Question: What is the proper role of Christian faith in relation to politics? That is a question without any one-answer-fits-all solution. Yet, it is one that we should, as responsible Christians, tackle.
There are a few aspects that we must consider:
Component #1: We must understand and discern our particular calling.
I recently saw the movie Amazing Grace. The movie is artful, powerful, and pointed. It accurately portrays the role of evangelical pietism in the life of former slave trader and later Anglican clergyman, John Newton, the writer of the famous hymn for which the movie is named, and especially in the life of the extraordinary politician and statesman, William Wilberforce, whose persistent battle to end the slave trade in the British Empire was finally fruitful. Wilberforce is the main focus of the movie and Newton appears only a few times, but if you see the movie, you will forget neither.
Grounded in his spiritual vision, Wilberforce perhaps promoted more good causes more effectively than any other figure in history. By our current standards, we may not conclude that his batting average was 1.000 on his choices of causes, but, if we allow him to be a man of his times, he shines like the sun breaking through thick, dark clouds. Although largely forgotten today, he was a worldwide hero in his times.
Interestingly, both the Christian right and the Christian left of our times have seen the importance of this movie better than have the complacent Christians and the secularists. For right and left alike, Wilberforce is a model of how to be a Christian politician, a model from which both sides can profit in more ways than they perhaps yet recognize. Right and left come out from viewing this movie ready to re-energize their respective battles for family values, the sanctity of life, social justice, and even ecological stewardship. Perhaps before they return to the barricades, they need to search beyond the movie to find a lesson hidden in the lives of these two men. The lesson is that the role of politics in the life of a Christian may well depend on that Christian’s calling.
Newton had been a blasphemous, drunken, adulterous, murderous slave trader when, in the midst of a 1748 sea storm, he had a life changing awakening. He once was blind, but now he saw…sort of. His conversion did not immediately end his participation in the slave trade, but merely by degrees softened his treatment of the slaves. In 1754, a health problem forced him out of the trade. I have not yet seen record of his denouncing the slave trade prior to 1763, although I am fairly certain that it had happened sometime before that. In 1764, he became an Anglican priest. In 1770, he wrote Amazing Grace. By 1785, Newton was persuading Wilberforce to enter politics rather than the ministry in order to fight the slave trade, and in 1787 he wrote an abolitionist tract in which he set forth a full case against slavery, attributing his slowness to reject the slave trade as due to his earlier ignorance of true Christian character.
Even as he wrote against the slave trade, Newton was concerned that he not step beyond his appropriate role as a “clergyman” and that he not come across as self-righteously judging those who were still engaged in the trade he now abhorred. He also made it clear that he was describing the moral problems with the slave trade, not advocating a particular legislative remedy. Newton understood that Christian transformation is a gradual process and that his calling was to nurture people toward Christian faith and character, not to engage firsthand in politics.
Wilberforce, as a politician and statesman, defied easy categorization. He was willing to stand courageously against strong tides of misplaced patriotism and corrupt wealth, and to persist until the verdict of saner times and broader popular interests, but he was also willing to align himself with patriotism and wealth when they furthered his causes. He was flexible enough and focused enough to let his causes cut across lines of party, class, and ideological perspectives. He was clear-thinking enough to forge coalitions with people who shared his interest in a particular cause, but who were not of like minds at deeper and broader levels. He managed to do this without compromising his principles or his character. In other words, he was a good Christian and a good politician.
Yes, he was concerned about sharing the saving gospel with unbelievers and leading believers to maturity, and, as he could, he addressed these concerns, but his primary calling was to the political arena. As a champion of controversial causes, he was too polarizing to be an effective evangelist or pastor to those who did not share his commitments.
In other words, I am saying that Newton and Wilberforce had different, but complementary callings. It was as important for them to understand how their jobs were different as it was for them to understand how they were similar.
Pastors and churches are to stand first for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, second for training those who believe and trust in Christ to grow in Christlikeness so that they may winningly join the mission of representing the Gospel as an ambassador. There are no greater causes than these. Pastors and churches are not to allow lesser causes to get in the way of their primary callings. Once pastors and churches begin to align themselves too closely with public policy issues, with political parties and candidates, or even with moral crusades, they begin to limit the people to whom they can effectively “reach” to.
Newton pastored and encouraged Wilberforce, and helped him as he could, but he did not actively enter the political fray that would have distracted him from his calling to win souls and to superintend their growth into Christlikeness.
William Wilberforce, on the other hand, was called to live out his faith and morality in the public and political arena where ever-shifting coalitions and constant compromise are the name of the game. Although a man of faith, he had to fight with worldly weapons. It was important to the cause of Christ and of humanity generally that Wilberforce fulfilled his calling in the political realm. We need more Wilberforces today, but we do not need Newtons playing at being Wilberforces. It is important to understand our calling before we determine whether we are to engage in any political battle or involvement.
