Good and Bad Ways To Think About Religion and Politics
All around us, from pulpits, to newspapers, to pop culture, we are surrounded by bad ways of thinking about religion and politics. Especially in light of this recent election season, how should Christians think about such matters? An excellent and accessible resource on this topic is Robert Benne’s Good And Bad Ways To Think About Religion And Politics (Eerdmans, 2010). Here’s my attempt to distill Benne’s basic ideas in the form of ten bad ways and twelve good ways to think about religion and politics.
For more from Benne, you can listen to Mark Dever’s interview with him here.
BAD WAYS TO THINK ABOUT RELIGION AND POLITICS
1. Thinking that “separation of church and state” means that politics needs to be kept “free” from religion.
This is the argument of many who, according to Benne, “confuse the ‘separation of church and state’ with ‘the interaction of religion and politics,’ which is quite a different matter” (8). While it is true that the state should not establish or privilege particular religious organizations, the First Amendment in no way prohibits the interaction of religion and politics (56). This is a bad way to think about religion and politics.
2. A similar vein of thinking says that religion ought to remain “private and politically unimportant” (3).
This is akin to John Rawls’ view that “comprehensive worldviews” have no place in the public sphere (65), that “only rational, universal, secular moral arguments ought to be exercised in political life” (10). But asking people to drop their religious worldview when they enter public life is “asking them to ignore the source of their moral principles” (15). This too is a bad way to think about religion and politics.
3. Assuming the secularization thesis.
Another bad way to think about religion and politics is to assume “secularization thesis” which argues that religion is bound to decline with modernity (3).
4. Succumbing to “selective separationism.”
Some people are selective in their “separationism,” thinking that churches that support a liberal agenda are fine, but churches that support a conservative agenda are a threat. Benne calls this “selective separationism,” which is concerned, not about politically active religion in general, but about politically active conservative religion, which they call “fundamentalism” (11). This is unfair, and a bad way to think about religion and politics.
5. Shunning politics because of religion.
Some religious people—mostly in the Mennonite tradition—actually think religion demands shunning politics (18). This, however, dangerously denies the sovereignty of God over all of life, including politics, and the need for faithful stewardship of our political opportunities in the world (24).
6. Fusing politics and religion too closely together.
Some religious groups meld politics and religion so closely together that they become fused and basically indistinguishable. Benne calls this the “political use of religion” (25). When a church’s social witness is tied too closely to a political party, Benne argues that church loses its “prophetic witness” (103). Denominations can be particularly susceptible to this. By becoming “too identified with partisan political options—and therefore too predictable,” many churches lose their prophetic witness (103). The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has in recent years attained a more distinct prophetic voice in social and political matters by supporting both “conservative” (pro-life, traditional marriage) and “liberal” (openness to immigration, social welfare). As a result, Benne writes the Catholic social witness is “treated far more seriously than any of the Protestant efforts” (103).
7. Identifying religion with a particular nation or ethnicity.
Another bad way to think about religion and politics is to so identify religion with a particular country or ethnicity such that nationalism and religiosity become fused (29–30). For example, this error occurs when well-meaning Christians mistake the USA or any other nation for God’s covenant relationship with Israel in the Old Testament (45).
8. Overestimating humanity’s role in “redeeming the world.”
Thinking that humans bring about God’s kingdom or redeem the world through human efforts is a bad way to think about religion and politics.
9. Overstating biblical arguments for specific policies.
Drawing a straight-line between Biblical principles and a particular policy as if that’s the only right way to think as a Christian about specific political issues (102). Very rarely does a single verse or theological truth translate into one exclusive policy.
10. Deriving political prefences from social factors more than Scripture.
Basing your political preferences off of intervening social factors—your own ethnicity, peer group, family history—rather than biblical principles is a common and bad way to think about religion and politics (see chapter four).
Good Ways To Think About Religion And Politics
1. Recognize that religion will and should influence politics (81).
2. Nonetheless, God has entrusted churches and governments with different kinds of authority.
“The church is given only the persuasive power of the Word, not the coercive power of the sword” (16).
3. This means churches should primarily influence politics through the conscience-forming work of preaching that shapes congregants’ moral principles.
From that point, it’s up to individual members to decide how those biblical principles translate into political action.
4. Individuals have more freedom to push political concerns than churches do.
Benne writes that it is good to teach a congregation the moral and social teachings of the Bible and then allow the congregation to discuss and debate which policies best fit those biblical teachings (91).
5. It’s a good and fine thing for Christians who agree on biblical principles to disagree about what policies best realize those principles.
6. Only rarely should church leaders seek to directly influence politics through “prophetic statements.”
There is a place for prophetic witness, but, as Benne writes, “those cases are far fewer than is assumed by those churches” (104).
7. In instances where direct confrontation is warranted, it is safer for churches to say “no, that policy is wrong” than to say “yes, this policy is right” (78).
8. Humans are both exalted and fallen (46).
They have incredible innate value because of their being made in God’s image, but a terrible capacity for evil because of sin. Among many things, this means perfection isn’t possible in this life. It also means that organizing ourselves in social aggregates—organizations with larger groups of people—will not ultimately check our sin nature. In fact, these very institutions can often rather exaggerate and exacerbate human sinfulness (49). This leads to the next point.
9. God’s salvation is apart from human effort.
As Benne writes, “Christians look for liberation or salvation from their predicament—their bondage to sin—by the work of God in Jesus Christ that is proclaimed in and through the church” (51). This means that Christians eschew utopianism. No, this doesn’t mean we don’t expect progress; it means we don’t hold human societies to utopian standards. That would only lead to despair or revolutionary illusions (54).
10. The church’s mission is not the state’s mission.
Benne writes, “The church has a specific calling or mission in the world. It is entrusted with the Word of God, and its primary responsibility is to proclaim that Word . . . to the world” (55).
11. The state should not directly support the church, but it should work to give it a free space to do its work (55).
12. The way Christians engage in the world and with politics should be marked by a hopeful confidence—not a thin optimism, but a conviction that we’re contributing to God’s work in the world, whether that’s visible to us now or will only be visible in eternity.
Christians recognize the future is not ultimately up to us, so we work hard, and trust that God is the one who will one day make all things right (59).