Christians and Political Action: An Interview with Michael Cromartie

Thursday, 03 May 2007

Michael Cromartie has been a leading spokesman for the relationship between Christian ethics and public policy through his work at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he directs the center’s Evangelical Studies Project. You’ll often see him quoted in the leading news magazines around this time of year and we’re happy to have him take some time to talk with us.

MR: First of all, the culture wars. Obviously there is no neutrality when people talk about a naked public square. As Richard John Neuhaus reminded us: It’s a sham. There really is no such thing as a neutral space. Something will always rush to fill the void. People who say there is a secular base are often nave about just how many assumptions go into culture making. Is there a real culture war going on? How should Christians respond without turning Christianity into a sort of wing of one party or another?
MC: One way to do it is to be sure that when we work in the public arena we make appeals to the common good as opposed to just making appeals to fellow believers.

MR: The common good? But when we talk about politics these days, it’s not just about taxes anymore, it’s about whether we should allow marriage to be defined to include partners of the same sex. We seemed to be engulfed in culture wars, and it looks increasingly like the churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant across the board, are having to take sides. What are we to do?
MC: It is the duty of the pastor to encourage the parishioners to be involved as engaged citizens in the public square. It’s not the duty of the pastor, however, to tell the citizen how to vote. And I think it is very important that the pulpit not become politicized. The role of the pastor is to encourage the laity to do the work of the kingdom, one part of that work is political, but as you know not most of it. Having said that, we are involved in a culture war. Though, as one observer said recently, there isn’t a culture war anymore. There was one, but the other side won. And I think what he meant there (especially as it relates to the same sex marriage debate) is that we don’t seem to have a common reference point in the public arena to debate why certain things that are revealed, not only in Scripture but in nature, are true.

MR: Is that why we didn’t seem to have to take sides before? You could have Christians who were all over the map on policy issues and now there is polarization and people often feel like they have to take sides where before they wanted to be moderate?
MC: That’s a good point-the fact of the matter is that there once was a consensus that one could appeal to and that everybody understood. When we’re involved in the public arena, we go in as citizens concerned for the common good of everyone and not just concerned for the common good of believers. In other words, our appeals may well be based on special revelation, but we also need to make appeals to general revelation and things like natural law, so that our neighbors know that what we’re arguing for and working for is not only good for believers but for the whole community. That’s something we’ve not been very good at. Some leaders are getting better at that, but in the past we’ve had some people come to Washington and say, “Thus sayeth the Lord” and the people on Capitol Hill say, “Thus sayeth who?” Theologically conservative Christians are learning more and more that we need to develop a public theology to deal in the public arena.

MR: A lot of people are asking how specific can you expect the Bible to be? There’s a biblical view of this or a Christian view of that and some people listening to this program are going to be attending churches this Sunday where they have the Republican voter’s guide in the narthex, or a Democrat equivalent. On the left and on the right there’s this pressure to have a sort of church sanctioned position on everything from the tax structure to third world debt. At what point do we say, “The Bible just doesn’t pronounce specifically on all of these issues. There’s wisdom here, sanctified common sense, based on biblical principals.” Where exactly do you draw that line?
MC: Scripture doesn’t have much to say about foreign policy and our view of Afghanistan and Iraq, but what we do draw principles from Scripture that should lead to prudential judgments and certain policies. There isn’t such a thing as a “Christian View of Economics.” There are good economics and bad economics, and we need to be debating empirically which economic system works best in the world or in our country. So when Christians start saying there is a Christian view for everything, they are speaking to things that Scripture does not address. We have to learn to become comfortable with “prudential reasoning” and learn how to be prudent in our moral reasoning. That means that we go from scriptural principals to certain policies and we reach conclusions on which honorable people of strong Christian faith may actually disagree.

MR: Do you think our efforts to make Scripture address political principles eventually weakens the power of the church? The church is there to speak for God, not to speak for the Republicans or Democrats. And if it does try to speak for a political party it compromises the church’s primary mission to preach the gospel.
MC: Yes, it compromises the church’s unique identity.

MR: There are those rare occasions when the church does have specific grounding in natural and special revelation to make pronouncements. But we need to be aware of when those are true opportunities to make churchly announcements. For instance, we do want to say, “we believe abortion is wrong.” But if we also say “we should go to war in Iraq,” the world won’t take us seriously on those issues in which we do have Scriptural grounding.
MC: That’s right. The church just becomes a Christian political action committee and we lose the core of the gospel. People who did this first were on the political left: mainline churches and the National Council of Churches were sending out faxes about Reagan’s Central American policies, or any number of things, during the Reagan years. The NCC had so politicized the faith that it was more important what you thought about a critique of the Reagan administration foreign policy than what you thought about the Apostle’s Creed. The temptation, as you know, quickly moved over to the political right. Pastors were standing up in the pulpit telling us what we ought to think about Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. It’s not the duty of the pastor in that teaching office to make those kind of pronouncements. Turning the kingdom of God into a partisan political activity either on the right or the left weakens the witness of the church to the gospel.

