Christianity and Politics

Dan Bryant
Thursday, August 16th 2007
Sep/Oct 1994

The signs of cultural decline are everywhere: Family breakdown, violent crime, and government scandals flourish; MTV mindlessness shows no signs of abating. It is abundantly clear why folks around the country are deeply concerned about a culture apparently crashing down about their heads.

Many Christians are jumping into the project of repairing culture with both feet first. That is our first mistake: Too often we enter the fray with our feet, our hands… anything but our minds. In an increasingly mindless culture, we are playing by the rules of the world. As a result, Christians-motivated by an alleged divine mandate-are often the most aggressive, and unthinking, culture warriors of all. When we begin killing abortion doctors, it would appear to be a culture war in which Christians are the ones doing the actual shooting. We bemoan cultural decline, but church decline has opened the door to Christians getting involved in all the wrong ways. Rot within the church has left Christians ill-equipped to respond to cultural decay.

The High Cost of our Cultural Retreat

Christians in recent decades have done little to ennoble culture. With a few notable exceptions, we have contributed little to the advancement of the visual and performing arts, literature, and education. Yet today we are the most hostile and shrill critics of culture. Clueless about building, we perfect tearing down. This is not to say that much of modern culture should not be uprooted. It should. But the critique is enriched and made more palatable when it is accompanied by a thoughtful, persuasive case for an alternative. We have too often been like the impetuous little boy on the playground who refuses to enter into the game, who then stands on the sideline denouncing the way it is being played. He has no standing to make his case; he is the least popular child on the playground; his voice is the most offensive.

Our understanding of cultural engagement seems to be that of reaction and protest. Doing our homework, developing expertise in the many fields of cultural endeavor, and winsome persuasion in the public square have been replaced by the "1 800 associations" that promise to "give 'em grief in Washington" if you will just send in your $50 check. Is it any wonder that evangelicals and fundamentalists are now being identified in polls as the least desirable group to have as neighbors? We don't need to take back America (Indeed, we can't: It was never ours.) We need to take ourselves back. Back to authentic, historic, biblical Christianity. To take ourselves back to the reality of the precarious position of sinners before a Holy God, and the atoning work of Christ, who accomplished for sinners what they could never accomplish for themselves: peace with God. We need to return to our first love, to marvel afresh at our membership in Christ's body and the privilege that is ours of proclaiming the good news to a sin-sick world. And we need to repent for the idolatry of embracing politics as the chief means of bringing about renewal.

Mind Renewal and Raw Meat

Through the ages, it has always been one of the great challenges of the church to meet the Apostle Paul's charge in Romans 12:2: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

The lack of mind renewal is painfully apparent within the church, where the "isms" are alive and well: Secularism, materialism, relativism, universalism, utilitarianism, self-esteemism and other worldly philosophies and fads have infected the modern church. The mind of too many Christians is filled with a porridge of often contradictory notions, few of them thoroughly biblical. C. S. Lewis aptly describes the hodgepodge mindset of modern man in the Screwtape Letters, in which much of the correspondence from Screwtape, the senior devil, to his nephew, Wormwood, reflects Screwtape's delight in the modern mind's loss of a regard for truth. Screwtape observes that while a few centuries ago people "still connected thinking and doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning." But the modern man is different. He writes:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily 'true' or 'false,' but as 'academic' or 'practical,' 'outworn' or 'contemporary'… Jargon, not argument is your best ally in keeping him from the Church… By the very fact of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.

It is a matter of some debate as to whether the theological ignorance of today's church has ever been surpassed throughout history. It is an ignorance that begets calamity throughout the Christian community, including its outlook on politics. One glaring example of the worldliness of Christian thought and practice in the political arena is the embrace of utilitarian thinking, including the rationale that the ends justify the means. It is increasingly the case that Christian organizations' fundraising letters are indistinguishable from those of nonChristian groups. The bigger the crisis In Washington, the better the chances of attracting money from the hinterlands. Consequently, the truth is exaggerated to make the crisis more extreme. We throw around inflammatory and often misleading slogans so as to incite indignation like any other political interest group. But of course, our misdeeds are for a good cause, and therefore permissible. Rubbish. At that point we have embraced the rules of the surrounding culture, violated the Ninth Commandment, and dishonored our Lord. Our loss of a Christian mind has led us to act like the world. Yes, that the salt is losing its savor is all too apparent among Christians in politics.

