Apolitical Faith? Objections to Christian Political Engagement, Part 2

Read Part 1.

Should Christians be engaged in the American political process? Should involvement in politics ever go beyond a bit of reading and vote-casting? Do pastors and teachers have an obligation to address political topics? Should churches be involved in any way?

Many doctrinally-serious evangelicals and fundamentalists are now answering all of these questions in the negative. But do their objections to Christian political engagement justify keeping political thought and activity to such a minimum? In Part 1 of this series, I began considering and answering several representative objections to more-than-voting involvement in politics. Here, I’ll evaluate several more objections.

First, some attention to the meaning of “political engagement” may be helpful.

Forms and levels of political engagement

For the purposes of this article, “engagement” occurs in two forms and on many levels. The form of engagement may consist of involvement with the ideas or involvement with the process—or both of these. We are ideologically engaged when we ponder points of political (and social) philosophy that relate to the political issues facing our society and seek to think biblically about them. We are involved in the process whenever we act to influence the choice of leaders or policies, whether the action is writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, calling a legislator, marching in a rally or simply casting a vote.

These forms of engagement also occur on many levels. At the most basic, minimal level, idea engagement means listening to the claims of political figures and considering whether they are true in light of what we already know from Scripture. Engagement at the deepest level might take the form of earning a PhD in political theory or writing a book, working for a think-tank, or touring the country on a lecture series.

Casting a vote is pretty much the minimal level of process engagement. Arguably, putting a bumper sticker on the car is more visible but less influential on the final result of an election or policy decision. Deeper levels of engagement range from passing out campaign literature, to donating, to joining a campaign staff, to holding public office.

Options and obligations

With that as a backdrop, my thesis is that Christians may be involved politically in both forms and all levels as God calls them to do so. Deep levels of engagement are analogous to vocation. All Christians are not obligated to be dentists, but God calls some to that line of work. So we expect some to choose that occupation and strive to perform it as Christian a manner as possible. Similarly, we should expect some believers to choose heavy involvement in political thought and process and to pursue that work “Christianly.” But that level of involvement isn’t for everyone any more than dentistry is for everyone.

A second piece of my thesis is that all Christians ought to be engaged with political ideas at more than the minimal level and should be engaged with the political process at least at the minimal level. That is, Christians should vote but do a bit more thinking than the average citizen. This engagement is analogous to being employed. Sometimes circumstances require periods of unemployment (home making is employment, just to be clear), but we generally have an obligation to be involved in productive work. Similarly, though the level varies, we have an obligation to be involved in thinking about how Scripture speaks to the issues of our day and casting votes when those opportunities arise.

Since pastors and teachers are called directly to the work of bringing Scripture to bear on the lives of their hearers, their responsibility to be engaged with political thought is greater than that of their hearers.

More objections

Many believe ministry is distracted and sullied by preaching and teaching on political topics or even by engaging in political conversation with unbelievers or new Christians. On multiple grounds, they object to any political engagement at this level or deeper.

Objection 5: I’m just not interested in politics—it’s too ugly (when it isn’t boring).

This objection wins the honesty prize. It may be the real objection underlying several of the more dressed-up ones. And at this point in the election cycle, when political ads fill the airwaves (and website pages), the ugly side of politics is undeniable. Who hasn’t been disappointed to see a candidate they liked air an ad smearing an opponent with some distortion or exaggeration or overwrought drama?

Nobody should be faulted for finding that distasteful. And finding politics to be generally uninteresting is no great flaw either.

But do we reject an activity on the grounds that so many do it badly? And is a pursuit unimportant just because we are not naturally inclined to find it interesting?

Christians have no obligation to like the political process in America or anywhere else. But we should care about politics because the leaders and legislation that come out of the process powerfully shape the kind of world our children and grandchildren will grow up in (for as long as we await Christ’s return). In addition, politicking—though often ugly—is how we influence the well being of large numbers of “neighbors” (Matt. 22:39). If we would care about a stray cat, we ought to care about politics.

It’s true that public policy is not the only means of reducing suffering and improving people’s lives, but it is one of the most important. It influences all the other means. Our ability to engage in charity privately or through Christian non-profits depends on the freedom to do so. Our ability to obtain the resources to give to good causes depends on employment, which depends on a reasonably healthy economy. These and many other factors are heavily influenced by public policy and those who make it.

Objection 6: The church is great danger of being seduced into activities that distract from its primary mission.

Church history certainly backs this objection. To some, history proves that the church loses spiritual power as it gains political power. Though that principle may be harder to align with the events of the Reformation, it certainly seems to describe the trend from Constantine’s era to the 16th century.

