Thursday, February 23, 2012

Religion and Politics: A Cautionary Note to Christians

This past week Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum reignited the controversy over President Obama’s religious beliefs, and triggered a larger discussion of the relationship between religious beliefs and politics. I have been concerned for some time about a dangerous trend I think I see among believers, and I would like to address it in this post.

Based on my understanding of the Bible, I believe that…
-abortion is wrong because it takes an innocent human life.
-marriage is to be one man for one woman for life.
-there is a right to personal property, and that people should work to provide for their families.

Some of you at this point have probably labeled me as a Bible-thumping wackjob. (And if you don’t believe the Scriptures, or you disagree with my understanding, I am glad to study with you offline – that isn’t the purpose of this note).

On the other hand, based on my understanding of the Bible, I believe that…
-the poor should be helped, and the wealthy who take advantage of the poor should be punished.
-the earth is the creation of God and humanity has the responsibility to be good stewards of the environment.
-the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory should end, and the Palestinians should enjoy justice and the Israelis should enjoy peace.

If I had begun with this list, some of you would have written me off as a commie sympathizer (I know this because a few years ago I would have done the same thing!).

But both sets of beliefs are driven by my convictions about what the Bible teaches, and while modern political parties rely on driving wedges between people in order to generate partisan energy, I refuse to play along.

In a recent political discussion one of my friends said, “I support ___ because of his stance on moral issues.” What do you think my friend had in mind by “moral issues”? Abortion and gay rights. But are those the only “moral issues” at stake? Isn’t the plight of the poor a moral issue? Isn’t the exploitation of the poor by the rich a moral issue? Isn’t care of the environment a moral issue? Aren’t peace and justice moral issues? And shouldn’t Christians care about all moral issues?

In the time of Christ, abortion was a reality, and homosexual practice was widespread (although not even Greco-Roman culture ever considered institutionalizing gay marriage). Christianity had a lot to say about those issues. Jesus very plainly taught that marriage was between a man and a woman (Matthew 19:1-9), and Jews and Christians both opposed the practices of abortion and infanticide (see Josephus’s comment in Against Apion 2.25).

But the New Testament says far more about the issues of poverty and the dangers of wealth than it does about those other issues. This is not to diminish what the Bible says about abortion and homosexuality, but it is to remind us that the Bible addresses other moral issues as well. The brother of Jesus wrote this, for instance:

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:1-4).

Can anyone serious read this passage and deny that the Lord considers injustice against the poor a moral issue? And if we are going to argue that the civil government should reflect God’s will regarding marriage, shouldn’t we also say it should reflect God’s will concerning the care for the poor and the judgment of the dishonest?

Passages like James 5:1-4 are just as inspired as the passages that address homosexuality, and if we are really going to practice what we preach – that “ALL Scripture is inspired” – then we need to speak up on all issues that the Bible addresses.

We must also be on guard against manipulation by political parties. Those parties know how to fan the flames of partisanship in order to serve their own ends of obtaining and maintaining power. And through the years, Christians have often voted en masse for one party or the other, depending on which issues were framed as the hot button moral issues of the day. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Democratic candidates like William Jennings Bryan galvanized evangelical support with rallying cries like:
“Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”  
 As a child growing up in Kentucky, I knew very few Christians at church who were Republican. Most of the people in my grandfather’s generation were Democrats because they thought the Republicans looked out for the special interests, while the Democrats cared for the common man. Those days the key “moral issues” were economic. Now, the tide has turned the other way, and most evangelicals identify themselves as Republican because of a different set of moral issues. I don’t think it is good for Christians to fall under the sway of any party.

My plea to Christians is simple: please do not allow worldly political parties to artificially divide the teachings of the Bible into sets of issues we will care about and won’t care about. We need to care about everything the Bible says.

Some of you will vote this November, grudgingly choosing the “lesser of two evils,” because your conscience requires you to make a difference using the blessing of freedom and the ballot box. I respect your conscience. But I have decided that I will no longer choose between the lesser of two evils. Instead, I will do my best to live out the values of the Bible (and that alone is a project requiring my full time attention), and I will speak truth to power an all issues to all parties, as best as I can understand the truth and preach it. That is the way to make a real difference and turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). 


  1. Very nice post. It is always nice to meet a fellow out-of-state UK fan. I agree with all of your admonitions regarding Biblically based policy positions (except the Palestinian issue, which I think is more complicated) but as an inner-city pastor/non-profit attorney and former Congressional aide, I worry when I hear those who rightfully are concerned with the poor seem as if they believe the left is truly serving the "least among us." For example, when LBJ launched the Great Society initatives in 1965, poverty in the US stood at 13%. 15 years later after massive government expenditures, the poverty rate stood at...well...13%. As an inner city pastor, I just don't see the government truly helping and I see too many institutions relying on their "clients" remaining in poverty. Just a thought. Keep up the good work and go Big Blue!

  2. Hi Matt
    Thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you. It is one thing to say Christians should be conscious of helping the poor - it is an entirely different matter to determine the best way to help the poor. I often think about the laws God gave Israel regarding the tithe. Every three years it was to be distributed to the poor in each village. So there was help, but it was locally administered. I think many people equate helping the poor with centralized federal action, which is a non sequitir.
    It's been a great year for the Wildcats!

  3. You havent changed ,still the kool aid drinker of the Democratic party, and Obama supporter. Good luck when he does away with all christian churches in the U.S. If you can't see this coming you are dumber than I realized

  4. Shane, it was good to see you! Vicky told me that as your sermon started Sunday evening she thought she would just "remember" the points, then she decided she needed to grab pen and paper and write them down. Quite independently, the same sequence happened to me, and I've stumbled on your site looking for the sermon to download and listen to again. Thanks again for an excellent presentation.

    Regarding your post, before living in Israel for two years, I would have expressed similar thoughts. The experience transformed me. I'll have to look for a chance to discuss it with you in person.

    Thanks again for a great sermon.