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Religion and Politics

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… Philippians 3:20


Dear Friends in Christ,

We are not in an election cycle right now, and no great clash of parties is currently capturing out attention (not any more than usual, I mean). So now is probably as good a time as any to take on the many clichés about religion and politics, especially as Americans and even more especially as Christians. There is so much that can be said, but let’s at least scratch the surface. If you know me at all, you know that I rarely step into “political” issues from the pulpit and in my teaching, yet I am not allergic to such conversations—when well grounded. Indeed, those allergies are foreign to Christian teaching, and foreign to American civic society.

One rather strong cliché is that religion and politics have no business in polite conversation. On the one hand, we hate to be contentious, and political and religious loyalties can be more fierce than loyalties to football teams (and that’s saying a lot). But should we never speak about these things?

Public policy impacts our lives and our culture, and religious values likewise impact our lives and our culture. Should we not speak about things that are important to us? Should we not listen to each other to learn and grow and understand? Perhaps it is the adversarial or accusatorial way some people engage with one another that should be set aside, and instead meaningful conversations that seek to receive and give understanding should be pursued. I think so. Certainly, Jesus calls us to share the good news of God’s love for people and the truth of God’s self-revelation in him. He didn’t call us to be obnoxious about it, and in fact he calls us to speak the truth in love—especially about the things that matter, including the things of God, and the things of public policy that impact people.

Another cliché about religion and politics is the “wall of separation between church and state.” This is a favorite (appearing in some writings by founding fathers). However, this is not in the US Constitution. Indeed, the constitution is particular to provide for free expression of religion, rather than walling off religion from the rest of life. If there is any wall, it is more like a door—a door that opens in one direction. The Constitution prevents the state from telling the church what to do. But it preserves the right of religious people to exercise their religion, and to vote and to speak, even about politics.

Sometimes we seem to think that the church should be silent about what the state should do. This strikes me as curious on its face. Perhaps the institution of the church should be careful in its political organizing. But we are as free as any other organization to lobby government. And even more so, the church is the body of Christ, the assembly of Christian people. As Christians, why should we exempt ourselves from the political process? Or perhaps should we never mention our motivation for advocating one position or another? This also seems puzzling to me. If a Muslim claimed motivation for a policy decision based on Muslim moral standards, we wouldn’t object. We might disagree, but why should that motivation be a surprise? Why should such motivation be forbidden from public discourse?

Neither should that be true for Christians. If we believe that God reveals to us things that are true and good for us as human beings, why not advocate for them in public policy? Why would we make political party a compelling reason to vote a certain way, but then keep Christian teaching from influencing our public life?

I suppose some might say that one reason for pause would be that we are a pluralist society, not a uniformly Christian one. Of course, Christians disagree about public policy all the time. But even so, there is a point for citizens of a pluralist republic that effective governance does involve decisions that can be widely supported. In the political process, no one achieves an absolute victory. Nonetheless, it is OK for us to advocate for a position, especially in the midst of the debate. That debate can shape the outcome of policy. And policy shapes culture, and culture shapes our lives as well.

Therefore, I believe that Christians have a responsibility to speak, and to listen as Christians in the public square. And I believe that public policy is fair game for Christians to discuss as Christians—even in church. Of course, some churches take this a bit far, spending far more time on public policy or campaign debates than on Jesus. Following Jesus does have political implications. But those implications should be driven by Jesus, not by the latest political trend or party zeal. This error happens on the left and on the right.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road for me. As Christians, we follow the Messiah—the King in the kingdom of heaven; we are citizens of a greater kingdom, and all earthly rulers fall under God’s sovereignty. It is God’s calls to us that should shape our politics, not the other way around. If party or ideology is shaping our religion, then we are worshipping the wrong god. I see this also on the left and the right and the middle. Here is the sturdy ground on which I write this message. The first commandment is that the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and we should have no other gods before him. Our fidelity to God comes first. And in that fidelity, we might learn more what is good and true and right, and how we might live together honoring God, even in a pluralist society.

Allowing God to direct our politics does not automatically produce one party platform (!). Indeed, Christians still disagree on how best to order our common life. But even then, if we agree that faithfulness to God matters, that will help us pray and discern faithfully how to face the issues of the day. If we speak in love to our neighbor and listen in love, and listen for the Holy Spirit speaking in our midst, then we are more likely to find a faithful response, in the church, in private and in the public square. And the more likely we will be to honor each other, even as we disagree.

As Christians, we are called to put God first in all things. We can follow Jesus in our personal lives, our business lives, and in school and even in the public square and the voting booth. This is not un-American, nor un-Christian. It may not solve all political questions or problems. But we will have the right starting points, putting first things first, and living more faithfully in the process. And perhaps, if we are faithful, we will learn how to engage one another, even across differences and disagreements, even seeking common ground and reconciliation. In so doing, God will be glorified, and the country better served.

God bless you always!

Yours in Christ,

-Tom

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