Christian Political Participation

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This is the sixth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason.

Having presented the Augustinian background to my approach to Christian political interaction, I want to move now to an application of Augustine's principles to contemporary American politics. I should say that I write as an evangelical, with particular views on what Christianity amounts to and what the church is. But these are views that I believe I share with Augustine, and thus those who are not evangelical may well agree with me on enough of them to arrive at similar conclusions.

I want to keep two kinds of questions separate. First, there are Christian motivations for certain views on how Christians should seek interact politically with the rest of society. Second, there are political reasons that might appeal to people who are not Christians regarding how much role religion should play in political decision-making. I want to focus on the first question in this post. For now I'm ignoring questions about what Christians (or members of any religious group) have a right to do politically, to what extent it is legitimate politically, morally, legally, constitutionally, etc. In other words, I'm leaving aside what sort of role religion should have in the public sphere as a general question that people of different faiths and people of no faith could all agree upon. I'm simply considering what a Christian should be motivated to think about these issues.

I am not ultimately going to ignore such questions, however. My next post will focus on exactly those questions. For now, I want to restrict myself to why I, as an evangelical Christian, should be motivated to play a role in the political process in a largely secularized society and what sort of role my Christian convictions should lead me to want to have. I'll begin with a very quick review of some of the general principles from Augustine that I agree with, which I've covered in more detail in previous posts in this series.

Augustine recognizes that Christians have two overriding principles that summarize all Christian teaching. One is love for God, and the other is love for neighbor. The New Testament clearly teaches that you cannot do the former without doing the latter. (It also teaches that you cannot truly do the latter without doing the former, although that isn't important for what I want to say now.) The highest calling of the Christian, indeed the Christian's most important moral obligation, is to love God, and that requires loving one's neighbor. In applying this point, Augustine insists that loving one's neighbor involves seeking what is good for those around us, including those who are not themselves Christians. To put it in terms of the Two Cities model, those who are citizens of the City of God have a moral responsibility to seek what is best for the earthly city.

Christians do have views about what is best for the earthly city. Ultimately, what is best for the earthly city is for it to become part of the heavenly city, i.e. its members becoming Christians. But that cannot be forced. The best that can be done is lovingly, gently making a case for Christianity and living a Christian life. But there may nonetheless be things Christians can do that are for the good of members of the earthly city that aren't directly related to conversion itself. Some might be indirectly related, for example seeking to motivate controversial claims that happen to support Christian thinking or seeking to inform people about what Christian teaching is to begin with. Other things might simply be for the sake of people's wellbeing, e.g. caring for basic needs such as hunger or providing for someone's wellbeing longer-term and on a higher level by means of friendship. There are lots of things I can do to love my neighbor that have nothing to do with politics.

But what about the political realm? Love of neighbor can spur many a policy proposal. Typically liberal positions are officially motivated by love of neighbor. Universal health care is supposed to provide for a basic need that all have. Entitlement programs in general are intended to care for those who most need help. Pro-choice views on abortion are supposed to be motivated from a concern for women and girls who find themselves pregnant when (the argument goes) there is little other choice but to abort. Typically conservative views can also stem from a motivation to love neighbor, however. If universal health care has overwhelmingly bad consequences, as many conservatives believe, it is not in fact the best way to love one's neighbor. Pro-choice views are generally not concerned about love for the helpless fetus. Similarly, pacifists and war hawks can also put their views in terms of love of neighbor. Pacifists point to the death toll and claim that supporters of a war are not loving their neighbor in allowing so many to die. War hawks claim that it is impossible to respond in love to whatever injustice prompted the war in question if we do not protect the innocent, bring evildoers to justice, and so on.

I think it becomes clear very quickly that the framework I'm presenting doesn't in itself lead to any particular view on which political views Christians would take in seeking to love their neighbors. Such conclusions depend in part on whether policies have the consequences their proponents think they have, which isn't necessarily going to involve any Christian assumptions. They also depend on whether those consequences are in fact good, and that is a moral question. Christian views on what counts as a good result might play a role there, as may Christian views on what is wrong to do, what motivations are good, what character traits are worth developing, and so on. So Christian assumptions do affect what policies a Christian might support. But those policies don't follow straightforwardly from the framework I'm presenting here. You do need to engage in careful moral reasoning, and you do need an accurate presentation of the facts involved, including what results from various policies.

So this explains why a Christian would be motivated to pursue political goals and some of the role a Christian's Christian views will play in figuring out which policies to pursue. But what role does a Christian play in the political process, and how much of a role should a Christian play? Augustine speaks in general when he discusses this question. He imagines Christians in vastly differing scenarios, and in all of them he follows the New Testament teaching to submit to the authority of the government except when it would be immoral to do so. This looks very different in the case of a tyrannical government oppressing Christians (as was the case when the New Testament authors wrote to Christians that they should do this) as compared with the contemporary United States, which has much freedom of religion even if much of the mainstream culture has become so secularized that claims of the U.S. as a Christian nation sound like a joke to most evangelicals who really consider them carefully.

