Nick Rynerson takes a look at the history and value of Christian political disengagement.
It’s election season in the age of social media. Without fail, our twitter feeds are filled with hashtags like #debate and #RomneyRyan2012, and the television has been overtaken by talking heads who say things like, “Ohio is a real battleground state” and “the Latino vote is defined by several key issues . . . ” On Tuesday, the 6th of November, many Americans will take time off of work to go vote for the next President of the United States of America (and possibly your local comptroller). But I will not join the masses at the polls this year.
It would be prudent to state the obvious: I am biased. Really, we all are. Our understanding of scripture, certain interests, culture, and spheres of influence shape our understanding of the world, and political discourse is no different. And I am unashamedly apolitical. I’m not an independent and I’m not undecided; I am none of the above. I guess you could call me a political conscientious objector, and I think there is some theological validity to that. I do not want everybody to stop voting. Instead, I want to convince both the politically weary and the politically active that there is an intelligent, serious, and informed position of political (in)activism.
Ever since the Pharisees asked Jesus about their tax status (Matthew 22:20), the teachings of Jesus and the Word of God have intersected with the governing of man. Long before American evangelicalism became a political juggernaut, conflicting ideas on how to engage the governing bodies thrived. From Paul’s exhortations to simply obey the government (which will be examined later) to Constantine’s complete takeover of government, the tide of the Church’s relationship with politics has ebbed and flowed.
The movements within Christendom that yell their political opinions the loudest often get the most attention. Especially within an American Evangelical culture that tends to see voting as vital to spiritual health as prayer. But the movements that have simply bowed out of the political discourse are often ignored.
Consider the Anabaptist and Pietist movements, which held a position of political disengagement because of the rule of Christ and the corruption of worldly governments. These movements held a position of civil separation, denying the worldliness of political strife. This position, originating as a contemporary of Puritanism, saw the political mess of 16th century Rome and decided that a biblically faithful alternative would be to step out of political discourse in favor of a communal, spiritual, and ecclesial focus. Which led to such ecumenical victories as Zinzendorf’s communities of living orthodoxy and the early 17th century Pietist gem of social witness and compassion (see True Christianity by Johann Arndt). Centuries later, many within the Anabaptist community still hold this view.
Today, a bevy within evangelicalism have followed suit and removed themselves from the political arena in the vein of “privatized mercy.” Many young evangelicals are not looking to the halls of Parliament or Senate for social justice, but taking action in the context of their sphere of influence. And for most Americans, this means neighborhoods, offices, and communities. To these evangelicals, politics are a divisive distraction.
Yet, there is an equally loud (if not much, much louder) group within evangelicalism who believe that it is sinful not to vote. Cases against Christian political engagement are often countered with Bible verses like Titus 3:1 and Romans 13:1–7:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work (Titus 3:1).
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:1–7).
However, these verses say nothing about political participation within a modern Democratic Republic. While it is important to note that at the time these verses were written there was a crude form of Hellenistic democracy in some of the city-states, Roman occupation did not adopt a democratic position. The Roman Empire was quite autocratic—they did not have anything that looked like the Magna Carta or the Constitution.
Realistically, these verses do not tie American Christians into a covenant that requires voting and political activism. Rather they teach Christians that the government is to be obeyed. These verses highlight the sovereignty of God, not the Christian duty to change the world. Jesus is already doing that.
Obeying the government is not a matter of changing the status quo, but of honoring Christ who, by faith “has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:22). It is a matter of fearing and submitting to God as master, not in creating a heavenly kingdom on earth.
One of the most common errors of Christians in America is to forget what freedom actually is and where it comes from. True freedom is not given through the sacrament of the American constitution, but through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Freedom of will and of spirit are divine. Despite the writing of Foucault and other enlightenment-influenced philosophers, volition is not controlled by our circumstances.
It is evident from Scripture that freedom comes from Christ alone. As Paul tells the church in Galatia, who existed under persecution and political oppression:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery….For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:1, 13).
True Christian freedom makes governmental liberty look unimportant in comparison.
Language and culture are such strong influences that they often go unrecognized. We think American democracy is the best option available because we are smack-dab in the middle of it. But it is important to note that Democracy is fading away and is simply not demanded or suggested in Scripture. Throughout the majority of human history, unpopular, autocratic rule has been the norm. These same scriptures applied to those living in such autocracies.
