JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Your view of politics – or, more specifically, the role of Christians and Christianity in politics – is probably wrong (at least at times).
Don’t be offended; my views over the years also have been wrong – and I must continually resist being seduced by some wrong thinking about this matter.
Some readers got no further than the headline of this editorial, deciding the subject matter is of little to no interest, illustrating at least one wrong view of politics. Others aren’t reading these words because they firmly believe Christians’ involvement in politics is not only unnecessary, but also actually harmful to a godly life – yet another incorrect way for Christians to assess politics.
Those faulty views and others could play a significant role this election year. With the general election just under three weeks away, this is no time for Christians to hold and propagate misunderstandings about politics and government.
A sure guide to understanding this matter is theologian Wayne Grudem and his book, Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010). Before explaining the biblical demands of Christian citizenship, Grudem outlines “Five Wrong Views About Christians and Government.” They are:
– Government should compel religion. This view is easy to set aside in modern-day America, since, as Grudem notes, there are no responsible Christian voices today arguing for this perspective. Still, it’s a position with which Christians should be familiar since it is the predominate view among some in the world, especially in Islamic nations.
Grudem notes several biblical teachings that demonstrate this view is incorrect. In Matthew 22:20-21, Jesus answers the Pharisees who attempted to entrap Him concerning the matter of taxes. “In Jesus’ statement about God and Caesar, He established the broad outlines of a new order in which ‘things that are God’s’ are not to be under the control of civil government (or ‘Caesar’),” Grudem argues.
– Government should exclude religion. This is the view promoted by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, among others. Grudem notes many public policy consequences of this view, including attempts to remove the Ten Commandments from public places, banning prayers at public events, and prohibiting students from religious activity in schools. Additionally, these advocates argue laws against abortion, for example, are unconstitutional because they would codify religious dogma in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
“These arguments … make the logical mistake of failing to distinguish the reasons for a law from the content of the law,” Grudem writes. That Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign against racial discrimination was based on his biblical views did not make the laws that resulted from his campaign constitutionally suspect, Grudem cites as one example.
Grudem also notes this false view would invalidate the religious reasoning that is evident in America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which cites God twice in its first two sentences, and it would remove religious influence from public life. “Therefore, the ultimate goal of this viewpoint is not only the destruction of all belief in God, but also the complete moral disintegration of a society,” Grudem writes.
– All government is evil and demonic. This view, along with the next one, seems to be growing. Grudem reviews and critiques the arguments of Minnesota pastor Greg Boyd in Boyd’s book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, which has been influential among some younger pastors. Grudem summarizes Boyd’s argument that the realm of government is Satan’s and the use of governmental power is worldly, contrary to the way of life taught by Jesus.
Boyd primarily relies upon Satan’s claim during his temptation of Jesus that all authority “has been delivered to me” (Luke 4:6). Grudem answers, “Do we believe Satan’s words that he has the authority of all earthly kingdoms, or do we believe Jesus’ words that Satan is a liar and the father of lies?” He goes on to cite a number of passages (Daniel 4:17; Romans 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-14) that teach government is part of God’s design.
Boyd’s “government is evil” perspective causes him to embrace absolute pacifism. “Boyd has wrongly taken one of the ways that God restrains evil in this world (changing hearts through the gospel of Christ) and decided that it is the only way that God restrains evil (thus neglecting the valuable role of civil government). Both means are from God, both are good, and both should be used by Christians,” Grudem writes.
– Do evangelism, not politics. I believe this is the most widely held incorrect view of Christianity and politics, and it can be related to the previous view. Since there is little to no redeeming value of Christian involvement in government, Christians should only invest efforts in evangelism as the surest means of changing society. At first, this view may seem correct – even spiritually superior. It’s not.
Grudem argues that this perspective comes from “too narrow an understanding of ‘the [g]ospel’ and the kingdom of God…. ‘The [g]ospel’ in the New Testament is not just ‘trust Jesus and be forgiven of your sins and grow in holiness and go to heaven’ (though that is certainly true, and that is the heart of the [g]ospel and its foundational message.) No, the [g]ospel is God’s good news about all of life!” citing Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
Just as no one would question that churches have a duty to teach their people about God’s will for their families, businesses and educating their children, Grudem says it is also the responsibility of pastors to teach about God’s expectations for government, noting that some Christians are even called by God to influence government.
“When did people in the United States stop owning slaves? It was not when the [g]ospel had been preached throughout the South, but after the U.S. government made it illegal through the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. That happened when many Christian abolitionists influenced the government of the United States to change its laws,” Grudem writes.
Grudem cites a lengthy list of historical examples of Christian influence on government resulting in the protection of human life and improved human conditions. “If the Christian church had adopted the ‘do evangelism, not politics’ view throughout its history, it would never have brought about these immeasurably valuable changes among the nations of the world,” Grudem writes.
– Do politics, not evangelism. Although some critics of the Religious Right insist that this is its implicit agenda, virtually no responsible evangelical leader believes that politics is the ultimate answer to the problem of humanity. The incorrect view that Christians should concentrate on politics to the exclusion of evangelism is actually the perspective of the liberal “Social Gospel” movement, Grudem notes.
Grudem rightly cautions that those who argue for greater Christian involvement in politics and government: “If we (and I include myself here) ever begin to think that good laws alone will solve a nation’s problems or bring about a righteous and just society, we will have made a huge mistake.” Amen!
If the five incorrect views are to be rejected, what is the proper understanding of Christian involvement in politics and government? In answer, Grudem offers the “significant Christian influence on government” viewpoint.
Grudem says his alternative “is not compulsion (view 1), it is not silence (view 2), and it is not dropping out of the process (views 3 and 4), nor is it thinking the government can save people (view 5).”
Instead, “The ‘significant influence’ view says that Christians should seek to influence civil government according to God’s moral standards and God’s purposes for government as revealed in the Bible (when rightly understood). But while Christians exercise this influence, they must simultaneously insist on protecting freedom of religion for all citizens.” He also contends Christians engaging government should do so in a “winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, [and] persuasive” manner while not compromising the “truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word.”
It seems every four years it’s said the presidential election is the most important in our lifetime (or similar hyperbole). Although the 2012 election does seem to be very pivotal, I’ll leave it to others to evaluate such claims – with the knowledge that God is sovereign whatever the result.
Still, Christians have a biblical duty to be properly informed about and engaged in our government, including the means by which we choose those who will lead us. Especially during an election year, pastors have an opportunity to help their members understand this duty and not be misled by wrong thinking on this vital matter.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.)