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January 8, 2014

Religion and Politics Do Mix (Oct 1992)

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by Rubel Shelly
October, 1992

6We are in the last days of a presidential election. Unless things change drastically from the time of my writing this editorial until we actually go to the polls, the 1992 election will come and go without our nation’s fundamental problems ever being addressed.

Our two major political parties and a whild-card candidate have generated “position papers” that do little more than attempt to posture a personality with some special-interest group. Staged rallies and sound bites have become droll alternatives to substance. One gets the feeling that votes tallied on November 3 will be an anticlimax to one final opinion poll taken by the networks in which the winner will be announced before the voting booths close.

For most of the first half of this century, dispensational theology kept most of American fundamentalists from significant involvement with politics. It regarded attempts at improving our social and political institutions as meaningless. At the same time, liberal theology jettisoned eternity and made political concerns equivalent to the gospel.

Carl F.H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism appeared in 1947. It was a positive challenge for people on the right of the theological spectrum to speak to their time with a socially-responsible message. It challenged the dictum long heard among American conservatives that “Religion and politics don’t mix.” It advocated a new and controversial thesis.

Then came the social upheaval of the 1960s. There were campus riots, racial conflict, and drugs. A sexual revolution took place within a generation. Suddenly the most conservative Christians affirmed that the Bible did have something to say about these issues.

Some right-wing religious leaders began to look like their left-wing counterparts of a generation before. It seemed that it was compulsory for them to have political clout. A loose coalition of conservatives, evangelicals, and fundamentalists came to be known in some media as the “Silent Majority” and in others as the “Christian Right.” Aspirants to the White House received its leaders and offered to speak at conventions and rallies. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan carried two-thirds of the white evangelical vote. Visions of civil religion thrilled some and terrorized others.

For the most part, the Christian Right rallied its own with inflammatory rhetoric focused on a few issues. Its early success in appearing to articulate the concerns of many Americans about so-called “traditional values” quickly began sounding like haughty judgmentalism. True to its religious heritage, the movement began to devour itself from the inside. Unwilling to tolerate honest differences of opinion on certain issues (e.g., Is abortion always wrong regardless of circumstances or generally wrong except in circumstances such as rape and incest?), and insisting on uniformity of method (e.g., Must everyone who opposes abortion on demand picket Planned Parenthood clinics and/or get arrested?), it began fragmenting.

There has always been a strand of thought in the conservative fabric that has tended to equate the United States with ancient Israel. The post-millenial theories of Alexander Campbell and his early associates unquestionably bordered on a form of idolatry with its attitude toward America. Our loyalty to an earthly system may not be substituted for the Kingdom of God without our being guilty of actual idolatry.

Against this uncertain past, people wonder what the relationship of faith is to politics. I do not know how to articulate an adequate answer to such a complex problem. The following suggestions, however, appear critical to the issue at hand.

First, biblical religion is inherently political in nature. One who claims to love God makes that claim a lie by his failure to love his brother (1 John 4:19-21). But loving a brother necessarily requires concern with the socio-political arena in which both live. As with racism, abortion, and the like, almost all political issues are ultimately moral issues because they require value-based decisions.

Second, the church must never ally itself with the institutions of power. Do I believe in the separation of church and state? Absolutely! Why? Because the church’s role in the state is to be its conscience. It cannot fill that role if it identifies with the state and its institutions. The religion Karl Marx dubbed the “opiate of the people” was a form of religion used to prop up the rich and powerful. True religion is never an agency of the powerful but is always the voice of God for the weak.

Third, the church must avoid the false dichotomy of physical versus spiritual, justice versus mercy. God still requires this of his people: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). It is not ours to choose, for example, between preaching repentance and feeding the hungry. We must do both. There is no credibility for the person who wants to teach and baptize without regard to the poverty, alcoholism, or injustices being suffered by those he seeks to convert. Obedience to Christ demands that we pursue both goals – in humility.

Fourth, we do not have the luxury of being unconcerned about the political arena. Since both justice and mercy are involved in the people and policies of government, we dare not remain silent on the sidelines during any election. State and local elections are often more crucial than presidential ones. Some Christians may choose to offer themselves as candidates for office. Others will work to see that responsible, principled people are elected. It is fully within the realm of our Christian duty to support, vote for, and hold accountable our civil officials.

Fifth, the obligations of dual citizenship must be taken seriously. All the kingdoms of men are under the judgment of our God. Whenever there is a conflict of loyalty, there can be no question as to which takes precedence.

As we move toward Election Day ’92, pray that God will guide us in the choice of national leaders. Whether the candidate you support is elected or that candidate’s opponent, pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). And always remember where your ultimate loyalty and hope lie.

Religion and politics do mix. They must mix, for a faith that is genuine cannot leave any part of one’s life unaffected. In a society such as ours, Christians are not only excluded from the process but can actually influence it for the sake of justice and mercy. It would smack of irresponsibility not to care about the outcome.Wineskins Magazine

Rubel Shelly

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