But, for several reasons, the potential of the church to be distracted by politics does not argue for avoiding all engagement beyond the secret ballot. One reason is that gaining power over the political process or institutions is not the same thing as gaining influence in political thought. Through its preaching and teaching ministry, the church is ideologically engaged in the form of applying Scripture to the lives of its members. Assuming the Scriptures are being handled accurately and comprehensively, how can this teaching result in less spiritual power or distraction from the church’s mission?

A second reason the objection fails is that a wide variety of potential distractions face the church, including financial concerns, building buildings and engaging in ministries of compassion. None of these are central to the church’s mission, but all connect to it in one way or another. Anything ancillary runs the risk of becoming primary. The solution in these cases is not to sever what’s ancillary but to keep it in its place.

Objection 7: Capitalism is based on greed an encourages excess and waste.

Capitalism’s most foundational principles are not what they are commonly represented to be. For example, capitalism ultimately depends on the idea that the value of goods and services derives from human beliefs and affections,1 not some mechanistic calculation of labor and materials. So while many materialists practice capitalism and enjoy its benefits, the system itself rejects a materialistic view of life and value.2

Capitalism also depends on—and actively encourages—interest in the needs and desires of others and on long term success rather than instant gratification. In a free market, the “market” part disappears unless merchants take risks based on what they believe other human beings will need, or at least want. At the very least, successful free marketers grow or stock up on a product they believe will be desired by their friends and neighbors in coming months. On a larger scale, entrepreneurs spend years and fortunes researching and developing products they believe very large numbers of people will want in sufficient quantities to reward the investment.

Capitalism also aims to increase the well being of everyone. Historically, it has held that God providentially designed human society in such a way3 that ordinary (and often even evil) self-interest motivates people to do what actually helps other people as they trade with one another freely in a law-abiding environment. Capitalism claims that the long term result of this freedom is that more wealth is created, not merely transferred from one to another. While the rich do get richer, the poor do as well.

Compared to real world alternatives, nothing helps the poor more than capitalism.

But is it “based on greed”? This one of the many popular myths that have been repeated and assumed so frequently, they have reached “common knowledge” status. Nobody bothers to prove that “capitalism is based on greed.” The truth, though, is that capitalism does not encourage greed, but rather attempts to organize economies in a way that accounts for the fact that greed already exists (and isn’t going away any time soon).

Interestingly, many who deplore the greed of capitalism or of free individuals in a capitalistic system, turn a blind eye toward the greed of government. It’s almost as though they believe human beings acting collectively in the form of government are inherently more virtuous than human beings looking out for their families and future generations. Christians ought to be skeptical of the idea that people in public office are less greedy with citizens’ earnings than the citizens themselves.

Objection 8: Striving to advance moral issues through legislation just makes us look hateful and self-righteous in the eyes of people we hope to reach with the gospel.

The idea that being involved in politics in a visible and vocal way might be a hindrance to effective gospel witness is a sobering one. Certainly it’s a factor believers must consider as they evaluate their level of political engagement. On a personal level, Christians must consider the consequences of expressing political opinions in the context of relationships they have with individual unbelievers.

But we must also be realistic about how much offense can be avoided. All areas of thought and life are to be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ by applying the principles of His Word. When we do this, our behavior invariably repels and even offends some unbelievers along the way (1 Pet. 4:4). Ultimately, there is no way to completely avoid alienating sinners apart from being exactly like them. So the question is not, “Should we let anything become a barrier to effective witness?” but rather “What kinds of things are worth that offense and in what situations?”

There is no one size-fits-all answer. If it were true—as many mistakenly believe—that political concerns have no relationship to the teaching of Scripture (see Part 1 on that), there would be no situation in which expressing a political opinion among unbelievers would be worth the potential damage. As it is, Christians are often pursuing policies that are truly compassionate, though they are widely seen as hateful or “phobic.” Are we to do what is good for our neighbors only when our neighbors will understand and appreciate that good?

Conclusion

Christians must consider both the form and level of their involvement in politics. Ideological involvement is the responsibility of every Christian as well as a responsibility of the teaching ministry of local churches. Process involvement is a duty of believers as well, though churches have little to contribute in this area. As for the level of involvement, heavy involvement is not for everyone, nor does it come without difficulty or risk. Individual Christians should aim to wisely discern what level of involvement God intends for them.

