The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: From Whence We Came and to Whither We Go

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?

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15 Responses to The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: From Whence We Came and to Whither We Go

  1. Carrot says:

    The question is why to get involved in politics rather than how. Is the purpose to feed the hungry? Shelter the homeless? Is it to convert the non-believer?

    Every time you combine a secular office with spiritual authority, you face tragedy. If reason is the common denominator across cultures, than that is what the rule of law should be based on, not the gospel – who’s interpretation could vary from scholar to scholar let alone religious communities.

    • Carrot, Thanks for interacting. Your question is a good one, and that’s why I included, although Ron Sider did not, the word IF and HOW to the question of political engagement. There certainly is a Christian tradition that wants to be salt and light by being the new polis or new political body in Christ, making the assumption that the light from this city will draw all people.

      I don’t think any contemporary Christian is arguing that we should invest a secular office with spiritual authority, but rather many Christians in the Calvinistic, Kuyperian, perspective see that Jesus is now truly Lord of all and our mission as his followers is to live out that reality in all spheres of life. While all Christians don’t have a univocal definition of the gospel and its implications, I do believe there is sufficient agreement that there can be a minimal agreement on some matters.

      If Christians are to be involved, the gospel (variously defined) will be a governing filter for that individual’s decision making in politics. I am jumping ahead here, but Sider will argue that our advocacy to the public must be articled through reason not scripture; in other words, we must seek common rationale for the common good.

      So, you are raising great points and questions, and I think Sider will get to those questions, even if you don’t agree on where he lands as he does advocate for Christian involvement with politics on Kuyperian grounds. Blessings.

      • Carrot says:

        I had to go look up Kuyperian, just to give you an idea of the scholarly handicap I’m working with.

        As a non-Evangelical, it seems to me that while you contend that no one is arguing combining secular and sacred offices, the current cultural push is doing just that. I don’t want a Born Again Anything making a law that decides something in my life is an an affront to their personal beliefs and must be stopped at all costs. Its great an all that personal faith should rule your life, but what happens when you find yourself in office ruling over people who don’t share that faith? This is the point I usually get the dance around – the statement of faith that God is calling people to live in the “proper” manner. What is “proper” and what does that mean for people who don’t subscribe to the Evangelical faith? It is in the specific answer that the issue is dealt with honestly.

        • Carrot,

          Sorry about the jargon; I should be defining my terms as I go. That was just laziness on my part. To a large extent the questions about if and how Christians engage their culture, including politics, is going to be determined by their cultural contexts. For example, Christian engagement will look different in a tyrannical dictatorship than it will in a democracy like ours, but since this series of posts is designed to engage American evangelicalism in particular, I will direct my response to you in terms of our context. Your questions are complex, and in order to do justice to your question, my response will be somewhat lengthy.

          We are in a pluralist society; meaning, there is no one singular view of the world that has rightful claim as the view in our culture. We have Christians, Muslims, Jews, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics and everything in between. So whatever answer I give must deal with that reality. So let me begin my answer by moving back into history, again.

          The historical and intellectual time period beginning in the early 19th century up to the middle of the 20th century, known as Modernity, suggested that what “counts” as knowledge is only that which is part of the phenomenal world (the world of the senses: smell, touch, taste, sight, hearing). Anything that was part of the noumenal world was considered unknowable, but a person could still believe, privately, whatever they wished about the noumenal (God, morality, metaphysics, ect). This was an attempt to prevent the massive bloodshed that took place in Europe over metaphysical claims that were in competition. The idea for the Modernist was that if we just stick to the “facts” and reason about them, then we should be able to develop universal (public) knowledge for constructing society and individual lives, or so the theory goes.

