I tend to process my thoughts by writing, and for some time now, I have wanted to hash out my thinking related to the Christian faith and political engagement. It is not my goal in this (short) series to get at the who of voting (“As a Christian, which candidates should I be supporting?”), but rather, at the how of voting (“As a Christian, how should I interact with politics in general?”).

I should acknowledge at the outset that this is a complicated issue. There are some, for example, who would suggest that it is improper to even suggest that there is such a thing as a “Christian perspective” on politics. From Christian people, you will sometimes hear demands to, “Just teach what the Bible says and stay out of politics.”[1] Frankly, though, this is nonsense. The gospel message is fundamentally political because “Jesus is Lord” is an explicitly political statement. In the first century, Lord was a title used for Caesar, and the declaration that “Jesus is Lord” was simultaneously a declaration that Caesar was not. That is a political statement, and it had consequences for early believers.[2]

However, while the gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political, it is not partisan. In the United States, we have a two-party system, and the reality is that there are aspects of both party platforms that are problematic from a biblical perspective. Of course, it should not surprise us in the least that worldly political parties look, well, worldly, but it does complicate things: preaching that Jesus is Lord has political ramifications, but we live in a context in which the political arena is gridlocked by opposing parties, neither of which adequately represents the Christian message.[3] This already complicated situation becomes even more problematic when Christians throw their support in with one party or the other and suggest that it is the Christian party.

Further complicating matters is the fact that we have to be careful about ripping biblical principles and policies out of their original context and applying them, wholesale, to our own. The reality is that when we examine this issue from a biblical perspective, we basically find principles that we can glean in three distinct contexts:

  • Theocracy: This is the situation we find in the Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible. God’s covenant people, the Israelites, were governed by Torah and its accompanying laws. This was true whether led by Moses, Joshua, one of the Judges, or monarchs. Human leaders were viewed to be leading God’s people under God’s own leadership, and the laws in place were put there by God Himself.
  • Exile: This describes the situation of God’s people living in a foreign land. When we hear “Exile” we especially think of the fall of Judah to the Babylonian Empire and the books of Daniel and Esther, but we could also think of people like Joseph in Egypt. In this context, God’s people are seeking to be faithful to His laws despite living in a land that is not governed by those laws.
  • Oppression by Foreign Power: This situation was true at various points in biblical history, but was certainly true of Jews (and early Christians) in the days of the New Testament, living under Roman authority. This context has some similarities to Exile; God’s people should live according to God’s law, but there is no pretense that God’s law is the dominant civil authority.

Really, none of these biblical contexts reflect our own context in the United States, where we are part of a free, self-governing civil society where citizens are given a legislative voice in who our leaders and, to a lesser extent, what our laws, will be. Still, though, if we are careful, there are principles from biblical contexts that we can use to inform our practices in our own context:

  • We may not live in a theocracy, but surely we can learn something about the way that God would govern by looking at the laws He put into place.
  • We may not live in literal exile in a foreign land, but in a very real sense, Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom living in a foreign land. What does it look like to live according to God’s principles in a land where those principles may not be valued?
  • We may not live as people who are oppressed by some foreign power, but if Jesus and the apostles gave instruction on how Christians should submit and respect even the barbarity of Rome, shouldn’t that have some implication for how we respond to our own government (which, riddled with problems as it may be, is no Rome)?

These are questions we will try to get to in our next post, as we look at biblical principles that can help us to construct a Christian perspective on politics.

Obviously, political discussions can be very divisive, and it is certainly not my goal in these posts to promote division. I do want to promote biblical principles, however, and just because it is a complicated and delicate subject doesn’t mean that Christians should retreat from reflecting on and discussing it. As Christians, we are citizens of another kingdom, and we long for Jesus’ kingdom to come on earth to the extent that it is in heaven, but we still live in this world, and we must do our best to live faithfully in it while waiting for Jesus’ return and the renewal of all things. In the words of Augustine:

“After crossing the Red Sea the Israelites are not given their homeland immediately, nor are they allowed carefree triumph, as though all their foes had disappeared. They still have to face the loneliness of the desert, and enemies still lurk along their way. So too after baptism Christian life must still confront temptations. In that wilderness the Israelites sighed after their promised homeland; and what else do Christians sigh for, once washed clean in baptism? Do they already reign with Christ? No; we have not reached our homeland yet, but it will not vanish; they hymns of David will not fail there. Let all the faithful listen and mark this; let them realize where they are. They are in the desert, sighing for their homeland.”[4]

Being a Christian doesn’t provide us with smooth sailing in life, and it doesn’t give us all the answers to life’s difficult questions. We still live in a broken world, and we seek to navigate that world as best as we can, remaining faithful to God while loving our neighbors. And, I think part of that is reflecting on what a “Christian perspective” on politics might look like.

Read the entire series:

[1]  By the way, you also hear the reverse idea frequently from secularists. If Christians are sometimes eager to keep politics out of the church, many nonreligious people are eager to keep the church out of politics and are quick to cite the principle of separation of church and state as support for that notion. There is some truth to that argument, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion rather than freedom from religion. Historically, the point here was to establish that, in the United States, there would be no official church or religion that you are required to be a part of. On the contrary, you are free to believe whatever you choose to on matters of religion (including believing nothing at all!), and allow those beliefs to influence your actions.

[2]  Indeed, this is the argument that was made by Jewish religious leaders to Pilate: “If you do not crucify Jesus, then you are no friend of Caesar because Jesus makes a rival claim to authority.” Of course, the authority that Jesus claims as the King of Kings is not the same as simple civil and political authority; but it is not less than that, either.

[3] This assertion—that both dominant political parties in the US are problematic from a Christian perspective—could probably merit several posts on its own. However, this assertion seems so clearly self-evident for me that I have no desire to write such posts. For those who are looking for more on this idea, see Tim Archer’s short but helpful posts on “Why I Can’t Support the Left” and “Why I Can’t Support the Right.” Furthermore, the suggestion that neither party represents the Christian perspective is further reinforced by the fact that the broad spectrum of Christianity in the United States is all over the map politically. Mainline Protestant clergy and many of their members are devoted to political liberalism. Black churches tend to be as well, despite committed theological conservatism. Evangelicals have become closely associated with the Republican Party. Catholics are all over the place, distributed based largely on varying emphases on opposition to abortion, support of the poor, and more. See more in Tim Keller, “Justice in the Bible”, especially note 64.

[4]  Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms 72.5