Why It’s Difficult to Derive Political Affiliation from the Bible or Why I’m a “Political Agnostic”

Why It’s Difficult to Derive Political Affiliation from the Bible or Why I’m a “Political Agnostic” October 27, 2011

With presidential elections coming up, we’ll hear a lot more about every aspect of politics, including its link to religion—especially Christianity.  I would like to step back and ask a very simple question: Is it possible to derive a distinct political position or affiliation from the tenets of the Bible?  My answer is “probably not.”

Trying to fit Christian beliefs into a specific political stance seems to be putting a square peg into a round hole—it just doesn’t fit.  There are two major problems in trying to translate Christian faith into politics.

The first problem is which aspect of the faith do you want to emphasize?

Some parts of Christianity resonate with the right.  Poverty comes from being lazy, but hard work brings wealth, according to Proverbs 10, which could be used to argue against welfare programs.  God knit us together in the womb, Psalm 139, which could support an anti-abortion position.

Other parts of Christianity resonate with the left.  Jesus told a rich man to sell his goods and give them to the poor (Matthew 19).  After Jesus died, and his followers started the church, what did they do?  They sold all their possessions and redistributed the wealth to those in need (Acts 4).

Still other parts of Christianity seem to pull us away from political involvement altogether.  Jesus didn’t speak much about how Roman governance should be reformed, and when he said to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” (Matthew 22) he seemed to supporting the political status quo.

Christianity presents a clear, coherent message on how we live, but it just doesn’t readily translate into any one political stance.

The second, and perhaps more daunting problem, comes with making policy.  Once we know what are values are, which do we translate into government policy and which do we keep in the realm of private life?

Let’s start off with an easy one—you shall not murder (Exodus 20).  I’m guessing that most Americans would agree with this, and so we pass laws against murder.  Even with this seemingly clear-cut case there is ambiguity.  What about killing in self-defense?  Out of mental illness?  Is war murder?

What about drinking?  We are not to get drunk (Ephesians 5).  Should this go into public policy—say outlawing alcohol?  The U.S. tried that in the 1920s, and it didn’t work out so well, giving rise to organized crime among other things.

Or what about sex outside of marriage?  That’s a no-no according to scripture but should we pass laws against it?  I imagine that if we fined people for doing it, we might pay off the national debt in a matter of days, but I’m not sure it would be sound public policy.

These two issues—which aspects of the faith to emphasize and how to translate them into policy—have given rise to many different models of Christian involvement in politics.  George W. Bush’s Christian faith led him to a very conservative brand of politics.  As Jerry Park wrote about on this blog, leaders of the Civil Rights leaders took a very different political approach but, again, based on their Christian faith.  Likewise, Christianity has led some into pacifism and others into Christian socialism.

Maybe my political ambivalence comes from my background.  My father was a political scientist and was very involved with local politics.  He was a member of the region’s Democratic central committee and, as a family, we spent more than a few weekends going door-to-door canvassing for various political candidates.  After college I lived in Orange County, California, which was, and is, very conservative, and in Madison, Wisconsin (“The People’s Republic of Madison), and I saw some sense in the prevailing political ethos in both places.

I think it’s fine that people bring their religious convictions into their political decisions, as we should with every aspect of life.  However, I’ve become skeptical that there is any one “right” way of doing this.  Moreover, I’m uncomfortable with any message, either explicit or implicit, that suggests that “if you’re a Christian, you should be a _______ (fill in the political party).”

At this point in my life, I would say I’m a political agnostic—I just don’t know if there is one, right way to politics.

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  • Great post Brad. You bring up some excellent points in a very small space! I’ve often been fascinated by the laws in the Torah, especially Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The rules about gleaning, collecting interest, and the year of Jubilee sure don’t feel like capitalism. However, the matter of application is really tough. On the one hand, we can see that when God set up his own government and civil laws, he mandated care for the poor in the very laws of the nation. However, we really don’t want a theocracy and there are other OT laws that would certainly not work. So application really is where so much of this breaks down.

    It’s still pretty interesting that a Christianity Today poll found that those who read the Bible most leaned toward the left/progressive thinking. 🙂

    • Thanks, Ed. Yes, that’s interesting about reading the bible and progressive thinking, but I wonder how much of it is a proxy for education. E.g., educated people read more, including the bible, and they are more progressive.

