Political Apathy is not an Christian Virtue
How is it that our culture (the West in a general sense) has come to abandon the principle of “public theism” for a “public agnosticism”? The answer, unfortunately, is not flattering. It is my contention that secularism is a byproduct of Christian apathy.
Historically, Christendom represented the holistic integration between Christian religion and the various spheres of human existence both in private and public. It was rooted in the belief that God governed all of life, private and public, spiritual and secular. It is precisely for this reason that Calvin appealed to the King of France, in hopes of persuading him to consider the truthfulness of the Protestant faith and, in turn, to defend it:
It will then be for you, most serene King, not to close your ears or your mind to such just defense, especially when a very great question is at stake: how God’s glory may be kept safe on earth, how God’s truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ’s Kingdom may be kept in good repair among us. Worthy indeed is this matter of your hearing, worthy of your cognizance, worthy of your royal throne! Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom.1
What was in dispute was not the king’s authority in these matters or the fact that politics was a proper domain for religion. It was simply a question of which faith to defend. The early church was equally aware of the principle of “public theism.” To be a Christian in that day of state rule and Caesar worship, a disciple and follower of Christ (Acts 11:26) had to confess very publicly that Jesus Christ is the Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. All three titles violently challenged Rome’s preoccupation with its own cultural humanism. It was precisely for these public “faith” commitments that the early church suffered so grievously.
Moreover, the Jewish ethos was equally challenged. When Christ declared Himself to be the only true Messiah – a Jewish reference to the anointed office of the seat of King David (also referred to as “Anointed One”) – Christ was challenging the stated theology of the Jews, who had appointed the Sanhedrin as their body politic. It is important to appreciate that Christ was not betrayed and handed over to the Romans because of the miracles He did, but because the Jewish hierarchy viewed Him as a threat to their public control of the people. Thus, the confession that Christ is the Messiah was in direct opposition to the Sanhedrin’s authority and the claims of King Herod.
Things have radically changed in our day however. Today we have serious debates as to whether or not we can participate in rallies or protests and whether or not we should even speak out against Caesar’s claims to provide universal and material salvation for its citizens – acting beyond what is its divinely mandated mission: to defend the innocent and punish the evil doer (Romans 13:1-6). What has caused this change?
I suggest three factors which contributed to the disengagement of Christians in public life.
First is the general abandonment of culture and history in the wake of Darwinism – what I call the “As the West goes, so goes Christianity” fallacy.
Second, Christians have conceded the ground of “objectivity” to secularism in the area of political social-theory. I call it the “myth of neutrality.”
Third, there is the ontological elevation of the state – the political positivistic fallacy prevalent with many pacifists and pietistic Calvinist circles.
All three factors have contributed to the advancement of secularism in Western culture generally and Canadian culture specifically.
1. Abandonment of Culture and History
The change from a cultural principle of “public theism” to “public agnosticism” rests with the church. On the general level it is the church’s anti-intellectualism coupled with a preoccupation with “end times” that has helped to advance and institutionalize secularism.
Instead of endeavouring in society, competing for a consistent Christian view of knowledge that didn’t separate reason from faith, Christians abandoned the academy and therefore abandoned society, law, media, the arts and entertainment, and, yes, politics. Pious believers instead turned to spiritual pursuits – missions, Bible study, and prayer.
Western academics quickly began to integrate Darwinian cosmology (i.e. the survival of the fittest) with a scientific social theory. The liberal academy hailed a new order of progress whereby science, economics, and political social theory would finalize human evolutionary development.
Further, the fact is that the world wars, the Cold War, and now the rise of secular hedonism have radically affected the outlook of the Christian community when it comes to the doctrine of the “end times.” As a result of the dark forces at play in the West, the church has become obsessed with the question: “is our time, the time of the end?” Are we the last generation before Christ returns, and if so, what should our priorities be, politics or evangelism?
This paradigm (as the West goes, so goes Christianity) became popular among Evangelicals with Francis Schaeffer. Of course there have been others before him promoting a specific eschatological school, but Schaeffer popularized it. Books with titles like: The Late Great Plant Earth; 88 Reasons Why Christ Will Come Back In 88; and Are We Living In the End Times? all warned of the impending end of the West and of the end of world history. The unstated (and sometimes not so unstated) assumption was (and still is), “if Christianity is in decline here in the West, then that must mean that God is done with world history and Jesus’ return is just around the corner.” And so the conservative church community implicitly fell back on first principles – let’s tell people about Jesus, so they get saved.
2. Conceding Objectivity to Secularism
The idea that is being promoted here is that “true freedom” necessitates a religious negation as far as the state is concerned, as though freedom can exist without the imposition of morality. Christians have also adopted a separation of state and religion, for the sake of equal treatment for all, allowing secularism to creep further.
“All truth is relative,” we are repeatedly told. “No one can interpret reality independent of the particular culture and ethical context,” it is asserted, except secularism, because it is based on objectivity and the denial of the religious drive.
In such a world, then, it isn’t truth which establishes the “truth,” but might. Might, you see, is what makes right. And secularists know this better than anyone else, although they strenuously deny it. Gay marriage is right not because it is a human right but because secularists have the political power right now to make it so. But mark my words, as time moves forward so will public opinion, and public views change. In that different time different interpretations of human rights will emerge, and we will see that the secularist-homosexual agenda is ultimately rooted in the shifting sands of public opinion – because human rights in a secular world are ultimately not absolute.
3. The Elevation of the State
Finally, there is the political “positivist” view of the state, which simply means that Christians have adopted a view of acquiescence with, if not acceptance of, the state even when it is going against God’s moral order. Evangelical Christians such as John MacArthur base their acceptance of such a state in particular on Romans 13.
Unfortunately, Romans 13 has been the subject of countless exegetical and interpretive distortions that have helped to entrench a passive approach towards political engagement among many Christians. The common thread among these interpretations is the premise that Paul is teaching Christians that they must remain respectful, submissive, and patriotic even when the government is wicked, because it “is” a minister of God.
One argument is that when Paul wrote the epistle of Romans Nero was emperor of Rome. The historical significance of Nero’s reign was that Nero’s reputation without dispute was that of a wicked, cruel, and evil tyrant. This significant bit of social contextual information is very important to keep in mind with regard to Paul’s assertion that Christians must be willing to support even the most evil of tyrants. However, no one can know for certain whether Paul had Nero in mind when he wrote this chapter, and therefore it should not play such a significant role in determining its actual meaning.
Another argument is that the passage clearly establishes that the government, irrespective of this moral nobility or faith commitment to God, “is” the “minister of God.” Thus to rebel against or to protest the government is to rebel against or protest God. However, the problem with this position is that it falsely attributes “value-laden” substantive – the verb “is” – qualities or characteristics that are personal and specific, rather than corporate and general. Paul uses this same idea with respect to ministers in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2. Here ministers are said not to be perverting the Word of God. He is saying that to be a member of this class of people obligates one to fulfil the identified duties pertinent to the class.
Clearly there is much more to this debate and many concerns are not doubt left unanswered. But this discussion is enough to show that our particular theology of the state can encourage a political apathy, when no such basis exists.
Christians have wittingly or unwittingly contributed to the advance of secularism.
By way of the general rejection of reason, science, and the academy, the concession that secularism is capable of rendering objective moral judgments, to the erroneous elevation of the state, Christianity has removed itself from the public sphere. While the discussion has been general, I hope it has painted a picture of Christian apathy – an indifference to society, time, moral-judgments, and the rightful place of the state – which has contributed to the rise of secularism in our world more than any other dynamic.