Theology

Getting “Political”—Vice or Christian Virtue?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 01/01/2022

In 1925, state legislatures began passing laws against teaching evolution. The ACLU stepped in to test the law in Tennessee using high school teacher John Scopes. William Jennings Bryan was the spokesman for the fundamentalists; the ACLU had Clarence Darrow for the teacher’s defense.

The infamous “Monkey Trial” was a watershed event for Christians. Scopes and the ACLU lost the court battle proper, but it was an empty victory for believers. They abandoned the field and took refuge inside the walls of the church. Choosing cultural monasticism rather than hard-thinking engagement, they left the public square to the secularists. The disciples of Dewey, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Skinner and a host of others replaced the disciples of Jesus Christ in the public dialogue.

Christians were the founding fathers of the intellectual community in America, but in the years that followed, Christianity lost its claim as a player in the marketplace of ideas. As Os Guinness has pointed out, Christians had not been out-thought. They just had not been around when the thinking was being done.

In the latter part of the 20th century, that began to change. Sharp, fair-minded thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Chuck Colson—to name just a few—slowly chipped away at the stranglehold non-Christians had on the world of ideas.

Now, nearly 100 years after Scopes, we’re on the cusp of another watershed. On one side is a public square crying out for answers on a host of critical issues while the culture heats up against virtually everything Christianity stands for. On the other side is the church—also crying out for answers—tempted to withdraw into the cultural and intellectual monastery that provided sanctuary for Christians in the past but also ensured their cultural impotence.

Will the followers of Christ continue to thoughtfully engage—with truth and grace—the critical ideas in culture, or will we retreat from the public square again and take refuge behind the walls of our churches?

The pressure to withdraw comes from two sources: inside, by the church, and outside, by the culture. Since retreat leaves the flock without an adequate shepherd for the Body and leaves the church without an appropriate voice in the world, I will speak to those two concerns first.

No Hint of Politics?

It’s not only the culture that expresses alarm when Christians stir from their slumber and begin to make a difference in the public square. Some Christians object, too. I once heard an evangelical leader offer this stern warning: “There should not be even a hint of anything political in our public discourse.”

His principal concern seemed to be that political dallying distracts the church from its main mission. It keeps us from communicating the good news of the gospel. Further, it does no good to pass laws enforcing Christian morality since civic virtue won’t save anyone. We succeed only in sanitizing sin. Transformed society is the result of transformed people, those changed from the inside out, not from the outside in.

This notion of political passivity has force because it properly emphasizes two things that are true. One, the gospel has supernatural power to change lives. Two, no one can please God through mere civic virtue. Some Christians wrongly conclude, however, that cultural engagement in the form of political advocacy is therefore a wasted effort.

This approach may sound right in some spiritual circles, but it’s simply wrong-headed. The church’s inability to address pressing cultural issues can weaken the body of Christ and be devastating to the public good.

The First Function of Law: Changed Behavior

First, this view misunderstands the principal role of law. The primary purpose of law is not to change hearts. Laws are meant to change behavior, and they accomplish that task well.

Peter tells us that those who govern are given by God for “the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:14). Paul teaches that ruling authority “is a minister of God to you for good...[and] an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13: 3–4). Proverbs reminds us, “The king gives stability to the land by justice” (29:4), and, “The execution of justice is joy for the righteous” (21:15).

Scriptural teaching is clear: God intends government to use law to enforce morality. Biblically informed and culturally active people of God, however, are essential to that task.

The concepts of good and evil that Paul talks about—and the principle of justice that grounds good government—can be twisted or subverted by people in power. If the church doesn’t stand in the gap giving moral substance to the words “good” and “evil,” then nothing prevents political leadership from reversing the definitions, praising evil and punishing good. Tragically, it’s happening in our midst.

The Second Function of Law: Changed hearts

Second, a properly informed set of laws, equitably and consistently enforced, can change the heart. David Lewellyn, founder and former president of the Western Center for Law and Religious Freedom, observed: “Laws begin by imposing norms of conduct, but conclude by teaching morality and values. As these values are inculcated, the coercive power of law recedes as its moral force rises to govern the conduct of the people.”[1]

How does this happen? A sound moral code—one that’s consonant with the internal capacity for moral development that God has given each person (Rom. 2:15)—tutors us by adding clarity to our innate sense of right and wrong.

The same process also works in reverse, Lewellyn points out. Because Christians have been silent, “debased public standards which are destructive of life, faith, family, personal morality, and social responsibility are now protected by new, coercive laws and constitutional principles.”[2]

Simply put, bad laws corrupt good morals. People are tempted to think that if certain conduct is legal, it must be ethical. Conversely, good laws can have a salutary effect on public convictions. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, caused a “decisive shift of opinion in the United States in regard to racial segregation.”[3]

When someone tells me that laws can never change a fallen heart, I ask them if they apply that philosophy to their children. Does the moral training of our children consist merely of preaching the gospel to them? Wouldn’t we consider it unconscionable to neglect a child’s moral instruction with the excuse that laws can never change a child’s rebellious heart? Don’t we give them rules to obey, then praise or punish them according to their conduct?

