Saturday, October 4, 2008

How Should Christians Be Involved in Politics?

In the last three posts I have argued:
1. The Church qua Church should not be involved in politics.
2. The Church qua Church has an evangelical responsibility to be involved in moral issues.

Now, I want to go on to discuss the role of individual Christians in the political process. I want to make a distinction between the role of the Church itself and the clergy and other leaders as its official representatives, on the one hand, and the individual Christian church member on the other. The individual church member is trying to work out his salvation with fear and trembling and is called by God to a variety of vocations and for some their vocation will be politics. All Christians, in modern liberal democracies, are citizens with certain rights and responsibilites. So how should Christians be involved in politics as citizens and, for some, as politicans?

The Problem
In the current situation, many Evangelicals are confused by the choice between the two political parties, neither of which seems to offer a consistently Christian platform. What to do? I have been arguing that part of our problem is that we fail to distinguish between moral issues, on which the Church can speak clearly and which require no debate, and political strategies, on which the Church should not speak and which require much debate and may even be impossible to resolve. My point is that we should be guided primarily by moral issues, rather than political strategies. Now, this leads to the problem posed by Sam in the comments thread of the last post that it seens that one party is better than the other on abortion but both have serious shortcomings. So should we just refrain from voting? Some, especially in the Anabaptist camp, are urging this approach this election year. How should we respond?

Stepping Back From the Immediate
Part of our problem is that many of us (most?) are somewhat naive about how politics works and we only get interested in the process once every few years when there is a media blitz of publicity concerning a presidential race or something comparable. So our participation is sporadic. In this situation, I think it is not surprising that we would be tempted not to vote and as we all know, voting rates in most western countries are falling overall. If we expect to be able to ignore the whole democratic process between elections and then be presented with black and white options in which choice is easy - then we are bound to be disappointed most of the time.

Let us assume a hypothetical situation in which we have a two-party system (as in the US) and both parties advocate positions incompatible with Christian moral positions. Let us say that one party advocates an unjust war and the other abortion. (Does this sound familiar?) Now, does that mean that individual Christians can just do whatever they want, i.e. vote for either or vote for neither? I think not.

First of all, Evangelicals should be involved in politics in multiple ways. The possibilities are local, state and national levels, working within one of the parties, running for office for one of the parties, running as an independent, working for a political action committee, working for a public policy advocacy group, working in a social justice ministry that educates the Church as part of its ministry, etc. I suggest that the long-term goal of Christians should be to be a swing vote that is educated on Christian moral issues and helps to bring those issues to the public consciousness.

Second, Evangelicals should try to form a Christian caucus in each party that tries to influence party policy with Christian morality from within. For example, I doubt that we will ever see abortion made illegal until the Democratic Party is at least divided on the issue. Even if one party is completely sold on making it illegal, the degree of determination with which the other party opposes it will be crucial. This may mean that some Christians are called to work within the Democratic party structures knowing that the Christian vote will not go their way until there is serious change to the party policy on abortion. I can thus imagine a Tony Campolo working within the Democratic party to try to moderate its position on abortion but not asking Evangelicals to vote Democratic until there is change. My problem with him at the moment is that he wants Evangelicals to vote Democratic when there has been no movement on abortion at all and that is highly problematic from a conscience perspective. This is compromise with evil, rather than transforming culture.

Third, Evangelicals should work outside the traditional partisan structures to make a compelling case for Christian moral positions in ways that do not depend on revelation and Scripture alone. This work can be done by appealing to the stated convictions of the non-Christians in power and showing how their own rhetoric of human rights and freedom should lead them to support Christian moral positions.

Fourth, some Evangelicals should run for office in order to be a witness to Christ in the government. Evangelicals who do so must be guided by the moral teachings of the Christian Church and not deny those teachings in order to get ahead politically. The John F. Kennedy strategy of promising to refuse to be governed by the teaching of his Church is not acceptable. After all, do we ask Secularists not to be governed by their highest philosophical ideals and committments? This may severely limit their acceptability to the major parties and, if so, the time may come when Christians run as independents. But at the moment, it is possible for Christians to run for the Republicans and maybe for the Democratic party as well. We should not give up on the Democratic party as far as trying to change it is concerned; all I have argued is that we must not allow ourselves to be changed by it.

Specific Problems With the Religious Right
1. It was led to an unacceptable degree by pastors as its public spokesmen. This, more than anything, created the "theocracy scare." It also placed the Church in politics up to its neck and thus undermined the Church's moral credibility.
2. It over-identified with the Republican Party to the extent that it seemed that the Christians vote has no where else to go and therefore could be taken for granted. If Evangelicals want to sit out this election in order to make the point that the Republicans need the Evangelical and Catholic vote and had better not take it for granted (say by appointing another disaster like Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court for example) then that is a reasonable position to take as a one-off strategy. I would not say that there is a moral obligation to vote Republican necessarily.
3. It could not keep specific moral issues (marriage, abortion, assisted suicide) separate from general neoconservative ideology (especially US exceptionalism and empire building and unregulated capitalism as the ideal). This also brings shame and reproach on the Church.

