As we pull into the final stretch for mid-term elections, the media frequently asks, “Should Americans keep their religious views out of politics?”
You never know exactly what someone means by the question. And the people who answer quickly usually don’t either. So let me hazard a rough reply, based on what I think folks mean by the question.
Option One: Religious convictions are deeply personal and private; they shouldn’t shape a voter’s public policy perspectives.
This view, associated with John Rawls and Richard Rorty, assumes that religion is a “conversation stopper.” However, it is a naïve position because it assumes one’s most deeply-held convictions don’t have anything to do with how one thinks about life and the common good. It’s hardly a news alert that noted atheist Richard Dawkins thinks it’s immoral not to abort children with Downs Syndrome and that if we love our pets enough to put them down, we should be as “compassionate” to human beings. Everyone brings his or her worldview into the voting booth and Christians shouldn’t allow themselves to be bullied into thinking that they must not.
Christianity has all the more reason to claim our most basic allegiance. Christ is Lord, proved publicly in history by his resurrection from the dead. For those who embrace that truth, Christ’s lordship is not just true for me, but for everyone. Christ is the eternal Word by whom and for whom all things exist, and in the fullness of time he became human to save sinners from death and hell. From the beginning, his was a public and universal claim. Whether it is right or wrong, it’s not private. And it changes everything.
Consequently, it’s impossible for a Christian to separate his or her most deeply-held religious convictions from judgments about the common good.
Option Two: Public arguments have to persuade. The properly coercive arm of civil government shouldn’t give preference to one religion or church in public policy decisions.
Government creates laws, and enforcement agencies—like the police—make sure that they’re followed. “Christ is Lord” is not just a private claim, but also a public one. Positive law is grounded in natural law—the law of God known to the conscience of everyone as God’s image-bearer, even if the truth is suppressed in unrighteousness. Christians should make explicit their religious grounding for public policies, while offering arguments that prick the conscience of unbelievers to reconsider the nihilistic path to which their presuppositions lead.
However, politics is the realm of negotiation and compromise. Our clashing worldviews lead to clashing political policies, and often even those with the same worldview differ on how exactly to apply it to specific policies. Instead of focusing on all out “wins,” we should focus on making arguments that are at least good enough to persuade enough folks to mitigate the damage that their ungodly worldviews could and would accomplish if consistently worked out. It’s only Christ-honoring and neighbor-loving for us to make those convictions explicit—and more honest than most secularists.
And yet, we must never—ever—cross the line of trying to invoke the properly coercive powers of the state to sanction a particular theological argument or justification for a particular public policy. For Christians, that’s not ultimately because of the First Amendment, but because Christ’s kingdom advances by the sword of the Spirit—the Word of God—and not by the sword of state power. There are many arguments that I make for the public and universal truth of the Christian faith, but I would be conceding ultimate authority to Caesar and denying the gospel if I thought that good laws could create a good society and coercion could produce a godly society.
To conclude, a few suggestions for navigating the complexity:
Decisions made in Washington and the state houses are very important. The cosmic battle between the ascended Christ and the kingdoms of this age is discerned in many policy crises. It touches our own families and neighborhoods every day. However, it’s particularly where the church witnesses to Christ that Satan’s opposition is most keenly felt.
The ultimate locus of this battle is “in heavenly places,” where the ultimate weapons are God’s Word and Spirit. When Christians pray—and especially when they come together to pray and to receive Christ with all of his benefits in Word and sacrament, Christ’s kingdom spreads and Satan’s prisons are claimed for his redeeming reign. Christ has won the decisive victory, though Satan and his hosts continue their insurgent skirmishes.
So let’s not confuse the mid-term elections—or any civil contest—into the cosmic battle that can only be waged by Christ’s gracious advance through his wonderfully liberating means of grace.