Brad Bailey, Lead Pastor
The issue of Christian involvement in politics has been one of the most debated and divisive issues not only of our time but throughout much of history; as we are told, if one wants to maintain relationships… never talk about religion and politics.
As I’ve reflected on the challenge of pursuing unity with diversity, I’m proud of the fact that we gather across the many positions that so often define and divide us. It’s far more common for fellow followers of Jesus to end up gathered either with fellow Democrats or fellow Republicans. The fact that few of us have quickly known one another’s political affiliations speaks to the fact that we recognize that they aren’t the defining factors of our lives…. but rather it is Christ. It is the sacrifice of Christ by which we come humbly together and on which we place our ultimate hope.
Regardless of any particular affiliation, I believe there are some parameters and principles that can speak to us all as we approach times of political debate and elections… and plenty of common challenge to our common role as citizens… regardless of political affiliation. In this article, I want to help us capture both proper appreciation for government, politics, and our role as citizens… as well as ways in which we can healthily live out our calling as citizens even amidst differences of perspectives.
HONORING THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT & CITIZENSHIP
The reason I want to begin with establishing that God has a role for government is because many of us have become disillusioned with or detached from our government. And people who believe there is a greater source of power and authority (God) can also naturally begin to become critics of human governance. Let’s be honest… we live our lives surrounded mostly with negative connotations towards government: the authorities who tax us and hold power that we must fight against and for.
What is God’s perspective about the role of government and citizenship? First and foremost, God’s purpose in establishing the role of governing authorities is to help deter the effects of evil (Romans 13:1-4). These words may seem difficult in light of how wrongly some governments rule. But just as we recognize that God ordained for good purposes the roles of marriage and parenting which we fail deeply to fulfill… we can recognize that God’s intention for government is good, even as it can fall destructively short of those intentions.
Our response to this reality is to honor what is right and God-given, while honoring God above all as the One who alone fully brings to bear justice and righteousness. In a day when disrespect for government is in vogue, Christians have a challenge to adopt a different attitude… as did David when subjected to a morally-degraded, insanely-driven King Saul. It is clear in Scripture that secular governments and world powers, even those which appear to oppose God’s ways, are subject to God’s ultimate sovereign purposes and will (consider Cyrus of Persia, the Pharaohs of Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, Herod of Judea)… and that due process and rule of law is to be leaned upon rather than mob “justice” (consider Paul’s appeal to both Jewish and Roman authorities and ruling processes).
Ten Principles for Living Out Our Calling as Citizens & Believers
1. Keep proper perspective on our posture. Perhaps the greatest danger in political positions is the potential for self-righteousness.
How easily we can cast all those who take another position as ‘fools’. Our culture has become increasingly given to a polarizing rhetoric that is generally destructive and divisive and bears little redemptive good for the culture it claims to serve. It rarely helps people to listen and learn. It’s very intent is to be sensational because sensationalism sells. Consider the increasing nature of talk radio program. It is often merely a product produced to sell to those who already agree rather than to genuinely help those who disagree. If there is anything we must seek to offer to the world around us, it is a more loving way to address others when we feel strongly about a position in which we disagree. This ability must first begin within Christ’s own community: the church.
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” (Titus 3:1)
Paul says… “slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” This instruction is in stark contrast to the angry rhetoric of many Christians today.
Polarizing rhetoric can easily become a safe and self-righteous way to cast all moral failure elsewhere.
We quickly can become ‘the ‘right’ against ‘the wrong’… and lose our sense of humility. This is not to say that we should not feel passionate about our positions… but that we must take to heart the simple truth that holding the right positions is easy compared to being righteous people. Positions are easy…. true righteousness is not.
Certainly the Bible depicts God speaking strongly at times through the prophets against the hearts of the people. In a similar way, there may be times to speak strongly about a general tendency we see in ‘the people.’ However, we must take to heart that we are not God. Even the prophets when they spoke strongly are generally noted to have understood they were speaking for God and identified themselves among the people who bore the sinful tendencies being addressed.