The Religious Right would have been much more effective (and still could be) if if was lay-led, organized outside a party and more focussed on certain issues and not neoconservatism in general. (A caution: Coalition building will always be necessary and should not automatically be identified with compromise.)

Specific Problems with the Religious Left
1. It is also too often led by clergy (who often stand to the left of their congregations) and this tends to identify the Church with as left-wing ideology. This is a similar problems as on the right.
2. It is over-identified with socialism and big government as the answer to all problems.
3. It promotes a secular solution for the problems of the world and thereby renders itself irrelevant except as a cheering section for government action.
4. By endorsing the economic left, it also tends toward approving the cultural left, which brings it into conflict with many Christian moral teachings. So far (in the past 100 years) Christians who endorse the economic left have not been able to do so without endorsing the cultural left, which raises the question of whether or not this is even possible.

Last Point
I think that the way the Catholics approach politics has a lot to teach us as Evangelicals. The role of the bishops, the substance of Catholic social doctrine, and the way Catholics function as a swing vote all are models to us, I think. I will explore this point in future posts.


Sam Adams said...

Craig, a couple of thoughts...

First, given the influence that "undecided" voters have on the political process in America it seems that being ready to withhold a vote may be at times more significant and influential than joining up with one side or another.

Second, I am concerned by the suggestion that Christians should set the long term goal of being a swing vote (this obviously throws my first point into question...). It would seem that to seek this sort of established power position could be harmful for the proclamation of the Gospel and the church's witness for the kingdom. Paul's witness against slavery could be an example: he didn't argue for the abolition of slavery (and it was certainly a different form of slavery than the American chattel version), but rather he undermined the institution by exalting the dignity of slaves. Similarly one could argue that homosexuality is best dealt with by befriending homosexuals, rather than legislating against them. Also, one could approach abortion by befriending women with unwanted pregnancies, rather than legislating against abortion. While on one hand these approaches might not necessarily exclude a legislative strategy, on the other hand they just might. It seems there is a different view of power that could be inherent in each respective approach and I am inclined to think that Paul's approach in incompatible with the establishment of a Christian voting bloc or caucus. This is the sort of question that I am interested in and would love to hear your thoughts, especially with respect to the thought of Yoder.

Thanks for the good posts.

Craig Carter said...

I think you just need to keep your nerve up and not give up trying to exert influence on society. Why does it have to be all or nothing - either we hold back and do nothing to influence legislation or we take over and use violence to impose our view? What is wrong with using democratic methods to promote good morality, so long as we don't use violence and take over?

Your examples are, of course, abortion and homosexuality - two areas where the Christian and conservative position is firecely opposed by the cultural left. But what would you say to Evangelicals who did not support Martin Luther King's effort to get the civil rights act passed in the early 1960's but said that they had "negro friends" and were personally open to mixed gatherings in their homes? What would you say about an Evangelical who opposed the Vietnam War in private but did not let it affect his voting, even if he befriended wounded vets?

The Gospel is about truth, not passivity. If right is right and wrong is wrong then the Church can justly be blamed for failing to speak up for the truth and against all wrong.

At the height of the Biden-Pelosi fiasco I read something very interesting by a Catholic writer. He predicted that a century or two from now, pagans would blame the Catholic Church for not opposing abortion more in the 20th century and would even blame the Catholic Church for the abortion holocaust! I believe that is a very true insight. I think that is exactly what will happen.

Sam Adams said...


I really appreciate your thoughts and perspective and so I want to push a little to see how you respond to some of these arguments.

You write that, "the Gospel is about truth, not passivity. If right is right and wrong is wrong then the Church can justly be blamed for failing to speak up for the truth and against all wrong." I agree wholeheartedly, yet the shape that that truth takes according to the narrative of the Gospels is cruciform. It is not for the church to gain power as a caucus or voting bloc to ensure that our witness is heard or that our morality might have its influence on our society. It would seem that this sort of thing is precisely the watering down of the church's witness through the lie that the public square is a neutral arena in which everyone will have a a voice. The public square would have the church be another voice in the pluralist maze of our liberal democratic society. If the church has to set a long term goal of being a voting bloc or caucus then it seems that the real witness of the church must have failed. Legislation is at best a second-order activity of the church and is always subject to the critique of the Gospel--a critique that begins with humility before the broken body and shed blood of our Lord.

Frankly, it takes more nerve to give oneself to a lifetime of service in and for a church set on living the truth of a crucified Lord in a culture of death, speed, and power. The politics of the nation state is easy in comparison.

