Five Christian Approaches to Politics: Difference, Division and Witness

It wasn’t too long ago that conventional wisdom among Christians, especially evangelicals, discouraged politics as a vocation. “It is too much to expect Christians working in the halls of political power,” the thinking went, “to avoid the sinful temptations of power.” The inevitability of compromise and corruption seemed to disqualify such work, and it was generally accepted that no loving parent or pastor could in good conscience support the pursuit of a career in the public square.

A significant shift in Protestant thinking on this issue occurred in the 1970s when a Georgia governor and Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, successfully campaigned for U.S. President. His openness about his faith and his success at the ballot box encouraged a new conversation about faith and politics. Centers of political power like Washington, DC, quickly transitioned from no-go zones to mission fields.

As Christians poured into the public square, it soon become clear that a Christian consensus in politics did not exist. This remains true today: We only need to survey the mission statements and activities of Christian organizations like the Center for Public Justice, Evangelicals for Social Action, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family Action, the National Association of Evangelicals and Sojourners to appreciate the variety of political perspectives and priorities within the church. Is such variety a sign of healthy differentiation (“I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus tells us in John 15) or a form of division within the church that harms our public witness?

What if this is evidence that the church is unable to present a unified witness in the public square? 

One might quickly respond that it’s hardly fair to expect the people of God to share a singular perspective on politics given our many disagreements on doctrine. We are Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. We are Lutheran and Calvinist. We are Arminian and Wesleyan. We are Charismatic and Pentecostal and Reformed. Is it all that surprising that we are also Democrat and Republican, Conservative and Liberal and Libertarian and Independent? (And that’s just in the United States!)

New Testament accounts of the early church show that we have always struggled to not allow differences (especially cultural differences) to turn into church divisions. Yet, we are also equally committed to bearing a truthful witness of God’s love for and presence among his creation. Hold in your hands the impressive volume, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, to appreciate the fact that the body of Christ has been thinking deeply about the faithful practice of governance and policymaking since the 2nd century. Today’s dialogue and disagreements find their roots in earlier debates within the church. And, somewhat paradoxically, these historical legacies may provide helpful points of reference we can use to foster a greater sense of unity as we practice citizenship and governance together.
Is it possible to understand our differences more positively, as pluralist differentiation, rather than as cause for division or opposition?

This post is an introduction to a five-part series on different Christian approaches to political engagement. The objective is to appreciate how different theological traditions have adopted different perspectives on God’s purposes for government in society. The series borrows its five categories from an edited book by P.C. Kemeny entitled, Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views. They include:

  • A Classical Separationist View
  • An Anabaptist View
  • A Social Justice View
  • A Principled Pluralist View
  • A Catholic View

The point of this series is not to separate members of the body by placing ourselves into boxes. In fact, chances are good you won’t fit neatly into any one category. But many of these categories will be quite very familiar to you and a clearer understanding of where these differences come from creates opportunity for conversation and collaboration. Differences most commonly lead to division when we don’t take time to understand where our differing perspectives come from and the deeper convictions and commitments they aim to serve. If we enter into this study as Christian brothers and sisters in search of a shared public witness, we can trust each other with our differences as we move deeper into this conversation.

How are we going to study each viewpoint? Each blog post is going to ask the same series of questions:

  • One way of describing the Bible’s story is by putting it in four acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation. Does this tradition emphasize one of those four acts?
  • What does this tradition consider to be the primary social value or fundamental building block of a just society? (Examples include individual freedom, social equality, institutional pluralism, etc.)
  • What does this tradition consider to be the key threats to a just social order?
  • What does this tradition understand God’s purposes for government to be?
  • What does this tradition think is the best way for government to go about achieving such goals? What is success?
  • Why does this tradition think Christians should be involved in public affairs?

As the series unfolds, disagreement will become apparent of course. But we’ll also find multiple points of agreement. We will be sure to pay equal attention to both. It’s our hope that this series will be a source of edification and encouragement in our pursuit to organize ourselves into a coherent witness for Christ.

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  • Dr. Peter Baker has been part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities' American Studies Program leadership since 2008 and has served as the program director since 2009. Prior to this, he worked and researched in South Africa, Ukraine, and Michigan. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Notre Dame, specializing in comparative politics and international relations. Peter and his wife, Lisa-Jo, are both ASP alumni and live in Hanover, Maryland with their three children. Peter supervises the ASP staff, the overall academic and extracurricular programming, and leads the Public Policy study track.

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