These things come in cycles. A few years ago it was John Stott and Christian social action. Currently there is a push in the direction of the Christian and politics, on political ‘involvement’, a rather nauseating word, I tend to think. A new book by Wayne Grudem, and now another by Michael Geron and Peter Wehner, in a new series books on culture, edited by Tim Keller and Collin Hansen. (This is reported by Justin Taylor on the Gospel Coalition website, who reproduces the foreword to the book by Tim Keller. Most of my information about the book is gathered from here).
‘Culture’ is another rather queasy word, don’t you agree? Think of the Kuyperians everlastingly talking about ‘transforming culture’. But one thing at a time.
I have not read Wayne Grudem’s book, and I probably won’t read the second. That qualifies me for a comment or two, perhaps. (Like the senior professor who was asked by a young colleague whether he had read such and such a book. ‘Read it?’ he retorted, ‘I haven’t even reviewed it!’) I am pretty certain that both books, without reading either of them, will advocate Christian ‘involvement’ in politics. And no doubt that’s a good thing, at least for some, though I expect that others will feel that they are a whole lot better out of it.
First off, then, who’s to say that there is a God-given universal obligation to be involved in politics?
In his Foreword to the book, which Taylor reproduces, Tim Keller sketches the current American polarisation between rising Christian orthodoxy and rising secularism, with the ageing liberalism squeezed somewhere in-between, and in decline. But, apparently, the ‘evangelical constituency’ is culturally impotent; read ‘politically impotent’. So what’s to be done?
Politics is a messy, imperfect, compromising business. Like life itself, only magnified. Where second-best is the rule. Where the unexpected happens, and platforms and manifestos are blown apart. Where spoiling the opposition may seem a better thing to do than to seek to further one’s own principles. The point here is not, ought a Christian to be involved in this? (The answer to that is obviously, ‘Why not?’) But, is this bear-pit the place for Christian principle?
Christian principle? Ah! Now we are coming to it. In their book, The Kingdom of Man Geron and Wehner think that young evangelicals think that their churches have been captured by the political Right, as mainline churches have been captured by the political Left.
Is that so? And if so what’s the matter with that? Perhaps what’s the matter is the bit about ‘capturing’. It seems unhealthy for Christians to seek to capture a political party and demeaning to be captured by it. That certainly seems on the right lines. (Pardon the pun.)
So what is to be done about that? Not political withdrawal, nor should the ‘alienated go down the mainline path’. (Presumably, not become Leftist liberals).
But I’m not sure that either of these prospects is what the two authors have in mind. For (according to Dr. Keller) they are advocating thoughtful theological study. Who can fault that? But thoughtful theological study about political involvement, how would that go? With the authors’ faulting of the left and the right, even though (apparently) they themselves hold right wing views, the course seems set fair for ‘Christians-as-middle-of-the-road’.
‘Christians-as-middle-of-the-road’. Is that it? The trouble is not the conclusion, but the method. Why should thoughtful theological study lead to any generalisation of the form ‘Christians ought to be of the Left’, or ‘of the Right’, or ‘of the middle-of-the-road’? Why should not the conclusion be, ‘Christians who are concerned about politics ought to think for themselves?’
It’s a deep-seated, fundamental principle of the Reformation that Christians have liberty. Not only the liberty to smoke, or drink, or go to the theatre, or to take anti-depressants. It’s more fundamental than that. Here’s John Calvin:
The pretext, then, on which our false bishops burden the conscience with new laws is,
that the Lord has constituted them spiritual legislators, and given them the government
of the Church. Hence they maintain that everything which they order and prescribe must,
of necessity, be observed by Christian people.
He goes on
The pretext, then, on which our false bishops burden the conscience with new laws is,
that the Lord has constituted them spiritual legislators, and given them the
government of the Church. Hence they maintain that everything which they order
and prescribe must, of necessity, be observed by Christian people. The pretext,
then, on which our false bishops burden the conscience with new laws is, that the Lord
has constituted them spiritual legislators, and given them the government of the Church.
