religion & politics

“When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.”

That was Rev. Gene Carlson’s quote in the lengthy yet fascinating feature story on evangelicalism and politics in Sunday’s New York Times. If you haven’t read it, you should. The basic nut of the story was that the Religious Right’s dynasty in the political arena appears to be drifting to a halt. Many factors are contributing to this, and I’d encourage you to read the article for the specifics. Carlson was a conservative pastor at a 7,000-member Wichita evangelical church for 40 years, before stepping down last year. He was one of the foremost voices decrying liberalism and seeking to establish a bedrock of Christian support for the Republican party and “traditional values.” Today, at 70 years old, Carlson has stepped back from partisan politics and has stated publicly that politics and religion make a sour combination. Much of the work done by the Religious Right over the last 30 years, Carlson said, has failed to change society in the ways in which Conservative Christians had hoped. I agree.

But reading about the apparent self-destruction of the Evangelical political machine does not make me happy, to tell you the truth. The self-destruction and changing allegiances of the Evangelical leadership all seem to be rather opportunistic, don’t they? What if the Republicans had seized control of the House and Senate in 2006? What if Americans’ view of the War in Iraq was a tad bit more favorable? What if President Bush had been better about keeping the promises he made to Evangelical leaders in 2004? To me, the fact many Evangelicals will vote for a Democrat in 2008 reflects not a deep-seeded personal conversion of ideology, but a convenient and reactionary choice between the lesser of evils in 2007. Though there does seem to be some evidence of a broadened social agenda, for instance, the swing or replacement of many top Evangelical voices smacks of, well, opportunism.

Fact is, with the 2008 election already in full swing a full year before Nov. 2, Christians are as political as they’ve ever been, and this saddens me. Could there be a time coming when the “Moral Majority” is comprised of the Christian left, leaders lobbying for political legislation in their churches in much the same way that Red State church leaders have for the last 20 years? Gosh, I hope not. As much as I might agree with the theological premises that call for Christians to lift up the poor and oppressed, I firmly believe that the last place on Earth that can effectively occur is in the political arena. The powers and principalities of this world — and the broken, “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” system in which they run — have absolutely nothing to give the lowliest members of our society, the widow and the orphan. As I posted a while back:

Christ tells us that we are to strive for weakness by the world’s standards, the place of dishonor, to be like children, and only then will we be bestowed with strength, honor and respect. A theme I hear popping up among the politically involved on both sides of the aisle seems to be that the church has a responsibility to transform our culture/government (which is Niebuhr’s old “Christ and Culture” argument). The problem, though, is that to do this, the church must capture people’s attention in the same ways everyone else does — by out-yelling their detractors and rivals, organizing around issues rather than people, and even compromising core beliefs.

Basically, in order to be heard, the church must seek the place of honor and of power, while trying to be as least-childlike as possible.

The other assumption that is made among politically involved Christians is that the church is and should be in a central, publicly influential position in our culture. (Sort of like how the church steeple was the central object in New England towns in the early years of our Republic.) If someone can find me a verse supporting that idea, I’d be interested to hear it. My Bible points to an exilic, marginalized community of Jesus-followers who gladly take the path of suffering over a position of power.

Politics is a game of power, and Christian participation in that game in order to exact social change is, to me, a conflict of interest. Truth is, Rev. Carlson is right: when religion and politics mix, you get politics. Leftist politics, moderate politics, right-wing politics — it doesn’t matter. Politics is politics.


11 responses to this post.

  1. amen

    the only governing authority we can rely upon for justice is God

    the rest is, to one degree or another, a perversion of that authority

    i know this conviction really kickstarts some peoples tourrette’s but there it is



  2. Posted by bpb on October 31, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    Lesser of two evils is correct: I’d vote for Donald Duck over a republican. In my opinion, the worst democrat is better than a republican on his best day. Remember the part about separation of church and state?? “Evangelicals” seem to forget that, along with so many other things.


