Can Politics Save?
Can politics save? Any professing Christian would answer with an emphatic no! But that’s only if the topic of conversation is the doctrine of salvation. However, when the subject turns to certain hot political issues, often, what sounded like absolute, unconditional doctrine is transformed into a political viewpoint. There seems to be an increasing tendency to blur the distinctive doctrines of the Christian faith and judge the integrity of Christian profession by political views rather than by doctrine. This “labeling” is being done by both Christians and non-Christians alike. When we hear such terms as the Christian Right, it leads to some rather legitimate questions-are those the views of all Christians? Am I any less of a Christian if my views differ in any way? Such questions demonstrate the dangers of crossing the lines between Christianity and politics. But what’s at issue here? What would even prompt such a question as can politics save?
What is Salvation?
I believe the problem can be understood from a twofold perspective; first, the failure to clearly and accurately define salvation. Salvation in the context of Scripture (See Ephesians 2:1-10) infers two things: to be saved from something (the wrath of God), and to be saved for something (the glory of God). We are saved because God has justified us-that is, declared us righteous because of Christ. However, salvation is seldom presented in these terms. What we are saved from is generally ignored, with all of the emphasis being placed on that for which we are saved. Without a sound understanding of what we are saved from many contemporary Christians are confused also as to that for which we are saved. As defined above, we are saved for God’s glory Ephesians 2:6-7 “And has raised us up together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus; That in the ages to come he might show exceeding riches of his grace in his kingdom toward us through Christ Jesus.” The popular conception is that we are the “Kings Kids,” saved to be healthy, wealthy and wise, saved to perform great signs and wonders, saved to “build the kingdom of God.”
Such a misunderstanding as to God’s purpose in saving us naturally leads to a misunderstanding of the Christian’s place in society. It is at this point that politics can become problematic for Christians, which leads to the second aspect of our twofold perspective, misunderstanding the nature and intent of politics.
What is Politics?
The nature and intent of salvation is transcendent-reaching beyond time and space, whereas politics per se concerns the governing of individuals in time. As a matter of fact, the Greek words associated with “polis” (city), give us words like “citizen.” So, as “polis” is “city,” politics is that which concerns the welfare of the city; specifically, the “city of man,” not the “city of God.” So for the purpose of clarity, when we speak of politics, we are referring to the laws and institutions governing our local, state, national and even international citizenship. Of course, we are told in Scripture (Phil 3:20) that as Christians our citizenship is in heaven, but this does not mean we have no citizenship on planet earth. On the contrary, such passages only demonstrate the transcendent nature of our salvation. Passages like Romans 13:1-17 and 1 Peter 2:12-15 make is clear that our heavenly citizenship does not exempt our being subject to earthly rulers. Hebrews 13:14 sums it up nicely: “For here we have no continuing cry, but we seek one to come.” So we are subject to those who have rule over us and we are free to participate in the political process, but it is critical for us to understand the limitations inherent within the political systems of fuller humanity. While there is some good that can and does arise from human political institutions even at their best they lack saving power. Our best and brightest statesman and woman, our most helpful programs, are not to be confused with our Savior. This looking to a political figure or to the nation or state for salvation was a large part of the problem of the zealots of Jesus’ day in that case of the former, and of the Romans, in the case of the latter, and it defines much of the political activism of Christians in America today.
The Scriptures provide us with examples of godly men involved in the political process, such as Joseph in Genesis, Daniel and Nehemiah in the books that bear their names. While these men used their positions and influence for the good of society they clearly understood their salvation to be distinct from their political activity. We do not see these men attempting to politicize the kingdom of God or to spiritualize their secular service. To do so would be to elevate politics to a level that invades the redemptive office of our Lord and Savior. The church is no more an instrument of the state than the state is an extension of the church. But this is exactly the impression that is given by certain Christian political concern groups.
Harold Bloom, a secular Jew, seems to have a solid grasp of the problem in his book, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, where he states,
I argue in this book that the American Religion, which is so prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian. It has kept the figure of Jesus, a very solitary and personal Jesus, who is also the resurrected Jesus rather than the crucified Jesus or the Jesus who ascended again to the Father. I do not think that the Christian God has been retained by us, though he is invoked endlessly by our leaders, and by our flag-waving President in particular, with special favor in the context of war. But his invoked force appears to be the American destiny, the God of our national faith. The most Gnostic element in the American Religion is an astonishing reversal of ancient Gnosticism: we worship the Demiurge as God more often than not under the name of manifest necessity. As for the alien God of the Gnostic, he has vanished, except for his fragments or sparks scattered among our few elitists of the spirit, or for his shadow in the solitary figure of the American Jesus.
