Meet the apolitical right
“I’m apolitical,” a pastor friend told me not long ago. His tone and body language communicated disdain for the whole business of candidates, legislation and public policy. The response I did not verbalize was, “Great. Another one.”
This apolitical attitude seems to be on the rise among theologically serious (especially gospel-serious) evangelicals and fundamentalists. An underlying conviction seems to be that the Bible and Christian living have nothing at all to do with any political agenda. Ministry and true discipleship are only hindered by attention to political matters. To the most passionate apoliticals, the correct course is not a matter of balance (moderation in political engagement) or discipline (proper limits on the kind of political engagement). It’s a matter of purity: faith and ministry should not mix themselves in any way with the poison of politics.1
In practice, this means churches should avoid taking positions on matters perceived to be “political issues,” and pastors and teachers should refrain from teaching and preaching on political topics. Above all, believers should not express their political views in any way that might alienate someone with whom they hope to have a gospel witness. Having a mild interest in politics and casting a vote on election day is okay, but going beyond that is heading down the wrong road.
A variety of factors motivate the apoliticals I’ve interacted with. Some simply have temperaments that are deeply averse to the conflict and strife of politics. Others have absorbed some of the thinking of the evangelical left (such as the “Red Letter Christian” fondness for pitting the supposed teaching of Jesus against the rest of Scripture rather than interpreting Jesus in light of the rest of Scripture).2 In almost every case, constituents of the apolitical right see the Moral Majority efforts of the 1980s as a travesty and decry anything today that seems similar.
Whatever the primary motivation, apoliticals offer specific objections to all but the most mild and private forms of political engagement.
1. Changes in public policy don’t save souls.
This objection has the advantage of being absolutely true. Electing a wise leader rather than a foolish one, or adopting a helpful policy rather than a damaging one, brings no one to faith in the gospel. Since the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16), only the proclamation of that message has a direct impact on the greatest need of all societies everywhere.
The objection sometimes takes the form of an old and often repeated disjunction: “We should be trying to win the lost, not trying to elect politicians and pass laws!” This way of thinking seems to arise from the best of motives. But this objection fails to account for several realities and falls short of justifying total disengagement from politics.
First, the either-or is a false one. If we have time to read books and also reach the lost, work careers and also to reach the lost, even watch sports on TV or play golf yet also reach the lost, surely we can be politically informed, think through the issues, and maybe put a sign in the yard or take a little time to show up at an event or two once in a while—yet still reach the lost. There is nothing about being politically engaged that prevents us from also spreading the gospel.
Second, many activities we value do not save souls. Whether it’s manufacturing a better window, developing a safer medical procedure or designing a better database, we see value in what helps people and earns an honest living. But none of these things declare the saving message of the gospel to the ears of sinners.
Acts of charity are no different. A sinner without Christ is just as Christless after we feed him, clothe him, bind up his wounds or free him from slavery. Yet Jesus gave sight to the blind, fed the hungry, caused the disabled to walk and speak and hear. Jesus did not have to use these particular signs to authenticate His prophetic office. He could have called fire down from heaven on the Pharisees, turned the Sea of Galilee to blood or caused the sun to stand still for several hours. Instead, He chose signs that helped people. Apparently—other things being equal—it’s okay to do things that just make life better for people.3
And wise policy does make life better for people—usually in large numbers and often for long periods of time. Appointing rulers who are just blesses all under their rule.
Like a roaring lion and a charging bear Is a wicked ruler over poor people. (NKJV, Prov. 28:15)
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; But when a wicked man rules, the people groan. (Prov. 29:2)
What motivates individuals when they make economic decisions? What motivates people when they act collectively as a society? How should individuals and societies relate to possessions? Where does the true value of goods and services lie? Where do crime and poverty come from? What is the purpose of civil government? Are newer ideas about these matters necessarily better than older ideas? Will human beings ever establish the ideal society? What would such a society be like?
Answers to these questions have an inherently religious character. They draw on beliefs about ultimate questions: Who are we? How did we get here? Why do we exist? The Bible speaks clearly to these ultimate questions but also has much to say about the nature of value, property, crime and poverty; human motivations; what government is supposed to do; and the limits to what human beings can achieve.
