What Should A Christian Citizen Consider?

[1] The question is posed: What should a Christian citizen consider when evaluating the religion of candidates for political office and their appeal to religion in their attempts to get elected and in their efforts to support their legislative initiatives?

[2] The classic Lutheran answer to the first part of the question is that frequently attributed to Luther himself: It is better to be governed by a smart Turk (i.e., Muslim) than a stupid Christian. (I am told that Luther in fact never made that specific comment, but he did say things much to the same effect.) That sentiment follows from the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. God rules over all human life, but He does so in a dual fashion. There is the right-hand rule of grace, in which the governing rubric is love, and the left-hand rule of law, in which the governing rubric is justice. Politics exists in the left-hand realm of law and justice.

[3] Put differently and more directly, Lutheran doctrine holds that in a fallen world–a world marked by original sin–it is neither necessary nor possible to rule the state by the gospel. (In shorthand terms, a Christian magistrate does not forgive a convicted criminal seventy times seven; he applies to that person the appropriate penalty of the law.) A proper politics is ruled in a moral sense by natural law, and that law comes not from special revelation–by which we learn of Christ and his kingdom–but from the common knowledge of right and wrong made available by God to all human beings. Christians do not, simply by virtue of being Christian, have any superior insight into how best to govern a polity. There is no programmatic Christian politics. Politics involves the establishment of social justice, and social justice is not a concept peculiar to Christians.

[4] We want from political leaders the qualities of all good leadership: courage, honesty, intelligence, vision, compassion, integrity, composure under pressure, sound judgment–all those things that add up to the Aristotelian virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom. Christians have no monopoly on the qualities that make for good governance.

[5] Even in questions of motivation there is no necessary Christian advantage. We might hope that Christians would be particularly attentive to the need to turn their abilities to the good of others rather than personal advancement, but experience indicates that selflessness is not a virtue restricted to believers.

[6] Let us be specific. If one looks at American history, there is no necessary correlation between personal Christian belief or piety and effective leadership. We can all, depending on our political preferences, supply relevant examples. So also in the present presidential season. I find Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion alien and unpersuasive, but it in no significant way enters into my judgment as to his fitness for the presidency. As for all the others, I find no reason to distinguish among them according to their religious beliefs. I would not vote for a militant atheist–the militancy would make me wonder about his or her judgment–but short of that or of adherence to a religion that requires human sacrifice or some other moral aberration a candidate’s faith is irrelevant to me.

[7] Well, not entirely irrelevant–which brings us to the part of the question related to a candidate’s appeal to religion in running for office and supporting a political program.

[8] Americans tend, rightly in my view, to be leery of candidates who make too much of their religion in putting themselves forward for office. Modest attestations of religious trust and commitment expressed in familiar Judeo-Christian language are acceptable and even welcome. We are put at ease by candidates fluent in the idiom of American civil religion. Some evangelicals want more elaborate professions of faith, but most of us do not require them and are in fact made somewhat uncomfortable by them. Explicit appeals to denominational particularity or attachment are rightly considered out of bounds. John Kennedy knew that Catholics would vote for him because he was one of them, but it would have been considered improper for him to appeal to them on that basis. All these norms and protocols would seem to me acceptable to Christians.

[9] Appeals to religion in support of a legislative agenda are a rather more complicated matter. No one can imagine a decent politics without morality, and most Americans claim to derive their moral principles from their religious beliefs. In the American context, then, politics and religion cannot totally be separated.

[10] Thus we need, in the first instance, to clear up the confusion that exists between separation of church and state, on the one hand, and separation of religion and public life on the other. Separation of church and state is a constitutional mandate that only a handful of fanatical theonomists–people who believe that America must be governed by “Bible law”–oppose. Separation of religion and public life is a denial of American tradition and practice that a number of extreme secularists have proposed and that too many thoughtless people have bought into.

[11] This is a complicated constitutional issue that cannot fully be explored here. It is also one about which there is no necessary consensus among Christians. But it does seem to me essential, given most Americans’ identification of morality with religion, that there be a considerable degree of accommodation between political life and religious conviction. Nonestablishment of religion should be as strictly construed as the founders intended: no established church and no preferences to particular churches–but not, as neo-Jeffersonian absolutists would have it, a towering wall of separation between the sacred and the secular.
[12] But where precisely do we go from there? How should Christians respond to appeals by politicians for support of their programs on religious grounds? My perspective, in line with the Lutheran presuppositions outlined above, is a minimalist one. If there is no gospel politics, then the moral status of legislative proposals depends on their conformity with natural law as it applies to public affairs. Social justice is God’s justice, but it is not a self-defining term on which all people of good will, political acumen, and theological literacy necessarily agree.

[13] Most people agree as to the proper ends of politics: peace, order, freedom, equality, equity, fairness, prosperity–all those things we summarize as the common good. Where we do not agree–and what politics is most frequently about–is how those ends are best attained. Christians might all concede that public policy should be particularly attuned to the needs of the weak, the marginal, and the vulnerable: the so-called “preferential option for the poor.” But how do we most effectively aid the poor? Simply by bestowing on them public benefits, or by more effectively including them in the circle of economic exchange and productivity inhabited by the nonpoor? Those are not mutually exclusive options, of course, but they do suggest legitimately contrasting emphases. In this matter and elsewhere, political life is frequently ironic: we accomplish other than what we intend, and our unanticipated consequences often run counter to our original purposes.

[14] In addition to the vexing problem of the relation of means to ends, there is the further difficulty of tension between the ends themselves. We cannot in politics maximize all good things all at once. We face perplexing trade-offs between freedom and security, efficiency and equality, liberty and moral order.

[15] All this should induce in politicians and citizens alike a sense of moral humility. Christians have to act politically, and they have to seek God’s will for their actions, but they should recognize that their ignorance is such and the ambiguity and complexity of the moral life are such that they very often must act without being able confidently to invoke God’s will in support of their actions.

[16] In most cases, the direct political lessons that Christians draw from their faith are negative ones. They learn from God’s law the things that peoples and nations must not do, which is to say they learn the limits of permissible political activity. Christians will be able more confidently to describe injustice than to prescribe justice; they can discern history’s demonic elements far more readily than its redemptive ones.

[17] Not all political activity is negative, of course. Opportunities exist for improving social arrangements in various ways–and these call for full mobilization of our energies and talents–but always the awareness of flawed human nature will guide Christians away from utopian illusions and back to the understanding of the proximate and limited nature of humanity’s striving for the good.

[18] There is, in my view, one further compelling argument for restraint in invoking religious and moral imperatives in support of our political programs. Such appeals, at least when cast in negative terms, inflame and poison political conversation. If I tell you your political agenda is wrongheaded, you need not be personally offended. If I suggest it is immoral, you almost certainly will be. Political comity can survive vigorous disagreement; it cannot survive denial of decent intent.

[19] All in all, then, Christian citizens should approach this question with the assumption that religion and politics, while necessarily kept in conversation, should intrude only with caution into each other’s sphere. They are inevitable acquaintances, but not normally intimate partners.