It is interesting that a non-Christian has the insight to understand that the attempt to define Christianity in political or patriotic terms is a departure from historic Christianity. Again, these observations are not to be constructed as implying that Christians should be politically dispassionate or unpatriotic. But it is to say that there is no political consensus or legislative agenda that is tantamount to a Christian mandate. Our salvation is solely in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross in whom we are to put absolute trust. We are not-nor is our nation-saved by having faith in Christ plus being aligned with the Christian Right. Neither are we saved by faith in Christ plus voting Republican or Democrat. The addition of anything to the completed work of Christ is a perversion of the Gospel of grace. The brutal truth is, we can be politically naive, immature, irresponsible or pathetic and it has absolutely no bearing on our salvation. Whatever this may say about our civic mindedness, it says nothing about our spiritual status. On the other side of the coin, a person may be quite moral, politically aware and vote the “right” way on all the hot issues but apart from Jesus Christ he or she is still a child of hell.
Consider the case of George Whitefield, that great 18th century evangelist of the Great Awakening, and the issue of slavery. Here is a case that should reinforce the fact that what we are politically is to be viewed apart from what we are spiritually. Whitefield, from all indications, seemed to believe that the black slaves of the American colonies were men and women created in the image of God and should be respected as such. He had an overwhelming desire to educate them and to preach the Gospel of Christ to them. Yet, Whitefield used his considerable influence in an effort to bring slavery into Georgia. Some of Whitefield’s contemporaries disagreed with his position, but Christians and church leaders differing on the issue of slavery was not uncommon. As an African-American, my views of Whitefield’s politics may be quite critical, although I consider myself a spiritual heir to his evangelistic legacy.
The great British Baptist of the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon, was quite adamant in his opposition to slavery even to the point where the sale of his sermons in this country declined. But these instances only underscore the fact that it is one’s view of Christ that determines salvation and not one’s politics.
Whether the issue is slavery, civil rights, abortion, health care or the death penalty, Christians have and will continue to hold to different views be they right or wrong, but such political diversity must be understood apart form unity in Christ.
There is much talk today about unity and solidarity among Christians, but too often this a call to arms to the political views of the Christian Right, as it was the Christian Left during the sixties. It would be great to see such rallying around essential doctrines of the Christian faith. The real problem, however, is not Christians being politically active, which is in itself a good thing; it is the tendency to define Christianity in political terms or by legislation. It is at this point that we enter the realm of another gospel. This is what Harold Bloom has called the “American Religion.” Here’s another observation form Bloom’s book:
Unlike most countries, we have no overt national religion, but a partly concealed one has been developing among us for some two centuries now. It is almost purely experimental, and despite its insistence, it is scarcely Christian in any traditional way. A religion of the self burgeons, under many named, and seeks to know its own inwardness, in isolation. What the American self has found, since about 1800, is its own freedom from the world, from time, from other selves. But this freedom is a very expensive torso, because of what it is obliged to leave out: society, temporality, the other. What remains, for it, is solitude and the abyss.
As Christians we should not isolate ourselves or put our heads in the sand, but it is absolutely critical that we make the distinction between the city of God and the city of man. It is our duty to make this world a better place in which to live even as we remember that this world nor America is not our Jerusalem, our city of Everlasting Peace.
The concepts of solidarity and diversity must be held in proper balance when discussing Christianity and politics. As Christians we should be solidified on the essentials of the Christian faith. With one voice we should declare the one Gospel. Jesus does not declare himself to be one of the ways to heaven or even the best way, he simply says that he is “the way.” The Gospel should be expressed in terms that are equally absolute. Paul, in both Galatians 1:6-9 and 2 Corinthians 11:4, deals with the absolute singularity of the Gospel message. This is why it is distressing to hear Christians respond to the question of what is the Gospel, “to me the Gospel is…” Yet when it comes to political issues, as pointed out above, we represent a diversity of views. When we fail to be clear on what grounds we are to be absolutely solidified as Christians we run the risk of misrepresenting our relationships with non-Christians. In civic matters we are to be concerned about issues that are important for all citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike. Therefore we may find ourselves united with unbelievers or people of different religions in our political involvement. This involvement or participation should in no way be perceived as comprising the Gospel, as it relates to our horizontal relationships on this plane. Other articles in this issue will explain in more depth the distinctions between the kingdoms of man and the kingdom of God. Suffice it to say here that we are encouraged rather than forbidden to seek to make life better on this plane. And in doing so we will find ourselves in league with people of diverse religious backgrounds. But when it comes to salvation we will part company, taking our position on the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Confusion on this point will cause us to define Christianity by political positions and to alienate non-believers on issues which equally concern them and on which they may have positive contributions.
Some seem to be on a crusade to win America back to God through the political process. Time and space will not allow me to expound on how unbiblical such a crusade is, but such confusion of America and of salvation inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of evangelism. If salvation or revival is attempted through the political process or the legislation of morality, then evangelism will center on Capitol Hill, rather than on Calvary’s Hill.
To look at the world around us we should be outraged at the crime and violence injustices, poverty and corruption. And we should use the political process through personal involvement to make a change. But any positive change should not be construed as salvation or returning America back to God.