Why Your Faith Does Determine Your Politics

One of many thoughtful responses to my recent post 5 Things I Don’t Understand about Christians Who Voted for Obama caught my attention. It expressed a thought that I saw reflected in other responses, though not with such clarity.  It was this:

“My theology does not determine my politics.” I couldn’t disagree more.

Tell that to the 9/11 hijackers. Tell that to William Wilberforce. Or to Martin Luther King, Jr. Or to Jesus, Paul, David, or countless other Biblical figures.

Let’s say what we mean

Words have meaning. So let’s start there. Often we seem to disagree about ideas when, in fact, we’re just not clear on our words. Maybe we can find common ground yet.

Theology, as I understand it, means a knowledge of God. In other words, theology is what we believe about God. We could also say that definition includes what we don’t believe about God. What we believe about God necessarily deals with what we believe about the deeper stuff of life — where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here, what defines truth, ethics, relationships, values, etc.

Politics, again as I am defining it, is simply those decisions we make that affect others in the polis or the public sphere. We sometimes refer to it as “public life” to differentiate from things that seem more private in nature. But politics is simply how what we as individuals think about issues that affect others in our society and how we act on those issues. See my post Why All Christians Should Care about Politics.

So when I say that my theology most definitely determines my politics I mean that what I believe about the nature of reality, including at the core, what I believe about the Divine,  necessarily determines how I act when it comes to issues that affect my neighbor.

Do we want disconnected voters?

I dont see how we could ever want someone to vote otherwise. What would that look like? Someone saying that they strongly believe one thing about the nature of the universe and what is best for their neighbor, yet walking into the voting booth and blindly pulling levers or tapping buttons that have no connection to what they think to be right for themselves and their neighbors? I fail to see how that could be a good thing.

I think that everyone votes based on their theology, that is on what they believe about the nature of God, reality, and the way the universe is supposed to work, because they cannot do otherwise. Nor would we want them to do so.

But then even saying that someone should or should not do anything requires an appeal to an authority higher than ourselves — and we’re right back to where the Divine fits into the nature of truth, what we value as important, and why one option is better than another based on an appeal to some higher standard of good.

My commentator friend — and many self-labeled progressive evangelicals — do, in fact, derive their approach to politics from their theology. We just disagree about what we believe about theology, the nature of God’s revelation to us, and the extent of our fall from that state of holiness in which He created us.

What I believe determines what I do

My politics are determined by what I believe to be true about God, just as, I hope, all of my life is. What I believe about God compels me to stop when I see a driver in distress, or to give generously to help those in need, or to correct my children when they try to poke one another in the eye (or should I be more tolerant there?). And to try to vote to best defend life as being created in the image of God. And, yes, to work to impact culture so that every child will always be wanted and loved.

Judging from comments, I guess I do need to state the obvious: the Kingdom of God does not come in the hearts of people through political force. I know very, very few conservative evangelicals who believe such a thing. But that doesn’t mean our theology can be divorced from our compassion for our neighbors in the public sphere.

That’s not to say that some voting issues are not complex or unclear or that there are any perfect candidates. But I think it would help if we were intellectually honest enough to admit that our theology does, in fact, determine our politics.

At least I hope so.

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  • T

    Yes, absolutely, our thinking about God, people and all of life shapes our politics. Amen. How could it be otherwise?

    That said, this premise is often wrongly applied, but in reverse, to accuse our brothers and sisters in Christ:

    “If you voted Republican, then you must not care for the poor, contrary to good doctrine.” OR,
    “If you voted Democrat, then you must not care for the unborn, contrary to good doctrine.”

    And there are many, many more such oversimplifications that we throw at each other on both sides rather than doing the work of seeking to understand and being humble about our own conclusions. Do our ideas about God, people, etc. shape our politics? Of course. But especially in our two party, republican system it is a common and unloving mistake to think that we can discern someone’s theology (or even judge their orthodoxy, which happens all too often) by their vote for this or that candidate, who has a myriad of positions on a myriad of issues, as does his or her opponent and the parties to which each belongs.

    Especially as more and more people divide over political issues, Christians need to be leading the way as listeners to folks who disagree with us, both in the house of God and with those outside our ranks, being slow to judge their motivating thoughts and priorities.

    • Good point. We should be quick to listen and slow to speak. But still speak.

  • Jay Saldana

    Like many conservatives you speak in a forked tongue. That is you use “theology” and then speak in the common vernacular with meanings that are specific and closely defined in the study of theology but not in the vernacular. You are not a bad guy as you are a product of your mentor and polemical theology. Most theology has not been argued that way since the dark ages and Aristotle’s Categories, “On Interpretation”, and the Latin translation of Porphyry’s “Isagoge”. But as a theologian, I am sure you are already aware of the weakness of your argument. Does how we relate to God affect how we relate to our Governance? Of course it does. Does it relate to our voting for that Governance? Of course it does. How does that affect your experience of Christianity? Well it depends on that experiences. For instance one could easily argue that your arguments for fear of the “other” are based on a Anglo-Saxon exclusivity and superiority that is as far from Christianity as anything you not too subtly suggest here. Rather than argue how bad people are who don’t vote for your partisan viewpoint, may I suggest you argue how people may be lead to a better relationship with the creator. I guess you did not get the word – Evangelicalism as a movement is on the wane. It can no longer claim infallibility and righteousness by fiat.
    Have a God filled day,


    • Barnabas

      Jay, it is beneficial to speak with compassion when exhorting someone to speak with compassion.
      I am having trouble understanding your post, perhaps you can enlighten me.
      Where does he imply he is xenophobic? Where does he insult the individuals who vote differently, rather than address the action?
      Blessings, friend,

  • Jennifer

    I agree that what you believe in (or don’t believe in) has a large impact on how you vote. That said, I live with a psychologist and have been tortured with magazine articles discussing how what you do (your actions) affects what you believe. The general theory is that behaving in a way that goes against our view of ourselves and the world causes cognitive dissonance. We apparently don’t like this and will either (this is simplified) change our behaviour or change the way we think about our actions. And this may change our beliefs.

    So I’m left with the interesting question of what beliefs we are voting with 🙂