Both the Christian Right and the Christian Left get the question of Christianity and politics wrong.
Christianity is not politically conservative or politically liberal — though Christians may be either. Christianity is not political at all. It is in a sense politically agnostic. But in another sense it calls into question the basis of every earthly power, including politics.
Those looking to dig into the Bible and find a political platform are going to be sorely disappointed. It’s not there. That is for the simple reason that it is not a book about politics, but about God, and how He is saving His people through Jesus Christ. This distinguishes Christianity from Old Testament Judaism and modern day Islam, both of which contain detailed political agendas. Well-meaning Christians that want to outline a detailed “Christian” agenda of their own, however, will simply not find one.
When opponents tried to trap Jesus between his fidelity to oppressed Israel or oppressor Rome, he asked whose picture was on the coin, and taught us to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar (Matt 22:15-22). When on trial before Caesar, he admitted to being the King of the Jews, but in the same breath asserted “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:33-37).
Jesus’s followers likewise taught us to be strangers and pilgrims in the world, subject to the governing authorities. Peter writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil… for this is the will of God” (1 Pet 2:13-14). Paul likewise told Christians living in Rome (under Nero!) that the governing authorities were appointed by God, and they should be subject to them. The only exception is when the state tries to force you to actively violate God’s law (and no, taxpayer funding for abortion doesn’t seem to qualify).
Note that for both Peter and Paul it is God who is ruling the world through the state — though he’s not trying to save any souls through these means, and the Bible isn’t the constitution. He’s just keeping the bad guys at bay, using the light of nature common to Christians and non-Christians. This is good and honorable work, and the New Testament never tells converts to quit their service as soldiers or servants of the state.
Thus the Christian faith represents a radical break from the theocracy of Israel, but Christianity is not therefore inconsistent with the Old Testament. Rather, the model for Jesus’s politics is not Moses, but Abraham, who lived “as in a foreign land” while looking forward to a heavenly “city that has foundations” (Hebrews 11:9-10).
This teaching was political in a narrow sense, insofar as it was extremely threatening to Jewish political leaders and revolutionary zealots who hoped to restore their independence. Jesus didn’t give comfort to any of the political parties of his day, either the conservatives or the radicals (cf., “Life of Brian”). And he threatened Rome as well, by failing to ascribe to it the ultimate status it sought. If he was the King of the Jews, he must be their enemy.
Yet he was a King — the King of Kings — and a radical, in the sense that he proclaimed his coming Kingdom as ultimate and victorious over all earthly kings and kingdoms. The Kingdom of God, however, would not be built or established by any followers here on earth. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting,” Jesus told Pilate, but it is not.
Though heavenly, the Kingdom of God is coming, and it is seen even now in the saving work of the church, in her preaching, baptizing, and discipling activities. It is not merely a matter of personal belief or “spiritual” realities, but will be fully realized when Jesus returns. In the meantime, its ethos is totally foreign to the ordered and pluralistic political life on earth we’ve grown accustomed to. It is radically theocratic, radically forgiving (and judgmental), radically egalitarian (and submissive). One might even call it socialist, if it made any claim to establish its ethos as a civil rule.
While the Christian church is an apolitical society, Christians live as dual citizens, possessing rights and responsibilities both in heaven and on earth. Paul famously appealed to Caesar based on his Roman citizenship, while writing to the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Acts 21:39, Phil. 3:20).
Individual Christians — as opposed to the Christian church — are called to be faithful citizens, hardworking, just, quiet, peace-keeping. And in a democracy, all of these are fully compatible with being political, and working in politics. Naturally, Christians gravitate toward polities or political parties that tolerate them, or enable them to worship and live freely as they desire.
But where Christians go wrong is when they confuse the two kingdoms in which they live, when they think that their politics can bring about the heavenly kingdom they so long for. When they think they are called to take up the weapons of politics and its powers of coercion to advance the gospel or their biblical vision of justice — it stinks to win 49% of the votes. This is one of the oldest and most persistent errors of Christian practice, from Constantine to the Crusades to the Moral Majority. Biblical religion cannot be imposed on a minority and remain biblical.
Ironically, our Pilgrim fathers made just this mistake when they came to America. Fleeing their own religious persecution, they set up another. The 1647 Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts identified 15 capital offenses, including idolatry, blasphemy, and atheism, along with a predictable litany of sexual offenses. Now that’s conservative. Unfortunately, it’s also not the foundation of a just and pluralistic society.
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC (www.ChristReformedDC.org). He formerly worked as a Communications Director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.