I am writing this series on evangelical political engagement to explore the questions of if and how evangelicals should participate in the political culture of America. Given the upcoming election and the constant barrage of Facebook friends posting all manner of vitriol on our news feeder, it seemed go to us, and the Holy Spirit, to come and reason together about what we are doing and the manner in which we are doing it. To that end, I am bringing to you parts of Ron Sider’s book The Scandal of Evangelical Politics to ignite our thinking and conversation. His main thesis is simply that evangelicals need to develop a cohesive theology of political engagement in order to more consistently apply scripture to political engagement as well as provide a winsome answer to the culture for our engagement. So, how do we move from the biblical text into the world of politics?
Before we can address the how and why of evangelical political engagement, we need to understand from whence we have come. One of the troubling aspects of modern, American evangelicalism is its rootlessness or its lack of grounding in the history of the faith. American culture, in general, is awash in the modern myth that we have come from nowhere and we are heading nowhere. For the modern individual the present is all that there is, and we slaves to the immediate. Evangelicals also are filled with this cultural spirit. Ironically, in order to free ourselves from this cultural myth we must tether ourselves to the Church’s story, or for evangelicals to obtain wisdom for this present age we need to listen to the sages of our past. To that end, Ron Sider provided a brief survey of the historical responses various Christian communities have had regarding if or how they should take the biblical narrative into the political world and engage their culture, and I sketch that history for you now.
The earliest Christians were engaged in politics mostly through means of protest. The Roman Empire promised peace to the world through the ascension of Caesar Augustus (Exalted One). Caesar Augustus was, in the east, worshiped as a god, maintaining his own temple cult. Later Caesar’s expanded this practice, using the temple cult of Caesar as a unifying, civic religion for the Empire. Christians burst upon the scene and establish their own “polis” called the ekklesia (church), a body politic term for communities loyal to the Lordship of Caesar. But Christians established their own ekklesia and proclaimed that Jesus was Lord (not Caesar), and they refused to engage in emperor worship, committing treason. The gospel (good news) they brought was not of Caesar’s birth and victory over the evil powers, but it was of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and ascension to the throne, making him the true good news and establisher of peace. For early Christians, the gospel life itself was a protest against Empire, and this would all change when Constantine proclaimed himself a Christian, making Christianity legal and the preferred religion in the Empire.
In the Post-Constantine Europe there was an ever increasing merger between church and state, much to the church’s demise. The culture was Christianized, and people that professed Christ were increasingly the movers and shakers within the culture. Within this context Augustine wrote his famous City of God in 426 AD. The problem for Christian engagement with culture at that time was that the distinction between the city of God and the city of Man was forgotten. Pagans argued that the sacking of Rome was the fault of the Christians and their abandonment of the traditional Roman deities, and Augustine set out to write against this assertion. For our purposes, the important contribution by Augustine was the distinction between the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man. He argued that they did not, and should not, operate by the same principles nor seek the same objectives. However, his reasoning was grounded in Platonic philosophy, causing him to drive a hard dive between these two cities. This stark division between the cities tended to down play the significance of corporeal, earthly existence, preferring a more spiritual, heavenly hope.
Thomas Aquinas was the most influential theologian of the Middle Ages, and he remains a significant well from which modern theologians draw (even evangelicals). Preferring Aristotle to Plato, Aquinas believed truth could be found in the corporeal, not merely the ideal (heavenly), realm. Reason, he argued, was the best tool for discovering these natural truths or laws. Therefore, he viewed reason as an indispensable tool for crafting political culture. Given our nature as communal creatures, Aquinas viewed political life as an inevitable outcome of the creational order, and he rejected the notion that government was only a necessary evil resulting from the fall of humanity. As such, government had a positive role to play in promoting the common good, even providing sufficiently for the material well-being of its citizens. Since reason was common to us all, opined Aquinas, reason, not only scripture, was to play a significant role in promoting the common good. This Thomist tradition dominated Medieval thought, and it still is foundational to modern Roman Catholic thought.
The Protestant Reformation birthed a host of new questions for how the body politic and the body of Christ should interact, and Protestants developed three main alternatives: Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptist (all containing multiple variations and nuances). Luther laid out his famous Two Kingdoms approach in 1523 with the printing of his book, On Secular Authority. Luther argued that the Kingdom of God ruled through the gospel and love, but the Secular Kingdom ruled by law and violence. Recall that Luther’s entire framework for understanding all sphere’s of life required a strong distinction between Law and Gospel. This binary approach to all matters necessarily resulted in a similar approach to the question of Christian engagement with political life. He also held, much like Aquinas, that the natural world (political world) governed by reason, so the non-believer could govern as effectively as a believer. He even went as far as to suggest that if Christians wanted to learn how to govern they should learn from the best and most learned pagans. This confidence in pagan ability stemmed from his conviction that the gospel had nothing to do with law and the gospel had no connection with the Kingdom of this world, so, according to Luther, natural reason could effectively guide government in its aim was to restrain evil. He viewed the body politic only as a necessary institution resulting from the fall, and it was not a part of the divinely created order.
John Calvin, however, believed that government had a role to play in the transforming of society and establishment of human flourishing. The government was to protect and guard true worship and doctrine in the culture, thus providing the rationale in Geneva for the burning of heretics and those who dance. Because Jesus is Lord of all, Christians have a mandate to see his Lordship established over every sphere of life, including the political life. The Puritans that landed on the shores of America, as well as the Anglican and Presbyterian immigrants that dominated early American culture, held to this Calvinistic vision of churchly involvement with political life. In the populist and anti-intellectual expression of evangelicalism in the 19th century, Christians in American simply assumed that they could and should move easily from the mandates of the biblical text to legislative activity.
Anabaptists, in contrast, drew strict lines between the Church and the state during their earliest incarnations. They acknowledged the rightful realm of the state to rule and restrain evil, through violence if necessary, but the Church was to operate in a separate sphere through separate means. So, while it could be legitimate for the state to go to war, Christians were not to participate in the war. The strict distinction between Church and state won the day in the modern world, but Anabaptists continue their minority status as pacifist Christians. In more recent times, John Yoder became the face and voice of a very diverse Anabaptist movement, and he began breaking down the strongly dualistic walls that previous Anabaptists had erected. He and other Anabaptists found a limited place for Christians to be salt in the world as a faithful presence in politics. He argued that the first order of business, however, was for the Church to truly embody the new polis, and as they were so embodied their presence in political life would be felt. It is a more pacifist rather than triumphalist approach to political influence.
In simplistic, broad strokes, that is the history of Christian engagement with political culture. There has not been, in spite of the evangelical intuition, a Christian default answer to the question, “Should Christians participate in political life, and if so, how?” At a minimum, what this history demonstrates is that moving from the biblical text to drawing out implications for the broader culture is not simple, and there is not singular “right” answer for making that move. The movement from “thus saith the Lord” to “thus enacteth the king” is not something that evangelicals should leave to mere intuition, pragmatism, ad hoc argument or a lack of imagination. Also, this movement from text to culture is fraught with peril for the Church, as Church history demonstrates with Calvin’s burnings, the Puritan witch hunts, the Roman Inquisitions, the Crusades and other ecclesial tragedies.
So which of these models did you find most compelling and why?
How do evangelicals even begin the project of developing a distinctly evangelical theology of the political?