The debate last night has many Americans thinking about politics, not to mention the presidential campaign more generally. What these moments bring out are a host of observations on the nature of politics by believers. Some, like the Alliance Defending Freedom, have declared this coming Lord’s Day to be “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Pastors are supposed to use sermons to evaluate the presidential candidates according to “biblical truths and church doctrine.” Brian Lee, a URC pastor in Washington, D.C., doesn’t think much of this effort:
But most pastors are reluctant to exchange their spiritual freedom from politics to demonstrate their political freedoms for politics. A survey of 1,000 mainline and evangelical protestant pastors released this week suggests that only 1 in 10 believe they should endorse a candidate from the pulpit, despite the fact that almost half plan to personally endorse outside of their church role.
Furthermore, previous studies have shown that this reluctance isn’t based on belief that the government has a say on the content of their speech. Clearly, many pastors are constrained by the sanctity of their office, and in particular, the pulpit. They recognize the very real tradeoff that in our polarized age political speech may offend and drive off many members of the flock they are called to shepherd.
Furthermore, the New Testament offers no encouragement for direct political action. When Jesus was asked a trick question about the propriety of paying taxes — is there any other kind? — he asked whose name was on the coin, and told his followers to “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Later, when on trial for his life, he did not deny his royal authority, but instead claimed “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Then there are those instances where Christians try to strike a balance — avoid extremes at all cost. Justin Taylor offers an example of this:
It is true that “this world is not our home,” but it’s not true that “I’m just passing through” like a leisurely amusement park ride.
We are dual citizens, responsible and active members of both God’s spiritual kingdom and earthly kingdom. And if we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength—and to love our neighbor as ourselves—then we should care to some degree about politics and elections and the role of government in our land. . . .
Some argue that we should be invested in evangelism or preaching or social justice instead of politics. But most of us can care about both. Let me offer two reasons why we, as Bible-believing, gospel-centered evangelicals, should care about politics at varying levels and degrees.
First, we care about politics because we care about God’s glory and God’s good gift. Everything is designed to be from God and through God and to God (Rom. 11:36)—including our government. Everything we do—from drinking our coffee in the morning to having a sandwich for lunch to voting at the booth to serving as an elected official—is to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). . . .
Second, we care about politics because we care about the good of our neighbors and the good of our country. If you have to choose between evangelism and politics, choose evangelism. Saving an eternal soul is more important than fixing a temporal need. But most of the time, we don’t have to choose.
In point of fact, we do need to choose based on how we reflect on this stuff. If evangelism is more important than transforming the city or electing the right candidate, it will mean that we treat cities and candidates as less important. People who aren’t invested in Major League Baseball don’t care about the playoffs, even if they care in some way about the players who are citizens or their neighbors who are fans. Our powers of assessment affect the time we devote to certain activities. Priorities matter. And that is why some members of the Gospel Coalition are trying to find ways to elevate the importance of the arts, cities, and Christian cultural (and political) engagement. One of the easiest Christian strategies is to follow Abraham Kuyper and call such activity “holy.” Then the temporal and earthly gains the significance of the eternal and the heavenly. I wish the folks at Gospel Coalition would mind the priority of their organization’s name.
This leaves the best reflection of all on politics — the one uncluttered by religious outlook. Here I cut and paste from a post earlier today at Front Porch Republic.
The blogosphere is filled with opinions on last night’s debate between the president and the challenger. The chattering classes has gotten a whole lot larger. Unless you are a historian and follow the posts at the History News Network, you probably didn’t see Leo Ribuffo’s reflections. A good friend who teaches history at George Washington University, is writing a biography of Jimmy Carter, and calls himself a McGovern Democrat, Leo is also wittily acerbic. Here is a good example (the rest is here):
Romney obviously won. The question is why. Quite possibly he won because he was channeling his inner Governor George Romney, a moderate Republican in the context of his era. In other words, having secured the Republican nomination, Mitt looked confident and relaxed because he was no longer confined to saying only things he didn’t believe. Perhaps if Romney is elected this inner George would prompt him to restrain the cultural conservatives and limited government zealots who dominate his party. I wouldn’t bet on it, but who knows? Lack of principle made Richard Nixon a better president for the welfare state than anyone expected.
