The big story of American politics for the past thirty years has been religion, with the prevailing narrative written predominantly by secular elites. According to this storyline, American politics and its accompanying discourse are in danger of being hijacked by the narrow, nasty, extremist and intolerant agenda of the Christian Right. The central theme of the narrative posits that religion is personal and appropriately left out of the public square.
Hence Nancy Pelosi's recent declaration that religion, properly understood, is "done" on Sundays. There is a Christian Left version of this secular narrative, too, and while generally more welcoming of the role of religion in the public square, it shares the secularist revulsion with much of the policy agenda of the Christian Right while claiming to be a "third way" that is neither Left nor Right, but instead biblical.
There are morsels of truth in this recitation of religion's recent role in American public life, but only morsels. The secularists have it completely wrong when arguing that religion has no role to play in a democratic culture. Where to begin? Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville explained that while religion takes no direct role in American democracy, it is America's "first" political institution, nurturing essential personal and social habits for successful democratic governance. And from America's Founders to Martin Luther King, Jr. and beyond, religious and specifically biblically grounded religious values, language and institutions have played a central role in achieving America's promise as a nation devoted to "liberty and justice for all."
On the other hand, the secular narrative is on to something in its critique of the way religion is often done in the public square. Both the Christian Right and Left are culpable. Evangelicals are Johnny-come-latelies to cultural engagement and lack the long, rich tradition of social teaching found particularly within Roman Catholicism. Consequently, much of evangelical engagement of politics—Right as well as Left—has been sloppy, misdirected and ineffective.
As America's presidential election extravaganza arrives this summer complete with a blazing rhetorical heat wave, now is a good time for Christians to reconsider their approach to politics. Toward that end, I offer ten propositions that could help shape a more thoughtful, meaningful and faithful Christian engagement of the political process.
Proposition 1: The Christian faith is not irrelevant to political life, but there is a right way and wrong way to understand that relationship.
Proposition 2: While the Christian faith is not irrelevant to politics, there is no distinctive biblical or Christian politics. This proposition has two dimensions: First, America is not a theocracy and neither of our two major parties, Democratic or Republican, are the party of God. This is (or should be) obvious to everyone. The second dimension of this proposition is that Christians have no monopoly on political truth; rather, the foundational verities of politics are accessible to believers as well as non-believers through God's common grace and mediated through natural law. This should not be a shocking affirmation since most Christians choose their doctors, plumbers, or accountants first and foremost on the basis of their expertise and competence rather than their faith commitment. If my very good doctor is also a Christian, all the better, but my first concern with respect to medical care is to find a skilled and knowledgeable physician. A more politically relevant reflection of this insight is Martin Luther's old saw that "I'd rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian."
Proposition 3: A proper Christian understanding and approach to politics is grounded in a proper understanding of biblical authority (special revelation) and in natural law (general revelation). In other words, the Bible alone and natural law alone are inadequate for a proper and faithful Christian engagement of the sphere of politics.
Proposition 4:The Bible alone is not sufficient for a proper and faithful Christian understanding and engagement of politics because the Bible is not a textbook of politics, just like it is not a textbook of dentistry, plumbing, or engineering. God's special revelation is the story and plan of God's redemptive history. We misuse Scripture when we treat it as a textbook.
Proposition 5: But in three ways the Bible does have direct relevance to a Christian understanding and approach to politics:
- The Bible provides a mandate for Christians to engage the world;
- The Bible provides a glimpse of the purpose and destiny of history;
- The Bible provides authoritative principles that should guide the Christian's engagement of politics, principles such as loving God, loving our neighbor, acting justly, and valuing human life.