So the Bible speaks to many of the concerns that are the focus of political philosophies. Whether we like it or not, points of theology and points of political philosophy are intertwined.
The question is not whether capitalism has anything to do with Christian faith, but rather, what political and economic philosophies best align with what Scripture reveals in these areas? Properly understood—and compared with real world alternative philosophies4—free-market conservatism emerges as a view of human nature, society, labor and property that agrees with the teaching of the Bible5 (problems of greed, materialism, dishonesty, etc. are problems of the human condition that permeate all economic systems).
But this objection has an even simpler answer. Is there any area of ethics that should have no importance in the eyes of Christians? Why should we exclude social ethics from our attention and teaching?
3. If Christians believe in the separation of church and state, they ought to keep away from politics.
Several Christian traditions have long upheld various forms of separation between church and state. Baptists uphold the principle as one of their distinctives. But what sort of “separation” do we have in mind?
I’ve argued that there can be no ideological separation between religion and political philosophy. Since all politicians make policy decisions based on their belief systems (however random those systems may be), their beliefs about the ultimate questions inevitably shape their views and actions. Trying to separate religion and politics is like trying to separate math and chemistry—both unwise and impossible.
But institutional power is something else. For many reasons, the decision-making power of churches or denominations and the decision making power of governmental institutions ought to avoid meddling with each other as much as possible. Drawing the lines so that we maintain a good separation is complicated business, but the ideal of separate spheres of power is a wise one.
However, proper separation of church and state does not require that churches and Christian leaders refrain from pointing out how biblical principles apply to matters thought to be “political,” nor does it prohibit believers from being involved in the process of selecting leaders and shaping public policy.
4. There are so many wrong-headed and badly behaved “Christian” conservatives.
It’s true that many political conservatives who claim to be Christian (or just engage in a lot of God-talk) are not good examples of what a Christian should be. Many have not thought through how to relate their faith to their governing roles. Some seem to have a knack for evoking the Bible at all the wrong times.
But it’s important not to overlook the difference between a bad idea and poor implementation of a good one. The solution to policy makers handling their faith badly (or Christians handling their policy making badly) is to get it right, not to toss out the whole idea.
And let’s remember that bad Christian examples are not unique to the right. John Edwards claimed to be a Christian;6 so does Jesse Jackson. Undoubtedly, plenty of flawed human beings can be found among the leaders of the “Christian left.”7
Several objections remain—some of them quite weighty. Doesn’t capitalism encourage materialism, greed, bigger and bigger corporations and abuse of God-given resources? Doesn’t pursuing morality through public policy just make us look hateful and self-righteous as Christians and harm our gospel witness? Isn’t the church in great danger of being seduced into activities that distract from its primary mission? These and other concerns are the focus of the next article.
(A related article here at SI: Right is Right)
1 Here, a boundary of the group gets fuzzy. Some who claim to be apolitical are willing to make political statements—even from the pulpit—if the statements are critical of ideas associated with the religious right or conservatism.
2 See http://www.sojo.net/?action=about_us.redletterchristians (accessed, 10/8/2010).
3 An irony here is that some of the most vocal of the apolitical right are quick to promote acts of charity as “incarnational ministry.” Somehow, feeding a hungry sinner is incarnational but helping pass a law that enables a thousand hungry sinners to get jobs is not.
4 Jay W. Richards is brilliant on this point in Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem (HarperCollins, 2009, pp. 9-32).
5 Adam Smith, widely viewed as the father of capitalism, was a deist and strongly influenced by Stoic philosophers. However, he believed strongly in God’s moral ordering of the world and in God’s providential ordering of society in such a way that self-interest frequently leads to the benefit of others (and ultimately all) in free markets. He refers to this often in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (e.g., III.I.106).
6 “John Edwards: ‘My Faith Came Roaring Back.’” http://www.beliefnet.com/News/Politics/2007/03/John-Edwards-My-Faith-Came-Roaring-Back.aspx#extndVer (accessed 10/12/2010).
7 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_socialism and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_left#Notable_Christian_leftists (accessed 10/12/2010).