“You’re entitled to your beliefs, but keep them out of politics.” So goes conventional wisdom. The public square is religiously neutral. Religion and politics shouldn’t mix.
The separation of church and state—an important principle of democracy—is the phrase most often used to justify such an idea. But it surprises many to learn that the original motivation for the separation of church and state was to prevent political overreach into religious life—not the other way around.
The reality is, everyone’s beliefs influence their politics. This goes for the Atheist as much as it does for the Christian. Who we vote for, and even whether we think voting matters, in some way arises out of our beliefs about the culture we live in. Ideas have consequences.
Hence, the “secular state”—the idea of a religiously neutral public square—is a myth, an impossible dream of the Enlightenment. Politics and religion (or irreligion, as we’re increasingly seeing in Western nations) will forever be mixing.
“The reality is, everyone’s beliefs influence their politics. This goes for the Atheist as much as it does for the Christian.”
I’ve felt settled about this question for some time. The question that has remained unanswered for me for years is how two different Christians, both deeply admired by me as people with mature faith and strong biblical convictions, could end up on opposite ends of the political spectrum: left (“progressive”) and right (“conservative”).
In Center Church, Timothy Keller recasts Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, discussing how Christian movements have engaged culture through time. And while he barely mentions politics, he has shed buckets of light for me on this subject. Below is a combination of his insights on Christian cultural engagement with my thoughts on Christian political allegiance.
Mapping over Niebuhr’s original categories, he uses the titles Relevance, Transformationist, Two Kingdoms and Counterculturalist to describe the various camps. (I commend Centre Church to you if you’re curious about where he locates various theological traditions. I have borrowed his categories and descriptions, but have reinterpreted the questions he asks).
“The main factor determining the political allegiance of a thinking Christian is best framed eschatologically, hinging on one’s belief about the kingdom of God.”
So what does determine a Christian’s political allegiance? For example, to pick a very emotive and current topic, why are some Christians right now upset with Tony Abbott for not accepting more Syrian refugees, while others want him to address the same crisis by taking a tougher stance against Islamic State?
The discovery I made surprised me. Of course countless factors influence someone’s political allegiance. Even the word “political” I am using to refer mostly to moral-political issues. Nevertheless, with all these caveats in place, I’m going to suggest that the main factor determining the political allegiance of a thinking Christian, even if they aren’t particularly conscious of it, is best framed eschatologically, hinging on one’s belief about the kingdom of God. Let’s call this one’s theology of cultural virtue. Namely, is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign, and therefore inherently good? I contend that answering yes to this question will tend to land a Christian’s allegiance on the left of politics, while answering no will tend to land them on the right.
Why? Well, to bring it back down out of the clouds, look at it this way: the left tends to emphasise inherent goodness in people, and so believes that social ills must mainly relate to a lack of equality or opportunity; while the right tends to emphasise the inherent fallenness in people, believing that social ills must mainly relate to a lack of restraint on evil. It is remarkable how much these simple unspoken convictions seem to animate opinions across the political spectrum. In your mind, apply this to immigration, gender roles, abortion, welfare, drugs, same-sex marriage, crime and punishment, and the size of government (to name just a few) and see if you don’t agree.
“If you just can’t understand why another Christian has such different political convictions to you, it’s probably not because they’re a nasty or suspect person.”
Beliefs also influence a Christian’s level of engagement with the culture: what we might call one’s theology of cultural change. This too, surprisingly, is an eschatological question. Namely, does the advance of God’s kingdom involve seeking to change the culture? Christians who answer yes to this will place much greater value on living out their faith in the public square than those who answer no.
While I must be quick to concede (as Keller does) that categories and diagrams are bound to limitation and caricature, there is still immense value in a framework that helps us think about our political allegiance and public engagement as Christians. Let me give three concrete applications.
Understanding | If you’re a Christian but just can’t understand why another Christian has such different political convictions to you, it probably has a lot less to do with them being a nasty, suspect person than it has to do with their theology of cultural virtue. Neither of you might have framed the situation in these terms, but underneath it all, they answer the question, is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign and therefore inherently good? differently to you. So discuss that. No need to hold them suspiciously at arm’s length.
It is remarkable how much the left’s emphasis on inherent human goodness and the right’s emphasis on inherent human fallenness seems to animate opinions across the political spectrum.
Persuasion | If to the question of is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign and therefore inherently good? you answer yes, then know the Scriptures that teach the kingdom’s “now-ness”, and use these to persuade your friends who don’t. If you answer no, know the Scriptures that teach the kingdom’s “not-yetness”, and use them to persuade your friends who do. Likewise, if to the question of does the advance of God’s kingdom involve seeking to change the culture? you answer yes, then know where the Bible compels Christians to influence culture, and use those passages to persuade your friends who think otherwise. If you answer no, know where the Bible compels Christians to remain distinct from culture, and use those passages to persuade your friends who believe differently. Ultimately this is going to have a lot more traction than “you should vote left/right like me” (which is a crude but often accurate summary of my social media newsfeed).
Balance | And with that last point, I’ve given the game away. As you can see, it’s also my conviction that Scripture holds both of these questions in a yes-no tension. To cite just a few examples, by virtue of the fall from a once-perfect creation, people are a complex mixture of goodness and fallenness, carrying both the dignity of the Imago Dei (James 3:9) and the depravity of sin and rebellion (Romans 1:21). The kingdom is both now (Luke 17:21) and not yet (Matthew 7:21)—and advancing it involves both influencing the culture (Matthew 5:16) and remaining unstained by it (James 1:27). Maybe we need to call some of our Christian friends back to a more balanced position. Maybe we need to find a more balanced position ourselves.
How exactly we live these realities out is the question that remains for us. But one thing is certain: religion and politics will always be mixing, because what we believe—religious or otherwise—affects how we live. Ideas have consequences. How could it be any other way?