Hence they maintain that everything which they order and prescribe must, of necessity,
be observed by Christian people. (Inst. IV.10.6)
[Calvin’s views on liberty are to be found in Institutes IV.10, but chiefly in III.19]
Doesn’t Calvin’s sharp and beautiful prose speak for itself?
The position should be that when you sit in church you may find yourself next to a libertarian, or a left winger, or a Kirkian conservative, or a climate change denier, or a supporter of the UK ‘s membership of the European Union, or a political cynic, or a Cameron Tory, or someone who has not an ounce of interest in politics, except for the need for the local Council to provide more child care and to keep the Library open. And so forth. A rainbow congregation. This is an obvious implication of what used to be called the ‘spirituality of the Church’. This is the idea that the church’s business has to do solely with the Gospel, with its faithful exposition, the calling of Christians to engage in public worship, and with the consequences of this good news being received as the word of God by men and women. If Christians think their social and political views should be expressed in the public square, then they should enjoy the support of the state. But that’s the extent of it. It is uncalled-for for the church to take any particular political stance, just as it was impudent and out of order for C.H. Spurgeon to advise his hearers at the Metropolitan Tabernacle to vote Liberal at a forthcoming election. What has that to do with him? As a minister of the gospel, it was none of his business. It is as offensive to think of the Liberal Party as the Metropolitan Tabernacle at prayer, as it is to think of the Tories as the Church of England at prayer.
Tim Keller says of the two authors that they
begin by making critical distinctions between the roles of the believing individual, the institutional church, and the state. On this foundation, they introduce the issues of human rights, law and order, the role of the family, the nature of wealth and prosperity, and public discourse. In each case they define the field, show what religious believers can contribute, outline mistakes that have been made in the past, and finally hint about directions they would like to see believers take in the future. Evangelicals who are Democrats will probably wish the authors struck some additional notes or made some points differently, but overall this is a wonderfully balanced and warm invitation to believers of every persuasion to re-engage in political life, more thoughtfully than before, but as passionately as ever.
Good for them. But it is depressingly easy to see the flaw. The idea that it is possible for anyone to ‘outline’ what mistakes have been made, and ‘hint’ (no more!) ‘at what religious believers can contribute’. Who is in a position to do that? What qualifies them? What could qualify them?
These chaps, and perhaps Dr Keller as well, seem to think that a Christian’s attitude to politics is a part of Christian doctrine. But on each of the topics that they treat of - ‘human rights, law and order, the role of the family, the nature of wealth and prosperity, and public discourse’, there are umpteen different views. Who is to say what is the Christian view of human rights, or of law and order, or (even) of the family? Not to speak of the nature of wealth and prosperity, and of public discourse.
It is true that Scripture does have some things to say. About prosperity: ‘In the day of prosperity rejoice, in the day of adversity, consider’. Of wealth ‘I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’; ’Trust not in uncertain riches…..’ Of ‘law and order’? This is a difficult one. The Bible certainly has lots to say about law, but these days ‘the phrase ‘lawand order’ tends to give the game away. No one being sick in the park, if you don’t mind. No singing in the streets. Thuggish behaviour should certainly be dealt with, but that’s a matter of law, not of order. In the church, things should most certainly be done ‘decently and in order’. In society too? What would that mean? Christian vigilantes?
So you see, this is the perennial problem for would-be Christian cultural and political analysts. Usually, by the time they come to write their books, they have stepped over the line. Repeat after me: Such analysts are not doctors and teachers in the church. Isn’t that a shame? No, it is not. Rather, it sets in relief what should be the glory of the Christian church – that the body of Christ is an Accident and Emergency Unit of men and women of various political hues and outlooks, and of none: social misfits, political oddballs, the proud, the vain, carpet-baggers as well as the filthy rich, and those who could not care less. Each affirming the fact of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Such it was from the beginning. Why should it be any different now?