During the start of the War in Iraq, those who supported the war were cast as ‘warmongers bent on killing’… inherently compassionless, greedy, arrogant, and evil. Those who opposed the war were cast as ‘unpatriotic fools’… inherently unappreciative of their country and the sacrifice of its soldiers, morally lost to liberalism, and lacking the courage to face reality. We set up a caricature of what we deem most foolish… and then project this as an easy weapon upon anyone who also differs with us. It reduces any real respect for the unique heart of another. The result is that we stop listening to what is really in one another’s mind and heart… to what the other has to offer.
This is especially true regarding the nature of the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ One of the most helpful steps we can take in going forward in our approach to political perspective is to stop wholeheartedly embracing such generalities as all inclusively good regarding ourselves and to stop presuming such generalities as all inclusively evil about others. I do not believe that a “Biblical” or “righteous” perspective on all the issues at hand can easily be reduced to what is often the traditionally conservative / Republican or liberal / Democrat position or candidate. I personally have found myself among a growing number of Evangelicals who find that neither affiliation fully represents my understanding of the mind of Christ.
2. It’s easy to project all sorts of assumptions on others based on one position they have in common with others. In the full picture of understanding, they may be quite different.
During the start of the War in Iraq, those who supported the war were cast as ‘warmongers bent on killing’… inherently compassionless, greedy, arrogant, and evil. Those who opposed the war were cast as ‘unpatriotic fools’… inherently unappreciative of their country and the sacrifice of it’s soldiers, morally lost to liberalism, and lacking the courage to face reality. We set up a caricature of what we deem most foolish… and then project this as an easy weapon upon anyone who also differs with us. It reduces any real respect for the unique heart of another. The result is that we stop listening to what is really in one another’s mind and heart… to what the other has to offer.
This is especially true regarding the nature of the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ I believe one of the most helpful steps we can take in going forward in our approach to political perspective is to stop wholeheartedly embracing such generalities as all inclusively good regarding ourselves and to stop presuming such generalities as all inclusively evil about others. I do not believe that a “Biblical” or “righteous” perspective on all the issues at hand can easily be reduced to what is often the traditionally conservative / Republican or liberal / Democrat position or candidate. I personally have found myself among a growing number of Evangelicals who find that neither affiliation fully represents my understanding of the mind of Christ.
3. Defining a position or candidate as the “Christian” choice should never be considered a simple matter.
It should be recognized that just because a voting guide is intended to be based in “Christian values” or a “Christian worldview” does not mean it has accurately conveyed the mind and spirit of Christ. I wish it were that simple. The truth is that many who are seriously committed to Christ have a different grid that defines what constitutes a “Christian” perspective. In part this is because there are different underlying assumptions that are presumed to be “Christian.” For instance, the value of personal freedom is deemed by some to imply less legislating of morality (thus freedom regarding abortion, marriage forms, etc.) and by others to imply less legislating of civic rights (thus freedom to bear arms, limit taxes, exercise free enterprise, etc.). The value of protecting life is deemed by some to imply a priority of limiting abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia, and by others to imply a priority of limiting war, the use of financial resources for defense that could serve other needs related to human life, and the use of the death penalty.
There are values that have become correlated with one’s identity as a Christian… which other Christian don’t share because they have had different set of correlations. Those who embrace a more traditionally liberal / Democratic perspective would deem that their Christian faith naturally aligns with the values of social justice and programs of empowerment in contrast to the apparent greed of the more traditionally conservative / Republican perspective which tends to argue for limiting government and thus its' social programs. Those who embrace a more traditionally conservative / Republican perspective would deem that their Christian faith naturally aligns with the values of family and morally responsible control of the media’s explicit use of violence and sex in contrast to the apparent support of alternative lifestyles and Hollywood’s creative freedom of the more traditionally liberal / Democratic perspective which tend to limit government control of moral issues.
