January 26, 2007

Christians and Politics

The recent ascendancy of the Religious Right has led many to conclude that Evangelical Christians should stay out of politics. Even though I myself am an Evangelical, I sympathize with this view, agreeing that the actions of such leaders as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have been, to put it mildly, misguided.

But does the wrong-headedness of my fellow believers mean that Christians should start practicing political abstinence? Again, as sympathetic as I am to this view, I don’t think so.

Christians are called to help others. (I’m not going to reference any biblical verses here because support for this point can be found on pretty much every page of the Bible.) And given that governments can be instruments for both helping and hurting people, it follows that being politically involved is one way Christians can go about helping others.

In the past, politically involved Christians have helped make the world a better place. For instance, some of the staunchest abolitionists were Evangelicals, from William Wilberforce in England to such Americans as Charles Finney and William Lloyd Garrison. Christians were also at the forefront in the fight for women’s suffrage in the early nineteen-hundreds, as well as the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties.

The problem with the Religious Right, then, has not been that they’ve engaged in politics but simply that they’ve engaged in it so wrongly.

The first mistake of the Religious Right has been the inconsistency with which they’ve applied their faith to public policy. Evangelicals have focused on attacking a small number of issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, and divorce laws), all of which seemed to be condemned by literal interpretations of Scripture. However, at the same time, they have espoused policies that would seem to be condemned by the same interpretive methods. For example, the New Testament clearly portrays Jesus as a pacifist and would therefore seem to condemn such actions as Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war, a doctrine that has been fervently embraced by the likes of Robertson and Falwell.

The second mistake of the Religious Right has been its determination to force unbelievers to live by distinctly Christian values. It’s my belief that all people (barring those with such mental illnesses as sociopathy) share a core set of moral values. This conclusion is shared by such scholars as anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn.

According to Kluckhohn, “Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war, and other “justified homicides.” The notions of incest and other regulations upon sexual behavior, the prohibitions upon untruth under defined circumstances, of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parents and children—these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal” [1].

Given that virtually all of us share these values, it makes sense to establish our laws accordingly. For example, I doubt anyone would want to repeal prohibitions against such acts as murder and theft.

But there are some values that are more controversial. The wrongness of homosexuality, for example. Although we conservative Christians may find homosexuality to be contrary to God’s law, this isn’t so obvious to many other people. Whereas everyone agrees that such actions as murder and theft are wrong, a large number of people see nothing wrong with giving two men or two women the right to marry.

So, in conclusion, I think Christians should be politically involved. But they must not be so consumed by such issues as abortion that they fail to realize the importance of other issues. And they must realize that unbelievers should come to embrace the peculiarities of Christianity through evangelistic preaching, not state coercion.

[1] “Ethical Relativity: Sic et Non,” Journal of Philosophy, LII (1955).

Also published at ZealForTruth.

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