Friday, July 30, 2010

Evangelicals and the Manhattan Declaration: The Church and Politics

How should the Church/Christians be involved in politics? This is a complicated question that has occupied Christian thinkers for centuries in all sorts of different cultural settings. The Church has been the majority in some times and places (eg. 13th century Europe), an influential minority in others (eg. 20th Century United States) and a persecuted and oppressed minority in others (eg. 20th Century China). It has also moved from being a majority or influential minority to becoming a persecuted minority in other situations (eg. Asia Minor, North Africa) and it has been virtually wiped out of certain areas (eg. North Africa under Islamic invaders).

In situations where the Church is a persecuted or small and impotent minority, practically the only way a Christian influence can be brought to bear on the society is by individual Christians living out their faith as individuals very unobtrusively. Once the Church becomes a larger percentage of the population, the number of Christians in positions of power and influence naturally increases and so the question of a "Christian perspective" on various political questions becomes pressing.

At this point the Church has to make a decision: should the Church qua Church, with the clergy as its representatives, pass resolutions, write letters to elected officials and urge its members to vote as a block on certain issues or not? It is perfectly possible for the Church to allow its members to serve in all sorts of vocations including political and bureaucratic ones which exert political power and simply trust individual Christians to exert a Biblical and Christ-like influence in so doing. Or, on the other hand, the Church can decide to get involved as a Church in taking stands and seeking to influence the political process. Both strategies are often followed to one degree or another.

However, one can recognize the Fundamentalist position in the decision to stick to preaching the Gospel of eternal salvation to individuals and keep the Church as an institution and the clergy as its representatives out of politics. One can also recognize the Liberal Social Gospel position in the decision for clergy to take the lead in mobilizing the Church as a voting block to try and change society through political means. For many, the issue is defined as apolitical ministry that ignores politics versus sidelining the centrality of the Gospel in favor of working for social reform in a Progressivist, Liberationist or Social Gospel manner. It is clear from the past 200 years of church history that these two positions have been at odds with each other and have had many champions who stood for one approach or the other. Sadly, many younger Evangelicals have concluded that their choices are to concentrate on personal evangelism or else take up socialist politics and that these are the only two viable choices. We see many of these younger Evangelicals following the siren songs of leftist figures such as Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo and Ron Sider.

But I would like to suggest that the Manhattan Declaration stands in an honorable tradition of Evangelical social involvement that dates back much farther than the relatively recent socialist and progressivist captivity of liberal Protestantism. Ever since the Reformation, Protestants have combined the preaching of the Gospel and the conversion of souls with a different kind of political involvement that consists not of furthering the revolution in the name of equality, but rather of strengthening the Judeo-Christian moral foundations of society so as to preserve the conditions for the recognition of God's law and human dignity.

This tradition has been expressed in all branches of Protestantism, but may be seen most clearly, in my view, in the Reformed tradition. In the 20th century, figures such as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer and Charles Colson have been influential in instilling in the wider Evangelical conscience a sense of responsibility for Christian political involvement that rejects both statist collectivism and extreme libertarianism in order to help provide the moral foundations of law and culture that cultivate the virtue needed by a people that wants to enjoy freedom and self-government rather than tyranny and statism.

In this tradition, there is considerable debate about the role of natural law, but there is always some recognition (following Paul in Romans 1) that even non-Christians can discern and acknowledge certain basics of moral behavior that permit a society to function without top-down control. There can be a recognition of the moral principles embodied in the Ten Commandments by Jews, Christians, agnostics and members of other religions, which can form the basis for a society enriched by institutions of civil society and the family. At this stage of history, to take such a position is necessarily to take a conservative position.

To conceive of Christian social involvement in conservative terms as the Reformed tradition and the Manhattan Declaration do is inevitable, given the Judeo-Christian heritage upon which Western culture is built. To do this is to reject both individualism and statism, both quietism and progressivism, both the pessimism of certain strands of millennialism and the modern idea of progress. It is to recognize that the Church has a role in culture but also to recognize that that role is not to try and become a rival state or a quasi state. Rather, that role is to preach the Gospel, convert and spiritually form people as light and to proclaim the morality upon which society is based and thereby strengthen the society as salt. Then, as part of their Christian discipleship individual Christians, both as individuals and as they form themselves in to free associations for greater effectiveness, bring their character and faith to bear on political problems.

The Church does take a political position in this scenario because of her responsibility to shape and form her members for political service as citizens. But while that political position will be conservative in the context of a civilization with deep historical roots in the Judeo-Christian encounter with Greek philosophy, it must necessarily appear revolutionary in the context of a non-Christian culture like contemporary China. So a Christian politics is not necessarily conservative, but it is necessarily based in the Ten Commandments and the natural law. In our day and culture a Christian politics is conservative necessarily and must reject both progressivist and Marxist forms of revolution against Christian Western culture.

1 comment:

Billy Atwell said...

Hi, I'm the manager for the Manhattan Declaration and work for the Chuck Colson Center as well. I read your blog and really appreciate your mentioning of the Manhattan Declaration. This document alone means almost nothing--since it is just words--but when the ideas expressed become a vibrant movement of faith-leaders, it can be incredibly transforming. You're helping advance that call and that movement.

Judging from what I've read of your blog, I think you would appreciate our news updates (linked on the left-hand side of and our blog (

God Bless.