Christianity and Politics

The following is an adapted transcript of Michael Stewart’s full message (watch above) on the Chrisitan’s involvement in politics.

A Bully Pulpit

president giving a speech
President Theodore Roosevelt giving a speech.

As a pastor, I’ve got a “bully pulpit,” but that’s a dangerous thing to say if I don’t take into account how the phrase might strike the modern ear. I’m employing an older meaning, the same used by President Theodore Roosevelt in describing to his friends the opportunity to deliver a speech to the American public.

By the word bully, Roosevelt meant “grand” or “splendid” or perhaps “awesome,” if you will. What Roosevelt colorfully described was an unparalleled opportunity to share his vision of virtue for America.

His topic made it more than a podium—it was a pulpit.

His position as the president made it bully, not because he had the opportunity to browbeat, but because he had the opportunity to influence the masses for good.

The pastor’s pulpit is bully because, regardless of audience size, from it comes the opportunity to proclaim the truths of God. The extent to which I or any other veer from that is the extent to which the pulpit becomes bully in a different sense, one in which the selfish desires of the speaker overlook and abuse the position and power of the responsibility and the moment.

Roosevelt feared being thought a preacher if he used the presidential podium for speaking on ethical matters. Should pastors fear being thought a politician (or bully—I’m not sure which some would call worse) if they use the pulpit for speaking on political matters?  Should Christians fear weakening their witness for holding and sharing political views? (These are the thoughts I considered in delivering the sermon showed above, which you can watch in its entirety or whose content you can read in this post).

Politics, No Place in the Church?

Many will argue that a proper course calls for a separation of politics and religion, or that a wiser course refrains from speaking of political matters in religious contexts lest we Christians ruin our witness. Let me offer three points to the contrary:

  1. Adopting a sacred/secular divide is an unbiblical and untenable way of approaching life.1
  2. Remaining uninformed and uninvolved in issues concerning our neighbors neglects our call to be stewards of truth and relationships.
  3. Disqualifying ourselves from public discourse and involvement because we are Christians fails to recognize that all are created in the image of God, who gives us the right, and—as I hope you’ll see—the responsibility of engaging with fellow image-bearers to bring about ordered goodness in our generation.

Some will grant that the Christian’s only role in government is to submit to it. I don’t deny that we do see a scriptural injunction to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:12–14). However, America is a country and government in which we are not you the subject, but rather we the people, who are charged with the preservation of a more perfect union, justice, peace, defense, welfare, and blessings for ourselves and others.

Because we have the scriptural instructions that government and authority have been established as a good by God Himself, then government is not off-limits to the Christian. There’s a scriptural foundation for our participation in the process.

But there’s a philosophical position I want you to consider. It’s one that I hope you’ll see also aligns with a Christian worldview.

Simple Questions on the Nature of Government

Serious political ramifications result from how one answers these simple questions.

Question: What do governments do?
Answer: Governments govern.

Question: What do governments govern?
Answer: Governments govern people.

With these basics established, we must proceed to another simple but essential question. How we answer leads to either good or bad (or even evil) government, and thus affects to some degree our opportunity for freedom and flourishing.

Governments govern people—human beings—so to govern well, governments must be prepared to answer this fundamental question: What is human nature?

There is no other group more posed to answer correctly What is the nature of humanity? than the church, the children of God who know the Creator and His purposes.

A Christian View of Human Nature

In the Image of God

Knowing that human beings are created in the image of God grounds are identity and governs our pursuits and interactions in the following ways:

  • Being created in the image of God establishes our dignity. Upon that basis, we can gauge whether things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the proper objects to value in governing.
  • Understanding ourselves as being created in the image of God informs both our ability and responsibility toward one another. Upon that basis, we can gauge the extent to which we can and ought to secure those rights or form more perfect unions.
  • We have been—as our founders recognized—endowed with rights from our Creator, but we who understand that we’ve been created in His image know that we’ve been endowed also with capabilities fashioned after the image of that Creator. Since God is relational, rational, creative, nurturing, authoritative, giving—so are we. As our Creator shaped a world in which humans could thrive, so, too, are we to imitate His actions after Him.

Additionally, Christians are uniquely poised to understand the value of freedom for humanity, namely this: freedom does not come from the law. Laws do not make us free—God does. And the goodness of a law can be in large part judged on the basis of whether or not it lines up with this understanding.

But this is one side of the coin when it comes to understanding human nature. This is the positive side. It’s the side that we celebrate and makes us wave flags and fight revolutions.

The other side of that coin helps us understand why it is that we have to fight revolutions or govern in the first place.

The Image Marred

We are created in the image of God, but that image has been marred. It’s been defaced. We are a fallen creation. Those lofty goals and possibilities of blessing and peace and happiness that read so well in documents are not automatically or easily achieved.