The point is that there are various values we deem to be “Christian” in nature, i.e., freedom from government control, which 1) can be applied with two very different sets of implications, and 2) need more thought to define what aspect of this value is really grounded and not grounded in God’s Word.
4. We must keep an appropriate perspective on the merits and limits of government and legislation.
Governments (‘rulers’) are given to contain the evil that now is at work in the human condition. They can serve God’s purpose in containing evil… but they are not God’s instrument to overcome evil. Overcoming evil can only be accomplished by the power of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.
In a similar way, I believe it is true that we cannot legislate or create by voting consensus ultimate morality:
“The Reformation’s preaching of the Gospel brought forth a true basis for form and freedom in society and government… that 51 percent of the vote never becomes the final source of right and wrong in government because the absolutes of the Bible are available to judge a society. The ‘little man,’ the private citizen, can at any time stand up and, on the basis of biblical teaching, say that the majority is wrong” (Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?)
The development of true morality requires the development of internal character (i.e., becoming a good person rather than just ceasing bad behavior to avoid punishment). However, legislation is a good backdrop for morality. Establishing proper laws provides a plumb line… upholding a clear picture of right-living (righteousness) just as the Ten Commandments have long done to serve human good by providing healthy boundaries for our lives and a framework for understanding righteousness (Paul even states that the law serves as our “tutor” in this regard. In this sense they serve God’s heart for the human life He so values… and the justice He desires. But righteous laws will never make righteous people in and of themselves. Legislation and laws are worthy of our shaping… but it will prove naïve to think that if we get all the right laws in place we will perfect society. Governmental structures and laws cannot render ultimate righteousness, but they can help reflect and uphold it.
5. Those who enter new life that flows from God’s reign and rule must live first and foremost as citizens of God’s kingdom… as instruments of the Divine will breaking into this world in which we are citizens of earthly nations… and keep a healthy perspective on the nature of America’s civic heritage and how we are to relate to it.
Jesus drew a clear distinction between earthly and heavenly reign and rule (see John 18:36 and Luke 20:25) and understood what we are now all to understand: a new kingdom has come, one which transcends the kingdoms of human endeavor. Therefore, those who are citizens in the kingdom of heaven are ambassadors of another country to whatever earthly country in which they live. An ambassador to another country respects the local laws in order to represent well the one who sent him. We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). As ambassadors, we have been called to live as those who contribute to the God-given potential of our communities and civic life through embracing our civic life while prophetically maintaining our ultimate allegiance to God’s rule.
This requires a healthy sense of what America is: a nation quite uniquely founded with Biblical principles and in many respects enjoying the fruit of peace and prosperity that came forth from such… but not a nation that has ever been purely Christian or righteous. There is a healthy pride that should rise up and appreciate deeply what is right with our civic life… while not becoming so presumptuous as to ignore what is wrong with America’s civic life. The patriotism of one who is a citizen of God’s kingdom isn’t the patriotism of naïve pride that says ‘my country right or wrong’… nor is it the critic who dismisses the significance of what our unique Biblical worldview has raised up in the midst of human history. Healthy patriotism and healthy citizenship involves being contributors and correctives towards righteousness, in word and deed.
To those who may tend to become critical and cynical: don’t lose sight of the true reality of suffering and sabotage of human dignity that has defined so much of history and nations before the American experiment through which a new hope flowed from many of God’s principles at its soul. Christians of the early nineteenth century were at the forefront of founding public hospitals and public education, of meeting human needs, and stopping abuses of working men and women. The abolition of slavery was spearheaded by Christians, as was the civil rights movement. There is much to bless. Stay sensitive to the ways in which criticism can turn to cynicism... and cynicism can turn into cursing.