We all have cultural blinders on, but the Gospel calls for dying to our sense of cultural superiority. This includes making an honest effort to evaluate other forms of government. We would do well to admit that both the Imago Dei and the fallen nature of man exist within both Socialism and libertarian venture capitalism. But it seems that the hearts of American Christians have been stolen, or at least distracted from the mission and glory of Jesus, by political culture wars.
Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile illustrates this biblical tension:
It seems to me that if we really believe the system is broken but we vote anyway, we simply nullify our contention that the system is broken. Now, we may not believe it’s “that broken,” and so we vote. Praise God. I support you if you feel that way. But if you think the farce of national democratic elections has reached an almost irretrievable state of disrepair, corrupted by big money on both sides and fundamentally manipulative and insincere in its presentation of candidates, then to vote could only end in one outcome no matter who is elected–the further entrenchment of the brokenness we decry.
Truthfully, the god of “God and Country” is not the God of Galatians and Romans, but a culturally created deity. Many Christians collectively have fallen under the spell of “saving America” and the Republican Party Policy is often seen as Doctrine.
Simply look at your twitter feed from the debate nights. Pastors seemed to have forgotten that they are of a different Kingdom when Romney and Obama were on the TV. Remember the ubiquitous #debate hashtag?
Even some of the most respected Evangelical scholars like Dr. Russell Moore (whom I have the utmost respect for) have compared not voting to the sins of Pontius Pilate and the act of voting as comparable to the ministry of John the Baptist. And recently Greg Gilbert posted a series of tweets based on a culturally specific reading of Romans 13 calling those who would refuse to vote to “repent.”
Anyabwile rightly points out that this pseudo-Christian political game is crippling the church’s mission and reputation:
[It] has left the world with the impression, once again, that to be a Christian is to be a Republican. It’s fostered the impression that to be a Democrat is to be an anti-Christ. And it’s gone further: It’s sometimes suggested that there’s nothing supernatural about being a Christian.
And in light of this, I advocate for not voting because I believe many Christians cannot handle it. If voting, political radio shows, and debate tweeting are causing us to sin by losing sight of the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus, perhaps we ought to remove ourselves from the discussion. (Matthew 15:20, Matthew 17).
A few years back, I was obsessed with football. I watched every game and followed my team religiously, until one day when I angrily stormed out of a Buffalo Wild Wings and sat in my car because my team lost at the last minute. I decided to take an eight-week fast of all football. I needed to repent.
Then when I came back, I found myself strangely disengaged. Not in an “I don’t care” sort of way, but with a “no pressure” mindset. I no longer “needed” my team to win and I enjoyed football more than I ever had.
Perhaps many evangelicals need to do something similar. Step away and repent of political idolatry. Not forever, but maybe for a while. Note, I am not a separatist and I do not think politics are irredeemable. However, sometimes it takes repenting of an idol to see the good in something.
Like the cooking utensils in Isaiah 44:15–16 that men worshiped as gods, there is nothing wrong with cooking your food with a nice stick, but there is something wrong with bowing down to it. So it goes with politics.
But I am the weaker brother in this situation. I have been surrounded by politics since I was young, I have toyed with many political ideas, studied political philosophy, and tried hard to figure out what I “was” (a democrat, a socialist, a whig, etc.). It was always divisive, and I always found myself unsatisfied. So I left the game. And while voting can be a way to engage the culture at large without committing one of the aforementioned blunders that can lead to spiritual sickness, I have found it much more spiritually joyful and productive to leave it all alone.
I don’t predict that I will never vote or engage government affairs, but I think that there needs to be change. Some, like Anyabwile and myself, would like to see the political party system collapse and be rebuilt. And not only rebuilt, but rebuilt with a Christian base that is a true representative of Jesus. But I do not see this happening in this life, so I eagerly wait for the return of Jesus to crush Super-PACS and ballot boxes.
I do not intend to discourage you from going to the poles on the 6th. I simply want to encourage you to consider whether you have made politics an idol. We must not conform to the civilian affairs of this world. Instead, we must seek to love God and neighbor by obeying Jesus in the areas where we truly have influence.