We are endowed with a certain dignity, but we’re also injured by depravity. To recognize only the depravity is irreverent. To recognize only the dignity is irresponsible.

As those gifted with these revelations from God, we should recognize that good government must pursue that which is in keeping with human dignity, but also must order that pursuit with an awareness of human depravity.

But here’s the tricky part.

That recognition of human dignity and depravity is not only a matter of study for those who govern. It is also an internal reality for those doing the governing. It’s not just the governed who are fallen, but also those doing the governing.

Wise governing must account for the fallen nature of both the governed and the governors.

A good government will recognize, for example, the benefit of a free human being unleashed to create and expand. But that good government will also recognize the possibility of a free human being’s temptation to overpower and seize in the name of creativity and expansion. That very temptation exists also in the one creating the laws and in perhaps an even more dangerous way since the ability to make laws offers both stronger temptation and ability to abuse power.

Divergent Views on Securing the Good

The way in which we understand the fallen nature of humanity and how to minimize its effect causes many of the political differences among both Christians and non-Christians alike. Despite how we like to characterize each other, reasonable people usually support the same lofty goals: health and wellness, a means of living in contentment, peace, equality, security, prosperity, education.

Our differing degrees of understanding humanity’s fallenness lead to disagreements over how fallen people govern other fallen people in the pursuit of good things in a fallen world. This is why two well-intentioned believers can look at the same situation and one will see opportunity while the other sees oppression.

Here’s a politically mild (in the current climate, at least) example to serve the point. Consider two believers who look at an individual and both agree that the individual should have the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career.

One believer will say, appealing to the dignity of humanity, “It’s good that we should pay him a minimum wage. His dignity demands it.”

Likewise, the other believer will say, “It’s good that we should let him learn to explore the value of his labor in a free market. His dignity demands it.”

And then a believer might respond, appealing to the depravity of humanity, “The indifference of the market and the greed of its controllers will suppress his wages.”

And yet, the other believer might reply, “The inability of the government and the greed of its controllers will do worse.”

The Founders’ View of Human Nature

Recognizing this tension between virtue and vice is one reason for the enduring success of our relatively young republic. It was noted by our founders (and yes, some from that group evidenced that tension in their own lives as they acknowledged dignity with words while exhibiting the worst of depravities). But the principle nevertheless stands.

In the last year of his life, our first vice-president, John Adams called the founding of America a “Memorable epoch in the annals of the human race; destined, in future history, to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of  those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be Shaped, by the human mind.”2

Prior to becoming our first president, Washington remarked that the

Cup of blessing is thus reached out to us . . . happiness is ours if we have a disposition to seize the occasion and make it our own, yet it appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America; that it is in their choice and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous or contemptible and Miserable as a Nation. . . . it is yet to be decided whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present Age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.3

Lastly, recall the oft-referenced quip from the sage of his day, Benjamin Franklin, when asked (following the Constitutional Convention) what form of government had been given to the American people. “A republic,” he responded, “if you can keep it.”4

Let me assure you—we cannot.

Scriptural Lessons in History and Prophecy

Here’s where the Scriptures again give those of us in the church a clearer perspective.

Genesis and Revelation, the bookends of our copy of God’s divine Word, teach us that not even two great, God-ordained systems guarantee societal success.

The paradise of God in which there existed great freedom and pleasure (and only one law!) ended in the death of mankind. The churches of the apostolic era struggled to hold their moral ground and were warned of their imminent removal. Even a millennial kingdom in which Jesus Christ Himself reigns faces a powerful rebellion at its end.

Should we then give up on government and wait until the destruction of this world and re-creation of humanity into conformity with the image of Christ?

That’s not the response that either God-given reason or revelation demands.

Scriptural Lessons in Political Engagement

You’re not going to find a Bible passage that espouses democratic republics as the ideal form of government or a verse explaining how a federal system with three branches safeguarded by checks and balances is the way to go. (No doubt there’s someone out there trying to convince you of such.) But there is wisdom for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

There’s a passage in the gospels that highlights wisdom appropriate for our time. And it’s a useful example of how Christ engaged with political questions in his day.

Matthew 22:15–22 (NASB95)

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. 16 And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.

Let’s make observations and draw principles from this exchange.

Siding with Truth

This Party or That?

Do not be trapped by those who would fit you into contrived boxes for the convenience of their personal biases. Jesus reveals that the way of truth does not necessarily lie with the Herodians or with the Pharisees. As you engage and are engaged by interest groups, be they religious, political, social, or economic, know that your alignment or allegiance to a side does not guarantee or characterize your alignment or allegiance to the truth.

Learn, too, from this interaction the importance of being discerning about your own nature and the nature of others. Flattery—even in the form of appealing to the truth—shouldn’t shake you from discerning the motives of special interest groups. Like the not-so-subtle appeal, “Jesus, we see that you are truthful and you teach truths from God,” selfish powers will attempt to allure us with identity politics.

