Some questions that seem to come up quite often lately concern the interaction between faith, especially Christian faith, and politics. What is the correct role of Christianity in politics? What about that of individual Christians participating in the political process? What is government’s role? How are Christians to relate to government?
God calls us to respect government, to pray for leaders, and to work for the good of our community (1 Timothy 2:1-4). This was true even during the captivity in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7), and even under persecution by the Roman Empire (Romans 13:1-7). Neither of those was exactly the ideal form of government, with “liberty and justice for all”! But God still said for His people to work peacefully within the system, rather than try to either control or destroy it.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.Romans 12:18
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.Galatians 5:22-23 (my emphasis added)
The United States form of government is not a strict democracy, with pure majority rule. Our founders knew that would end up as tyranny by the populous areas over the less densely populated.
Instead, we have a representative republic. This means that enacting law requires not simply the most votes, but votes from the broadest consensus possible. That balance is why even the smallest and least-populated states have the same number of Senators as the biggest states, while each state’s Representatives are in proportion to the population. That’s why the electoral college uses electors per state rather than straight majority vote: to spread the choice across all segments of society rather than simply the largest.
Separation of Church and State
That phrase is not in our founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. It comes from a private letter from Thomas Jefferson to a Baptist association in Connecticut, the “Danbury letter“. The Baptists were concerned that their state constitution did not have a specific protection for religious liberty. Jefferson was assuring them that the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment would provide national-level protection. It states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
That means that no single specific religion can be made a requirement for holding public office or the full privileges of citizenship. It also means that government cannot keep anyone from practicing their religion; no religion can be legally outlawed. The “separation” works both ways: No church can control the government, and no government can squash an individual’s free exercise of their faith 1.
However, that separation does not mean that nothing of faith can be mentioned anywhere near anything of government. Rather, it is part of the design that government is made up of individual ideas and choices, contributed freely to build the whole.
In a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” 2 such as that in the U.S., it is the responsibility of every citizen, Christian or not, to participate in the process. We all should learn about the issues, consider the pros and cons of any policy proposed, and advocate or vote to advance the solutions that we decide are best.
With that as a given, it follows that everyone’s participation, Christian or not, is informed by their worldview. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone advocate for a policy that they do not believe is correct, and how would they define “correct” except by how they view the world?
However, Christians do not attempt to impose, by fiat, whatever they think is best. They do not want a government run by the Church, any church. That includes the religion — and that’s really what it is — of humanistic atheism. No single person or small group of “elite” leaders, including religious leaders, should be able to force their will onto the public. Everyone — whether Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, or Muslim 3 — should be free to peacefully express their opinions. They should be allowed to make the case for whichever policies and laws they think best. Then the options that express the will of the broadest cross-section of citizens should be the ones enacted into law.
Christian Influence in Politics
That doesn’t mean that Christians don’t care about government, though. History has shown that life based on God’s design works best, leading to the most freedom and productivity for the most people. Therefore, in order to fulfill their responsibility as citizens and to demonstrate God’s goodness, Christians pursue policies and laws that respect each person’s value, responsibility, and image of God.
In a culture informed by Christianity, and the many other faiths that share the same moral viewpoints, the resulting laws will be widely acceptable. They will leave room for each individual to pursue their life freely with no harm to others who follow different paths.
Politics Without Christian Influence
It is impossible to legislate morality, forcing people to treat one another respectfully, if that behavior is not already self-enforced. Being responsible, treating others well, and making a positive contribution to society must be instilled starting with children in the home. Otherwise, children who have been taught to demand or take what they want regardless of the welfare of others will grow into adults who are not restrained simply because a behavior is illegal.
If we continue toward a culture that rejects those moral views with millennia of success, the resulting laws will be harmful. They will be arbitrary and intrusive, turning citizens into servants.
…we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.From John Adams to Massachusetts Militia, 11 October 1798
See more context here.
Christian Politicians and Citizens
Christian leaders, whether in political office or not, who are obeying Jesus will see themselves as servants rather than as masters. They will use what power and influence they have to enrich and protect those under their care. They will not pursue power for its own sake, or for their own selfish gain.
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”Matthew 20:25-28
Christians, following God’s commands, will endeavor to abide by all laws that do not directly contradict God or demand disobedience to Him. They will work to bring about godly laws. If forced to choose, though, between disobeying God and peacefully disobeying un-godly laws, God wins…even at high cost to the Christian, if necessary.
That is because we know that the true best hope for our nation comes from God…not from politics!
Footnotes and Scripture References
- Courts have ruled since then that very specific dangerous actions can be restricted, even if those actions stem from religious beliefs. I would expect that human sacrifice is not allowed, for instance! Those restrictions are extremely limited in scope, though.
- The quote is from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
- These choices are in alphabetical order, and are only a sampling. They are not intended to be a complete list of all relevant religions. Such a thing would be impossible for me to list.