To those who may tend to idealize this nation as a light to the world: don’t lose sight of the fact that this country rose out of a deep mixture of influences… including an opportunism to prosper and even a greed that exploits. As Tony Compolo says: if we are to understand that all world systems are Babylonian in their own right, America may be the best Babylon… but it is still a Babylon. It may be a system that is blessed to have righteously chosen Biblical principles of justice and human rights… but it is still a world system vulnerable to it’s human nature.
We must keep our distinct identity and as ambassadors living in another nation…not forget our true country.
6. The goal of the political process should be to establish leadership and laws that will best cultivate God’s goodness for human life… but regardless of the outcome of elections, we are called to live out our values and serve our community’s needs.
In voting for a candidate, our goal is not simply to elect the candidate who is the most religiously active or even openly confessing Christ (though if such a relationship with Christ is matured it should lead to the best of leadership). Because it is the church which God established to bear the Gospel… and the civic rulers (government) to contain evil…. our goal in elections is, first and foremost, who will best serve the good of the people in terms of cultivating God’s defining of moral good.
The vote, while it is an expression of one’s moral values, is not the end one’s call to meet our community’s moral needs:
Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they'll be won over to God's side and be there to join in the celebration when He arrives.
(1 Peter 2:12)
It is one thing to extol high moral values and to be hard on those who seek to lower them. It is another thing to prove your morality in the body and behavior of your own flesh. We must understand that the greatest authority lies not in our positions but in our lives.
Mother Teresa is a great example. She held no political position… had no formal authority… yet she had more moral authority than any politician ever has. She could speak at the United Nations and say what no one else could. Why? Because she lived her values. She also is a great example of what it means to embrace serving the common needs of her community.
7. In determining the moral good, we must do our best to both define and prioritize the most critical issues.
As a Catholic guide describes (Catholic Answers, El Cajon, CA 92020 USA):
“On most issues that come before voters or legislators, the task is selecting the most effective strategy among several morally good options. A Catholic can take one side or the other and not act contrary to the faith. Most matters do not have a "Catholic position." But some issues concern “non-negotiable” moral principles that do not admit of exception or compromise. One’s position either accords with those principles or does not. No one endorsing the wrong side of these issues can be said to act in accord with the Church's moral norms. You should avoid to the greatest extent possible voting for candidates who endorse or promote intrinsically evil policies. As far as possible, you should vote for those who promote policies in line with the moral law. In many elections there are situations where all of the available candidates take morally unacceptable positions on one or more of the ‘non-negotiable’ issues. In such situations, a citizen will be called upon to make tough choices. In those cases, citizens must vote in the way that will most limit the harm that would be done by the available candidates.”
8. Embrace our civic responsibility (at the most basic level, to vote) and the remarkable power which comes with it to make our voice known.
Citizenship is “the duties and responsibilities that come with being a member of a community.” To appreciate the power and responsibility which comes with citizenship… we need to grasp what is unique in our God-given human and history.
"Aristotle reminds us that man is a political - not (merely) a social - animal. (Only) human beings inhabit a polis as well, a political community, where they rationally, consciously develop those laws and political institutions that comprise a just regime and permit them to live a good life. It is a virtue that elevates us, that invests our daily lives, and civil society itself, with a larger meaning and dignity, a larger moral purpose. As citizens, we have two complementary, not contradictory, obligations: to revitalize and, more important, remoralize the institutions of civil society; and to respect and utilize wisely the instruments of law and government that make this a country worthy of our love." (Recapturing Tocqueville: Civil Society and the Pursuit of Virtue from www.empower.org)
To be fully human is to embrace this unique quality: the ability to shape the common good. We must raise our role as citizens out of the mire of disdain and division… and recapture its proper place in service to God. Every citizen is a civic servant. If God deemed that governing rulers, even if limited, are of significant value to the human condition He so cares for… so should we.
To vote, for example, is to exercise our responsibility for nothing less than voicing our convictions for moral order and the common good.