  • Thanks for this, Dr. Wright. I’m no scholar – just a mom who loved your book. (But then again, I’m a mom of nine kids and I homeschool, so I guess that I *do* have my own brand of influence…ha ha!) 🙂

    I *think* that I am becoming politically agnostic as well. That’s a good way to say it.

    • A mom with nine kids? You’re not a political agnostic, you’re a saint! 🙂

      • …um, no. Ha Ha. 🙂

        But I am more hopeful – thanks to you. God bless you.

  • It seems that part of the key of Christianity’s robustness over the last 2000 years is its ability to be adapted to the circumstances of believers. Thus, it doesn’t make sense for Christianity to ally itself with one very myopic political party in one country. Rather, it makes sense for Christianity to be useful for believers in all political parties in all countries all through history (or as many as possible). If it weren’t so, Christianity wouldn’t have lasted long.

    • You’re probably right that an important feature of Christianity’s history is that it isn’t aligned with just one political view…

  • Dan K

    Thanks for these thoughts.

    It’s not just that different proof-texts can support different political positions, but the SAME proof-text can produce vigorous debate about how a society might apply it. Is the stuff in Acts about communal ownership and redistributing wealth something that should be imposed coercively by those wielding the levers of state power?

    I would have to say my Christian faith leads me to one overriding attitude toward government policy and such, and that is to be deeply skeptical and distrustful of those with the “will to power” over others. I give moral priority to voluntary transactions. “Community” at its essence comes about voluntarily and is something to be celebrated; speaking the language of community but imposing it by government sanction is dangerous and potentially sinister. On more issues than not in the current parlance, this stance toward government intervention and influence puts me on “the right”. So be it. And yet so much of what characterizes the “Religious Right” truly repulses me. Ultimately, almost any blending of religion and politics turns me off and strikes me as a borderline heretical distraction from the gospel.

    • Yes, when you add “power” as another dimension, it gets even more complicated and difficult to disentangle.

  • ZZMike

    “What about killing in self-defense? ”
    The Hebrew of the Commandment says “Thou shalt not murder”.

    “The verb רָצַח (ratsakh) refers to the premeditated or accidental taking of the life of another human being; it includes any unauthorized killing (it is used for the punishment of a murderer, but that would not be included in the prohibition).”

    “I’m a political agnostic — I just don’t know if there is one, right way to politics.”

    I can agree with that. Outside of the religious sphere, though, there are definite differences between liberals and conservatives. In my view, liberals want to be sure that you live and act the way they believe is right, while conservatives want mostly to be left alone (by government) to find their own way.

    For conservatives, the race is to the swift; to liberals, “everybody wins”. In their maniacal quest for “equality”, they’d assure that everyone is equally badly off.

    Brad: “E.g., educated people read more, including the bible, and they are more progressive.”

    There I disagree 100%. Unless by “educated” you mean those who have gone through today’s left-driven academia.

    I didn’t see that poll, but I would be very much interested in how they defined “educated”.

    See, for example, the current issue of Scientific American, where an article on “experimental philosophy” reveals that those “more open to experience” were also more inclined towards moral relativism (what’s good for “them” is good, regardless of what we might think about it).

    Dan K: “so much of what characterizes the “Religious Right” truly repulses me”

    When I think of the “Religious Right”, the first thing that comes to mind is that despicable Westboro church. There’s a vast distance between them and the moderate center – a distance which is largely empty.

    “I give moral priority to voluntary transactions. ”

    That seems to be the main difference between Liberal and Conservative. The Liberal insists on your giving – through taxes, which he in his wisdom distributes. The Conservative wants you give what you can – encouraged by tax deductions, and fewer regulations on charities.

    (The use of taxes for “social engineering” is one of the major evils of government.)

  • Syllabus

    G. K. Chesterton had some interesting views on the matter. He wrote something to the effect of, ” What Liberals want is to go on making as many mistakes as they want; what Conservatives want is for no one to correct the mistakes that have been made.”

    Chesterton also advocated an interesting style of political theory called Distributism. I found the idea to be an intriguing one.