Political Church

In the USA we are being bombarded with diverse views on the state of the nation. The national political debate pits two presidential candidates and their philosophies against one another. What attitude should Christians have about politics? What place should the church have in the public square? What should the preacher say in the pulpit? How controversial should we be? Do you think that the church should be spiritual only and not political? Or should we be engaged with the issues of the day?

As a preacher, a church leader and an American citizen I have struggled with these questions all my ministry. I am always reading material that might help me to interpret the signs of the times. I have just completed reading POLITICAL CHURCH: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule by Jonathan Leeman. It was a hard slog of 392 pages of dense theology. However I did glean some nuggets of wisdom which may be of interest to you in this political season.

He argues that there is no such thing as a neutral secular state. Quoting St. Augustine he states that people are either for or against the Bible’s God. All humanity belongs to one of two societies – one city that “lifts up its head in its own glory” and “loves its own strength as displayed in its mighty men,” and another city that “says to its God, ‘Thou art my glory and the lifter up of mine head’ and ‘I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.”

Luther reminds us that everybody has a god – something that they worship, and so secularism is just as much a religion as any traditional religion. The Supreme Court decisions, e.g. on abortion and same sex marriage have religious underpinnings, the religion that judges traditional Christian moral standards as false. He writes, “One could argue that any and every position a person might adopt in the political sphere relies upon a certain conception of human beings, their rights and their obligations toward one another, creation and God.” Religion and politics are not separate because our religious beliefs, broadly defined, determine or yield or provide the worldview lens through which we come to hold our political commitments.

“The public square is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favor. Which means…. There are no truly secular states, only pluralistic ones…..In the battleground of gods called the public square, the law books present a record of which gods won a majority when the vote was taken or which could secure a high court decision.”

With the traditional, historical, Christian moral consensus evaporating an appeal is made to freedom of conscience. “But in a nation of believers and unbelievers, the unattached, unaccountable conscience will be employed to legitimize the freedom of various religions only so long as the conscience of the nation’s decision makers value them. When a nation’s decision makers decide that traditional institutional religions are a threat to liberty or equality of tolerance, they will banish them, first from the public square, then from the marketplace, and, perhaps, in partial ways, from the home (“No you may not indoctrinate your children”). See what has happened in North Carolina over transgender use of rest rooms – the marketplace is punishing the state by cancelling public events.

“The reigning ideology of the day is that we want to do what we want to do. It might even be a bill of rights, that very thing which is supposed to protect a nation from the tyranny of the majority, that will be employed to suppress the conscience for the sake of conscience…. A nation of citizens who insist that their consciences must always be free is a nation that will eventually have little patience for the incursion of the minority’s religion in public or private. There is a logic to the persecution of Christians throughout history, and it is easy to see once we recognize that politics and religion are inseparable. A people’s strongest desires – the desires they refuse to let go of – reveal their worship. And people will always fight for their idols and gods, their objects of worship. Christianity, then, will be opposed in precisely those places it opposes a people’s particular idols…Churches do not need to take up arms against the state in order to pose a threat to the state; they only need to oppose the gods upon which a nation’s political and economic institutions depend. To oppose unabated sexual freedom in the democratic West today, for instance, is to condemn one of the West’s favorite altars of worship… Sexual freedom is religious freedom in a pagan culture, which is increasingly our own. When a nation bows to Ashtoreth, Aphrodite, Hollywood heroines, or pornography, Christians who oppose sexual freedom just might expect to be excommunicated from the sacred public square. And they will be excluded for violating the very principle that grounds their own doctrine of religious freedom: the right of the free conscience…. The activities of the public square are always undergirded by some spiritual or religious worldview and everything taught inside a church building has political meaning because the church is a political assembly.”

Challenging stuff, don’t you think? More to come!