Evangelicals have problems with government—what it is and what it should do, what involvement they should have with it, and how it relates to the work of the Gospel. There are those who think government a kind of necessary evil to be avoided as much as possible. Others believe that government should be actively involved in the propagation of the Christian message by using such means as Bible reading and religious observances in the public schools and by lending at least moral support to foreign missions. Paradoxically, there are some who accept both these views. Undoubtedly the great majority of evangelicals have convictions that fall somewhere between these two extremes.
As government has bulked larger and larger in America during the past generation and as it will continue to do so in the future, it becomes more and more urgent for evangelicals to develop a clearer understanding of government and its philosophy.
Government is more than just a matter of traffic policemen and tax collectors. All of us are constantly involved with government: student loans in college, service in the armed forces, government employment agencies, FHA mortgages, Social Security—these are some of its many manifestations. It is no longer—if in fact it ever was—appropriate for any American to declare that he is not interested in government.
Scriptural foundation for the legitimacy and honor of government is plain. St. Paul said, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1). He also urged Christians to pray for all in authority to the end that we may lead “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2). Obviously the Bible has no place for anarchy or negation of government.
But what, for the Christian in the United States, is the role and purpose of government in society, and what should the Christian response to government be? According to the bedrock of American political philosophy, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” That short credo still animates our political life in the United States. Springing from it, the following goals are specified in the preamble to the Constitution: to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” No evangelical Christian need take exception to such a political creed or debate such goals.
Government in America is the institution that attempts to translate our national goals into reality. It aims to accomplish this task through policies and programs. For example, to “provide for the common defence” is a goal for which the policy of strategic deterrence through myriad individual weapons programs, such as the Polaris and Minuteman, is the means.
To say we have a consensus regarding national goals does not mean that we cannot debate governmental policies and programs. At this point there should be honest disagreement. Witness the policy debate on the partial nuclear test ban treaty, on the Russian wheat sale, on the TFX aircraft. On both sides of those issues there were patriotic Americans who were at one about the goal of maintaining national security; the disagreements were over the best way to do this.
A Binding Responsibility
Consider next the essential question of the Christian’s attitude and responsibility to government. Surely we evangelicals should accept our civic and social responsibility with a vigor second only to that of our commitment to Christ. The Christian life includes a binding responsibility for meeting the full needs of man; the spiritual needs of humanity have the primacy, but they are not isolated from other human problems. This means nothing less than full concern for the spiritual, social, political, and economic welfare of our fellow man. How else explain our designation as “the light of the world,” “the salt of the earth,” and “the leaven”?
In our scriptural and traditional emphasis that the Christian’s life is a pilgrimage in a corrupt environment and that his true home is eventually with God, we need reminding that as uniquely free men in this world we must be deeply involved in all of human life. This means that the whole creation is a fit subject for Christian enjoyment and exploration. As Paul says in First Timothy 4:4, “Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving.” Thus we are called to social commitment, and this must surely include involvement with government.
Too long have evangelicals shied away from political responsibility. We have excused ourselves on the ground that government meant “dirty politics.” It meant, we said, graft, favoritism, influence-peddling. Even at best, government seemed to negate the virtues of hard work, independence, and private initiative. We were not active in the electoral process or in the effort to get the best possible men to stand for public office because the whole process seemed to smack of compromise, smoke-filled rooms, and unscrupulous maneuvers. Sometimes we did not even bother to vote.
We were not interested in working in government or serving in appointive positions. The appointed jobs, we assured ourselves, came as a result of “pull” or “payoff.” As for the civil service, we endorsed the caricature of bureaucratic paper-pushers tied up in a seniority system that rewarded a person for his caution, mediocrity, decision-phobia, devotion to the status quo, and passion for job security.
