The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with Dr. Joseph Hellerman concerning his article “Jesus & Politics: Ramping up for November 2012,” published here on the Good Book Blog. Dr. Hellerman is a pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship and a professor at Talbot School of Theology.
I am receiving an increasing number of e-mails from persons in my church championing this or that conservative political cause. One dear brother has become particularly persistent in his attempts to get his church leaders to jump on the political bandwagon. I recently responded in some detail:
Dear Oceanside Christian Fellowship Brother,
Thank you so very much for taking the time to forward these materials to me, but I must confess that I just do not have a burning desire to get involved with the political process.
If I vote in November (I say “If” because I find no biblical mandate to do so, though I generally have in the past), I will do so (a) as an American citizen with Christian values, who is participating in the political process, and who would like to see my daughters enjoy the same America I have enjoyed, but not (b) as a representative of the Christian community who is attempting to influence the broader culture with Christian morality.
I will try to explain the difference by sharing a handful of convictions I hold:
- Jesus profoundly challenged religious nationalism. In fact, I wrote a whole book on the issue.
- Our calling as followers of Jesus is to build an alternative social reality—the Christian community—one that is radically distinct from the state. It is not our calling, as a Christian community, to legislate morality for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). (This does not mean that individual Christians are not to participate in the political process. I am writing here about our public stance as a people of God.)
- If we are determined to change the culture by legislating biblical morality, where do we draw the line? I don’t hear Christians who oppose legalizing homosexual marriage lobbying to outlaw adultery, or fornication, or obesity, or greed. These glaring inconsistencies leave an indelible stain on any attempt to ‘Christianize’ the moral contours of American society. And just whose ‘Christian’ morality do we legislate? Some Christians are convinced that consuming alcoholic beverages is a sin. Do we lobby to outlaw the sale of alcohol? History has certainly demonstrated the futility of Christians trying to influence broader societal values via the political process on that issue.
- A Christianity that expends its energies trying to fix the world by legislating morality—rather than serving the world through acts of justice and mercy—alienates unbelievers, because all they hear about is what we are against, rather than what we are for. This is why ministries like Sharefest (which mobilizes churches in Los Angeles to engage in work projects in the community) build bridges and make friends between believers and unbelievers, while “anti-this,” “anti-that” Christian political agendas build fences and generate enmity. Please note that I am not advocating a gnostic-like, world-negating perspective vis-à-vis society-at-large. I am suggesting, instead, that we exchange what has become an adversarial political stance toward the broader culture for an aggressive program of community service, mercy ministry, and evangelistic outreach.
- I am not convinced that we could change the broader culture, even if we wanted to. This book, which articulates a Christian political philosophy similar to the one that I have held for quite some time, explains why.
History, in fact, has much to teach us. When Constantine adopted Christianity, after several centuries of marginalization and decades of persecution, most Christians were delighted to have “their man in the White House.” A century later, when the Goths sacked Rome, one Christian leader, Jerome, lamented, “Jerusalem has fallen, Jerusalem has fallen,” so easily had the church bought into the idea that the Constantinian empire was now a “Christian nation.”
- Even assuming that we could change the values of the dominant culture, to do so by wielding political power would be to engage in an ill-fated agenda that has, again and again, throughout church history, compromised the very message of the cross that we preach.
Jerome was wrong. There was/is no “Christian nation,” post-Pentecost. The era of a national people of God ended with national Israel, with the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. Indeed, the Constantinian “marriage” of the early church to the Roman state proved to be disastrous for the integrity of the Christian project—a mess that we didn’t even begin to untangle until the Protestant Reformation, centuries later.
A contemporary of Jerome’s, Augustine, had a much more biblical vision of the relationship between the church and the Roman state. In response to the sack of Rome, Augustine notes, in the City of God, that the “city of man”—secular empires—come and go, while the City of God lasts forever.
The idea that it might be America’s time to “go” is a sobering one, and I am not unaware of the potential cost of my perspective for life as we know it. Someday soon we will likely lose our tax write-off for charitable giving to our churches. Someday it will be illegal for Oceanside Christian Fellowship to discriminate by refusing to hire a homosexual pastor. And someday it may even be considered a hate-crime to preach against homosexuality in a public setting.
So be it. The church will have no tax write-off and no professional staff. And we will meet in homes, just like the early Christians, who, it seems to me, had a whole lot more genuine spiritual influence upon the dominant culture than we have had in America, in recent decades, at any rate.
This is why I disagree with the policies and goals of both the Christian right (James Dobson, Chuck Colson, et al) and the Christian left (Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd). When our kids were little, Joann and I learned so very much from Focus on the Family about parenting. But I pretty much turned Dobson off when he transitioned from family to politics a decade or so ago.
I imagine that hearing all this from one of your pastors disappoints you, brother, but I have worked through this in my own mind over the years, and I am quite settled in my position. Others will see things a whole lot differently, and I certainly respect those who take a contrary position. Your passion for Christ is to be applauded. I will always think very highly of you as a brother in Christ.
In Christ Our True Lord & King,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important subject. Like you, I am disgusted with the way patriotism has been wed with Christianity in America. However, as a pro-life activist, I strongly disagree with the other conclusions you have drawn. I hope you will forgive me for using a little satire to explain why. It is not my intention to be disrespectful, but I do believe this is the most effective way for me to communicate my concerns. Consider this fictional letter from an Anglican minister to Thomas Clarkson, the great abolitionist:
Dear Thomas Clarkson,
Thank you so very much for taking the time to send me these materials concerning the slave trade, but I must confess that I just do not have a burning desire to get involved with the political process.
You ask me to preach against slavery from the pulpit, circulate your petition after services, and urge my congregation to boycott sugar. However, as a representative of the Christian community, I have no intention to influence the broader culture with Christian morality. It is not our calling, as a Christian community, to legislate morality for unbelievers. If we are determined to change the culture by legislating biblical morality, where do we draw the line? If we are to outlaw slavery, must we also outlaw cursing and drunkenness?
And just whose “Christian” morality do we legislate? For many years, only the eccentric Quakers opposed slavery. You are the first Anglican minister to publicly stand against the trade, and there are still very many in our community who find nothing wrong with slavery.
A Christianity that expends its energies trying to fix the world by legislating morality alienates unbelievers, because all they hear about is what we are against, rather than what we are for. As I am sure you have noticed, many people do not like William Wilberforce. He makes them angry, and has brought ridicule on the entire evangelical community. They speak of the “damnable doctrines of William Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies,” and many consider him a traitor to the Crown.
Finally, I am not convinced that we could change the broader culture, even if we wanted to. For millennia, all cultures and all religions have accepted the institution of slavery, and the economy of the empire is dependent upon the trade. Furthermore, even assuming that we could change the values of the dominant culture, to do so by wielding political power would be to engage in an ill-fated agenda that has, again and again, throughout church history, compromised the very message of the cross that we preach.
Instead of petitioning parliament and boycotting sugar, why don’t you spend your time helping the poor and telling people about Jesus?