Component #2: Moral concerns may have their moments in politics, but they will not dominate politics.
One of the things that Wilberforce had to come to understand is that political battles are not won by moral outrage alone. Moral outrage may be a component in a political battle, but it will not by itself determine many outcomes.
To use a figure of speech, politics is mostly about pie, how the pie is baked, protected, sliced, and distributed. Pie issues are resolved by building coalitions and selecting the most advantageous compromises that are available. In our society today, the Republicans represent the pie interests of one group and the Democrats represent the pie interests of another group. Since the core pie interests of neither party form a majority of the populace, the two parties contest for the support of the rest of the country, by seeking to persuade this group that they can best represent their pie interests too (for instance, keeping taxes lower, helping to get better health care, etc.). They may also try to persuade this populance that they can best represent non-pie interests in a better way and with a more lucrative impact than “the other party or person.”
Morality is one of the non-pie interests. Morality is about how people should live. Moral issues are resolved by persuading people to do right, and they do not fit very easily with the coalitions and the compromises by which pie issues are resolved. So it is not wise to put all our moral eggs in the political basket because those eggs will only be used for the pie.
When it comes to hard choices, most successful politicians of both parties will stick with the pie issues and jettison the moral issues. Politicians of either party who do not focus on the pie issues will be either ineffective or defeated or both.
Moralists will often end up frustrated by their ventures into politics. They need to understand that they serve as a leavening effect on the political culture even when they do not prevail.
In order to win in his battle against the slave trade and ultimately against slavery itself, Wilberforce had to consider the economic issues and how to get them aligned with the moral issues. He succeeded because he was willing to think in that manner. We need to pay attention to that lesson from his life.
Component #3: What are the politically relevant moral issues about which Christians should be concerned?
Wilberforce was not a one issue politician. At one point, he was involved in 60+ reform organizations, each representing a different cause. His issues cut across party lines and across all the typicall alignments of his day. His primary motive was to represent a Christian vision in practical concerns. How would we begin to compose such a list of causes for 2011 A.D.? We should know, as Christians, that politically relevant moral issues of concern should include those things that God is serious and intentional about. And we come to learn this from knowing His Word and saturating in His presence.
Component #4: What to do!
We need to step back and learn (or re-learn) a lesson from Jesus. His faith and values certainly had an impact on the political world. He would not have been crucified otherwise. But he did not focus on political action and community organization. His mission was introducing broken, rejected, and sick people to the redeeming love and reigning power of God. Among his closest disciples were a former Zealot revolutionary against Rome and a former tax collector for Rome. He must have asked his disciples to keep their focus on His Kingdom mission and off politics, because, despite their differences, He was able to send them out, two-by-two, to proclaim the kingdom of God, healing and delivering people, and calling them to repent and to belief in a saving faith.
Jesus understood that what people most need is a living, intimate relationship with the loving and reigning God. When they have that, God will guide and empower them to make sound moral choices. Society does not have rewards and punishments that can compare in influence to the transforming power of God. When the Church (the bride and body of Christ) gets involved in politics, it obscures its most powerful tool for change (the Gospel) in exchange for highlighting a less effective one (legislation). The politically partisan church undermines the power of its own message, that we can be born anew through faith and profession in Jesus Christ.
Just as politicians focus on pie, churches ought to focus on the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ. We ought to let nothing distract us from that focus. Our clear priority should be evangelism and discipleship, bringing people to God and positioning them to grow and go in Him. Our moral teaching ought to be part of our in-house training programs for bringing believers to maturity in Christ. It is: Gospel first, morality second.
What then do we Christians do about family values and sexual morality? We should do such a good job of teaching those values to our church members and partners that others will see our lives and want to find out how we do it, and in turn, ask how they can get it. That is the kind of witness His Church should have.
What then do we do about resource stewardship, war, famine, alleviation of poverty, matters of life and death, etc.? Again, we train our members in the values that fit with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and trust God that those values will have an impact on everyone around us. That is faith in action! Christians will often have different ideas about what government ought to do, or not do, about such issues, but there ought to be some basic values and beliefs that unite His Church and bring us together.
Of course, when Christians step into the voting booth or feel called by God to run for an elective office, they will take their Christian values with them, and those values must have an impact. We should rejoice when this happens. But we ought never to assume that we will thereby build the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God grows 1 disciple at a time as we go, and make, and disciple, and teach.
It is then that the Kingdom expands, that truth is shared, that the Gospel is taken, and that souls are transformed. Just remember: politics, parties, and government will never solve the deepest issues of mankind. There is only One Who has made all things available for each and every one of us. There is only One Who has paid it all. There is only One Who has our best interests at heart. His Name is Jesus!