Perhaps Obama lost the debate because he was having an off night. Or because he was over-confident. Or conversely, sensing the precariousness of his situation given the high level or unemployment, he channeled his inner Tom Dewey and decided to sit on his lead in the polls. Or perhaps, channeling his inner Michael Dukakis, he actually thinks a presidential election is about competence, not ideology. But I would speculate further that Obama had trouble mounting an effective and spirited defense of the welfare state because at heart he is a “new kind of Democrat” skeptical of government programs.
Whatever the reasons, Obama was lousy. Some pundits instantly attributed his abysmal performance to his “professorial” demeanor. This dopey short-hand has now become standard, akin to Jimmy Carter the engineer (wrong) and George W. Bush the “faith-based” president (even more wrong). Let’s abandon this cliché. Actual professors by definition hold jobs, which means that we had at least one successful job interview in which we looked people in the eye, explained our merits, and showed enthusiasm about our past work and future plans. Then, after being hired, we figured out how to adapt our complex and sometimes esoteric ideas to reach the audience at hand. As my old friend Warren Goldstein of the University of Hartford emailed me in mid-debate, “Most of us have to be 10 times better than that to keep 20 year olds awake in class.”
12 thoughts on “Political Reflections — Pious or Otherwise”
“One of the easiest Christian strategies is to follow Abraham Kuyper and call such activity “holy.” Then the temporal and earthly gains the significance of the eternal and the heavenly. I wish the folks at Gospel Coalition would mind the priority of their organization’s name.”
The approach of calling all activities “holy” has always seemed a bit morally vain to me. I blog (all about me now) about theology, but I also blog about television, movies, politics, and “just plain weird” stuff (yes, that is a category). I don’t view these things as on par with theology, but doggone it, I like them. Just maybe I can develop a common interest on these topics with an unbeliever and they’ll look at some of my posts on theology and be influenced in a positive way.
My point is, it is o.k. to call some things “holy” and other things “common”. We don’t have to spiritualize the common things. We should instead share them with unbelievers, maybe use them to develop some friendships, and who knows what will happen. In other words, don’t join a Christian bowling league, just join a bowling league.
Vote for the kind of bad candidate instead of the really bad candidate. That’s an inspiring sermon. What is the text – the stories about Joseph’s brothers?
Mr.Ribuffo said “But I would speculate further that Obama had trouble mounting an effective and spirited defense of the welfare state because at heart he is a “new kind of Democrat” skeptical of government programs.”
Obama, a new Democrat skeptical of government programs? What President since the 60’s has been more optimistic about government programs? It takes a pretty airtight ideology to make that statement.
Terry Gross interviewed Colbert the other night on his latest book. His thoughts were astonishingly lucid and Old Life / 2k friendly. There’s audio available at http://www.npr.org/2012/10/04/162304439/colbert-re-becoming-the-nation-we-always-were. (The written summary doesn’t do it justice.)
No kiddin’ MM. That “sceptical of government programs” proposition is complete nincompoopery.
Has anyone read Robert J. Renaud’s “A Tale of Two Governments”. Any opinions on it?
Matthew Tuininga piece at the GC:
In a thoughtful blog post at the Gospel Coalition (HT: Darryl Hart) Justin Taylor describes the appropriate Christian attitude towards culture and politics in terms of the two kingdoms doctrine:
We are dual citizens, responsible and active members of both God’s spiritual kingdom and earthly kingdom. And if we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength—and to love our neighbor as ourselves—then we should care to some degree about politics and elections and the role of government in our land.
Taylor reminds his readers of the way in which the two kingdoms tension runs throughout the Scriptural record.
The apostle Paul once warned that “no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Tim. 2:4), and he insisted that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). This sounds like a single citizenship with only a heavenly zip code.