Such criticisms are not without some validity. The purpose of this discussion, however, is not to defend the structural defects of government but to remind evangelicals of the overriding good in the goals, policies, and programs in American political life. In short, evangelicals must take with new seriousness the role of government in American life today. Beyond even the most controversial programs of civil rights, area redevelopment, aid to education, public power projects, and farm controls lie the ultimate goals of a society of free men equally permitted to enjoy the complete privileges and responsibilities of citizenship, including—most importantly—the freedom to worship according to the dictates of conscience.
Not all government activities are necessarily right. As in every human endeavor, the actual is hard to square with the ideal. American political goals are not easier to attain just because they are good ones. Many government policies in pursuit of national and local goals may be poorly conceived, many programs may be poorly administered, and many people working in government may be poorly qualified. Thus, welfare programs may help the lazy as well as the needy, and the zoning administrator who allows an exception for an industrial firm in a residential area may be guilty of poor judgment if not venality. But these defects should surprise least of all persons the evangelical, with his realistic awareness of human sin, and should not discourage him from continuing to work for fuller attainment of ultimate goals. Laxity is inexcusable, even though man’s imperfections and frailties prevent us from full realization of goals.
Reasons For Unconcern
But what about the reasons for lack of evangelical concern for government? There is the general apathy and lack of interest—not peculiar to evangelicals—that result from involvement with the immediate problems of family, work, and other personal interests. But beyond such relatively passive deficiencies there are others, such as parochialism and anti-intellectualism, of which evangelicals have their share. These smack of a world of restricted interests in which those looking from outside see, unfortunately, hypocrisy and pharisaism.
It is ironic that our parochialism seems rooted in a great asset—interest in the spread of the Gospel. We become so single-minded in our burden to preach and convert that we forget some of the concomitant social imperatives of the Gospel. Consequently, we appear only half-heartedly interested in questions of injustice, ignorance, hate, poverty, and war. But there is nothing sacrilegious in attacking human needs simultaneously on two fronts, the social as well as the spiritual.
As to our anti-intellectualism, this too comes from over-emphasis on an evangelical strength—other-worldliness. As the old saw goes, we have carried our heavenly-mindedness to the point that in some things we are no earthly good. Sure of the transitory nature of this world and the certainty of eternal happiness, we have been inclined to be too little concerned for present-day secular problems, including those of government.
Moreover, we have been content to remain naïve and poorly informed about the issues of society in the 1960s, particularly the definition and purposes of government. Thus some of us have been easy prey to strange, reactionary political ideas and groups that embarrass Christ’s Church.
Not all evangelicals are guilty of unconcern toward government. Many evangelicals have been associated with reform movements throughout the history of the Western world and the United States. Indeed, it is precisely because of their vision and success that by comparison so many evangelicals today seem to be less socially minded. We need once more to invoke the names of Wilberforce, Beecher, Bryan, and scores of others.
While the role of government in society has been presented favorably in this discussion, it is essential that we avoid any possible confusion between government and the Gospel. Government is for the regulation of society; the Gospel is for the salvation of the individual. In this world we cannot expect the Gospel to regulate society, if for no other reason than that it is not universally accepted; nor can we ever expect government to change individuals. The two forces operate on different planes, by different means, for different purposes.
Evangelicals looking at government should continue to keep in mind the Master’s simple but definitive advice, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The things of Caesar are the tasks of regulating human society. We may be supremely thankful that the broad foundations underlying and nurturing the laws and policies of American life do not conflict with Christian principles, as happens in some other societies. But we must also remember that Caesar’s things are different from God’s things. Therefore, we cannot expect or ask government to advance as a deliberate policy the things of God. That remains the task God has given to his Church and his followers. What we must render to Caesar is the fulfillment of our civic responsibilities with a zeal and alacrity similar to that with which we render to God his things.
Donald A. Kruse, a career Foreign Service Officer, is a graduate of Wheaton College (A.B.) and the University of Pennsylvania (M.A. in political science). Currently serving with the Department of State in Washington, he has held posts in Canada and Luxembourg. In this essay Mr. Kruse speaks individually and not officially.
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