But the command to love neighbor seems to have a much wider application in a setting when the divinely-appointed government allows for much more freedom in how Christians can pursue such a goal. In a setting like the United States, a written constitution provides citizens with privileges such as voting for candidates for office, participating in voter initiatives, engaging in free political speech to influence the government and to influence voters, and other means of seeking the goal of loving neighbor. Given the framework Augustine has presented, it follows that a Christian has a moral obligation to participate in such means to seek to love neighbor to the best of one's ability.

If I have the ability to influence my government by one vote for two senators, and every other Christian in my state has a similar ability, we can collectively influence the vote for those senatorial positions in a way that might have an impact. (This doesn't assume Christians will all vote for the same candidate, merely that if Christians do then they can have an impact.) If I have the ability and networking capability to set up a voter initiative and do what it takes to get it on the ballot and get people to vote for it, then I should seek to use such abilities. If I have the ability to fund-raise or to promote candidates, I should do so provided that my other responsibilities and means of loving my neighbors coordinate well enough with my doing such things. The same goes for running for office and serving in government or for accepting appointments from those in office who nominate Christians to serve. If it turns out to motivate the love of neighbor and to seek that goal best, consistent with balancing my other responsibilities, then that's something I ought to take very seriously.

Now this is only one side of the equation. I haven't explained why I think Christians have a right to do such things in the sense that those in the earthly city would accept. Is it best on those terms to give Christians the privilege to base their policy judgments on biblical principles? Should a government already set up with the constitutional basis of the U.S. allow what many consider to be a violation separation of church and state? There are moral and legal questions there that I do want to answer, and I'll take that up in the next post.

I also want to keep an eye out for more particular questions, for example what sort of role religion might have in public life aside from mere motivation for pursuing political goals. For example, what about manger scenes on public property or the use of Christmas carols in public schools? I expect those questions to take at least two posts, and perhaps other questions will arise that I'm not thinking of at the moment. I expect at least those two further posts, at any rate.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 31, 2007 6:02 PM

Original Comments

I think another reason for Christian participation (not present in Augustine's time) is that when asked to "render unto Caesar", a participatory governmental system like a democracy or republic asks for more than just your coin.

Posted by: Mark Olson | August 1, 2007 8:19 AM

Yes, I had intended to make that clear. That's one reason I thought it was relevant that the New Testament teaches submission to government. I guess it didn't come across as clearly as I'd hoped.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | August 1, 2007 8:26 AM

One thing that a Christian can contribute is to teach distrust of popular idols - not persons but prevalent beliefs.

Too many Christians have lacked this distrust and have thus fallen prey to nationalism, which too many mistake for patriotism, thus doing damage to the image of Christianity and allowing their countrymen to persist in the error.

Another thing that Christians must do is face squarely the fact that there will be corruption in the Church, again and again, (as Chesterton said, if there were reformers, it was because there was something that needed reforming). When that happens they must face it and not accuse blindly of being an enemy of Christ anyone who points out the corruption, rather they must be the ones in the forefront demanding the cleansing. Just remember that the great Queen of Castile, Isabel the Catholic Queen, was great precisely because when faced with widespread Church corruption she set out to clean it.

Posted by: Adriana | August 1, 2007 10:52 AM

What are the distinctions (if any)between the political role of the Christian, and the political role of the Church?

Posted by: The Scylding | August 1, 2007 2:10 PM

The church should be involved with loving neighbor, but the church in the U.S. does not have any political role. The church has not voting privileges, for example. Raising moral issues (including taking stances on them) would be as much a part of loving neighbor as feeding the poor or providing counseling services.

If that counts as political, then the church has a political role. In a society like the one I find myself in, however, there is no political role for the church in terms of recommending particular candidates or things of that nature. That follows from the command to submit to the government. But of course individuals ought to participate, even if those individuals are in leadership positions in the church (I'm trying to be general here to apply this to varying eccelesiatical structures, even though I believe in no laity-clergy distinction).

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | August 1, 2007 2:37 PM

"Recommending candidates," though, is a somewhat ambiguous category. Some would take the statement that the church shouldn't recommend candidates to mean that, for example, no clergyman should ever name a candidate (who might be an incumbent) from the pulpit in either a positive or a negative way. But this doesn't seem correct to me. It could be entirely appropriate for a clergyman to say that a given politician is taking a stance on a certain position that is contrary to Christian moral teaching. But the politician could also be a candidate, running for re-election. It could also, I think, be appropriate for a clergyman to speak for or against some referendum coming up on the ballot. In some states these can be extremely important, either as new citizen-initiated laws or as amendments to the state constitution.

