More Christian Than Democrat or Republican
Given the increased polarization of American politics and public life, the question is frequently raised as to whether Christians should identify themselves with either major political party or—by association—the political ideologies undergirding them. I answer that it is permissible and often wise to participate in party politics, but we must be circumspect in doing so, making clear that our allegiance to political parties is tentative in light of our allegiance to Christ. We should never allow our witness to be undermined by inordinate allegiance to a political party or inappropriate forms of activism on behalf of that party’s agenda.
In order to make the case for this view, we must discuss the proper relationship between both religion and politics and church and state, before going on to discuss the legitimacy of affiliating with America’s major political parties and ideologies.
RELIGION AND POLITICS
“Never discuss religion or politics with those who hold opinions opposite to yours, wrote Thomas Haliburton in 1840. “They are subjects that heat in handling, until they burn your fingers.” Haliburton, a Canadian politician and judge, expresses the view of many modern Westerners: we shouldn’t talk about religion and politics in polite company, especially if the two subjects are joined together and even more so if the people in the room don’t agree. A similar sentiment is that religions shouldn’t be brought into the public square at all, especially not into politics.
This common wisdom is well-intentioned but wrong, unhelpful, and, ultimately, impossible to put into practice. There are at least two reasons why Christians shouldn’t reduce Christianity to the private realm, or separate it entirely from politics.
First, Scripture teaches that human beings are deeply and inescapably religious, and that “religion” cannot be defined restrictively as “the worship of a supernatural deity” (Rom 1:25). Although true religion necessarily involves the worship of a supernatural deity—the Triune God—“religion” in the broad sense is humanity’s inexorable tendency to ascribe ultimacy to Someone or Something. That Someone or Something sits on the throne of a person’s heart, commanding his loyalties and shaping his life. This object of worship might be the Triune God or the Allah of Muhammad. Alternatively, it might be sex, money, power, or success. Either way, we all serve functional gods and our absolutization of them is religious in nature.
Second, Scripture makes it clear that we cannot separate our private self from our public self. If religion were merely the mental and mystical acknowledgement of a supernatural deity, then we could more easily relegate that belief to the confines of our private lives and to certain religious ceremonies. But a person’s true religion cannot be confined.
Indeed, more than 800 times, the Bible locates religion in a person’s heart. The Bible defines the heart as the unifying center of a person’s entire existence, the central organizer of his feeling, thinking, willing, and acting. Thus, the poignancy of the divine command, “My son, give me thy heart!” (Prov 23:26). As the central organizer of our affections, thoughts, volitions, and actions, a person’s “private” religion will inevitably radiate outward into his politics and public life. We cannot disintegrate the person by separating religion from politics.
CHURCH AND STATE
Even though religion and politics should not and cannot be separated, church and state can and should maintain an appropriate separation. As Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and others have argued, God’s normative order for the world involves different “kinds” of culture, with each having its own reasons for being and corresponding limits of jurisdiction. Or, to use a spatial analogy, God’s world is organized into different cultural “spheres”—such as family, church, art, education, or politics—each of which has its own center (reason for being) and circumference (limits to its jurisdiction).
One might say each sphere has its own calling and corresponding expertise, and should not transgress its boundaries by attempting to fulfill another sphere’s calling. The differentiation of spheres thus serves as a de facto system of checks and balances, not at the political level by dispersing governmental authority but at the deeper, ontological level by dispersing cultural authority.
In this conception, the church exists as both an institution and an organism, and its relation to politics is differentiated accordingly. As an institution, the church is political in a circumscribed but profound manner: it gathers weekly around the Word and the Table to declare that Jesus is Lord and, by implication, Caesar is not. It continually renews and redefines a church member’s true political identity—as an ambassador for Christ the King—through Scripture reading, preaching, teaching, Table fellowship, prayer, song, discipline, and other biblically delineated elements of corporate worship. But the church does not gather to seek political power, exert influence on political parties, or make public policy pronouncements because it is neither called nor competent to do so.
The church is also an organism, a body of covenanted people whose members remain organically related to one another and to Christ, and who scatter throughout society and culture during the week. While the institutional church may have indirect influence on politics and the public square by shaping its members’ true political identity as ambassadors of Christ, the organic church—the covenanted members of the church—may exercise direct influence in politics and the public square when opportunity arises and expertise allows.
DEMOCRAT AND REPUBLICAN
Therefore, unless a person removes himself from public life en toto, he will necessarily be religiously involved in both politics and public life. The question remains, however, as to whether a Christian American should become involved in party politics. America’s major political parties are populated by a mixture of believers and unbelievers and characterized internally by loosely affiliated and ever-shifting coalitions of competing interest groups and factions. In other words, affiliation with any major political party necessarily involves association with ideologies that are to some extent antithetical to Christianity.
Accordingly, we should undertake an “archaeological dig” in which we seek to unearth the idols that shape various political ideologies. This type of assessment recognizes that every human political program will be affected to some extent by human sin and idolatry. Just as individual persons have “ultimate commitments,” so do political ideologies; to the extent that an ideology elevates some aspect of God’s creation to a level of ultimacy, it will be bad for individuals, bad for society, bad for culture, and bad for politics.
On the Right, social conservatism tends to idolize tradition and, in so doing, sometimes refuses to recognize certain aspects of our American heritage as evil. Classical liberals and libertarians tend to enthrone the individual and the individual’s liberty, so that all social institutions derive from the individual and are subject to his or her whims and desires. Nationalism tends to give divine status to a nation-state or to an ethnic community within the state and, in so doing, sometimes perpetrates injustice toward those who are not a part of the “in” group. Likewise, on the Left, progressivism ironically deifies progress. Socialism idolizes common ownership or material equality. Even democracy, which is a good form of government, can lapse into idolatry if the people conflate their voice (vox populi) with the voice of God (vox Dei).
It’s worth keeping in mind that the worst idols come from the best material. Thus, each political ideology begins by seeing especially clearly the beauty of one aspect of God’s creation. But ideologies never rest by pointing out something true; instead, they assert that this partial truth is the entire truth, and therefore distort what they value by giving it an ultimacy it doesn’t deserve. This distortion has negative political consequences.
In combination with this 30,000-foot-level evaluation of political ideologies, we must also assess specific planks and policy positions taken by a particular party, asking whether or not we agree with the policy at hand, whether we can draw a direct line from Scripture to the policy, and the level of certainty we should have about the policy, especially as it relates to our Christian faith.
The great problem with evaluative projects, of course, is that we are keen to recognize the problems inherent in other people’s politics, but not in our own. We’re quick to spot the idolatry in socialism or progressivism, for example, but not in our own preferred branch of conservatism. But as Christians, we must have the humility to recognize that we all are “prone to wander,” and that our political views may be more errant than we realize.
Finally, we must be determined to foster the sort of “table fellowship” within our churches that emphasizes our Christian unity even in the midst of our political differences, that recognizes how political parties are useful instruments but awful identities. We are so much more “Christians” than we are “Republicans” or “Democrats,” and our Christian hope for politics is the soon return of Christ the King who will install a one-world government and a one-party system in which justice rolls down like the waters (Amos 5:24).
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 In its broadest sense, politics is the art and science of persuading other citizens and political leaders about matters of public interest, and in that sense, a person is engaging in politics not only when voting or engaging in activism but also when discussion social, ethical, and political matters in a coffee shop or on Facebook.