Ken Myers has observed, "Motivated but misinformed and intellectually careless people are raw meat to unscrupulous demagogues." The Christian community is full of raw meat, vulnerable to demagogues within its community and without. And as theological illiteracy reaches epidemic levels ("theology is complicated and divisive") we hurry to champion practical action agendas, leaving ourselves dangerously susceptible to woolly thinking and missteps in the public square.


If there is any single essential distinction that must be made by Christians in order for them to be faithfully involved in politics it is to distinguish between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. While God instituted the authority of the civil magistrate, he did not institute it to be a means of redemption. Its task is temporal justice; limiting the effects of wickedness. The kingdom of God will never be advanced by the state or through politics. God alone accomplishes redemption, graciously drawing rebellious men and women to himself, bringing them into his holy body, the church, the bride of Christ, which has the risen, reigning Christ even now as its head.

Rome had its centuries, but it fell. The sun finally did set on the Union Jack, as British colonialism collapsed. The Soviet Union slowly rotted from within. America may yet add decades, even centuries to its experiment. But it too must end, as must all the temporal kingdoms of men. It is God's kingdom-which he alone can build-that will never end. We therefore look forward "to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God…to a kingdom that cannot be shaken."

Yet, even within the temporal kingdoms of men, God cares about temporal justice for the poor, the oppressed, the widow. He wants public institutions and decisions to reflect his unchanging moral character. Everyone, and in particular Christians, should take the ordering of the affairs of this life seriously. And, as citizens in a democratic Republic, Christians have a responsibility to be informed and civically involved, seeking to promote a just social order. Yes, there will even be those Christians who are called full-time to public policy. But we are not thereby "Christianizing" society. We may be Christians seeking to think and do Christianly in the public square, but God alone Christianizes. If we fail to appreciate that we cannot transform America through politics, deep frustration awaits us. Our involvement with that which is temporal must be accompanied by an appreciation of its temporality. As important as temporal justice is, it does not provide the remedy for the ultimate problem confronting all humans: their sinful condition before a Holy God.

When the sin-sick soul stops being the central problem, then God's provision of the person and work of Christ stops being the central solution. When the travails of the here-and-now become the central problem, then politics becomes the central means of providing solutions. And any such understanding of the ultimate problem and solution is inconsistent with biblical Christianity. Is it coincidence that in a secularized age the church seems to be more preoccupied with the here-and-now than with the cure of souls; that pulpits across the land are platforms for social and political agendas, self-esteemism, and principles for successful living-anything but the truths of a Holy God who hates sin, man's rebellion against God, and the remedy for sin found only in Christ?

With a clear appreciation of the distinction between the temporal and the eternal, all Christian involvement in politics should seek to promote an understanding of the limited reach of politics. James Schall writes: "The ultimate effect of Christianity on politics is a limiting one, one that frees man by removing from politics what politics cannot deliver. In this way, politics is left to be politics and not a substitute religion." In an age which sees politics as the ultimate show, our involvement in politics must be with an eye towards putting politics in its proper-and ultimately limited-place. Christians should provide the lead in thoughtfully and vigorously rejecting the deification of the state and the thesis that politics is ultimate. Providing that lead will be difficult, however, as long as we are guilty ourselves of the blasphemy of acting as though civil government is man's best hope for a savior. And we do precisely that when we confuse a public policy agenda with the gospel.

Where the pattern of our age is one of defining life increasingly in secular terms-with corresponding "here and now" solutions-we must guard against our thinking being conformed to this age in the form of politicization. Our culture would have us see politics in ultimate terms, and redefine the Christian mission accordingly. A secular age will always encourage the politicization of Christianity, transforming the truth of the death and resurrection of Christ according to the Scriptures into a set of political values. That such encouragement to politicize is having effect is evident in the increased proclamation of political agendas from pulpits, and Christians choosing a church on the basis of its position on abortion, neglecting entirely considerations of theological orthodoxy.

We cannot hope to appreciate the distinct features of our dual citizenship within the kingdoms of God and Man unless the eternal truths of revelation form the lens through which we see all of life; unless the eternal economy is that which shapes all our thinking.

Distinguishing Between the Church, Christian Groups and Individual Christians

Any discussion of Christians in politics needs to distinguish between the involvement of the church, Christian groups and individual Christians. The church-as the church-must never become involved in politics. It is charged with rightly proclaiming the whole counsel of God, properly administering the sacraments, and maintaining discipline. When it speaks, it does so as the visible representative of the living Christ, and it is to proclaim the deposit of truth which God has entrusted to it, the Holy Scriptures. To align with a political agenda is to debase the gospel, to weaken the church's prophetic voice, and to invite being treated like one of the countless political interest groups that are so easily dismissed and ignored.