Joe, we see that you are a patriot . . . 

Susan, we see that you are a woman . . . 

James, we see that you are black . . . 

Robert, we see that you are veteran . . . 

Jennifer, we see that you are a religious person . . . 

David, we see that you are middle class . . . 

Sarah, we see that you are a single mom . . .

Division and class warfare have been the tactic of the enemy in all generations.

With No Party?

Just because the way of truth does not necessarily lie with either one faction or another doesn’t mean that individual groups can’t also be right. Jesus was and is truthful. He taught the way of God in truth, and just because that truth was somewhat abused by insincere lips doesn’t mean we abandon it.

Neither does the way of truth necessarily lie between two groups. There’s no inherent nobility in one who says, “I’m neither right nor left, neither liberal nor conservative; I’m a moderate.” Now insofar as you want to embrace the moderate position as one that aligns with the truth, that’s okay, but there are some positions that the wise person realizes can’t be moderated.

  • What’s the moderate position between a good idea and a bad idea?
  • What’s the moderate position between war and peace?
  • What’s the moderate position between life and death?
  • What’s the moderate position between virtuous and evil?

Stewarding Well

I argued earlier that we fail as stewards of truth and relationships if we remain uninformed of the issues facing our neighbors. If we’re not informed then we run the risk of being caught off guard when others ask us, “Is it lawful for ________?”

Don’t miss an opportunity to speak wisdom to a situation.

I’m not saying that we must have the constitution memorized or be well-versed in economic theory or keep cable news on in the background all day (I’d encourage against the latter in most circumstances). But there are issues that we’d be wise to be informed about.

Taxes is one. I’ll pick that issue just because it’s also the issue in Matthew 22. How is a Christian to think biblically about something such as that?

We see in the New Testament instruction to pay taxes (Romans 13:7), and we see in the Old Testament God warning the Israelites that a king would levy oppressive taxes (1 Samuel 8:9–18). So we know that paying our taxes is a duty, but we’re also to be aware that there’s a tax rate that’s probably not best for us.

Consider these facts5 from for our American tax system:

  • In 1913, the highest marginal rate for federal income taxes in the United States was 7% and it stayed that way for 3 years.
  • After 1915, it’s never dipped below 10%.
  • For the majority of tax years that rate has been over 50%.
  • At least 1/3 of the time it’s been over 75%.
  • It’s climbed as high as 94%.

Why do these rates matter? Is it that the big bad government shouldn’t ever tax? No. But the level of taxation supported by people we vote for does affect our well-being and even affects certain biblical mandates on our lives.

The apostle Paul instructs believers to work with their own hands, to eat their own bread, to lead a quiet life, and to attend to their own business for the purpose of necessity and generosity (Ephesians 4:28, 1 Thessalonians 4:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:12). The ability to provide for oneself and a family and to be generous to others is increased or diminished by tax policy. It matters for yourself and others if from your $100 you get to keep $93 or only $6.6

Educate yourself for the ballot box because your vote ends up affecting you and others and the church. Prepare yourself for facing the question Is it lawful? so that you can be prepared to answer Is it lawful to tax? Wage war? Provide healthcare? There are moral questions you’d do well to wrestle with prior to voting: taxation, war, health, abortion, the environment, and education.

Christ, of course, was both knowledgeable and prepared. Knowing the issues of His culture and the character of those before Him, the text tells us He perceived their malice or wickedness and posed some questions of his own.

Questioning the Questioners

He pulls no punches with the first question: “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?”

For all the Sunday School lessons I’ve heard or reviewed on how to be like Jesus, I don’t ever recall the one titled, “How to Name-call Like Jesus.”

Pay careful attention here. This isn’t a petty display of mud-slinging because Jesus lacks command of the language or knowledge of the facts. Their hypocrisy is a truth that corresponds to reality, and Jesus is beating the factions here at their own game, one-upping them on their flattering observation of His ability to side with the truth without partiality.

What can we learn from this initial response? It’s okay to engage in passionate political debate. The notion that simply because you are Christian you can’t engage in politics or that it must be done with mildness isn’t demanded of us. However, we owe fellow believers a measure of humility and courtesy and patience and tolerance in love for the sake of unity and peace. (See Ephesians 4:1–3.) Political seasons don’t pardon us from diligently protecting unity within the household of God. And, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that though we’re created in the image of God, we’re not God, and the surety of our accusations isn’t guaranteed.

More words of caution on how we label: In our system of government by which we vote for lawmakers and leaders, it’s possible to associate with those we don’t completely align with or agree with. The guilt-by-association mindset is dangerous and lazy. Be careful with your labels. Terms like racist, or baby-killer, or Nazi speak to things too serious for flippant associations.

