A Few Thoughts on Temporal Authority and Why it Should be Obeyed or Mark Noll Needs to Vote!

[1] What’s a Lutheran to say about Mark Noll’s essay “None of the Above: Why I’m not Voting for President”? Noll says he’s not voting. In fact, he hasn’t voted in years — not because he’s too lazy to go to the polls or because he doesn’t care about the issues, but because American politics has gotten so bad that not voting is the best he can do as a Christian. The crisis, apparently, has to do with the political parties. Noll holds a set of political positions, positions shaped by his Christian convictions, which he can’t find represented by the political parties. Or more accurately, Noll can’t find his positions represented by any one party. Certainly the parties together address the issues which concern him. The problem is that Noll’s collective positions are not held collectively by any one party. Noll is pro-life (Republican), but he thinks we need to improve race relations (Democrat); he favors progressive taxation (Democrat), but also free trade (Republican); he wants aggressive advocacy of religious liberty (Republican), but also more comprehensive health care (Democrat). Since Noll’s political convictions are represented sometimes by Republicans and sometimes by Democrats, he can’t in good conscience vote for either of them. On election day he does nothing!

[2] What’s a Lutheran to say? First, as a Lutheran, I would like to express my sympathy with Noll’s anguished conscience, paralyzed into inaction as it is by the inescapable claims of conflicting duty. But second, as a Lutheran, I want to admonish Noll to take more seriously his obligation under God to fulfill his civic duty. Christians, after all, are obliged in conscience to obey the governing authorities, and, in a democracy, that political obligation includes the obligation to vote.

[3] The real problem may have less to do with the parties and more to do with the Noll’s political expectations. Noll seems not to recognize that politics, as a postlapsarian enterprise, naturally involves compromise. From a theological perspective we can say that politics is constituted in the Noachic Covenant by God’s compromise with an obdurately sinful creation; from a natural perspective we can see that politics is constituted by the compromise between competing interests. Noll, however, insists on all or nothing. He’s got a set of positions on seven political issues, each equally paramount from his Christian point of view, and since neither party has taken up these issues in their entirety, Noll feels compelled as a Christian to drop out of the political process.

[4] Perhaps we can get at the heart of things by considering a distinction, not original to me, between the Christian as a member of the church and the Christian as a member of the body politic. As a member of the church, the individual Christian represents together with the church the cause of the church, which is nothing other than the proclamation of the gospel. Since the gospel addresses the human being concretely, it addresses the human being in his or her time and place. Thus the proclamation of the gospel sometimes has political implications. It can point to concerns which arise only in a particular historical setting. For example, because the gospel calls Christians to love their neighbors all and equally, its proclamation may have implications for how Christians in a particular time and place think about issues like abortion or race or poverty. Nonetheless, the proclamation of the gospel by the church should not be confused with politics. The gospel addresses the individual first, who, by hearing the call to faithfulness together with others, brings forth a new community in the midst of a world that knows it not. As a member of this new community, the Christian represents the cause of the gospel without compromise. At the same time, she does not mistake the spiritual ends of the church with the temporal ends of the body politic.

[5] The Christian knows, in a way others do not, that politics is a limited enterprise. Its purpose is not to solve the human condition, but to provide that space in which the church can proclaim the gospel to the individual in his or her entirety, as a person claimed by God with needs and aspirations that transcend the political. For this reason the political enterprise is rightly described as autonomous — not autonomous from God’s will or the demands of justice, but autonomous in the sense that its end is separate from the spiritual end of the church. The end of politics is to maintain order and justice so that the members of the body politic may hear the call of the church. This work of preservation, while essential to the mission of the church, necessarily takes on its own form, a form different from that of the church’s work. Whereas the church is ruled by the uncompromising grace of the gospel, politics is ruled by the law of compromise, itself grounded in God’s compromise with rebellious creation and symbolized for the ages by the rainbow.

[6] Because politics is an autonomous enterprise built on compromise, the church never contributes directly (except in times of crisis) to the political task. Sound political action requires assessing complex dynamics and interrelationship, a task that depends on the light of reason not the light of the gospel. Consider a few examples suggested by Noll’s own list of political priorities. Noll favors “sharply progressive taxation.” This Christianly inspired moral imperative most likely follows from a conception of justice that favors the needy. But the ability to help such people depends upon economic prosperity, and a system of taxation too sharply progressive might stunt the economy in a way that renders helping the needy impossible. Noll favors free trade, but free trade leads to outsourcing and the shutting down of American factories, which hurts the same needy Noll would help with progressive taxation. In short, the imperative to help the poor stands in tension with economic realities, and determining a course of political action requires recognizing the competing realities and compromising between them. A well-intentioned but uninformed Christian unwilling to compromise on his moral commitments might do more harm dealing with such questions than a hard-nosed heathen who understands the social and political dynamics. When does progressive taxation undermine economic growth? When does economic growth produce unacceptable social costs? These questions have no clear Christian answer; they must be answered by natural reason. What foolishness, then, for a Christian to insist on particular answers to these questions as a condition of his political participation! How much better for a Christian, who knows that politics is an alien but necessary work of God, to accept his political responsibility cheerfully!

[7] The Christian, as a member of the body politic, knows that politics will never achieve what in the fullness of time will be achieved through the church and its gospel. For this reason the Christian is detached from the game of politics, and, in a democracy, his orientation toward the parties is fundamentally neutral. Political parties by their nature are a conglomeration of constituencies seeking to advance their interests by seizing the levers of power, but forced repeatedly into compromise by the competing claims of other constituencies and interests. Even political platforms, couched in lofty and noble language, reflect the compromise between competing interests within a party. Thus the Christian does not look to the parties to advance a “Christian political program.” Rather he seeks to judge between the parties by asking himself which conglomeration of interests is more likely, in this place and moment of time, to further the common good. Casting a vote, of course, means compromising. The Christian must “dirty his hands” by supporting a party that does not share all his political convictions. But what comfort he takes in the knowledge that before God his vain efforts count for nothing! Even if he votes poorly, God can bring good out of it!

[8] What’s a Lutheran to say to Mark Noll? How about: Sin boldly! Go vote!

H. David Baer

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