Behind the whole idea of Niebuhr’s Christ & Culture types (a brief overview of which can be read here) is the notion of some sort of interaction between faith and the public life — the idea of public theology. Like I’ve discussed before, this is broad enough to include the most fundamental underpinnings of our society: the world of politics. If we accept the two realities that most people have a set of religious beliefs and most people live under some system of government, then we’re left with a basic question: what is the role of faith in the world of politics? I have a corollary question as well: does the Christian have a duty to participate in political life, or should he/she eschew political participation in any form?
As we turn to the Bible to look for an answer, the first thing you’d probably notice is the fact that most of the Old Testament is a record of people living under varying degrees of theocracy. God is the supreme ruler of the land, and kings and citizens alike must conform to His will and His word. Moses rules the Hebrew people through the application of the Torah, given by God; judges are appointed and blessed by Yahweh; Saul and David are made kings after being anointed by the prophet Samuel; and Israel’s continued life in the Promised Land is contingent upon faithful adherence to the covenant made between God and their forefathers (and foremothers). Outside of God’s law, there was no civil government in Israel. (At least that was the general idea; we all know how long that lasted.)
In the New Testament, we find a series of household codes. These codes outline how the individual is to live in relationship to the people around them: parents and children, husbands and wives — and citizens and governments. Repeatedly the command is to “Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). At the very least, this should mean a generally lawful existence. No Christian should arbitrarily follow only the civil laws he or she may like and ignore the rest. No, such antinomianism is far from the life of the born again. Only those laws of humans which contradict the laws of God are to be broken; as the final paragraph of the Manhattan Declaration states, “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”
With that, we turn to the words of Jesus himself. When asked whether it were lawful to pay taxes to their Roman overlords (which were most assuredly not welcomed by anyone), the Christ merely replies, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Again, this would lead to the conclusion Christians are not to wantonly disobey human laws or other civil authorities. What it does not say, however, is whether or not Christians should actively seek to be those same authorities.
Theocracy may have been well and good for the children of Jacob, after all, but I doubt anyone would seriously consider it a viable form of government in our own day and age (and with the specter of Calvin’s Geneva looming large in the not-so-distant past, I don’t think anyone would suggest it truly worked well then, either). We cannot seek to impose our Christian beliefs by force. The primary reasons for this are threefold:
- Legislating morality rarely works.
- No one would agree on which particular strain of Christianity to use anyway.
- God never forces anyone to follow Christ; He only extends grace which allows us to respond as we will — but not in any pelagian way.
A theocracy would violate each of these principles (and the First Amendment), and so it simply will not work. It would require some sort of utopia to be pulled off properly.
With that said, I don’t believe Christians to be exempt from living lives which point others to God — and that includes a public engagement in the political realm. Without catering to American civil religion, we should exercise our citizenship in Christian ways. Voting, perhaps even running for office and the choice of legal careers and other such things, may very well be the duty of Christians if we maintain a “Christ transforming culture” view. If civil society is to conform to biblical principles, even if it will never become overtly Christian, then Christians must not be afraid to participate in the political realm. We must exercise our faith in this area of life as well, seeking to see the glory of God even in civil government. We vote for candidates who promote biblical ideals; we seek the betterment of our society by supporting the people and things which promote a biblical ethos. With that in mind, God doesn’t support any political party unilaterally. He doesn’t vote the straight Republican ticket, and He doesn’t vote the Democratic party line. We must never villainize those of opposing political beliefs, but neither must we be afraid of speaking truth in love in an open dialogue with them.
In our post-Christendom society, we should not take for granted our culture will reflect our faith. Indeed, we may be pushed to the fringes of our society as the pre-Constantinian church was (though I sincerely doubt we’ll ever be regularly martyred in the United States). As we exercise our rights as citizens, we must do so in Christian ways, ways which reflect our deeper faith, a faith which cares deeply about the physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being of our fellow citizens.