A Few Remarks about Pious Politicians and What Christians Should Think about Them

[1] The editors of JLE asked me to think about what Christians should think about pious politicians who say they believe in God and talk about their prayer life on national television. The editors want us to ponder the question: how should Christians evaluate public displays of religiosity from political candidates seeking to win public office? The answer: Christians shouldn’t consider religiosity at all. Politics is a secular affair and the proper standard for politics is effectiveness, not piousness.

[2] As Luther said, it is better to be ruled by a good Turk than a bad Christian. This is so because politics aims to achieve distinctively worldly ends through distinctively political means. The better politician knows better how to achieve his or her political objectives. A profoundly pious politician, by contrast, may not know how to go about passing a simple piece of legislation. Thus level-headed Christians are not swayed by references to the Almighty or the power of prayer; they do not vote for ineffective but pious politicians.

[3] Of course, properly understood the question of effectiveness cannot be separated from the question of ends. Effective political action successfully pursues worthwhile political objectives. Politics is secular in the sense that it is ordered to the pursuit of limited and temporal goods, not in the sense that its purposes lie beyond God’s purview and jurisdiction. Politics is not divorced from morality. Thus the question of effectiveness is always also a question of policy, and Christians, when assessing the effectiveness of political candidates, will consider the policies those candidates advocate.

[4] When evaluating policies Christians naturally draw upon their religious convictions. That does not mean Christians will always agree about policy, because, even when agreeing about first principles, people of good will can disagree about the best or most appropriate way to apply those principles in a given circumstance. Moreover, politics, because it deals only with penultimate things, is comprised of decisions that are often somewhat relative. Where should the minimum wage be set? What is the best way to respond to terrorism? Acceptable answers to these sorts of questions rest not on a single point but on a spectrum, and Christians can disagree about the right answers.

[5] Sometimes, of course, a political policy can be unequivocally incompatible with Christian convictions. In such cases the response of Christians will tend to be uniform and Christian political action more direct. Policies that offend against the equal regard due all human beings (for example, policies that endorse or permit torture or policies that allow abortion) demand clear political responses from Christians. So, also, do policies that disregard the inherent limits on politics (for example, policies that disregard the rights of the family or policies that obstruct the highest spiritual aspirations of the human being). Even when confronted with unequivocally wicked political policies, however, Christians will need to make prudential judgments about how best politically to act on their convictions. Christians, for example, who lived under the communist regimes of Eastern Europe consistently confronted profound assaults on religious freedom, but it did not follow that they were obligated to seek to overthrow their governments. Rather they needed to make practical judgments about what was possible in the given context. Similarly, Christians in the United States, who recognize in large numbers that legalized abortion is incompatible with Christian convictions, still need to make practical judgments about whether they should treat the election of individual candidates as a referendum on the abortion issue. As a political strategy, that approach may be more reasonable on some occasions than on others.

[6] Even when they disagree about individual strategies, however, Christians evaluating political candidates remain focused on the policies the candidates advocate. Political candidates should not be surprised if their professions of faith are met with skepticism by Christian voters. Personal piousness is not politically important. To sum up: it’s not the piety, it’s the policy, stupid.

H. David Baer

Helmut David Baer is an Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.