Moral instruction can never save our children, of course, but it does engender virtue in them. Proverbs instructs us to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6). We properly expect that a faithful and judicious application of moral guidelines—with appropriate rewards and punishments for behavior—will develop habits of virtue in our kids.

If this works to build the moral substance of our children, why can’t it work to build the moral substance of our citizens? If it works to raise a family, why can’t it work to raise a collection of families known as a community? Why do we believe in the transforming power of moral instruction at home, but consider it powerless to inform the moral conscience of a country made up of families just like ours? Same people. Same laws. Same rules. Same process.

Pinning Down “Politics”

Third, the term “politics” is vague. What, specifically, does it mean to say that Christians should avoid politics? Initially, it meant churches shouldn’t campaign for a particular candidate. “Keep religion in the domain of theology, morality, and family relationships,” we were told, “and leave politics to the pros.”

Little by little, though, more things have been included under the broad rubric of “politics.” One by one, the secularists co-opt critical issues, call them political, and chase us off the playing field.

Case in point. Recently, I was chatting with my teenage daughter about the efficacy of the Covid vaccine, when she cut me off. “Dad, I don’t want to hear about politics,” she said. “Honey,” I told her, “I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about medicine.” See what I mean?

Medicine isn’t the only area that’s political now. A host of moral issues have been co-opted by culture, too. Christians have been told, “Abortion is not merely a moral issue anymore. It’s a secular matter. Stay away.”

“What about alternative sexualities like lesbianism, homosexuality, man-boy ‘love,’ and incest?”

“That’s ours, too.”

“Same-sex marriage?”

“A civic concern. No place for the church.”

“Family issues like divorce, child support, reproductive technologies, and the education of our children?”

“Back off.”

“Stewardship of the environment, care for the poor, race relations, sex education, birth control, pornography?”

“All politics.”

Notice the outcome. When Christians follow a policy of “no politics,” it’s easy to silence the moral voice of the church. Simply label any issue “political,” and believers must wave the white flag. Many have dutifully complied. This policy is tantamount to surrendering our voice in the public square.

We’re free to wage our parochial theological wars behind the closed doors of the church, but we can speak of nothing that—in the minds of those we’re trying to reach—has anything to do with cultural issues in the real world. Is it any wonder our faith is called irrelevant?

Ironically, the church is still being blamed for the moral silence of its past, including its uneven response to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Christian inactivity in the face of injustice didn’t communicate purity, but rather suggested approval of slavery and racial prejudice. Our past unwillingness to be involved in politics has been a blight on Christianity ever since.

Starving Sheep and the Naked Public Square

I have two final concerns for the church regarding the temptation for Christians to retreat from “politics.” First, who informs the flock when it comes to cultural challenges?

Followers of Jesus are getting hammered from every direction, and they do not know how to respond. They face issues of racial unrest, gender identity chaos, sexual mayhem, abortion “rights,” a mélange of marriage options, etc., etc.—volley after volley of “flaming arrows” fired at their faith, and our young people are especially vulnerable.

Who will help them? Who will feed our flock on the critical moral matters—all “political” now—the culture will not allow them to avoid? Who will educate our Christian communities on how a robust Christian worldview speaks to these issues? Who if not us? The press? The media? The public schools? Planned Parenthood? Hollywood? The LGBTQ crowd? They are all happily waiting in the wings, eager to fill the void.

It is the shepherd’s task to feed the sheep, and silence on these matters leaves Christians starving for answers. Voddie Baucham writes:

As a pastor, I have a responsibility to my flock. If those for whose souls I care (Heb. 13:17) want help thinking through these issues, I am obligated to them. I have a duty to walk them through issues like these to the best of my ability, and with sensitivity to their particular needs.[4]

It’s bad enough when Twitter, Facebook, and Google silence us. Now, though, we are at risk of canceling ourselves. If this happens, we will not only become irrelevant to the world. We will also become irrelevant to our own people.

Here is my second concern about Christians’ reticence. Who will influence culture for the good, the true, and the beautiful if not believers?

“Gospel first. Changed hearts change culture, and only the gospel can transform the heart.” Agreed, but what next? The world is changed when Christians actively work to change it. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when transformed people roll up their sleeves and plunge in, employing means appropriate to their gifts and their stations in life.

William Wilberforce, for example, in the wake of his conversion at age 26, committed before God to pursue two great goals: the suppression of the slave trade and what he called the “reformation of manners”—that is, elevating the moral fabric of the public square.

A Member of Parliament at age 21, Wilberforce employed his political influence to pursue both tasks. He understood that his Christian duty was not only to God, but also to his neighbors—his fellow citizens—a duty that needed to be fulfilled in practical ways. As a result of his tireless efforts, the British slave trade ended in 1807, and slavery was finally abolished in 1833, just days before his death.

During the struggle, though, Wilberforce was opposed by many of his peers. “Things have come to a pretty pass,” Lord Melborne lamented, “when religion is allowed to invade public life.” Yet how would abolition have fared if Wilberforce had succumbed to that kind of thinking? His argument to end slavery just was a religious one—that all human beings, regardless of skin color, were made in the image of God.