          A large part of your questioning is premised upon this Modern assumption about the neutrality of “facts” and reason. Your concern about the person of faith engaging in political office is rooted in the modern myth of the neutrality of “facts” and reason. What might give you some pause to rethink this objection is the rise of Postmodernity. Postmodernity, by most contemporary accounts, is a response to Modernity from within Modernity. Don’t think of Postmodernity as some radical, clear breaking away from Modernity, but it is a radicalization of it. Alternatively, you could think of it as carrying forward the logic of Modernity to its conclusion.

          Postmodernity awoke us all from our dogmatic slumber, causing us to seriously question the mythological basis of Modernity, the claim of neutrality of reason and the progress that universal reason brings for society. In other words, Postmodernity helped us realized the extent to which our reasoning and appeal to “facts” is deeply shaped by our historical and social contexts. Our culture puts a pair of shaded lenses on our eyes and we see the world/facts and reason from those facts with the cultural lenses we wear. It turned out that the claimed neutrality/universality of Modernity was not neutral or universal; it was incredibly local and contextual. You can look up authors like Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard to read their biography and their contributions to this movement in Western culture. All that to say is, everyone has a worldview which is premised upon assumptions that are not neutral facts or even “provable.” This is why so much of our culture is in despair. In this new situation people sense that there is no ability to truly know anything and that all is merely a socially conditioned claim to knowledge. Here is where we are in the Western world. BTW, as a Christian I don’t think our lack of access to the objective is reason for such despair, but that is a series of posts for another time.

          With that in mind, rather that pretending Modernity is still a viable intellectual option, we should in our pluralistic society simply welcome all to the public square for discussion and engagement. Given our democratic system, we should not fear the “other,” but we are forced to engage with and pursued the “other.” In light of our plurality we (all points of view) must enter the public square with humility and readiness to make use of “common reason” to pursued others. Only those arguments that are sufficiently persuasive to others will win the day, becoming law.

          For example, as a Christian I believe that the termination of a child within the womb of a mother is deeply problematic, to say the least. However, if I enter the public square with Bible in hand and simply point to Bible verses that “prove” my point no one, outside of my tribe, will likely listen. But if I enter the public square motivated by my faith in Jesus and the scriptures, choosing to argue on common ground, such as long term psychological effects of abortion on women or the link between some breast cancers and abortion, then I might win those outside my tribe to my point of view, winning the day and establishing a new law. That is a very different picture than having an absolute monarch, or a President for that matter, that has as their only aim to enforce every writ of holy scripture, forcing others to accept their belief system. Does that make any sense?

          • Carrot says:

            I don’t mind having to look things up. Wikis might be suspect in their overall unbiased scholarship, but at least I learned a little something in my day. I understand that each culture has their inherent already-understood tropes and so the short hand lingo for these concepts tend to pop up in conversation.

            I find the idea that you could call the neutrality of fact a myth is slightly alarming. I’m hoping I’m just not understanding your usage in this context. The earth revolves around the sun. Fact? Myth? Highly debatable perception? All people are equal. Women are people. Men are people. All men and women are equal. Also a myth based on subjective reasoning?

            Yes, arguing a bible verse vs scientific studies would give you two different responses, with the scientific studies giving you a greater chance of reaching people outside of your tribe (good term) and thus “winning” people to your side. But that brings me back to the paragraphs prior where you debate the neutrality of facts. If you consider even the facts of a scientific study to be non-impartial in their discovery, how can you use them to support an argument any more than you can use a bible verse that is as equally debatable?

          • I was not trying to say that what you and I call a fact (a heliocentric universe, the relativity of gravity, ect) is just a myth, but the claim that facts are neutral is a a modern myth. Since this use of language seems to be a bit of a barrier let me try making the same point in a different fashion.

            The modern myth is that only data that has proceeded successfully through the scientific method (senses plus reasoning) is rightly called fact, true or real. Our ontology drives our epistemology. In other words, what we believe about the nature of reality itself will drive the method of how we know that reality. Enlightenment/Modernity assumed a univocal ontology, and it preferred matter to spirit or phenomena to noumena. It assumed all that was to be considered part of reality was of one kind, and that one kind was matter. This is an assertion not testable or verifiable through the scientific method, and in fact it is dogma, part of the larger modern myth or presupposition. So while science may certainly tell of something of reality it has self-limited its claim to knowing the material or phenomenal. Gravity, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, may indeed be fact (not myth) is does not say very much about what matters most to us.