The popular vote was a long time in coming. Not until the twentieth century did women win the right to vote in the United States. Not long before that only males who owned property were allowed to vote. The electoral process in political life arose as part of the movement toward accountable government. Autocratic monarchs and aristocrats, particularly when they claimed to rule by divine right, argued that their sovereignty required their independence from the opinion of others.
Like so many Americans, we can easily become resigned regarding the flawed nature of government. We may feel that no candidate inspires us or fully represents us… or that our vote will make a difference. I’ve felt all those feelings and in at least one election… didn’t get around to voting. But I realize that there’s a matter of principle at play: in voting we carry out our responsibility to God to be His instruments for appointing leaders… and to contribute towards what we deem the best leaders and the best policies. One can also feel busyness pressing against the taking of time to vote… but I’ve come to feel that if an issue or bill is raised that I recognize as holding significant implications for my country or state… then I must take the time to vote. If I feel I don’t know enough about a particular issue or candidate, I try to learn (the internet is great for this purpose)… and if I’m not able to do so, I won’t vote on that particular position or proposition.
Prior to voting, it is often required that I find my voice which will stand behind my vote. In recent years I’ve written 8 to 12 letters regarding 5 or 6 issues. Often what has drawn my initial attention is a particular organization related to particular issues… but I’ve found that I need to avoid their pre-stated statements and form my own position to keep an authentic voice. How can we form our own voice? By evaluating political issues (candidates, policy, propositions, etc.) based not simply on family and party lines, but on God’s vision and values as reflected in ‘the whole counsel of Scripture.’
There is a tendency on each side of the political spectrum to frame certain issues as ‘religious’ in nature; for example, conservatives focus on the social issues of abortion and homosexuality… liberals focus on issues of economic justice. It should not surprise us that roughly 80% of white evangelicals are Republicans while roughly 80% of black evangelicals are Democrats; both of these peoples have a different story and that experience creates different priorities… both choices of identifying as Republican and Democrat finding some ground in Jesus.
We naturally assume that God is on our side… but God is not registered as a Republican or a Democrat. Here is where we must ask who we really are… if our primary identity is that of a particular political party… or a follower of Jesus:
“Clearly there are those on the Religious Right who would make Jesus into a Republican and an incarnation of their political values. And on the other side of the aisle there are those who would make Jesus into a Democrat who espouses their particular liberal agenda. But Jesus refuses to fit into any of our political ideologies. Transcending partisan politics, Jesus calls us to make judgments about social issues as best we can when we vote, and to do so in accord with our best understanding of God’s will. This of course will make voting into a difficult decision-making process. But who said following Jesus was easy?” – Tony Compolo, Red Letter Christians
If you identify yourself as a Republican, I am convinced that you will become a more Christ-centered Republican by listening less to Rush Limbaugh and more to your brothers and sisters who are Democrats. If you identify yourself as a Democrat, I am convinced that you will become a more Christ-centered Democrat by listening less to similar polarizing critics and more to your brothers and sisters who are Republicans. Followers of Jesus should help lead both parties to a broader moral vision that reflects Jesus’ vision of God’s new social order (kingdom) – of compassion, justice, integrity, and peace.
Legend has it that some members of clergy visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House to assure him that fighting and winning the Civil War as ‘God’s will’. Lincoln is said to have answered, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” We do well to always ask the same question.
So let us all voice our convictions through the various means of dialogue that transpires all the time… even between elections. Then let us vote our thoughtful assessment of what best represents the common good.
9. Pray for our leaders and common needs… and embrace the hope available through reliance upon God through prayer.
For those under God’s reign and rule, we always carry our influence through prayer.
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:1-4)
Remember, this instruction was written when Nero was emperor, and he was decidedly anti-Christian. We are to pray for their salvation… their wisdom, teachability, and sense of accountability. And for those with whom we disagree, we are to pray, avoiding a hostile and punitive spirit. Above all, we are to pray for God’s intervention and protection from human error in matters of the nation’s life and destiny.
