Sunday, November 27, 2011

In Which I Simultaneously Tackle Religion and Politics

As this rather biased article a friend pointed out to me shows, a good deal of the front-running candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination are keen on getting our laws to match up more closely with Christian "morality". (This just from the candidates' responses, not the editorializing) This idea, which has been around for decades (especially since the establishment of the Moral Majority in the 70s), is known in some circles of debate as "legislating morality". Here is my position on it. I'm going to take apart this idea in a two-pronged fashion, explaining why it's a bad idea politically and why it doesn't line up with the Christianity they claim to represent.

Note: Before I get into all this discussion of what government is "really about", let me state that my view is that the purpose of government, on the highest level, is to promote and preserve the liberty, legal equality, and physical welfare of all the people under it. There is plenty of room for debate on how far in either of these directions it should go, which I won't get into.

The Political Side

As I previously argued during the whole Scott-Walker-collective-union-bargaining debacle in Wisconsin earlier this year, doing politics based on put-together ideologies (whether economic, political, or religious) is disastrous business. Steadfastly trying to govern your way, based on your particular ideology, which is right because you're right because it's absolute truth, leads to an inability to compromise and, in our democracy, an inability to get anything done that is becoming increasingly obvious in the higher levels of our government. Willingness to compromise and a pragmatic concern for the welfare of everyone involved in decisions are essential to successful government. According to centuries of political philosophy the state exists to serve the people living in it--not any particular ideology. Making policy decisions based on ideology replaces these with a "principled" stand for what you believe is right and a primary concern with upholding the purity of your views above those who disagree with you. I'm sure you can think of examples of what this looks like.

And, unfortunately, I think religion-based ideologies are the worst for this, because at heart your religious worldview isn't arrived at by a series of perfectly rational thought-steps that others at least have a chance of following but by a leap of faith that others simply have not taken. The way an evangelical Christian like myself processes the world--in relation to an almighty God who sustains and redeems everything--is very different than how a Muslim thinks about things, which in turn is very different than how a nonreligious person sees the world. I shouldn't need everyone to accept Christ for my political views to simply be intelligible to them.

This difference in viewpoints when everyone is keeping their religion to themselves, or engaging in friendly, unofficial conversation about worldviews--it's freedom of religion in action. But this completely changes when one religion legally imposes itself over all others. For one thing, if you take the candidates' desire to make civil law line up with "Christian law" to its logical conclusion, then of course the first such law you should legislate is the greatest commandment in the Bible: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matthew 22:37) Whoops, that goes completely against the first amendment. It's almost as if it was specifically written to prevent religion from legally establishing itself like this.

Quite simply, religion is one thing that people have never, ever been able to agree on in thousands of years of searching. But politics demands agreement, or at least sufficient agreement and compromise to allow government to carry out its responsibilities. I think at least some of the troubles our government seems to be having in getting even simple things done lately are a result of attempts to turn once-conciliatory political dialogue into inevitably fiery and dogmatic religious dialogue. I hope this has convinced you that basing political views solely on religious views is a bad idea. I say "solely" because I think political and religions worldviews will inevitably intersect, but there has to be something that allows for understanding, for compromise.

But, you may say, as many of my intelligent friends who are Christian and Republican-leaning have, all politics is based on ideologies. Either you're basing your views off a Christian ideology, or something else. Like I said before, it's absurd to try to separate your political views from your faith--particularly Christian faith that ultimately changes every part of your life. Of course Christians will look at politics differently than non-Christians. But for reasons I'll go into detail on below, letting your faith guide your political participation doesn't just mean reading a list of the laws you support out of the Bible.

