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Politics: Part II

July 5, 2010
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Since this is the Fourth of July weekend and most of our readership is probably American this seems like an opportune time to deal with the promised second part of my thoughts on Christianity and politics. In the first part I dealt primarily with how political conflict should be approached by Christians. In this part I wish to respond (partly) to a comment I received on the first part which brought up the issue of political participation in any form.

Honestly, the Fourth of July makes a pretty good case in some ways for Christians to be wary. Imagine that I described to you a culture that gathered on a special ceremonial day once a year to honor the birth of Xorlub. On this day a feast would be had, songs would be sung in Xorlub’s honor (and everyone would be expected to stand while these songs were sung), and eventually explosives would be detonated to commemorate Xorlub’s victory over the forces of darkness and tyranny. It would not be at all strange if you assumed that Xorlub was a local deity, but, of course, “Xorlub” is simply a placeholder name for America on the Fourth of July. Indeed, America has martyrs (this weekend alone I heard several patriotic songs celebrating American soldiers who died in combat) and its own “American way” that it peddles to others as if a religion.

America, though, is nowhere near the extreme example of government as religion. Nazi Germany openly embraced a religion of nationalism, creating rituals and “churches” for the Nazi state. Maoism functioned in a similar way, although communism (which often functions as a secular religion) tends to be a bit more global in its focus on the worker. Still, communism upholds the governing system, if not the nation-state, in a quasi-religious light. In many other cases religion has been explicitly subordinated to the needs of state. During the 1500s the feudal lords of the Germanies used their ability to choose between Catholicism and Protestantism for political leverage. China has, at various points in time, suppressed or encouraged Confucianism in the interests of stabilization. Japan pushed Shinto as a usefully nationalistic religion in the run-up to World War II, although I suspect the form they pushed was not entirely true to the original.

All of this creates a legitimate concern, that allegiance to the state is of the same type as allegiance to God and is ultimately a form of idolatry. Christians should shun any sort of participation in politics, because such participation is idolatrous subservience to something that is not God, but claims His honors.

There’s a strong counter-case, of course. Most people are quite capable of holding allegiances to multiple things through the simple expedient of ranking these allegiances. For instance, most people have allegiances to both friends and family, but one of those comes first. Why shouldn’t allegiance to the state simply be secondary?

Again, though, there’s a counterclaim. Multiple allegiances normally require some unity of purpose, or at least non-interference. At this point the debate becomes intensely political, both as to the nature of any given state and as to the nature of government itself. For instance, one could assert that governments exist to survive and are bound by the brutal, Darwinian rules that Christians, with a morality weighted towards altruism, must deny. One could also claim that the role of government, as sketched out by the Torah, is one of benevolent mediation, and is ultimately an extension of God’s peace-making authority into our world. (One could also argue that something like this is behind Paul’s words in Romans 13, but I wouldn’t, not without a lot more investigation.)

However, I wish to avoid the question of what any individual government is actually doing here. Instead, I want to approach the question from a different angle. What constitutes “politics”? Normally I would begin with this sort of question, since definitions are fairly essential to communication. Here, instead, I wanted to draw out the lines of a debate of which many people have only ever seen a single side. Having done this, I feel it is time to ask what politics is, and from that we can discuss whether Christians should be involved in politics.

For Paul, a Roman citizen, involvement in politics would have required that he hold political office or participate in revolution. Politics in the first century simply wasn’t an enterprise that extended to the man on the street. These days one can be participating in politics by voting, campaigning for a candidate, or even declaiming a particular opinion that holds political implications. This highlights the real problem: politics is not a static thing. The first scientists who did research on what has become the issue of global climate change were not doing anything political. They were doing climate science. These days holding an opinion on that science is political, which certainly doesn’t make me very happy as a scientist. Similarly, the Catholic Church’s stance on euthanasia was not originally a political view, but a moral one. Once politicians started discussing the legality of euthanasia the issue suddenly became political.

This points us to a real danger. If we claim that the state is evil or idolatrous and that we refuse to participate in politics we have handed the initiative to evil. The state can “take over” anything. Do you have an opinion on the efficiency of chemically converting corn into ethanol? That’s political these days. Think the North American population of brown bears is really multiple species? That impacts conservation law, and is politics. Have you ever considered the conditions we house prisoners in? That always was politics. So, to borrow from Methodist social reforms, is any opinion on slavery. “Politics” is simply anything the government considers or debates. To claim that we won’t be involved in politics risks exposing us to being pushed out of issues of real importance.

However, politics does not end there. One could always claim that we might hold political opinions, but try and avoid the debates within the halls of power. This would be a more consistent position, but not, I think, the most rational one. Instead, let’s return to the issue of political opinions for a moment. More important than what the state says constitutes politics now is what the Church says constitutes its area of authority. Rather than define politics and avoid it let us define what Christians have a legitimate interest in and let that be the fixed point. Or, if you prefer, let’s ask what is God’s to be rendered to God, rather than trying to determine where Caesar’s claims stop.

Having done this the extension seems natural – the Church has a work to do and the Church already knows what that work looks like. Things external to the Church do not change what the Church “owns”. If, one day, the state claims things that are the Church’s perhaps then all Christians will be politicians, not because they have changed careers but because they have not moved at all. This seems to be a fair ground to meet on, where both those who, out of Christian principle, refuse to swear an oath to any government and those who, out of Christian principle, participate within the political system to bring about hope and healing can agree. I will leave the debate about what the Church’s mandate is in the world to others for now.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    July 10, 2010 9:47 pm

    While I have heard a bit about keeping “religion” and “politics” separated, I think your question about what “politics” makes it very unclear what that would mean. I think that I usually hear about this in terms of not assuming that being Republican, or Democrat, or Communist is required by God. And that sounds all right.

    But then, I hear that the idea that “religion” and “politics” should be separate is an Enlightenment idea based on defining “religion” to be “what a man does with his solitude.” You are of course free to read your Bible, or experience Feelings about the sunset — but Bush forbid that they have any affect on your job performance, or voting pattern. So basically, religion should be a harmless hobby. And that doesn’t sound quite right.

    But that analysis still assumes a more recent type of polity: voting. The number of different kind of “politics” seem really large — and I’m kind of intrigued by the kinds of feudal or monarchical rule that do not involve beaurocracy or office-holding.

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