What is a Christian view of politics?

Posted on August 24, 2011 at 11:21 am,

We’re continuing the series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. On Monday, we looked at five wrong views about the relationship between Christians and government/politics (at this stage in the book, the terms can be used pretty much interchangeably). Today, we critique what Grudem considers to be the right view. He calls this view “Significant Christian Influence on Government” and defines it as follows:

Christians should seek to influence civil government according to God’s moral standards and God’s purposes for government as revealed in the Bible (when rightly understood). But while Christians exercise this influence, they must simultaneously insist on protecting freedom of religion for all citizens. In addition, “significant influence” does not mean angry, belligerent, intolerant, judgemental, red-faced, and hate-filled influence, but rather winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, persuasive influence that is suitable to each circumstance and that always protects the other person’s right to disagree, but that is also uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word.

Now, at this point there’s a possibility that some of my non-Christian readers might (mis)interpret that to imply that Grudem wants to set up a theocracy. That is, after all, how a lot of people view the agenda of the Religious Right in the USA – the political tradition which Grudem belongs. However, this definition works just as well for those of us who could be considered the Religious Left.

So, in order to clarify the intent for these readers, I’m going to retitle the viewpoint “Significant Christian Involvement in Politics” (after all, this approach doesn’t guarantee even the smallest amount of influence). And draft a more concise definition as follows:

Christians should be actively involved in political activity, drawing their political principles from their Christian faith – as defined by the teachings of the Bible – and doing so in an attitude of Christian love, rather than being angry, hateful, and judgemental. Christians should ensure that the way we do politics protects freedom of religion and the right to disagree, but does not compromise any aspect of our Christian beliefs.

In explaining what this means in practice, Grudem begins by defending the idea that there is a right interpretation of the Bible, as well as areas where Christians disagree on the issues. He then objects to theologically liberal interpretations of the Bible. However, his target in this section is really the secular commentator who insists that Christians who are consistent should follow the Law of Moses, without considering the way that the New Testament interprets those laws. Grudem then gives a number of Biblical and historical examples of the kind of influence he is talking about, from Daniel through to Martin Luther King.

Can we enforce moral standards?

And it’s at this point that Grudem goes into the first issue in the book where I think that he is completely and unambiguously wrong. He says that some people raise the issue of prohibition as an example of how you can’t legislate morality (true). His response to this is to say that it means that you can’t (successfully) enforce moral standards on a population where those standards are stricter than the standards of the Bible.

The problem with Grudem’s argument here is that the Bible itself shows that you can’t successfully enforce its moral standards on the population. This is proved time and time again in the Old Testament, when the nation of Israel fails to even come close to meeting the standards of the law of Moses. And then New Testament books like Romans and Galatians make it crystal clear that for somebody who is not a Christian to come close to keeping those moral standards is impossible. The correct lesson to draw from prohibition is surely that you cannot impose moral standards on a population where those standards are significantly higher/stricter than the population is willing to accept. It is certainly not that you can successfully impose moral standards as long as the standards are Biblical.

Should a candidate’s religion affect our vote?

Grudem then goes on to state that Christians should vote based on a candidate’s polices, rather than whether they are a Christian or not, citing God’s use of various pagan kings throughout the BIble, and citing his own support for Mormon candidates in the past. He’s completely right on this one, a Christian standing for office could easily be incapable of doing the job he or she is standing for, or have political views which are wrong, or even dangerous.

Personally speaking, I would only consider a candidate’s religious views to be a major issue if it directly affected their policies, if it directly affected their ability to do the job, or if the only other substantial differences between candidates were ones that I didn’t care about. Of course, in the first two cases it’s not the religious beliefs themselves that are the issue.

Where do we get our moral compass?

Grudem then goes on to make the contentious claim that, “without Christian influence, governments will have no clear moral compass.” Now, I see the point that he’s making – that governments and political parties need consistent moral principles, and that Christians should consider Christianity to be the best place to get those principles. But the way he states it feels rather misleading.

There are plenty of other religions and philosophies that can provide politicians with a clear moral compass, whether that be Islam, Marxism, or Humanism. As a Christian, I believe these moralities to have significant flaws. But in most cases it would be untrue to portray their moral principles as not being clear.

Furthermore, in practice, all Western democracies exist in a pluralist society. And, as such, if our democracies are acting as they are supposed to, elected politicians will have a wide variety of religious and philosophical beliefs. Which means that government should (again, if the system is genuinely democratic) reflect those philosophies to some degree.

Preaching on politics

He then says that church leaders have a responsibility to teach on political issues. This is something that should be a no-brainer. The Bible speaks to a massive range of issues, some of which are political – of course churches should preach on those issues. He does, however, sound a note of caution by pointing out that preachers should be cautious about issues where there is more room for disagreement about what the Bible teaches, and not preach on issues where the Bible is silent.

He also says that church leaders need to avoid placing too much emphasis on politics – after all, not everything the Bible says is directly political. He also says that preaching on political issues does not equate to endorsing a particular party or candidate. All of which is pretty much unarguable except, perhaps, for the details of where you draw the line.

Do we have democratic obligations?

Finally, Grudem says something about the obligations all Christians (as opposed to those with a particular calling to politics) living in a democracy should feel bound by. He starts by saying that we should all be informed and vote, citing the principle of stewardship (that God expects us to make responsible and fruitful use of everything He has given us – in this case democratic rights).

He also challenges Christians to consider whether each of us has a “higher obligation than merely voting”. He bases this on the question of whether it is “morally right to receive great benefits from a nation but to give nothing in return.” (emphasis his). Whether you’re a Christian or not, if you’ve never thought about that question, it’s definitely worth pondering.

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