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Thinking as Christians in an Election Year
In his letter to the followers of Jesus Christ in the capital of the Roman Empire, the apostle Paul urged them not to be conformed “any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). And he urged the Jesus followers in the world-renowned commercial center of Corinth to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Christian citizens in the 21st century’s major superpower need to focus anew on Paul’s calls to cultivate the life of the mind. We need to think carefully and thoroughly about our role as Christian believers in American society. This is most true in the realm of governments, election campaigns and the laws government enacts. Christians have too often plunged into political wars with fervor, self-assurance and gusto, and in the inimitable worlds of Ed Dobson, we have practiced, “Ready, fire, aim!” Great are the dangers of dishonoring our Lord and being used by political operatives more worldly wise and cynical than we are. Instead, we must practice slow politics: renewing our minds and making every thought obedient to Christ by careful study and deliberate thinking about our aims before we act.
In this essay we focus on two basic, underlying, biblically grounded truths and how they lead to what we term “principled pluralism.” Together, these truths lay what we are convinced is the foundation for a thoughtful, God-honoring approach to the political realm.
Justice and the Common Good
The first basic truth is that government has been established by God to promote justice and the common good. At the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast, Bono, the Irish lead singer of the band U2, spoke eloquently of justice: “It’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about justice. . . . And that’s too bad. Because you’re good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard.” Exactly what is the justice of which Bono spoke? In what sense is it a higher standard than charity? And what does justice have to do with government and the laws it enacts—or fails to enact?
Responding to the last of these questions first, we need to note that the Bible teaches God instituted government in order to promote justice in society. Bono was right to challenge the powerful leaders at the prayer breakfast to pursue justice. When the Israelites were ready to enter the land promised to them, God instructed Moses with these words: “Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. . . . Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:18-20). The Old Testament prophets repeatedly condemned the kings and other rulers of Israel for their failures to uphold a just legal system. The prophet Amos, for example, condemned those who “oppress the righteous and take bribes and . . . deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:12).
Clearly, God intended the rulers of Israel to execute justice, to avoid corruption and to protect the poor and weak in society from exploitation by the evil and the powerful.
The New Testament testifies that this Old Testament role of government has a broader application than that of the ancient Israelites. Romans 13 is particularly clear on this point. Paul tells the church in Rome that rulers’ authority should be used to both promote good and restrain evil. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?” Paul writes. “Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. . . . He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4). Peter, too, refers to this dual responsibility of “governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (I Peter 2:14).
If the establishment of a more just order in society is what God intends for governments and the laws it enacts, how can one determine what laws are just and what are unjust? How can we as 21st-century Christians recognize justice when we see it?
Justice has traditionally—and rightly—been defined as giving all persons their due. There is much content in that very simple definition. It believes that, as image bearers of God, human beings have certain things that are due them; one can think immediately of such things as the right to life itself, the freedom to worship God as one chooses, and the opportunity to pursue a livelihood free from oppressive laws or social and economic conditions that thwart one’s efforts. God intends for all people to be able to contribute to society and to live lives of creative purpose and love. Laws that enable and encourage people to live such lives are just laws. They help make possible lives lived in peace and freedom, and provide opportunities for creative service to God and others.
Justice and another Christian concept, the common good, are firmly linked. Working for more justice in society will also advance the common good. The common good is that which benefits our communities and our society as a whole. The common good puts the well-being of society as a whole ahead of the well-being of certain narrow segments of society, such as certain regions of the country, certain ethnic, racial or religious groups, or certain economic interests. When in pursuit of justice all persons are given their due, the common good advances.
This concept of justice as God’s primary purpose for government, as well as its attendant concept of the common good, both empowers and limits government. It empowers government because promoting a more just order in society and thereby the common good is a clear, God-given task of government. Christianity does not support the minimalist state of libertarianism. But it also sets limits, warning against all-intrusive governments, whether the collective state of communism and other totalitarian ideologies, the paternalistic “nanny state,” or, as we will see later, the theocratic “Christian nation.”
In President Barack Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, he had this moving tribute to the American people:
They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids, starting businesses and going back to school. They're coaching Little League and helping their neighbors. One woman wrote to me and said, “We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.” . . . Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit.
What was missing throughout this speech, outside of a brief tip of the hat to Little League baseball and neighbors, is any reference to the organizations and social structures that make up civil society. From Obama’s perspective, they were not worth mentioning, even though they contributed to addressing the enormous problems America faced in 2009 and continued to face in 2010. As a man who worked for change in communities through civil-society institutions, which led even in his own life to his confession of Jesus as Lord, we are surprised that civil-society structures do not loom large in the president’s view of American society and its strengths and resources.
The Republican response that evening was given by Robert McDonnell, the governor of Virginia. He did not mention civil society any more than Obama did. Outside of a passing reference to families, the Republican response looked only to free enterprise, individual efforts and needed governmental actions. McDonnell stated, “We must enact policies that promote entrepreneurship and innovation, so America can better compete in the world. What government should not do is pile on more taxation, regulation and litigation that kill jobs and hurt the middle class.”