…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jeremiah 29:7)
How easily we detach ourselves from being responsible servants of the good of the city in which we live. We can become sideline critics … those who curse… when we are called to be those who bless. Let us embrace and love our city and our communities.
Our willingness to pray for God’s good and blessing for all governing leadership will also guard our hearts from self-righteous contempt through not only modeling humility and respect but keeping our true hope in the unchanging sovereignty of God:
As vital as our efforts may be, as important as election outcomes may be, as crucial as the debates over moral issues may be, the hope of America lies squarely in the hands of a sovereign God, the Judge of earth, who will always do right! His side wins! (Charles G. Fuller, “Ten Commandments for Citizen Christians”)
A grounded, guiding hope is the greatest gift we offer:
Prophetic faith understands that the real battle, the big struggle of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. Cynicism does protect you in many ways. It protects you from seeming foolish to believe that things could and will change. It protects you from disappointment. It protects you from insecurity because now you are free to pursue your own security instead of sacrificing it for a social engagement that won't work anyway. But ultimately, cynicism protects you from commitment. More than just a moral issue, hope is a spiritual and even religious choice. Hope is not a feeling; it is a decision. (God’s Politics by Jim Wallis)
We alone can follow Jesus as a light in this world as we enter the living hope of what uses governments… but never relies on them:
More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval....But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.’ (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “Templeton Lecture, May 10, 1983,” in The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings,1947-2005, 577.)
Perhaps the most essential political action we take is remembering God.
10. Stand up in “civil disobedience” if needed for others.
Is it ever right for God’s people to participate in acts of civil disobedience? The behavior of the Hebrew midwives (see Exodus 1:15) suggests that there can be times when it is. It’s interesting that the Book of Exodus, a story of deliverance from oppression, begins with a case of political resistance as two women refuse to do Pharaoh’s bidding. Because his command was the law of the land, they were consciously and deliberately breaking the law.
This may seem to contradict biblical teaching elsewhere that believers should obey the law and respect the governing authorities (for example, Rom. 13:1–2). But it’s important to realize that there are limits to human authority. Sometimes God’s people must resist human officials in order to obey God (Acts 5:29). That was the type of situation here. Pharaoh was commanding nothing less than infanticide. The text states plainly why he would do that: he was afraid of the Israelites (Ex. 1:8–10, 12). That fear translated into public policy designed to discriminate against and subjugate the Hebrews. But whereas Pharaoh feared the Israelites, their midwives did not fear him; they feared God (Ex. 1:17, 21).
If we feel no tension between the authority of God and human authority, we have to wonder where our commitments ultimately lie. Apparently next to no one in ancient Babylon felt any tension or anxiety about bowing down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, or if they did, they feared the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:6) more than they feared God. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego did not submit. They refused to violate the first and second commandments, which forbid idolatry (Ex. 20:3–5). Furnace or no furnace, they were determined to honor the Lord (Dan. 3:17–18). Christ’s disciples even at points called for civil disobedience when the civil authority at hand was diametrically opposed to the rule of God: “But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.’” (see Acts 4:13-22; 5:29).
The biblical examples of civil disobedience all had the following principles as their impetus:
- Their aim was to serve and glorify God. They were not motivated by ego or out to protect their own power.
- Their point of disobedience was specific and particular. They did not resist authority in total.
- They approached the situation with a spirit of submissiveness. They did not slander or show disrespect to their superiors.
- They accepted the cost of being loyal to the truth.
I’ve been drawn back to the words of Christ…
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace…” (Luke 19:41-42)
Such words were spoken into an intensely political climate… some wanting to appease their Roman enemy in the name of peace … some preparing a forceful insurgency to establish a reign of peace. Such ultimate peace (Hebrew ‘shalom’ which implies complete peace and harmony including righteousness with God)… Jesus knew only his death could offer. If the people had only known that receiving Him was the only ultimate source of true peace. Let us never forget that this is the most essential truth.