Within recent memory, conservative-evangelical-fundamentalist (choose your modifier) Christians used Scripture to justify their opposition to political activism. No less an authority than Jerry Falwell, godfather of the "Religious Right," argued in a previous incarnation, "We have a message of redeeeming grace through a crucified and risen Lord. Nowhere are we told to reform the externals. We are not told to wage a war against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions, or any other exisiting evil as such. The Gospel does not clean up the outside but rather regenerates the inside."
For the past 20 years, Falwell and others who once regarded politics with the same antipathy they held for movies, liquor, and dancing have been singing a different tune. They use the same "inerrant, infallible" Bible, but reach different conclusions in order to justify their claim that the laity and preachers must be involved in politics. Either they were wrong then or they are wrong now.
Should Christians involve themselves in politics? To paraphrase the President, that depends on what the meaning of involve involves.
Should we vote after informing ourselves about issues and candidates? Absolutely! The things that are Caesar's are not only our tax dollars, but our citizenship. Laypeople can organize, peacefully demonstrate, boycott, pray for those in authority (that includes Democrats as well as Republicans), participate in pregnancy-help centers, and lobby elected officials.
But they should do so without illusions. Real change comes heart by heart, not election by election, because our primary problems are not economic and political but moral and spiritual.
Should those who are set apart to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ descend to a lower kingdom so that they resemble the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal of the legions now competing for temporal power? Absolutely not! They corrupt the gospel and suggest in deed and in word that if one is to receive Jesus as Savior, one must also receive the entire political and social agenda of the "Religious Right," which has nothing to do with salvation. After one becomes a believer, one can then understand what the Bible teaches about the unique value of all human life at every stage and of sexual purity and the danger of putting vain things before our eyes. But the unbeliever is unlikely to accept biblical truth when it comes wrapped in the voter guides of the Christian Coalition.
Preachers occupy a unique place in American life. When they are known for their denunciation of the President or the endorsement of someone to replace him, unbelievers see them as players in the corrupting political power game. Preachers already possess a greater power than the world offers. When they grasp for the immediate and lesser power of partisan and necessarily compromising politics, they make a Faustian bargain for something that rarely changes hearts and minds.
I have seen many convert on cultural and political issues once they come to Christ, but I have seen very few converted to my political point of view as a result of condemnation or electoral victory. When "my side" defeats "their side," their side tries harder the next time to beat my side. Truth is seldom advanced.
The debate about the "proper" relations between church and state is not new. People have been arguing about it for centuries. In his book Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Donald K. McKim revisits the church-state debate of the last 500 years. He quotes Martin Luther's "On Temporal Authority" (1523). Luther said that the tasks of the church and state are of two types and that they are to be distinguished from each other and may not be mixed. Theologian Ulrich Zwingli, Luther's contemporary, wrote in that same year "On Divine and Human Righteousness" that "divine righteousness" refers to the content of the church's proclamation, God's gracious activity; and "human righteousness (justice)" is that of the earthly state.
John Calvin said much the same, notes McKim. In Calvin's opening chapter "On Civil Government" in the "Institutes," Calvin writes that "Christ's spiritual kingdom and the civil order are two completely different things" and that "we may not—as people commonly do—unwisely mix these two together."
While McKim notes that these great Protestant theologians were reacting to the Roman church of their day and desired a complete separation from it, their objective was to rebuke that church be cause its clergy had become en tangled with worldly power and, thus, had forgotten their first love. In 1562, Calvin gave an even sterner warning to clergy who seek to use the ways of the world to advance a political or religious agenda, saying it would be a "betrayal of God" if he failed to warn against a preacher becoming a soldier, "and it is even much worse when he, hardly down from the pulpit, reaches for his weapon."
Karl Barth, the German theologian who was a contemporary of Adolf Hitler, wrote that "[The State] cannot be the true church. It could, if it dared such madness, only become a false church. And all the more must the church renounce itself should it want to become the State. … It cannot be the true State, it can only become a State of clergy … with a bad conscience because of their neglected duty."
Preachers have spoken and should speak to moral issues. But they should not be selective, addressing only those that make them feel comfortable or raise money. Conservative ministers might have more credibility with unbelievers if they added to their messages about abortion and homosexuality other biblical issues such as racism and justice for the poor. It is hypocritical for those white conservative clergy who opposed Martin Luther King, Jr., and defended segregation now to invoke his name and example as justification for their own political activism.
Preachers should not be known for condemning others. If God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, what gives them the authority to condemn? If the ordained believe "the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases," they have a biblical mandate not to trash a President they don't like or mawkishly support one they do admire.
There is a delicate balance between church and state as the Founders understood. When the church does its job, it positively influences the state. But when it uses political weapons to advance a moral agenda, it not only settles for less, it becomes less—less able to fulfill its greater commission; less willing to walk the road of humility.
No king but Caesar? No king but Jesus Christ!
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