The Religious Side

As bad as trying to codify Christian "morality" into civil law is from a pragmatic political standpoint, it's even worse from a spiritual standpoint. Firstly, as I explained in the conclusion to my series on the Old Testament, being ruled by law is a hallmark of the old covenant, not the new one under which we now live. As Paul explains in Romans 6, we are no longer slaves to sin under the law but slaves to God under grace. (This is a paraphrase of verses 14-18) From a spiritual standpoint, trying to obey the laws, or trying to get others to do so, is futile and even counterproductive as focusing on the should of the law distracts us from the get-to of the gospel. This is Paul's central message in much of his letter to the Galatians. This is why I keep putting "morality" in quotes, as under grace the term becomes somewhat nebulous. The law is a yoke that the Jews were unable to bear (Acts 15:10) even with all they had going for them to do so, and it's pure pride to think we can do any better.

But I'm not trying to save people by obedience to the law!, you might say, I'm just trying to help them live more moral, Christian lives by setting guidelines that keep them on the right path. Well, if you make laws that correspond to more commonsense teachings of Jesus you might get away with it, but where to stop? Remember that God's standard is pure perfection. You agree that murder should be illegal, but according to Jesus getting angry at your neighbor is just as bad as murdering them. So if you're trying to get civil law to line up with Christian "morality", you should penalize yelling at someone the same as killing them, right? And if you get it passed everyone will obey the law and we'll have no more anger, right? And if you decide to stop somewhere before that, aren't you forsaking the teachings of Christ?

As soon as you start pushing laws that climb closer to the standard of perfection (or even laws that purport to defend the Christian view of life or marriage) you get into the kind of ideological politics I mentioned above. You lose the ability to reason with anyone who sees things differently than you unless you manage to convert them to your particular understanding of who God is. They might come to view Christianity as a pushy set of "shoulds" and judgments on those who don't obey, as so many do today for this very reason. And for Christians who may agree with the basis of the law, what difference does it make for them, since they would practice (or at least attempt to) whatever behavior the law was trying to induce anyway? Sanctification, the process of becoming more like Jesus and wanting to obey His commandments not out of obligation but out of love and joy, is founded on a relationship with Him (John 14:15) and enabled by His power, not our own. (Philippians 2:12-13, Romans 8:13) The motivation for us to live differently and become more like Jesus comes from within (the Spirit living in us), not from without (threat of legal punishment). Nowhere in the New Testament do we hear Jesus or any of the apostles praising laws that aid believers' sanctification or wishing they they were different so as to do so. If the only thing keeping someone from a life of theft is the threat of punishment by the law, what good does that law do him from a spiritual standpoint? Absolutely none!

Indeed, Jesus is surprisingly disinterested in politics. I believe the only recorded political statement He ever makes is in Matthew 22:21: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's." I want to be the last to put words into Jesus' mouth, but He seems to hold a view of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world as being quite separate. Indeed, in John 18:36 He says, "My kingdom is not of this world." A bit of context: at that time the Jewish view of the foretold Messiah was a conquering earthly king who would set them free from their Roman oppressors and reestablish the greatness of the pre-captivity Jewish nation. Jesus' total failure and even outright refusal to meet these expectations was a big part of the reason so many people doubted Him and ultimately had Him killed. To Jesus it doesn't matter which earthly kingdom (i.e. country/state) you belong to: only whether you're a subject of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of this world. Jesus didn't spend time talking about any earthly kingdom but the heavenly one He came from and invites us to, right here and now.

Likewise Paul in describing his ministry says in Ephesians 6:12: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." He's fighting spiritual, not physical, powers in his ministry. Not much more to be said. It's surprising that he says this considering how many times he was thrown in jail or almost killed for his faith; he never prays for God to change the laws that keep getting him persecuted for his ministry.

