Religion and Politics

As Christians, should our religious beliefs affect our politics? How? What is each one’s proper place?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years. I grew up in a moderately conservative family, in a rural, conservative, and Christian culture. When I went to college–and even more so later, when I went to grad school in Delaware–I encountered a more liberal, urban, secular culture. Over time my politics have shifted, so that I went from being a moderate conservative to a moderate to somewhere on the liberal side (I couldn’t even tell you anymore where; it’s so confusing). But my my basic Christian beliefs have not changed. So how do religion and politics fit together?

First of all, I firmly believe that one’s religious beliefs should affect one’s politics (and much of the time in this post, when I talk about religion, I will be talking about Christianity, since it’s the religion I am a part of and that I know best). For practicing Christians, the basic tenets of Christianity inform all of our beliefs about the world and about right living, so of COURSE they’re going to affect our politics. So yes, we should definitely vote according to our Christian consciences.

HOWEVER, please do not miss this point: Devoted Christians, who have come to their political beliefs through deep and prayerful thought and by consulting their Christian beliefs, can end up disagreeing politically. There are devoted Christian Republicans, and there are devoted Christian Democrats. Some of this comes down to interpretation of scripture, emphasis on different parts of policies, disagreements on which good things (or which bad things) in different policies or laws outweigh one another, and simply differences of belief about the best way to achieve things. I call myself pro-life because I believe in the full humanity of the unborn and want to see abortion eventually done away with. However, I believe that the best way to achieve this is to focus on the causes of abortion first–getting rid of rape culture, making sure women have cheap and easy access to birth control and better sex education–and THEN to focus on outlawing abortion. Other Christians, feeling that the death of the unborn is a problem that needs to be taken care of sooner rather than later, may wish to focus on outlawing abortion immediately. I don’t agree with them, but I see where they’re coming from, and I respect their views. I can also respect the views of Christians who don’t see fetuses as officially human until some certain point of development. It’s not like God gave a really clear definition of this in the Bible, so it’s a matter of interpretation. You can be pro-choice and be a good Christian. You can be pro-life and be a good Christian. You can be somewhere in between, like me, or undecided, and still be a good Christian.

This is true for a vast variety of political (and doctrinal!) beliefs. Our desire to do good and our understanding of the basic message of Christ is the same, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll end up coming to the same conclusion on extremely complicated issues of laws and policies.

So point 1: Your religion should influence your politics. Point 2: People from the same religion may still come to different political conclusions based on their beliefs. And now point 3: Religion should be more important to the Christian than politics.

We live in a culture in which political beliefs tend to be highly divisive and very important to people, to the point where a number of commentators have suggested that politics are now taking the public role that religion used to have in western culture. I think they’re probably right, in much the same way that romance/sex is now taking the role of highest ideal that religion once had (a topic for another day). And don’t get me wrong: politics are important and powerful. I’m certainly not saying it’s bad for a Christian to be politically engaged: the mission of Christians is to bring Christ’s kingdom here on earth, to bring about tikkun olam, the restoration of the world. Politics can be a very powerful tool for doing this: witness the Christian basis of the American/British movements for the abolition of slavery, and the relationship of Christianity to the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, among others.

However, I want to emphasize that, while Christians can certainly be politically engaged, religion should still be more important in our lives than politics. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Christ’s loving sacrifice should be of the utmost importance in our lives, and therefore our first mission in any realm of life should be to reflect that love to the world. Jesus agreed with the teacher of the law that the two most important commands in scripture were “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It wasn’t “Vote.” Politics are a great tool for showing love to the world, but they are only that: a tool to reach an end-goal, not the goal itself. All of us (myself included) can easily forget this in politically volatile times. When we’re most emotional about political issues is when we most need to remember to love our neighbors–even those on the other side of the political aisle, even the trolls and racists and jerks–as we would want them to love us. Our pastor reminded us on Sunday that when we want to say “But you gotta set people straight!” is when we most need to remember that that’s why God sent his Holy Spirit, and you are not him. It’s tough for me, and I’m sure it is for others: to respond with radical love when you’re dying to give someone a piece of your mind instead. As my old pastor used to say, when you give somebody a piece of your mind, it’s usually the worst piece.

Why is religion more important than politics, if the goal is to change the world for the better? Because Christians believe that just changing laws is not enough to bring the Kingdom of God on earth: we have to change hearts. We can have great laws against stealing, great education, great social systems to discourage it and to encourage other behavior, accurate justice systems, useful punishments, and therapies to reduce recidivism. But we will never eradicate stealing itself until there is no person who decides to steal. And we, as humans, can never achieve that on our own. Changing hearts is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Paul Coleman Trio has a great song about religion and politics called “Selfish Song,” and it includes the lines, “Open revolution / Leads the people on / With promises and changes / Egalitarian. / Hitler, Mussolini, / Stalin, Bonaparte: / Well they prove a revolution doesn’t really change your heart.” The song points out that Jesus’s message was not a political one–otherwise he would have done exactly what many of his fellow Jews wanted him to do: declare himself King of Judah and kick out the Roman occupiers. But Jesus emphasized, “My kingdom is not of this world:” He was here to change hearts, not political systems.

So what is the Christian to do in confusing political times? My best answer would be Micah 6:8– “Be just, and love [and diligently practice] kindness (compassion), and walk humbly with your God [setting aside any overblown sense of importance or self-righteousness]” (AMP).

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