All of this is why the legal standard in the U.S. has been to prohibit to non-profits only "express advocacy" which means saying pretty much in so many words, "You should vote for Candidate A." It seems to me that this is good not only for reasons of the freedom of speech of the clergy but also because I actually think it's incorrect to say that clergymen may discuss issues but *should not* name specific politicians or specific bills or laws under consideration.

Posted by: Lydia | August 1, 2007 7:41 PM

Lydia, I think the view you're offering is in accord with the main principles behind the most recent Supreme Court decision about what counts as advocating a particular candidate.

In principle, there's really no reason religious groups can't advocate particular people. They just can't do so and maintain tax-exempt status. I think there might be moral reasons for the church to be silent as well, but the legal reason is sufficient given the command to submit to governmental authority.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | August 1, 2007 9:20 PM

There is another reason why churches should not advocate particular candidates which has to do with human frailty.

Enthusiasm can lead to churches binding excessively to such candidates, and thus becoming hostage to those candidates competence and good behavior. Should, by human frialty, the candidate come into serious discredit, he/she will drag down the church with him.

Posted by: Adriana | August 3, 2007 8:28 AM

Here is one illustration of the dangers that lurk in political participation

I think the most disturbing thing was seeing the dove of the Holy Spirit sent to the boonies to make room for flags and patriotic slogans. If tthat is not breaking the First and Second commandments I do not know what is. You may, if your are not careful, end up making an idol of your country, and one that demands blood sacrifice.

Posted by: Adriana | August 5, 2007 5:37 PM

Adriana, it always worries me when I see the more extreme proponents of a position taken as indicative of what the position leads to. I agree that there's a danger in patriotism for Christians, but I see no reason thereby to condemn support for one's country in something one believes to be morally justified or required. Such support certainly does not count as idolatry unless it is held in a way that stems from seeing one's country as a higher priority than God. While some may do that, many do not.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | August 6, 2007 8:26 AM


I do not put these as exponets of Chritians in politics, but as cautionary tales, as to what might happen. The pitfalls are many, and this is one of them.

There is nothing wrong with patriotism, but there is a difference between patriotism and nationalism, as George Orwell (and his teacher Chesteron) pointed out, and I suspect that what we see here is nationalism at work. True patriotism would never claim that the flag of one's country takes precedence over the Holy Spirit.

The danger is real, as too many sad cases from World War II attest (the Ustache regime in Croatia can make people lose their faith altoghether).

Posted by: Adriana | August 6, 2007 11:53 AM

Wait, I read the article you linked to, and I didn't see anyone claiming that the flag of one's country takes precedence over the Holy Spirit. That's a particular claim that I didn't see anyone making in that article. There were people who expressed disagreement with other Christians about a particular policy of a particular nation, and some in one nation happened to agree with the policy of their own government while many in other nations disagreed with that policy. But I can't see how it's fair to characterize that disagreement as claiming that your flag takes precedence over the Holy Spirit.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | August 6, 2007 12:03 PM

Jeremy: I overdid it with the rhetoric. I commented on the man trying to get Holy spirit dove pin in a Chrsitan bookstore, and finding only flags, and "support our troops" ribbons, and finding the pins lost among odds and ends..

The buyers were saying what they preferred, and the store was giving it to them.

Posted by: Adriana | August 6, 2007 4:13 PM

The Church's role in the political realm is to be a prophetic voice regarding the moral issues of the day.

As individuals we can be involved directly in a different candidates' campaigns, but we shouldn't become so enamored with politicians that we lose our prophetic voice as well.

Posted by: Shane Vander Hart | August 9, 2007 12:03 AM


Why do we Christians/Evangelicals let the pundits(mostly all right) use the term Messiah with such irreverence as Rush Limbaugh does on a daily basis.

Quite frankly I am appauled at how the right has used our Christ and our message as a tool to blunt any who they feel contempt for.

This is not what I want as a politcal party. I am leaving them due to their lip service which never gets our deep convictions moved ahead to realization and because anyone who really "believed" would not throw that word around like a cheap explitive.

I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh, so I don't know exactly what you're referring to, but the New Testament authors definitely use the word for 'Messiah' (which is the Greek 'Christos') in their discussion of false Christs and anti-Christs, who are basically those who are portraying themselves as messiahs. You do have to admit that a lot of people treat certain politicians that way. The two situations aren't exactly parallel, but I'm not as sure this is a real offense as you are. It may just be a natural implication of someone's not being messiah but being treated too much like one.

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