I am all for an approach which calls the secular powers to live up to their own best standards, and to bear witness to better ways of being human in this fallen world. Yet I am suspect of the confident assumption of power in the name of truth as if it were some sort of holy obligation. I would see this as perfectly in step with participation in the Civil Rights Movement, protests against the Vietnam War, etc.. I am opposed to the creation of Christian political organizations that seek established power bases precisely because they are not Eucharistic communities. They do not have at their center the Cross of Christ (could they be? What would this look like? How would they be faithful to the Great Commission?). Any Christian attempt to pass legislation should, it seems to me, be subject to the humility required before the table, and it should be subject to the discipline and discernment of the gathered body of believers. It may be that out of our worship flows a call to work for legislation that "seeks the peace of the city," but it must be informed by our worship, by our doxological formation into the way of the Lamb.

It's not one or the other with me--activism or passivity--rather I am acutely aware of the politics of the Right, a politics that I grew up with and that was not formed by a politics of the Cross. I distrust the Left as much, and thanks to your posts I have had the courage to be more critical of the Left this election year. However, I am not convinced that what you seem to be arguing is really a politics of the cross--unless by a politics of the cross you are now referring to Augustine's analogy of the cross as judgment seat, rather than Yoder's Victorious Lamb.

A little push-back in the interest of furthering the conversation...


Craig Carter said...

You write: "However, I am not convinced that what you seem to be arguing is really a politics of the cross--unless by a politics of the cross you are now referring to Augustine's analogy of the cross as judgment seat, rather than Yoder's Victorious Lamb."

Well put. You have put your finger on the heart of the matter. Is there a conflict between Augustine and Yoder? Is a politics of the cross pacifist? If so, what does pacifism mean? Is pacifism consistent with judgment?

I am thinking out loud on this blog and not making final pronouncements. It seems clear, however, that pacifism as passivity in the face of evil cannot exhaust the meaning of the cross. If the Resurrection and Ascension is the means by which Jesus "conquors" the powers, then he can't come back. Salvation must mean our souls going to heaven with him and leaving this earth to the powers. But if Jesus is coming back to conquor the powers of sin, death, hell and devil, then his return will not be passive, but active warfare against evil (Rev. 19). In that case, we err by reducing redemption to pacifism. Pacifism is a vocation of the church for now; it is not the sum total of all that the cross means. That is why Augustine is right to see it as a judgment seat. The world that rejected Jesus is now under Divine judgment and will not escape.

The witness of the Church is nonviolent, but it is not a witness to nonviolence. It is a witness to Jesus Christ. This cannot be stressed enough. This is the difference between Christianity and Buddhism. To say that we preach the cross merely by preaching pacifism is irresponsible reductionism.

I am extremely concerned that pacifism has been elevated to the status of an all-determining principle, in the thought of some, with the result that it re-shapes our whole worldview and finally our doctrine of God. In this view, God just suffers with the world until finally it comes round to His way of thinking and becomes peaceful. This view seems to me to underestimate the biblical account of evil and it seems to me to rob God of His justice and determination to overcome sin.

Another word that is quickly becoming useless is Constantinian. I used in my book, as Yoder did, to mean the Church taking secular power and using it to force non-Christians by violent means into compliance with Church teaching. But to form alliances with Jews, Muslims, secular conservatives and others in a pluaralistic society to campaign democratically for human rights is not Constantinain - even if the view of the Church prevails and is enshrined in legislation. It is not Constantinianism; it is democracy. To convince a majority that the right to life should be protected is not the same as Constantinianism. If it is, then let's face reality: the Church should retreat to private enclaves, let society go to hell, and shut up. Is that what Jesus left us here to do?

Angel said...

"My problem with him at the moment is that he wants Evangelicals to vote Democratic when there has been no movement on abortion at all and that is highly problematic from a conscience perspective."

Hi! I came across this post via HighCallingBlogs (I get their feed in email) and wanted to note to you that there is the DFLA - Democrats For Life Association. Plus, the Matthew 25 Network is promoting a pro-life agenda as well. Both are groups left of center. I don't know if you accept links, but you can google both and find them easily.

Craig Carter said...

The Matthew 25 network is a political action committee organized to get Obama elected. Its name is ironic, since it advocates electing a person who stands for a radical abortion on demand position in the name of "the least of these." I would have thought that anyone concerned about the "least of these" would have to make defending pre-born babies the highest priority.

Democrats for Life appears to be a real pro-life organization, which is flying the pro-life flag within the hostile environment of the Democratic Party. To the extent that it does this, I applaud its efforts.

One caveat, however, the website misleadingly states that the new Democratic Party platform calls for abortion reduction. This is incorrect. It calls for the reduction of the need for abortion. (p. 50) Here is a link:

The language of abortion reduction was proposed and rejected. To reject the need for abortion is not necessarily to reduce the actual number of abortions because the principle of choice is still paramount.

In fact, by mandating government funding for abortion and by striking down informed consent, parental notification, pre-abortion counselling and other such laws, the Freedom of Choice Act (that Obama has promised to sign) will likely increase the number of abortions.