  3. Posted by paul on October 31, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    This is exactly what I have been fearing. The Christians who have become “bush-haters” and “anti-republican” are missing the point. Jesus has not called us to be political one-side or the other. Using left wing politics to try to accomplish the mission of the church is just as sad as the using right wing politics to try to accomplish the mission of the church.

    I am fearful that some of my favorite writers have appropriately pointed out the mistakes of Moral Majority, but only to embrace the other side of politics as the means to do what we can only do by joining the Kingdom of God and leaving the politics behind.

    Jesus had every opportunity to join the politic frey with many groups of different leanings, but he invited everyone to leave all of that behind.


  4. Posted by Daniel Gray on November 1, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Rather than letting our faith guide our politics, maybe we should let our faith guide the way we interact with people in the political spectrum.

    I think what bpb is saying is that it’s completely feasible to separate one’s political ideology from one’s spiritual practices. There are plenty of non-spiritual, non-Christian reasons to vote Democrat (or Republican).

    That’s what bothers me about the plague of religion on politics. Christians who are sick and tired of the religious right are automatically labeled as the Christians forcing the Democrat agenda (i.e. paul in the previous post), which is often not true.

    I’m one of those who became sick of the Republican Party and the intermingling of religious agenda. And, generally my political philosophy leans towards the democratic party. My faith leads me to a way of engaging people by valuing the aspects of life and community. But I don’t believe in politics as accomplishing some Christian agenda of mine to convert the nation.

    I think a lot of this boils down to poverty (and other issues). Poverty is NOT a Christian issue. Christians like to think they have a monopoly on poverty. They don’t. Even though Jesus had something to say about it, there are perfectly secular reasons to care about poverty (humanism or socialism, for instance). I don’t consider peace/pacifism to be a Christian issue (even though Jesus also said things about this.). Same thing for immigration, etc. The list goes on.

    What bothers me are the Christians who attack other Christians for engaging in politics, because it carries the assumption that one cannot engage in politics without forcing one’s religion into the issue.

    As a citizen of God’s kingdom, I engage the people around me. As an American, I engage in politics. It’s a challenge, but it is possible to keep the two separate.


  5. Paul,



  6. Posted by Steve on November 2, 2007 at 9:05 am

    I dunno, Daniel … seems like we have to let our faith guide absolutely every aspect of our lives, and separating things out is precisely the problem so many of us face.

    You said, “As a citizen of God’s kingdom, I engage the people around me. As an American, I engage in politics.” I know you’d agree that citizenship in God’s kingdom comes first. What if that citizenship were to negate any subsequent citizenships? What if participation in politics caused us to be “of” the world (instead of just “in”)? I’m just not so sure we can compartmentalize these things so easily.

    I appreciate your comment, though. Peace.


  7. Posted by bpb on November 2, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Daniel Gray: you’re right on target with me!


  8. Yeah,

    Jesus should always trump politics. I had to fast for a month from any political contact because it was starting to trump Jesus. I have seen my parents become politicians first and Christians second and it makes me sad.

    We should always strive to be Jesus in the lives of those around us without saying which party most exudes Christian principles because right now I am noticing that both are pretty far away from Him.


  9. Posted by Daniel Gray on November 2, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Steve… to some extent you’re right, my faith still trumps politics. But I think it’s because my faith tells me how to interact in politics, not what to vote for.

    I’m faithfully liberal, or liberally faithful — I’m not sure which. And my faith influences my politics by telling me that I should be like Christ in my actions and discussions with people. My faith tells me how to interact in the political sphere. My faith tells me to value life and community. And so with those values, I enter the political real.

    My concern is in taking the “of the world” to the extreme. Jesus was political — he said “you do the government thing, and you do the God thing too.” (Loose translation of Mt 22:21). I think Jesus’ caution is that we’re not consumed by our world, but I still feel like he calls us to interact and engage our society in any realm.

