telemachus. Not everyone was called to be a Wilberforce. I personally have decided I’m not called to stand on a street corner and hold a sign protesting mandatory masks the way I think I have been called in the past to protest the legalization of the killing of unborn human life. Someone else who sees mandatory masks as a grave invasion of our freedoms might be called to stand on the street corner and hold those signs. Or fight court battles. Or take any other means of standing up for our remaining freedoms that our remaining freedoms still allow us. Then they should. They have the right to do so. They can use it.
As to our church closures, I know of churches practising civil disobedience in this matter. For myself, I’m okay with seeing if the government does stick to its word this time and allow us to assemble together in a matter of weeks. We’re not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. But we’re not told that assembling has to be every week. So I’ll sit back for now and see what happens on this one. To those churches and their members who see it differently, I don’t criticize. Maybe that’s a civil disobedience they’re called to even if I don’t think I am. Yet.
That was the conclusion I came away with after the discussion with my friend. We might all be called in different directions politically. There will be some clear principles we can all agree on as Christians. We must obey God rather than man being one of them. And sometimes that obedience will be clear-cut and across the board for all of us. But sometimes that obedience will work itself out differently in different lives. I’m not called to be a Telemachus or a Wilberforce. But I’m called to exercise my tiny, timid, squeaky, mouse-like voice politically on other issues. Someone else’s issues might not be my fight and my fight might not be someone else’s. The principle of freedom of conscience is another of those Christian freedoms that we used to be blessed to have in this country. So I go back often to Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.”