Faith and Politics
One of the recent criticisms against Christians has been that we are too political. Some may argue that we are not political enough, but the criticism stands. By being too political, I mean that some Christians align too closely with a specific political party. This has especially true in the United States. When I first became a Christian, I mostly listened to American Christian radio station. I was convinced that the Republican party was a partner organization of evangelical churches. A Republican who didn’t believe in Jesus was still an honorary Christian because Republican and Christian values were identical.
Canada is a bit of a different story. Christians in Canada are not organized enough to officially partner with a political party. However, I know some Christians who believe it our responsibility to always support the Conservatives and some who think it is always our responsibility to support the NDP. To them, it is clear that Christian values align with the values of those parties.
There had been widespread pushback against aligning with a party based on faith. For some Christians, the feeling are so strong that they argue that Christians should not only not run for office or serve in the government but that we should not even vote in elections.
I am not interested in telling people to be more or less interested in politics. Nor will I recommend a political party for you to support. But I do believe that the Bible gives us some insight in how to look at politics and government.
Understanding Politics in the Bible
If we are going to talk about the New Testament guidance for politics, we need to be aware of the historical context. Paul and his colleagues lived in a much different world than we do. If you wanted to see major governmental change, the most likely way was to overthrow the emperor. There were no elections and so there was no reason for the emperor to respond to the will of the people. You could try to petition the emperor on an issue but you would be risking banishment or execution if you caught him on a bad day. So life was a bit different back then.
I find it funny when I hear Christians say that it was easy for Paul to tell his readers to obey government leaders because he didn’t know the kind of leaders that we have today. No amount of injustice or corruption that we see in North America compares to what was happening in Paul’s day. He understood what it meant to obey difficult leaders.
To put things into perspective, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells people to obey their government leaders. He even argues that these leaders are in some way put there by God and are doing in a sense God’s work. That doesn’t mean that God determines them to perform and rejoices in corrupt and unjust activities. What it means is that in general, the order they bring to society is God’s will. As bad as the emperors were, life in the Roman empire was much safer and peaceful than it had been at any other time in history. But despite all these positive words, ten years after writing this letter to Rome, Paul would be in Rome and would be executed under orders of the emperor. Paul took this seriously.
That is not to say that the New Testament presents a vision of blind obedience to the government. Around the time that the book of Revelation was written, there was a requirement that people in the empire burn incense to the emperor. The Jews were exempt from this but by this time the Christians were distinguishable from the Jews. For the Romans, this was not a religious thing. As long as you worshiped the emperor on that one day, you could worship anyone you wanted for the rest of the year, even Jesus. But for the Christians, everything was connected to faith. There was only one Lord and it was not Caesar. These Christians were persecuted, not for worshiping Jesus, but for being disloyal to the empire. But for the Christians this is what it meant to be faithful to Jesus.
So the New Testament picture is to be obedient to the government as far as you can without compromising your faith.
How We Can Respond
With all of this in mind, I would like to share a few relevant thoughts about how this can affect us today.
Unlike in biblical times, one of the options that is open to us is to run for political office. I understand that there are some Christians who believe we shouldn’t run for office. I respect those convictions. I suggest that you hold to your personal values on this issue. But for those who are open to it, it may be good to have Christians in office. But there is one danger. The job of a Christian politician is not to create a Christian society or to force non-Christians to live like Christians. However, I also reject the idea that Christian politicians should compartmentalize their faith. Their Christian values should inform their leadership, while being sensitive of their role. For example, it would be appropriate to work toward helping the poor but not appropriate to limit the rights of non-Christian religious institutions.
Something for Christians, whether of not in the government, is the concept of the separation of church and state. This separation is not what people think it is. It does not mean the governments is not allowed to have any interaction with anything religious. It does mean that there should be no state church and that the government should not have an official position on religious beliefs. The purpose of this is not to protect the state from the church but to protect the church from the state.
The emphasis that Paul teaches in Romans is still a valid principle for us today. We should be obedient to the government for as much as our faith allows. There is a difference between government decisions that we disagree with and those that compromise our faith. So we might not appreciate paying taxes to subsidize a cause we don’t particularly agree with. But that is different from the government insisting that schools teach children that there is no God and forcing them to affirm atheism. We need to obedient as much as we can, and work to change the issues we disagree with, voting strategically according to our values. This was an option not available to the Apostle Paul and we should make the most of it.
This I believe is the most important thing for us to do when it comes to our government and political leaders. Pray for them. Pray for the ones you like and the ones you don’t like. Pray for courage for those doing the right things and wisdom for those doing the wrong things. Pray. Pray. Pray. Not sure that pray makes any difference? Ask the people in the areas where communism fell, areas in which the church was very active in prayer. It will always be easier to complain about our government but it will always be more effective to pray for our government.
So as Christians, should we be more political or less political? The answer is yes. We should be less political in the sense of aligning our faith with specific political parties and leaders. But we should be more political in the sense of letting our faith inform how we respond to politics and government. It is not our job to turn Canada into a Christian country. But it is our job as we live in Canada, to be Christian in such a way that we are a blessing to Canada.