Christians and Political Responsibility
Throughout the centuries Christians have lived under many different forms of government and have had varying opportunities for political action. They have also developed many different theories of how Christians should act politically.
In the earliest days of the church the government of the Roman Empire viewed Christians as one of several Jewish groups and granted them the toleration afforded Jews. Within the first century, however, Rome came to recognize Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism and to declare it illegal. For more than two hundred years Christianity would be an illicit religion and Christians would suffer varying degrees of persecution. Christians had little political influence and their chief political concern was that Christianity be made a legal religion in the Roman Empire.
The conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early fourth century began a radical change in Christian political opportunities and ideas. Initially Christianity became a legal and favored religion. By the end of the century the Emperor Theodosius had made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Thus began Christianity's long history as an established church.
For more than a millennium in the west, Christianity became the dominant religion and cultural force. Social ethics, education, economics as well as government were deeply affected by Christian values. Theologians from Augustine to Aquinas reflected on the leading role of the church as an institution and the obligation of the state to encourage true religion and oppose false religion.
Christianity was a key factor of cultural unity. Europe was known as Christendom or the corpus Christianum (the Christian body).
The Reformation contributed to the breaking up of that Christian establishment. Most of the leading Reformers still supported the idea of a close link between the church and the state, but the rise of several churches instead of just one church put great strain on the idea of the church as the unifier of society.
By the seventeenth century some leading thinkers were looking to nature and reason to unify western thinking and culture. For many, this stress on nature and reason did not seem opposed to Christianity for God was the God of nature and its laws as well as of reason and its operations. But by the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, some of the proponents of nature and reason had become vehemently anti-Christian.
The Enlightenment marked an acceleration of secularism in western culture. The word "secularism" comes from the Latin and means "this age." Secularism is a movement that is centered in this age and is not interested in God or transcendent values especially for public life. God may be fine for private devotion and personal morality, but He is irrelevant for all or most of public life.
Martin Marty in his book The Modern Schism (1969) discussed how secularism has advanced in different ways in the west. He uses France as an example of "utter secularity" where the spirit of the French Revolution swept God from the public scene with passion. He refers to "mere secularity" in England where lip service is still paid to God in public, but in reality He is without significance. America is an example of "controlled secularity." Religion is still important to many people in America, but over the years God has been increasingly removed from the public life of the nation. The outlawing of prayers in public schools is one example of that gradual process of removal.
The effect of secularism has been examined interestingly by Jacques Ellul in The New Demons (1975). He noted that in a secular state, Christianity has no voice in "social, political, intellectual, scientific and artistic areas." Yet secularism really is a religion of its own. Ellul aptly characterizes this religion in all its emptiness: "Alienation and illusion - that is the modern religion" (p. 207).
Christians have responded in a variety of ways to the growing secularity of the modem period. Some have retreated from all involvement. Like the Amish - but not so visibly - they try to insulate themselves from the secular world. Others have tried to maintain the ways of Christendom either by arguing for the need of an established church or by trying to arrest the advance of secularism at some point. Others argue for the radical (and to my mind simplistic) solution of Theonomy: restore the civil laws of Israel as much as possible.
Yet another approach has been influential in Dutch Reformed circles and it is associated with the name of Abraham Kuyper. It is not a simplistic approach and is not a quick fix to all our problems. It is rather an idea that tries to take the reality of the modern world seriously and realizes that the "good old days" of Christendom were not so great. Kuyper did not want a theocracy. He worked to have the Belgic Confession, Article 36 changed so that the government was no longer called upon to "root out all idolatry and false worship." He recognized the state as a common grace institution that could not be defined by the special redemptive grace that Christ works through his church. He wanted the state to serve God through the influence that Christians could have on its policies and practices.
Today in America it seems that many Reformed Christians are choosing the path of isolation. They tend to ignore politics as much as possible (except perhaps on moral or pocketbook issues). They tend to be suspicious of a Christian who wants to go into politics.
Perhaps contemporary Christians are too disillusioned by what they have seen in politics. Conservative Christians when they are political tend to become conservative Republicans. Yet for twelve years the Republicans have talked "family values" and delivered very little. Liberal Christians tend to become liberal Democrats who seem opposed to family values. Is it possible to have a distinctively Christian approach to politics?
It is not easy to overcome disillusionment and the apathy it breeds. But as Reformed citizens we must recognize our responsibility to be thoughtful and active in political matters. We must be concerned about family values and morals, but we must also be concerned about the full range of political and social issues. We need to support Christians who try to think out the implications of their faith in the public arena. (Remember Kuyper left the ministry to become a politician!) We need to pray that the Lord will raise up great, faithful leaders.
In politics we must seek to be responsible and faithful to God. Answers may not come quickly or easily. But the Lord calls us to give our best to Him - also in the political sphere of life.