            We are inherently meaning seeking creatures. Facts, in and of themselves, don’t mean very much. We construct, largely at the social level, stories that provide a framework of meaning for the facts we claim to have. Science is very good as giving us some types of facts, but it cannot, by its own self-limitations, tell us what any of it means. Nevertheless, scientists often attempt this move, but when they do they are well outside of their own rules for knowing. I don’t deny them their right to do this; after all, to construe meaning is to be human. Science is great at telling us what we can do, but it cannot tell us if we should do it.

            Returning to the political, a naturalistic, materialistic and scientific view of the world then is not absent of its own narrative (myth). It is not a neutral arbiter for the public square. It is one story among many in the public square, and in a postmodern, democratic society we cannot attempt to privilege one narrative over the others to establish mastery. Those that choose to enter the square must do so with respect for the “other” and their narratives. Unfortunately, all of us, even Christians, have listened and understood “other” poorly in the pursuit of power in the political arena.

          • Carrot says:

            I’d continue our conversation, but seems as we are no longer given reply buttons.

  2. Kevin W. says:

    This is a good post. I appreciate the history. I don’t have any answers but this is giving me a framework as I wrestle with these questions in this election year.

    • Thanks Kevin, but I must give the credit to Ron Sider who wrote a thoughtful book on the subject from which I, mostly, am stealing the material. It is a good book in that it is not loaded with “academicese,” and he does a good job of helping the average evangelical start to think broadly about their assumptions. I hope you keep coming back to read and let us know your thoughts. Blessings.

  3. justinhiebert says:

    I identify strongly with the (new) Anabaptist movement and the way it can bring life to today’s church.

    • So then do you vote? How do you envision being salt and light to the world, including the political sphere? What does that look like in practical terms from the new Anabaptist perspective?

  4. Vicky says:

    This may be too simplistic in light of church history but i would think that we should be following the model of political engagement from people like Paul John the Baptist the prophets and Jesus Christ who taught us to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Not to say we cannot strive to be winsome but one cannot always be winsome when confronting the evil of our day.

    • Vicky, Thanks for reading and engaging. I want to be generous to my fellow Christians and believe that they want, and believe, their models for engaging culture are biblical, following Paul, John and Jesus. So, I am not convinced that asking Christians to be biblical gets us too far because they would respond, “We are!” I don’t think that interpretive reality should allow us to sink into relativistic despair, but it should prod us beyond a claim to just simply be biblically faithful. The question of HOW remains even if you believe bringing the will of God on earth requires political engagement. Are we just faithful witnesses outside of the system? Do we work within the system utilizing cultural reason to advance biblical wisdom? Do we say, “the Bible says it, I believe it, so we should enact it?” Do we want a theocracy? Which of the biblical mandates should become law? Point being, this is not simple stuff, and I want evangelicals to stop, back up, take in a wide spectrum of Christian thinking and questioning on these matters and avoid intuitive and ad hoc reasoning. I suspect too many evangelicals operate in the political arena without taking sufficient stock of these kinds of questions.

      Your last statement might suggest that our engagement with the political is only to confront evil, but I don’t want to read too much into that statement. Can you clarify?

      Thanks for reading. Blessings.

  5. Justin Facts says:

    This link might be helpful. The Gospel and Politics by John MacArthur

  6. somepcguy says:

    I tend to side with earlier Anabaptists who believed that Christians should not get involved in politics. My starting point on that understanding is Jesus’ response to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were my servants would fight…” I believe that Christians should be non-resistant and am unable to find any consistent way to reconcile that belief with delegating to someone the authority to coerce others on my behalf (which is what voting is).

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