As astute a reader as you will no doubt recognize hidden in my title the famous question of Tertullian: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Tertullian was challenging the relationship between faith (represented by Jerusalem) and philosophy (centered in Athens). I'm referring more to the relationship between faith and politics (represented by Washington, DC). Should Christians be involved in politics? Should churches be involved in politics? Should politics be involved in churches? These questions are significant, and exhausting the reply would exhaust the reader. But once again, let's hit the highlights.
Politics and the ChristianThe only mandatory level of involvement in politics for a Christian involves praying for and honoring political leaders and paying one's taxes (see, for example, Romans 13:1-7). But the question at hand is not so much what must a Christian do to support the civil government, but what may a Christian do to participate in government.
With regard to this question, we note that the New Testament mentions citizens, soldiers, tax collectors, eunuchs, jailers, procurators, governors, and kings hearing the gospel. Many of them received Christ. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that converting to Christ necessitates the abandonment of such pursuits. Continental Anabaptists believed that Christians should not serve as magistrates, effectively prohibiting government service for Christians (see the Schleitheim Confession, Article VI). Baptists have historically differed, affirming the right of individual Christians to participate in political endeavors, even including the use of lethal force as magistrate or soldier. John Smythe set high standards for Christian magistrates, but by acknowledging that such a creature might exist he distinguished himself from the Anabaptist tradition (see Smythe's Confession of Faith of Certain English People Living at Amsterdam, articles 83-85).
Thus, it is entirely permissible for Christians to be involved in civil affairs. Since one might argue that in a democracy the responsibilities not only of subjects but also of rulers belong to the people, one might argue that civil involvement is even positively required of Christians (at least as regards the responsibility to vote, serve on juries, etc.).
Politics and the ChurchesBut just because individual Christians are involved in civil politics, that does not necessarily imply that churches ought to be involved in civil politics. There is no New Testament command or example that portrays early churches as ever choosing to interact with the civil government. Ought Baptist churches or groups like the Southern Baptist Convention to be involved in government? Some have answered in the negative. Arguments against this practice deserve attention:
- Some say that Baptist churches violate our historic legacy of advocating religious liberty when churches get involved with civil politics. Those offering such arguments usually point to Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland as their exemplars. And I love it when they do so, because their own examples disprove their point. Helwys, Williams, Backus, and Leland (among the four of them) lobbied governments, shaped legislation, endorsed candidates, and were generally far more politically active than any pastor I know today. Isaac Backus led his local association to form a committee (the Grievance Committee) for the sole purpose of lobbying the government. Our Baptist heritage is not a heritage of civil disengagement—it is a heritage of vigorous civil activism by Baptist churches to secure the just rights of all mankind.
- Some say that Baptist churches corrupt the body of Christ when churches get involved with civil politics. Certainly we can produce plenty of examples of non-Baptist churches corrupted by official entanglement with governmental entities. I think there can be some validity to this claim on occasion. For example, while the Democratic Party dominated Southern Baptist life, we endorsed racial slavery, Jim Crow, and the KKK. Yet one might argue that the culture at large was as much to blame as was party politics, but certainly the Democratic Party was a negative influence upon the SBC for as long as it dominated our political outlook. Indeed, for me that touches upon the key distinction: Life is great as long as Christians are influencing politics; things get ugly when civil politics influences Christian organizations. Obviously, involvement in civil politics makes us more vulnerable to some of the latter. Nevertheless, I do not know that this objection is so grave as to preclude political involvement—one must weigh it against the nnegative aspects of being politically disengated.
- Some say that Baptist churches impede the forward progress of the gospel when churches get involved with civil politics. Indeed, one of the comments on the first part of this post made this very argument. Sometimes political involvement might interfere with the promulgation of the gospel, I suppose, but I do not believe it to be necessarily true. In fact, sometimes I think that avoiding political involvement can be detrimental to the spread of the gospel in some situations:
- When the world comes to view the church as morally spineless, it hurts the spread of the gospel. Think about this: What is your opinion of German Christians who took no stand against the rise of the Nazi Party? What is your opinion of 1960s American Christians who weren't KKK members but who weren't going to get involved in the Civil Rights movement (which might have had a different character if Southern Christians had championed it)? Why wouldn't one come to the same conclusions about Christians who would sit idly by while we murder a multitude of innocent babies every day? If a church has absolutely nothing to say about the great moral questions that surround me, why on earth would I ever believe that it has anything worthwhile to say about the great moral questions of eternity? To steal from, mangle, and employ Clarence Jordan's words for my own purposes, if your church is unable to speak to the basic issues confronting society, then the question is do you really have a church?
- When the church disengages from the culture, it hurts the spread of the gospel. As a shortcut, I remind you of H. Richard Niebuhr's book Christ and Culture. It seems to me that complete disengagement from civil politics is only feasible under the rubric of "Christ Against Culture." Yet churches that withdraw are rarely evangelistically successful. One need not embrace the extreme of "Christ of Culture" (e.g. a state-church) to acknowledge some forum for politico-cultural involvement of churches. Don't churches exist to transform the world around us (or at least to experience paradox while trying to transform the world around us)?
Church-Targeting PoliticsI draw the line here. I don't like politicians campaigning in a worship service. I don't like church rolls given to political parties for campaign purposes. I will not tolerate a state church. Politicians do not have the liberty to meddle in churches, but churches do have the liberty to meddle in politics.
For the final post in this series, I will survey the distinguished history of Baptist bodies interacting with American political figures.