    Besides, I find that most of my political beliefs that have developed are those shared by plenty of secular humanists and atheists. Beliefs that can clearly emerge from the guarantees of the constitution. So I don’t see myself as forcing my religious morality on people. But maybe others do…

    (BTW, you should do something about this anti-paragraphing problem.)


  10. Posted by ConcernedEngineer on November 13, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    As I’ve stated elsewhere and often, virtually all activity in which we participate in the polis (including the decision to do or say nothing) is political in nature. Whenever people come together in a region or in a community, you get what is known as a “polis.” The question is never whether this polis will be governed; the question is always, “in what matter will this polis be governed?” Note the etymologies of the words “politics” and “polis.”

    So… when Chrisitans are silent in the polis, the silence is deafening. Furthermore, when Christians speak out against speaking out about politics, they are speaking out about politics, and thus embracing a completely illogical and hypocritical position. Yet, it is one that is very popular in the crazy, secular American culture in which we live.

    Rather than relying on the humanistic wisdom of the world (Colossians 2:8) (whether that conventional “wisdom” is of the “right” flavor or the “left” flavor), all of us should be seeking to learn from God’s word on these matters. I advise reading, obeying, and praying the Psalms. I also advise reading Proverbs and putting those principles into practice – both in the private sphere and in the public sphere. For Christ is Lord of our private lives and of the public sphere. To deny that Christ is Lord of the public sphere is anti-Christian.

    If we love our neighbors, we will seek to defend our neighbors from the political opportunists who are in power. But to do so means that you have to egage (albeit in wisdom). (Please do not engage in politics if you are a fool. We have enough fools engaging in politics. But of course, as I already said, it is not whether you will engage in politics, for even silence is engagement of a different kind. Therefore, since you will engage, get wisdom.)

    Jesus Christ is Lord of the state. He is Lord of lords. He is Sovereign. He also taught in public, and was crucified in public. He appeared resurrected in public to over 500 people. And His disciples preached the gospel in public in defiance of the demands of the civil and religious authorities at the time.

    The mission of the church is to glorify God. The church is the new polis – planted right in the middle of the old polis. The fruit of the church is healing for the nations. As we grow (and hopefully we are growing), the earth is filling up with the knowledge of the glory of God – and this includes the establishment of authentic justice in the nations.

    Psalm 2:1-12 – “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters.’ The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saing, ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

    Of course, the pathetic situation is that we Christians are lousy at governing ourselves, much less governing a nation wisely. So, it is time for judgment to begin with the church:


  11. Posted by ConcernedEngineer on November 13, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    If we are supposed to become “small” in the eyes of the world, presumably we do this by knowing nothing – except Jesus Christ and him crucified. That is, the strong man should not boast in his strength. And the wise man should not boast in his wisdom. But our boast must be in Christ’s cross.

    So then… is it wrong to send a resume? Do we refrain from boasting in our wisdom, our accomplishments, and our strengths in our resumes?

    Or is resume writing and resume sending considered “separate” from our “faith activities?

    And if we are boasting in our wisdom, our accomlishments, and our strengths in our resumes, then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to throw stones at those who are trying to accomlish something in the “political arena” by asserting their wisdom and their strength. This seems rather hypocritical.

    The real issue I am trying to address here is the fragmented thinking of the majority of evangelicals. To assert, “As a Christian” (fill in the blank), “but as an American” (fill in the blank), or “but as a citizen” (fill in the blank), or “but as a professional journalist” (fill in the blank)…. All of that is an unholy attempt to dis-integrate that which God has integrated into our lives. And when we try to live out such fragmented, dis-integrated lives, we give up our integrity (note the etymologies of the words integrity, integrate, integral, and integer). And the tragic result is … disintegration. Our society is disintegrating. But Christ is the Logos, the Word, the arche, the “I AM” who holds all things together by the Word of His power. And “the government shall be upon His shoulders.”


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