The lesson is clear: Changed people only change the world if they actively, artfully, and thoughtfully engage the world on the world’s own turf. Wilberforce understood this. So did Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Chuck Colson, and a host of others.

Avoidance of “politics” not only starves sheep who are hungry for answers, it also leaves the public square naked of godly influence. Our communities will be changed only if Christ’s disciples understand the destructive ideas of a fallen world then work hard to reverse their effects.

That’s what it means to be salt and light. First-century Christians had no suffrage. We do. We can make a difference with our votes, with our voices, and with our vocations in ways that were not available to early believers.

The pressure to stay sidelined not only comes from within the church. There is also significant pressure on Christians to retreat coming from without by a public that is misinformed about the Constitution.

The “Separation” of Church and State

The understanding of separation of church and state many have—the view that the state is thoroughly secular and not to be influenced by religious values, especially Christian—was completely foreign to the first 150 years of American political thought. Clearly, the Fathers did not try to excise every vestige of Christian religion, Christian thought, and Christian values from every facet of public life. They were friendly to Christianity and encouraged its public practice and expression.

It wasn’t until 1947 that the United States Supreme Court first used the concept of separation to isolate government from religion.[5] In Everson v. Board of Education, the court lifted a phrase from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a Baptist church in Danbury, Connecticut, ruling, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.... In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’”[6]

The Infamous Danbury Letter

The Everson decision, then, in the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court, established Jefferson’s separation language as the normative guideline for understanding the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a member of the Constitutional Convention, though, and the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Where did it come from?

On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, in which he used the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.” His note was meant to quell the fears of the Danbury congregation that was concerned that a national denomination would be established. Here is the text in question:

I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.[7]

What did Jefferson have in mind here? Is there an impregnable barrier erected by the founders[8] that excludes religious-minded people from the political process, an ideological enmity between church and state?

The First Amendment

In contrast to the present confusion on separation, the First Amendment is startling in its clarity, offering no limit to the role of religious and moral conviction of individual citizens on public policy. It is worth reading often. Here it is:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Forgive me for stating the obvious: The First Amendment restricts the government, not the people. Jefferson’s wall is a one-way wall. Any religious person, any religious organization, any religious conviction has its place in the public debate. It’s called pluralism, in the classic sense of the word.

Notice there are not two distinct provisions here, but one. Non-establishment has no purpose by itself. Freedom of religion is the goal, and non-establishment is the means. The only way to have true freedom of religion is to keep government out of religion’s affairs. This provides for what Steven Monsma calls “positive neutrality.” This view “defines religious freedom in terms of a governmental neutrality toward religion in which no religion is favored over any other, and neither religion nor secularism is favored over each other.”[9]

The First Amendment was rewritten twelve times to make clear its intent. The concept set forth in the Bill of Rights is “non-establishment,” not isolation. We should strike the “separation” language from our First-Amendment vocabulary, legal or otherwise.[10]

Calling a Vice a Virtue

Followers of Christ should not be suppressed from without by a notion of “separation” that’s completely foreign to the Constitution. Neither should they be silenced from within by misguided piety.

The church can never replace the work of the cross with civic works of righteousness. This is beyond dispute. The goal of Christian political activity, though, is not to build civic righteousness to make a nation acceptable to God. It’s to ensure a just society.

Christian author Philip Yancey put it this way: “We have no mandate to ‘Christianize’ the United States—an impossible goal in any case. Yet Christians can work simultaneously toward a different goal, the ‘moralization’ of society. We can help tether the values and even the laws of a society to some basis in transcendence.”[11]

The myth of political passivity unwittingly makes a Christian virtue out of the vice of negligence. When we ignore our obligation to morally instruct the nation merely because someone labels an issue “political,” then it won’t be long before the country teems with injustice.

We are already well down that road.

 

[1] David Llewellyn, “The Trinity-Greenleaf Vision,” SGU-Trinity Announcement Dinner, 20/11/95, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hadley Arkes, First Things (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 27 (footnote).

[4] Voddie Baucham, “Thoughts on Ferguson,” The Gospel Coalition, 11/26/14.

[5]The phrase was mentioned once before in the discourse of the Court in the 1878 case of Reynolds v. The United States when Mormons attempted an unsuccessful defense of polygamy based on the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment. The non-establishment clause protected Mormon beliefs, not Mormon practices (e.g., polygamy). This conduct was still proscribed by prevailing morality, specifically Christian morality.

[6] Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S at 15–16 (1947).

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed. (NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984), 510, January 1, 1802.

[8]Note that the word “founders” is not capitalized here because I’m not referring to the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention, but to the broader group responsible for the passage of the Bill of Rights.

 [9]Stephen Monsma, Positive Neutrality—Letting Religious Freedom Ring, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 203.

[10] Find an excellent, concise treatment of this issue in Robert George’s “Is America’s Government Secular?” at Prageru.com.

[11] Philip Yancey, “The Other Great Commission,” Christianity Today, 7/10/96.