MR: How should we think in terms of individual Christians, exercising their earthly citizenship in distinction from the church? For instance, shouldn’t we assert that individual Christians need to be involved in the political process and they could participate in a variety of political parties?
MC: Absolutely, we really need to stop talking about the church this and the church that. We should be talking about individual Christian citizens exercising their rights in the public arena. All of our churches, no matter how conservative or liberal they are, are full of people with diverse opinions about politics. A pastor should never assume that everybody in the sanctuary is of the same persuasion. And, as one Dutch theologian said, “The dead are not raised by politics.” It is important to remind people that there are some things more important than politics. We need especially to remind people in Washington of that.

MR: Do you think that it is remarkable how quickly the sleeping giant of the Evangelicalism awoke in the wake of Francis Schaeffer’s calls and Jerry Falwell’s moral majority and so forth? It seemed like it happened almost overnight. The evangelicals awoke to politics, political action, culture, and education-areas where conservative Christians weren’t really all that interested or involved before.
MC: That’s right. Some of these cultural things-as in the arts, the state of our moral culture, the state of the American family-must not be neglected, but they have been in many ways. I think, however, that a tangible political result is something you can see pretty quickly. So I don’t want to downplay the importance of politics in the sense that Supreme Court Justice appointments are really very important in shaping our laws and having influence on our culture. When I’m with those who say, “Politics don’t matter, it’s only the culture,” I want to talk about the fact that changing civil rights laws actually changes attitudes among people who are racist. When I’m with people who think only politics matter, I want to argue that if the shape of the culture is such that nothing you pass legislatively will have an effect then we really need to spend about thirty years working on the culture. The balance I’m trying to strike here is Shaeffer’s call for the Lordship of Christ in all areas of life, which includes politics, education, the arts, and so forth.

MR: I think of the pastor who told me that he was profoundly moved when he had to serve communion to Vietnam War protestors and Vietnam War veterans kneeling at the same rail and that this was a great picture of the church. We both have friends who are on both sides of the political aisle and would argue vociferously for the same doctrines, the same Christian convictions, (the authority of Scripture, and so forth) but one would be a fierce Democrat, the other a fierce Republican.
MC: That’s a beautiful picture you just painted there.

MR: As one who is both conservative theologically and politically, do you ever get frustrated with the church’s treatment of people who hold more liberal policy perspectives than you?
MC: I do. Look, I can take communion with someone who is a devout Christian and a very liberal politician. I can take communion with him and work hard to vote him out of office. It is hard for people to get a handle on the distinction. We can take communion together and repent of our sins together and then I can go out the next day and leaflet his neighborhood to vote him out of office. He can be a brother or sister in Christ, with whom we disagree, but when it comes to the foot of the cross we are brothers or sisters in the Lamb. I once had a woman bring a bunch of students by and she said, “Michael, aren’t you concerned that God is being depicted as a Republican these days?” And I said, “Oh yes, I’m very concerned about that. There’s only one thing worse – that he’d be depicted as a Democrat!” My point is that we have to be concerned if the Christian faith ever gets tied to any political agenda. If that happens we’re confusing what the faith is. Having said that, however, doesn’t mean that we stop being concerned about talking about what agenda might work for a more orderly and just society. I think people who are concerned about the Christian faith being tied to ideology sometimes back away from the fact there are real issues we need to talk about.

MR: Right, exactly, and a lot of these real issues do have political solutions.
MC: Yes, they do have political solutions, or they at least help bring about “approximate justice” in our very fallen world. They won’t bring in the kingdom of God but they will make a difference. Indeed, sometimes a very big difference

MR: It is remarkable when you read the statistics about African Americans and white evangelicals. Both groups not only believe the same things but they also practice their faith in the same ways: daily prayer, Bible reading, the importance of their faith to their lives, and so forth. And yet, their churches are so far apart. The old slogan still rings true, “The most segregated hour is Sunday morning.” It’s remarkable.
MC: It is remarkable. It’s partly culture but it’s also political and legal in the sense that the church has had such a sad legacy when it comes to slavery and racism. It takes generations and generations for African Americans to feel comfortable voting for a party for which they have never voted. There may be a change coming, however, with the whole debate over same sex marriage. Some of the biggest opponents of gay marriage are African American Christians.

MR: Well, Mike, thank you for taking the time to discuss these important issues with us as we get closer to the general election. Know that we are praying for you as you are engaged in very important work on behalf of the common good in Washington, DC.
MC: Thank you, it was great to be with you.



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