On Christianity and Politics

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Now this is a fetching discussion. In his recent “Public Square” column, R. R. Reno reflects upon the reasons for Christian political involvement.[1] He begins by posing the question: “If we believe in the sure triumph of Christ, why do we allow ourselves to be drawn in to the very unsure world of political conflict?” (p. 3) In response to the question, he notes, “The Lord’s Prayer gives a straightforward answer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (p. 3) Thus, he encourages Christians to have a “double-mindedness” about our citizenship and thus involvement in the civitas: we are citizens of heaven called to serve the King who owns final victory, yet we serve him here in this world–a world that is still groaning and thus largely (sinfully) opposed to the King’s rule. In the article, he goes on to argue that we should be politically active but only with Christ as the center of our hope; otherwise, our political involvement devolves into a sort of political pornography.

Reno’s article caught my attention for several reasons, but foremost because the winter of 2012 is a particularly good time for Christians to reassess their motivation and strategy for political involvement. As I see it, beginning in the early 20th century, evangelicals pretty much abdicated their responsibilities in many sectors of public life. They withdrew from the public realm and lost most of their ability to be faithfully present in the arts, the sciences, the academy, and to some extent the political realm. In fact, I think one of the major reasons we lost our voice in the political realm is because we did not value other related realms such as the arts, the sciences, and the academy. When we devalue or desert Hollywood (the arts), Harvard (the academy), and MIT (the sciences), we lose any sort of plausibility structure we might have had in the political realm. As a result of the fact that we no longer have any real voice in our culture at large, we have found our political “toolbox” reduced to only one tool: political coercion. And, once we have reduced ourselves to coercive activism, we have almost lost.

In light of this situation in which we find ourselves, what can we affirm about political involvement? For the purposes of this blog, I want to argue that we should focus on a broader topic: Christian cultural involvement (politics is shaped by the broader culture and, in turn, shapes culture itself). At least five principles should guide our cultural involvement. [The text below is pasted from the manuscript of a forthcoming book, Gospel & Mission, which will be released by Baker Academic in 2014.]

The first principle is that culture activity is ordained by God. God created a good world, and followed up his creative activity by giving humanity a good command to bring out the hidden potentials of his creation (Gen 1:26-28; Gen 2:15). This command teaches us that cultural activity is a fundamental aspect of human life and a way in which we image God to the world. In a fallen world, this means that cultural activity is a way that we can promote God and the gospel.

The second principle is that cultural activity is marked by a great antithesis. After the fall, humans have always lived in the midst of a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. The invisible realities, represented by certain principalities and powers, are always manifested in visible, tangible cultural realities. The New Atheism, for example, is certainly underlain by invisible realities, but also makes itself known in tangible human culture. The atheist denial of Christ’s lordship manifests itself sometimes in a false story of science, in which we are told that Christianity historically proven an impediment to scientific knowledge, and other times in an errant epistemology, in which we are told that empirical science is the only reliable avenue for gaining true knowledge about the world. Likewise, destructive postmodernism is underlain by invisible realities, but makes itself public in philosophical treatises that deny the possibility of objective knowledge and promote moral relativism. This great struggle between light and darkness cuts across the entire creation and every human culture. Christians should resist this comprehensive assault on our shared cultural life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the arts, the sciences, politics, business, education, scholarship, and sports. We should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner.

The third principle is that cultural activity takes place within ordered realms which have their own creational design. Human cultures can be divided into a variety of realms—such as art, science, business, politics, and education—which each have their own creational design and God-given integrity. However, because we live in a fallen world comprised of sinners, these realms will be to some extent corrupted and directed toward wrong ends. The prince of darkness seeks to hijack these realms to use entirely towards his own ends. We as Christians, therefore, seek to redirect these realms towards their proper end and creational design. To the extent that we are able to do so, we glorify God and provide our neighbors a preview of what it might be like when God rules on a renewed and restored creation.

The fourth principle is that cultural activity takes place under the absolute Lordship of Christ. This principle builds upon the others, and emphasizes Christ’s lordship over all aspects of creation and human life. Christ is the creator and King over all things, and one day will restore all things. He is not merely the Lord over my “heart” or my quiet times; he is Lord over my work, my leisure, and my civil life. He is not merely sovereign over local church gatherings; he is the Lord over artistic, scientific, political, entrepreneurial, and scholarly endeavors. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. Missional Christians not only proclaim the gospel with words, they promote it in their cultural activities.

The fifth principle is that the architecture of a truly Christian cultural mission will involve answers to at least three questions. In any given cultural realm (e.g. art, science, politics, business, sports, homemaking, academics), three questions must be asked. The first question is, “What is God’s creational design for this particular realm of culture? The second question is, “In what ways have God’s designs for this realm been misdirected and corrupted by cultural idolatry?” The third question is, “In what ways can we redirect this realm and work for its healing?” As missional Christians, we should always be seeking to answer these questions, no matter which culture, or realm of culture, we find ourselves in. In so doing, we will be able to live redemptively on this earth, pointing upwards to God the King, backwards to his loving creational design, and forward to his inbreaking kingdom.

In conclusion, missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to transform it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”[2] Missional Christians recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, and the Christian life is always lived, within a cultural context. Instead of chafing against this reality, we may participate in the joyful work of making working out the gospel’s implications in those cultures, allowing the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation, and seeking to redirect them toward God’s design. “We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”[3] God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to promote the gospel within our cultural context rather than attempting to withdraw ourselves from it.


[1] R. R. Reno, “The Public Square,” in First Things (Nov 2012), 3-7.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), 176.

[3] Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.

 

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