Both the liberal and the conservative that evening focused on individuals and government, and while they had differing views of the role each should play in the nation’s recovery, neither made room for civil society. We, however, are convinced that a Christian perspective on government and the policies it pursues understands that American society—and any society—is made up of more than simply the government and individuals. A host of social institutions and organizations lies in between government and the individual: families, churches, nonprofit organizations, self-help groups, recreation clubs, sports leagues, art organizations, literary societies, community orchestras, voluntary associations, and many more. Social institutions and organizations such as these are referred to as civil society.
The Bible teaches us that God did not create human beings as separate, distinct individuals whom he intends to live their lives in isolation from others. Genesis 2 relates that, at the dawn of human history after creating Adam, God declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). It was then that God created Eve—another human being created in God’s image—and in her Adam found the partner for whom he had longed (Gen. 2:22-24). Adam’s need for society, for others, was now satisfied. God made us social beings; we need others, and we find fulfillment only in conjunction with others. The family is a part of this: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). But it is only the beginning of the Bible’s witness to our social nature.
Throughout the Bible, God worked primarily through groups and organizations of persons, not through individuals. He called Abraham and Sarah, gave them a son, and made a great nation out of them. He worked through that nation throughout the Old Testament, and ancient Israel was, in turn, organized into tribes and clans. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ called out a band of disciples through whom he worked. He established a church, a body of believers. The book of Acts relates the history of the early church, not the history of individual believers: On Pentecost the Holy Spirit was sent to a collection of persons who were gathered together, church councils were held, and Paul was part of a team on his missionary journeys (Acts 2:1, 13:2-3, 15:1-35, and 15:40).
Simple observation tells us that wherever human societies exist, groups such as families, clans, villages and religious organizations also are present. In the United States, we raise children, pursue economic activities, worship God, and recreate not as isolated individuals, but as members of groups. The existence of a robust civil society is an observable fact.
Based on both Scripture and observation, Christian thought in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions has emphasized the importance of civil-society institutions in God’s intent for human society. Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, along with other Catholic thinkers, developed the concept of subsidiarity, and the Dutch political leader, Abraham Kuyper, developed the concept of sphere sovereignty. Both concepts emphasize the importance and autonomy of civil- society institutions rooted in their being a part of God’s intent for human society. They receive their authority and the roles they play in society, not from the state, nor from individuals intentionally deciding to band together, but from our Lord.
The concepts of justice and civil society together lead to principled pluralism. The goal of Christian involvement in public affairs is to promote justice for all, thereby promoting the common good. Justice includes government respecting the rights and independence of the intermediary civil-society structures lying between the individual and the national government. Government ought to work with – not undercut or weaken – them.
This vision should guide and inspire Christians as we work to protect our own religious-freedom rights and those of our churches, families, schools and charitable organizations. Surely Christians should defend their right to worship God freely, not to have anti-Christian beliefs forced onto their children in public schools or secular universities, to choose to home school their children, to protect their churches from overly restrictive zoning laws, to insist that their social-service agencies have a right to hire persons in religious agreement with them and to refuse to provide services that run counter to their deepest beliefs. But if Christians’ activities in the public realm end here, we are no more than a special-interest group, seeking to protect our own prerogatives and entitlements.
Justice sets a much higher standard. We should be as concerned for the rights of our Jewish and Muslim neighbors to worship God as they see fit as we are for our right to worship God as we see fit. We should be as concerned about overly restrictive zoning laws as applied to mosques as we are about their application to churches. We should be as vigorous in the defense of an on-campus gay and lesbian club at a public university to receive its share of student activities funds as we are in defending the right of a Christian student club to do so.
Principled pluralism insists that our political involvements be aimed at promoting justice not merely for ourselves and our social institutions, but also for all persons and their institutional expressions. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and all religious believers and nonbelievers alike should receive their due as citizens who are God’s image bearers. That is the goal of justice in the public realm. Surely God desires no one “to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But God also desires that persons come to repentance not by force of law, but in response to the drawing of the Holy Spirit. This means the Christian, even while wishing and working for all to accept Christ’s offer of salvation, realizes that society will be pluralistic if people are free. This means there will be Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers as well as Christians; there will be pornographic books and films as well as books and films that celebrate life and honor creation; there will be same sex couples living together and heterosexual couples living together outside of marriage, as well as heterosexual couples establishing families within the bounds of marriage; there will be societies for the propagation of atheism as well as societies dedicated to Christian truth.
This is what principled pluralism is all about. God could have created Adam and Eve in the first garden so they could not have sinned and not eaten of the one tree they were told to avoid. ?They would not have sinned, but they would have been less than the image bearers God intended them to be. Obedience and love, given when there is no possibility of anything else, really is not obedience or love. Similarly, even if American Christians could amass enough political power to establish a so-called “Christian nation” and thereby force Christian understandings of art, literature, and human origins onto all of society, we would really not have gained anything.
We are convinced God has called the church in 21st-century America to be a witness for our Lord by pursuing justice for all in the political realm, thereby becoming a healing balm for all of society, Christian and non-Christian alike.
Editor's Note: This image was found
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