Regardless of the particulars, Christians should not be lulled into thinking that the Bible is neutral about political issues. Policies are rooted in beliefs about human nature, the role of government, crime, poverty and property—and Scripture speaks to these matters with a clear voice.

Notes

1 It’s true that Adam Smith was less than clear on this point. Nonetheless, the economic system he is credited with fathering collapses without a subjective view of value.

2 Again, Richards is brilliant on this point. See pp. 68-70, and 92-110.

3 Adam Smith’s belief in God’s providence is evident, for example, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.I.106 (accessed 10/25/10). For an interesting essay on the role of providence in capitalist thought, see Robin Klay and John Lunn in Journal of Markets & Morality Volume 6, Number 2 (Fall 2003): 541–564 (PDF; accessed 10/25/10).

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There are 13 Comments

ssutter's picture

People tend to think very dualistically about politics. One side is Right, one side is Evil (or Left?) For me talking about politics has to advance to become more sophisticated than "vote republican" (or vote democrat) Christians need to talk about issues and about values. But we tend to talk more about teams in ways that isolate the other side.

Until we can teach people (on both sides) to have good dialog about politics, bringing up politics can be of more harm than benefit. I've personally observed people on both sides who get insulted and pushed away from a community because the conversations about politics in church are more... political than Christian.

I'm reluctant to talk politics until I can teach people to talk Christian.

_______________
www.SutterSaga.com

GregH's picture

A defense of capitalism seems strange in a list where you are encouraging Christians to be involved in politics. I don't see that there is any connection.

Unless you are insinuating that if Christians are involved in politics, they have to be for capitalism? That seems to be a stretch to me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

GregH wrote:
A defense of capitalism seems strange in a list where you are encouraging Christians to be involved in politics. I don't see that there is any connection.
Unless you are insinuating that if Christians are involved in politics, they have to be for capitalism? That seems to be a stretch to me.

I raise the objection here because it's one I've heard repeatedly as a reason to avoid politics. Often critics of "politics" are only critical of conservative politics. You rarely hear them complain about the evangelical left or the denominational liberal left.

In any case, for reasons I've mentioned here in the piece as well as in part 1, Christians who are involved in politics ought indeed to favor capitalism. In Money, Greed and God Jay W. Richards answers 8 popular myths about capitalism and also makes a fine case for why people who believe the Bible ought to prefer it.
In a nutshell: the alternative economic philosophies all rely on views of human nature and property that are completely at odds with Scripture (as well as wisdom, which Scripture commends). Socialism is rooted in a materialistic view of reality (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_materialism ]dialectic materialism ) and radical view of property, not to mention notions of societal progress that Scripture utterly rejects.

ssutter wrote:
People tend to think very dualistically about politics. One side is Right, one side is Evil (or Left?) For me talking about politics has to advance to become more sophisticated than "vote republican" (or vote democrat) Christians need to talk about issues and about values. But we tend to talk more about teams in ways that isolate the other side.

I agree that political party talk is generally unhelpful. I actually don't even know anyone who is of a "vote repub." or "vote dem." mindset--at least not anyone I've talked politics with. Most people are driven by ideas and see them as being more or less favored by one party or another. But it's about the ideas.

Maybe I just hang out with smart people. Smile Regardless of how common or uncommon that is, it's the direction to encourage people. There is good and evil political philosophy, and we should not let the flaws of both "parties" keep us from thinking clearly about the underlying questions.

But the democratic party is generally seen as aligned with liberalism for a reason. The perception is factually correct.

GregH's picture

It may be cut and dry to you that Christians should be capitalists but I am not buying it. The Bible sanctions no economic philosophy over another and the OT law was hardly capitalistic in the way we view capitalism. And Joseph was a socialist by our standards.

Forrest's picture

I think the problem with the argument for engagement in politics is that there is no cut and dried Biblical position.

With few exceptions, such as divorce or abortion, two christians can hold opposing political views and both be mature, growing, vibrant christians. So as a church, christians should not get involved in politics, except in issues like abortion. As individuals, christians should get involved in politics to the degree they wish.

Forrest Berry

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

GregH wrote:
It may be cut and dry to you that Christians should be capitalists but I am not buying it. The Bible sanctions no economic philosophy over another and the OT law was hardly capitalistic in the way we view capitalism. And Joseph was a socialist by our standards.

There are lots of things the Bible does not sanction directly that it still teaches by implication when you connect the dots.

It's true that Joseph's behavior as an Egyptian ruler was quite unlike a capitalist (or any kind of "free") economic system. But his behavior in that role is not recorded in order to teach us about property, value, freedom or the role of government. The purpose of the account is to show us how wisely Joseph conducted his affairs in the context of a very strong monarchy... though the larger point is to show how God's promises to Abraham were being fulfilled in his offspring.