Speaking of name-calling, don’t be too historically ignorant or you’ll be overly shaken by what may seem to be unprecedented levels of disrespectful speech. We’re not entering into a terribly new standard of human behavior. In the 1800 presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, newspapers warned of murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest were Jefferson to be elected, and one journalist called Adams a hideous hermaphroditical character.7

I don’t think it’s the case that we’ve stooped to new lows as individuals. It’s probably the case that these lows are more in our face with the easy and constant access to news and social media, which, in turn, do affect the culture. It should be a wake-up call for assessing human nature and our responsibilities to God and one another.

And there may be no more compelling call to do so than what we see in Christ’s telling response.

Render unto Caesar

“Show me the coin for the poll-tax,” was the strange request of Jesus. Surely He was aware of the coin used. Yet upon receiving the coin He poses the question, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”

Both He and His audience would have known that the coin bore the image of Caesar with an inscription referencing Caesar as “son of the Divine.”

What do we make of such an interchange?

There are a few snippets from Scripture that we have ready at our disposal with almost little thought, and this is one of them.

“Judge not . . . ”

“He works all things for good . . .”

“Let one without sin cast the first stone . . .”

“Render unto Caesar . . .”

In this unsure season, “render unto Caesar” has become something of a catch-all for not just taxes but any sort of government mandate. Pay taxes . . . render unto Caesar. Wear a mask . . . Render unto Caesar. Stay home . . . Render unto Caesar. Vaccinate . . . Render unto Caesar. Gather here, don’t gather there . . . Render unto Caesar.

One of the great interpretation mistakes is to cut this phrase short.

Much is made about rendering unto Caesar, but the last half of Christ’s statement is hardly remembered: “Render unto God that which is God’s.”

Render unto God

How will you answer the question What is God’s?

It’s not just Caesar’s leftovers.

While we emphasize Christ’s conclusion, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” our role in absorbing this text means we must answer this last implied challenge of discovering what is God’s. And if the clue to answering the question What is Caesar’s? is in contemplating that which was cast in Caesar’s image, then the underlying lesson is this:

In whose image have you been cast?

Here again, we see the advantage given to the Christian in weighing political matters.

How you vote, if you vote, how you treat one another in this season, how you carry yourself in public—all of these decisions should be shaped by a worldview that acknowledges you are created in the image of the Divine, and inscribed with His name.

That question is the question for determining . . .

  • the purpose, responsibility, and degree of your participation in shaping the laws and culture of this land
  • how you treat others in this election cycle
  • what and who you support in this election

Read the party platforms. Dissect the candidates’ positions. And if you don’t care enough to do that, you’re free to not vote, too.

Seeing the Image in Others

As we approach not only a Presidential election but a Supreme Court nomination hearing,8 I leave you with a story, one that may leave you with some hope of civility.

The recent Supreme Court vacancy brought about by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is occasion for noting the celebrated deep friendship with a former member of the Court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The gap between their political and judicial philosophy was wide, yet these colleagues and their families were faithful friends. Scalia’s son tells the story of a clerk who once observed two dozen roses in Scalia’s office and asked about their purpose. Justice Scalia responded that they were for “Ruth” on her birthday. The clerk remarked, “What good have all these roses done for you? Name one 5-4 case of any significance where you got Justice Ginsburg’s vote.”

“Some things,” Scalia answered, “are more important than votes.”9

Let’s remember that as we share life with others created in God’s image who, yes, might vote differently than us.

It is a privilege to live as an American citizen, but it is a citizenship that will expire. Our membership in God’s household will not. The more we understand ourselves in light of an eternal, heavenly kingdom, the better citizens and image-bearers we’ll be in this life.


Michael Stewart is vice president of Reflections Ministries. This sermon was originally delivered on October 11, 2020, at GraceLife Church of Pineville, where he serves as pastor.

Footnotes

  1. This worldview fails to fully appreciate human nature, leads to hypocrisy, and reveals a fatal flaw: How does one operate between the sacred and secular? Does he do so on a sacred basis? A secular basis? There seems to be at least some third position from which to live or a transcendent approach for reasoning through such matters.
  2. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-8023
  3. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11404
  4. For a fuller recounting of the famous interchange, consider https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/12/18/republic-if-you-can-keep-it-did-ben-franklin-really-say-impeachment-days-favorite-quote/
  5. https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/statistics/historical-highest-marginal-income-tax-rates
  6. I’m aware that that the marginal income rates presented here represent the highest numbers of a progressive tax system. Nevertheless, $100 still spends the same regardless of where it sits in the stack.
  7. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/who-says-political-attacks-have-gotten-worse/
  8. At the time of writing this article, President Donald Trump has nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Her confirmation is questionable.
  9. https://twitter.com/cjscalia/status/1307109093606391810