Christians should Engage in Politics

This continues a discussion of Christian discipleship and politics begun last week via excerpts from a series of lectures entitled “Baptist Polity, Biblical Theology, and Responsible Citizenship” that I delivered as the Solon B. Cousins Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond March 29-30, 2016.  The full text of the lectures is available under the “Sermons and Lectures” tab on this website.

Despite the boundaries that limit Christian participation in governing discussed in last week’s post, Christians have solid theological reasons for engaging in government.  I will enumerate several.

First, I am not talking about partisan politics.  Our subject is much more fundamental.  If we define politics very simply as the art of living in community or communities, then the proper starting point may be to ask the theological question, in the words of ethicist Charles Guteson, “How does God intend for us to live together?” (Christians and the Common Good:  How Faith Intersects with Public Life [Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2011], 13).  Unless it is to become “the opiate of the masses” Marx claimed it to be, or, more likely in today’s climate, a purely private and personal matter irrelevant to public life, Christians must express their faith politically, in this world.  The church must reject the “two agent” theory inherent in the “social contract” hypothesis that only the individual and the state decide human affairs (cf. Max L. Stackhouse, “Christianity, Civil Society, and the State,” in Christian Political Ethics [The Ethikon Series in Comparative Ethics; John A. Coleman, ed.; Princeton: Princeton, 2008], 55).  The love of neighbor dictates the pursuit of the common good. Christians, although not of the world, are still in it; the commission to exercise stewardship still pertains.  God calls the Church collectively and its members individually to be the salt of the earth, to shine as a light in and unto the world, to be a prophetic voice, to make peace, to love as Christ loved.  Unless such love should degenerate into mere sentimentality, it must pursue justice, and that pursuit will involve economics and politics.  “..[T]hough it lies beyond the law in one sense, [love] is still a matter of ‘order’ and therefore of justice, of ‘economics,’ and of ‘politics’” (John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order:  The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People [Illuminations:  Theory and Religion; Oxford:  Wiley Blackwell, 2013], 121).

Second, the institutional separation of church and state should not equate with the notion that government lies beyond God’s reign.  The fact that the protection of all forms of religious expression admits a plurality of voices into the discussion should not mean that Christians should withdraw from the conversation.  As Miroslav Volf has recently remarked, “Not allowing Christians to speak in their own voices would be tantamount to allowing their understandings of reality to be counted as false, while allowing secular views to be considered true” (A Public Faith:  How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good [Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2011], 775).  The silence of responsible Christian voices in the political realm contributes to the trivialization of responsible Christianity.  By responsible Christian voices, I mean voices that respect the plurality of voices in the conversation and that seek influence by virtue of the quality of their arguments and the fidelity of their witness.  To remain silent is to abdicate responsibility and opportunity.

Finally, the equation of political with state activity is a faulty assumption.  The modern nation-state is not the only possible form of government, either historically or theoretically.  Furthermore, government is not the only realm of political activity. Any number of charitable organizations and advocacy groups provide opportunities for Christian engagement in politics defined as the pursuit of communal life in accordance with God’s will.  From a simply practical standpoint, in fact, it is difficult to envision how the institutional separation of church and state could possibly be maximized to result in a strict separation between Christians and citizens; instead, some citizens are also Christians (See Karen Guth, “To Change the World:  James Davison Hunter’s ‘Faithful Presence’ Meets Political Theologies on the Margins,” Theology Today 69 [2013]: 513-514).  My concern is to avoid a schizoid situation.  I have no expectation of creating a Christian society and no interest in coercing non-Christians into conformity.  I certainly do not hope to usher in the Kingdom of God through political activity.  I do, however, want to find a framework in which I can be fully Christian and fully engaged in shaping the society I share with “Jews, Turks, Pagans and [other] Christians” (see last week’s blog entry for the source of this quotation from John Leland).  The desideratum is, as Stackhouse states it, “a public theology that points toward that universal righteousness that is likely only to be realized in another life” (op. cit., 60).