Overtly Christian political organizations must guard against the same dangers. As groups that hold themselves out to the public as "Christian", they will often be perceived by a watching world as "the church." Consequently, they invite the trivialization of the gospel as they publicly invoke divine blessing upon their pet political issues.

As individuals, on the other hand, Christians must faithfully discharge their duties as citizens within whatever political system they find themselves. Being informed on the issues and voting are a necessary part of responsible democratic citizenship, and an important contribution to public justice.

Distinguishing Between Various God-Ordained Governments

If Christians are to have a proper regard for the place of politics in public life and work for constructive reforms in public policy, we must recognize the distinct "governments" or spheres of life instituted by God, and the ultimately limited role of politics in the affairs of men.

God has instituted different governments for the different spheres of life, namely the governments of family, church and state. It is a sign of our biblical illiteracy and our worldliness that Christians so frequently overlook the most vital of governments-family and church-in our race to embrace civil government and politics. We talk of family and "family values", but so often it appears to be only that-talk. Evangelicals cannot be serious about family values where it matters most-in their own homes-when surveys indicate that the amount of MTV being watched by their own children is higher than that of the children of nonChristians. Plenty of Christians decry the removal of the Ten Commandments from courtrooms, yet surveys reveal that they do not know them themselves, much less teach them to their children. Many parents bemoan the absence of prayer in public schools, but fail to pray regularly with their own children. In their zeal to make the state an acceptable father, Christians have abdicated so many of their God-given responsibilities within the family, the "first church" in Luther's words. In their worldly rush to see virtue increased through the state-with prayers offered up to the unknown God in public schools-too many fathers fail in their duties as "first priest" within the home, neglecting regular instruction of their children in the truths of the faith.

It is ironic, but not coincidental, I fear, that the age in which Christians seem to have entered into politics with greater vigor than ever before is also an age in which the institution of the Christian family is in tatters. Might it be that our infatuation with matters of public policy has come at the cost of private fidelity? Might it be that the very outlook that has converted so many within our ranks into culture warriors has left us neglecting our more basic responsibilities-such as bringing our children up "in the training and instruction of the Lord"?

Forget Not Sin

It is a sign of many Christian's worldliness that they have forgotten the reality of sin-the doctrine which perhaps should most inform our political philosophy and activity-as they embrace politics. They continue to speak out against their pet sins, generally homosexuality and abortion, even as they implicitly belittle the reality of sin in their headlong pursuit of a legislative agenda to right all wrongs. Good laws are better than bad laws. But no law can breath life back into men who are dead in sin.

We would do well to remember that it is sin that necessitates the institution of the civil magistrate to punish wrongdoing and to coerce compliance with the law, thereby restraining its evil effects. And, it is in part an appreciation of the effect of sin on all men-particularly those wielding the temporal sword-that should compel us to clearly circumscribe the power of civil authority. Finally, it is a recognition that sin is the ultimate problem confronting every man, woman and child, and that government is powerless to provide an ultimate remedy that should provide impetus for Christians to work to limit the scope of politics.

The Prerequisites

What then is required of Christians who would be faithfully involved in politics? We must start thinking, cultivating a Christian "mindfulness," and maturing in our ability to see the world through the truths of general and special revelation. While all of life is to be governed by the inerrant revelation of God in Scripture, we must remember that not all of life is fully defined by the Scriptures. The composition of Novocain is nowhere to be found in the Bible; neither will a critique of the recent Crime Bill be found there.

How desperately the church today needs men and women with Christianly muscular minds: people with minds steeped in the truths of the creation order and the Scriptures, who know how to think. Do we understand the difference between a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion? Do we know how to construct sound syllogisms? Do we know how to marshal data to support persuasive arguments? Are we equipped to engage in a process of rational reflection and analysis regarding the issues of the day, interpreted and guided by a systematic understanding of the Scriptures? I have too often heard Christians make sloppy arguments that have out-of-context bible verses tacked on to them-as if that were an acceptable substitute for using their minds and doing their homework.

Theologized minds, historical and philosophical literacy, analytical skills, and personal character befitting a follower of Christ-these are the prerequisites for faithful Christian involvement in the public square.

Thursday, August 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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