However, the same apostle Paul also declared that he was “a citizen of no obscure city” (that is, Tarsus) and avoided torture by appealing to his Roman citizenship, which gave him certain rights and prevented certain actions from the Roman authorities (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29). Paul knew that his fundamental identity was “hidden with God in Christ” and that he was to set his mind on “things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-3), but he also knew that he had earthly obligations and rights and that they were not insignificant.
Or, we can ask: Which city should we care about?
“Here we have no lasting city” (Heb. 13:14). Like Abraham, we look “forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
And yet, as “sojourners and exiles (1 Pet. 2:11) we are commanded to “seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the LORD on its behalf” (Jer. 29:7).
And so the paradox goes.
Taylor helpfully points out that ultimately evangelism is more important than politics, the spiritual kingdom more important than the earthly. But he notes that most Christians do and should care about both. In fact, Darryl Hart’s fair quibbles about priorities aside, I find that Taylor may overemphasize the call on Christians to evangelize. Taylor writes, “If you have to choose between evangelism and politics, choose evangelism. Saving an eternal soul is more important than fixing a temporal need.” I think it would be better for Taylor to put the Christian call to evangelism in the context of vocation. For some Christians politics is a calling of God, and they ought to do their best to remain faithful in that vocation, mindful that their politics should be an occasion for others to ask them for a reason for the hope that is within them.
I think Taylor gets the formulation quite right in his closing paragraph. If only in the sense that his very concept of the secular is shaped by his understanding of the gospel and of the word of God, even Darryl should agree with this statement:
There are more important things in life than politics. It’s easy to become an idolatry. But it’s also easy to be too apathetic. As the Lord leads, let us commit to letting our politics be shaped by the gospel and informed by the word of God as we prayerfully work to become informed and to fulfill our roles, seeking the good of the city even as we wait for the city to come.
You make the point that Paul was a citizen of Tarsus who appealed to his Roman citizenship to avoid torture. In the same paragraph you say, “but he also knew that he had earthly obligations and rights and that they were not insignificant.” I see Paul asserting his rights, but where is he saying anything about “earthly obligations”?
Later you quote Jeremiah 29.7, “We are commanded to ‘seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the LORD on its behalf’”. Praying for leaders is good, but where do you get a mandate for political activism here, especially political activism by ministers and churches? Jeremiah was writing to Jewish exiles, not the Christian church.
What do you mean by “mainstream”? Are you trying to say that Hart and Van Drunen are not mainstream? Since when do Reformed people seek to be mainstream?
You say “For some Christians politics is a calling of God, and they ought to do their best to remain faithful in that vocation, mindful that their politics should be an occasion for others to ask them for a reason for the hope that is within them.” Are you talking about people who hold office or work for politicians here? I have no objection to that. If you are talking about self-appointed political activists who think their “calling” is to rally the church to a particular candidate or cause that is another matter.
Tuininga was actually writing on his own blog about a blog post at GC. My bad.
When Christians try to come up with scriptural support for Christian political activism I am reminded of the CREC trying to come up for scriptural support for postmillennialism. Both are pretty thin.
You are totally right. What an absurd statement (“skeptical of government programs”).
Also, he was exactly reversed when he said Obama put competence over ideology. It is the exact opposite.
Benjamin Wiker’s book “10 Books that Screwed up the World” is a great read that I highly recommend. At the end he tries to find a common thread among all the awful thinkers/leaders that he wrote about (i.e., Hobbes, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Sanger, etc.). The common thread is that they all put ideology over reality, and tried to fit the latter into the former. It never works, no matter how many people you kill trying. Obama is no different. I still remember when he was debating and the moderator asked Obama why he would raise long term capital gains taxes when lowering them showed a net increase in revenue under both Clinton and GWB. Obama answers without hesitation: “Because it’s all about fairness.” Talk about putting ideology over reality.
Meant to say “when he was debating McCain during the 2008 election. . . “