POLITICAL QUESTIONS: Should Politics and Religion not be Mixed?
“Whatever you do, don’t talk about religion or politics!” If you must, “whatever you do, don’t talk about both at the same time!” That is, do not claim that your religion is, in fact, political in nature. And do not act as though your politics traces to some religious claim or commitment.
But what if it is and it does? What if it proves impossible to follow Jesus without interacting with realities and powers, making decisions which draw consequences that are “political?” What if it proves impossible to think through, weigh options, and evaluate issues and candidates in order to vote without intentional seeking after the closest alignment with the way of Jesus? I am convinced that it is and it does. Let me say why.
First, though, I would observe that what may seem like a common sense idea—as Christ followers or as an expression of Christ-following we shouldn’t speak politically or discuss issues, and take public stands on important matters in the political arena of our day—plays directly into the hands of the evil one. The evil one does not submit to God’s kingship over the world, nor to God’s legitimate right to rule, nor to the claim that God’s rule would actually be good. The evil one wants to separate God from the world and the people who live there. One of the ways this happens is by convincing people that faith and spirituality are private and personal matters which every individual must sort out for him or herself.
Ironically, in this connection a concept meant to protect religious expression and conscience often serves to undermine it. I refer to the “separation of church and state,” which often means that “Church” and “State” each represents its own world that has little necessarily to do with each other. Thus, it seems a certain kind of wisdom to practice the faith so as to avoid anything that trespasses on the political world and to engage in politics so as to avoid suggesting or implying that our spiritual values or judgment have validity for others. Instead, it is best to keep the two realms separate. We might even commend them both as important, perhaps equally important, but each in its own way. But normally the two should not be brought together.
To an alarming degree just such a separation does seem to make a kind of common sense in our culture today, and provides a basis for not “mixing” politics and religion. Hardly anyone abstains absolutely from such mixing, however. Some issues are clearly both religious/spiritual and matters of political import. But under the sway of the general “wisdom” many conclude the only clear and compelling connection between the way of Jesus and the politics of the day has to do with two or three so-called “moral issues,” on which not even all earnest Christ followers agree. As I say, the evil one delights in this because it limits gospel light and power to just a few issues (which are regarded by our culture as personal matters anyway) and encourages us to think that everything else falls outside the concerns of “the faith.”
That last phrase, however, pinpoints the problem and also points toward critical solutions. There is nothing that falls outside the concerns of “the faith,” at least not “faith” as firm trust in the God revealed to us in Jesus.
This God, the Father of Jesus, is the God of Israel, and the maker of heaven and earth. I’ve put it this way not only to echo important biblical language, but to illumine a critical point that we often fail to see. That God is maker of heaven and earth, and as we learn from the unfolding Scripture story also the redeemer of heaven and earth, identifies the earth as God’s legitimate focus and concern. The earth and the heavens, and all that fill them (see Psalm 24:1), would include the whole of our reality. Nothing in our world today with its many concerns and challenges stands outside of or alien to “the heavens and the earth.” The God and Father of Jesus is maker and redeemer of it all. In fact, the redeeming work of this God does, according to the New Testament, extends to the whole of reality. It concerns “all things” (see how many times Colossians 1:15 and following refer to “all things”).
The God and Father of Jesus, however, is also the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and this too has important implications for both our religion and our politics. God not only cares about the whole world, but offers that care through a particular people. In fact, this God calls a particular people to bear special responsibility to witness to and share God’s care and blessing with the world. Thus, the story of our God reveals that everything—even political matters—falls within the creative and redemptive concerns of God. The story then shows that God’s concerns becomes actual and consequential precisely through a people. In truth, the very people whose life is most defined and qualified by their faith in this God.
But the story of our God also sheds important light on another facet of a “political faith” or a faithful politics. God’s concern for the world trumps (pun intended with only slight apologies) God’s commitment to work with or through any particular people. In the unfolding biblical story, the people of Abraham narrows to Israel, then Judah, then a remnant of Judah, then a segment of that remnant, and finally to a reconfigured community around one Messiah who shows the world the God whose story he fulfills.
This story therefore shows us two things that faith in God requires. First, care for and stewardship of the whole of creation, including all of its varieties of people and their particular political relationships and dynamics. Second, the story also shows us that political relationships and dynamics that do not reflect care for the whole world is at least suspect, if not illegitimate as an expression of a biblical faith that by its very nature must qualify everything for the truly faithful.
Coming back now to the politics of today, and not least in the U.S., let me suggest the following. I believe it a glaring misconception that politics and religion must not be mixed. True fidelity to the story of God revealed in Scripture and ultimately in Jesus, requires a politics that shares and expresses our faith. Likewise, our faith in the God of the Bible must find clear expressions that will be “political.”
This is because God is Lord of all, because Jesus is Lord of all. And, all means all. This is because our life in Jesus, following after Jesus, is a life of care for and service to all that Jesus loves, which again means all. Attempts to separate faith from politics denies the pre-eminent claims of our God and Messiah Jesus. Such separation would often mislead us to think that Jesus has relevance in the world of politics only in relation to just a few obvious (but, more and more, obvious only to some of us) moral issues.
When, in fact, the call to love God and others, and to make disciples, shapes our values, forms our identity, and guides our plans and responses to the world around us. To the extent that this is true for us, we will expect Jesus’ way to guide us in every dimension of life, whether personal or public. Thus, we will seek to discern how best to respond to whatever the issue, and whoever the candidate, in the way that best reflects the claim of God and Messiah Jesus upon the whole world with all of its people, and then will take action with awareness that such “political” actions guided by such faith become the powerful means by which God carries his redeeming story forward in our day.
Far from separating the faith from politics, the biblical account of faith rising from its revelation of God in Jesus Messiah, requires an integration of faith and politics. Perhaps, better, it requires a transformative shaping of our political views, responses and strategies by our faith. As a result, we will not seek political action that we think will best accomplish the goals of faith; rather, we will seek political action that best reflects the way of Jesus and trust God to carry the redemptive story to its conclusion. We are not primarily political problem-solvers but solution-witnesses in word and deed in every arena including the political arena.