Capitalism, in the broad sense of the term (as in "free market under rule of law" as opposed to centralized economies or anarchy), is really hard to avoid if you believe 2/3 or more of the following:

a) Private property is legitimate and should be protected by strong property laws
b) Economic systems should reward labor, creativity and risk
c) Government exists primarily to prevent crime and defend citizens from invasion
d) Human beings acting collectively will never establish a utopian society
e) Self interest and greed are features of human nature that are not going to go away
f) Centralized economies have failed every time they've been tried

"a" is assumed all over Scripture and quite evident before and after--but especially during--the Mosaic Covenant era.
"b" has significant support in Proverbs and 2 Thess.3, though the creativity and risk part is more a matter of wisdom
"c" See Rom.13. The defense from invasion part has more to do with what is assumed throughout the OT. But in any case, my point there is that govt. does not exist to control economies and bring in equalitarian utopias.
"d" The book of Daniel is beautiful on how the kingdoms of this world will actually end.
"e" inescapable given what Scripture teaches about sin. Even the Millennial kingdom--for those who believe in that--will have sinners and eventually war, and that's the closest thing to a utopia we're ever going to see before the end of sin.
"f" is purely a matter of history, not Scripture, but a key point in the application process. If we're going to try to think biblically about economics, we have to choose from real options. When we eliminate what must be eliminated, capitalism is what's left.

But Jay Richards says it all far better than I ever will. There are really only two approaches to economic philosophy in the modern world (where economies are no longer static... and cannot return to being static): free or centralized. We could say that a third approach is to blend the two. Some blends work out OK, but some take the worst of both and put them together (arguably, this is what we have the US right now!)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
I think the problem with the argument for engagement in politics is that there is no cut and dried Biblical position.

With few exceptions, such as divorce or abortion, two christians can hold opposing political views and both be mature, growing, vibrant christians. So as a church, christians should not get involved in politics, except in issues like abortion. As individuals, christians should get involved in politics to the degree they wish.


This would be true if the Bible had nothing to say about property, human nature, the role of government and the capacity of human society to save itself.
But, as I pointed out in part one, Scripture speaks to all of these things.
Abortion is not even the clearest topic Scripture speaks to when it comes to political philosophy. It is certainly not the only topic.

Forrest's picture

To put my cards on the table, I am a conservative who leans towards apoliticism. I enjoy occasionally listening to Rush or watching a Beck diatribe. I have a fair grasp of economics and some of the political theory. But, I am not too concerned if you disagree with me, and I might enjoy discussing some politics. However, I am not about to rally the troops or convert anyone to the republican party. Because at the end of the day, I don't care that much.

With that being said, I don't think saying that Christians can come to differing political views is reductionistic. I think the Bible has much to say about "property, human nature, the role of government and the capacity of human society to save itself."

I do think the Bible should inform our political ideals.

I do not think there is only one political philosophy that is compatible with these ideals.

Take nationalized health care, a christian can be for it or against it with no ramifications on his spiritual life.

In my experience, this ambiguity is one of the main reasons for political disengagement, at least among younger Christians.

There is some good food for thought in these articles though and I am hoping there is a part three coming dealing with this perceived ambiguity. Btw, I found http://fm.thevillagechurch.net/resource_files/audio/201010101700FMWC21AS... ]Matt Chandler's sermon from this last week to be extremely helpful in this discussion. He argues for Christians to be involved in some politics and warns against this apoliticism.

Forrest Berry

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
With that being said, I don't think saying that Christians can come to differing political views is reductionistic.

Well, the reason I tend to see it that way is that Christians can come to differing conclusions about many things that are not really unclear in Scripture (or all that unclear in the application of Scripture). We all have gaps in knowledge, understanding, discernment and need to grow. I would suggest that believers who do not grasp the implications of what Scripture teaches about labor, property, human nature, etc., need to grow into that. This will not happen if those who would teach them stand back and say "Well, Christians can differ in these things so I'll just leave it alone."

We are supposed to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ so I'm not sure there are any differences of belief and application that don't matter at all. Given what's at stake in public policy--how many lives are effected by it--politics would seem to me well outside of the "differences worth ignoring" list.

The healthcare issue is a complex one. But I think we shouldn't confuse a hard question with an unimportant question.