But what about in Romans 13:1-7, you may say, where Paul says that governing authorities are appointed by God? Surely this means our politicians and laws should be "Christian"? Think about this verse in context: Paul wrote during the reign of emperor Nero, an active persecutor of Christians (persecutor as in feeding them to lions, not preventing them from organizing prayer in public schools). To anyone who thinks Obama is the Antichrist...just look at Nero. And don't forget that it was the governor Pontius Pilate who ultimately sentenced Jesus to death. So clearly Paul doesn't mean that governments will always appear overtly "Christian", but that no matter what their authority comes from God and they are His instrument. Paul goes on to say that Christians should give obedience and due respect to government (possibly part of loving your enemies), unless ordered by law to sin or prevented by law from obeying the commands of God. And even then, he says nothing about trying to change or do away with such laws--nor does any other part of the New Testament. I'm not trying to say that Christians should stay out of politics (they didn't have much of an opportunity to participate in Paul's time, hence the lack of treatment of the issue), but clearly it's a relatively low priority in a Christian's life and should be approached with the above facts in mind.

Finally, an addendum from talking with my friend, whose input I was waiting on before posting this. He and I turned out to agree more than I expected on this issue, but his perspective was of course different. He gave me a picture of the sphere of influence of the church and the state as a Venn diagram--intersecting in some places (some aspects of public life, like helping the poor, come to mind), but mostly separate. After all, the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), whose kingdom is not of this world and who came to redeem the world by self-sacrificial love, not by taking power over it. Putting on the church the task of forcibly conforming the world around it to God's will makes it an instrument of the old, law-based covenant, not the new grace-based one. It is the state that bears the sword (i.e. the power to devise and enforce laws over the public; Romans 13:4), not the church. They are very separate entities and conflating them is detrimental to both. (The effects of this philosophy on the church could be the subject of a whole other post)

So hopefully I've made my case for why seeking to align civil law with Christian "morality" is all-around a bad idea. With most of the Republican frontrunners for the 2012 election expressing some kind of desire to do so, this issue has never been more relevant. I wish Christians in politics were better known for their honesty, integrity, and compassion than for their "holy wars", blind ideological rhetoric, and inability to compromise. I can't say I expect anyone holding this kind of view to read this post and have their mind changed, but I hope that it has given you some stuff to think about and some good talking points in conversations on the subject.


While laying out this post I thought of another question that is likely more relevant to liberals than to conservatives. What about seeking to make laws that help the weak, elderly, sick, or poor, like Medicare and social security, in keeping with Jesus' call to love the "least of these"? A few thoughts on this subject:
  • I don't think this is a bad idea in principle, as this is arguably part of the role of governments. I would say that the government is currently not doing its job of promoting liberty and equality for everyone by helping the rich get richer at everyone else's expense, and pursuing the opposite goal (raising up those who cannot help themselves) is more desirable. However, just as in the conservative case, making this issue your sole political imperative and blindly pushing for such laws with nothing but commands of Jesus to back you up is not the right response. (I don't see this nearly as much as I see the former case) Again, Jesus didn't try to rearrange earthly kingdoms to be fairer to the poor but preferred the direct approach to helping them.
  • Remember that laws like this provide help not just out of your pocket, but everyone's. Programs based around income redistribution might make things "fairer", but they tend to help some at others' expense, not creating any new wealth. "Forced charity" is an oxymoron. Voting for laws that help the poor is no substitute for loving people yourself.
Addendum #2

A few weeks ago I had a very edifying and respectful Facebook conversation (which is a very rare and precious thing) with a high school friend who has relatively fundamentalist views on this topic. Since then, I have shifted my position slightly. If politicians like Rick Santorum want to try to legislate a more Biblical morality (because all legislation has some kind of a "should" behind it), there is nothing instrinsically wrong with that. The problem isn't when politicians base their political stances on Biblical principles, but when they do so poorly, misguidedly, and uncompassionately. Simply justifying your position with Bible verses, "God's plan", or thinly veiled references to Biblical teaching is an example of how to do this. This kind of rhetoric is fine for letting God direct your own life (Jesus said He would incite division, after all), but is worse than useless in politics where not everyone shares your faith and they may come to resent you and the God you claim to represent for imposing it on them.

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