(FWIW, I think healthcare actually needs to get worse in quality. This is a completely unmarketable view as far as getting elected to anything goes! But the problem in my opinion, is that subsidies and what we incorrectly term "insurance" have insulated research and development from market discipline, with the result that health care quality has grown beyond what the market can truly afford. In short, medical science has been funded with money that doesn't really exist so that now it is all Rolls Royce in a market that can only afford Chevys. But how do you tell people who are dying that they do not have a "right" to the Rolls Royce they can't afford but that would save their life? So it is a real quandary. No doubt about it. The question is probably not how do we "fix" healthcare but how can we at least mitigate the mess we have created... and avoid making it worse. Fixing it would-at best-have to be done gradually over decades... something our system is ill suited to do.)

Fred Moritz's picture

Good stuff. I am going to use them as supplemental material in my current Baptist Polity course at Maranatha Baptist Seminary. They will be good "fodder" when we talk about the Separation of Church and State in a few days.

The Anabaptists before us were largely apolitical and against military service or service as magistrates. I guess when they suffered as they did at the hands of those authorities they would be less than enthusiastic about civil service.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks.
Yes, it seems like the anabaptists had a very black and white view of the relationship between believers and "the world," which they seem to have defined as "everybody who is not us."

I have long found the http://www.anabaptists.org/history/schleith.html Schleitheim Confession (Swiss Brethren, 1527) fascinating in that regard...

Quote:
III. In the breaking of bread we are of one mind and are agreed (as follows): All those who wish to break one bread in remembrance of the broken body of Christ, and all who wish to drink of one drink as a remembrance of the shed blood of Christ, shall be united beforehand by baptism in one body of Christ which is the church of God and whose Head is Christ. For as Paul points out, we cannot at the same time drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of the devil. That is, all those who have fellowship with the dead works of darkness have no part in the light. Therefore all who follow the devil and the world have no part with those who are called unto God out of the world. All who lie in evil have no part in the good.

And in IV...

Quote:
This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who (have come) out of the world, God's temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.

So to them people are either Christians or The Enemy.

Later in the Confession...

Quote:
Thirdly, it will be asked concerning the sword, Shall one be a magistrate if one should be chosen as such? The answer is as follows: They wished to make Christ king, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His Father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness. For He Himself says, He who wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. Also, He Himself forbids the (employment of) the force of the sword saying, The worldly princes lord it over them, etc., but not so shall it be with you. Further, Paul says, Whom God did foreknow He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, etc. Also Peter says, Christ has suffered (not ruled) and left us an example, that ye should follow His steps.

Finally it will be observed that it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate because of these points: The government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christian's is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christian's are in heaven; their citizenship is in this world, but the Christian's citizenship is in heaven; the weapons of their conflict and war are carnal and against the flesh only, but the Christian's weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldlings are armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. In brief, as in the mind of God toward us, so shall the mind of the members of the body of Christ be through Him in all things, that there may be no schism in the body through which it would be destroyed. For every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed. Now since Christ is as it is written of Him, His members must also be the same, that His body may remain complete and united to its own advancement and upbuilding.

I think there are some obvious problems here with how they are interpreting the example of Christ (and alot of false disjunctions). Turns out that failing to interpret Jesus in context is not such a new problem (i.e., the " http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=about_us.redletterchristians ]Red Letter Christians ") after all.

Craig Toliver's picture

How can an American Christian say that he should not be involved in politics when he is the government (A government of the people, by the people)? For the record I am a Pastor who became an American last year and have served as a delegate, helped write policy on the marriage and abortion issues, informed candidates (running for house and senate races both state and fedral) on the biblical perspective of social issues, and have made some wonderful contacts for the gospel because of my involvement.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Shane, good question. I think for many it sort of trickles down from the anabaptist view of "the world," so involvement seems like an entanglement in matters of no eternal consequence.
I didn't really go after that objection in the series--maybe I should in the future. But I don't often hear that objection put in those terms. I just think it underlies or contributes to many of the others.

A short rebuttal to that one is this: if we can eat or drink to the glory of God (1Cor.10:31), there is really nothing that is of "no eternal consequence." Not for believers.

I think you also make a good point on the "expressing political views creates barriers to effective gospel witness" argument, too. That is, to some extent this does depend on whom you want to reach. There are unbelievers of all varieties all around us, including many who are of the same or similar political persuasion that we are. So while being vocal about our views may alienate one non-Christian, it may simultaneously open a door to another. But if someone is called to a ministry focus to folks who are politically very different, then the situation calls for some different choices (just as it calls for different choices in how we spend our time and money, where we live, etc.)

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