What is the proper relationship between Christianity and politics? Within this piece I examine and critique two popular models for relating the bible to modern political questions. Afterwards I will propose an approach which attempts to synthesize the strengths of both.
Before we begin, I need to address a popular view which I believe to be greatly mistaken, namely that the Bible isn’t interested in political questions at all and that God is only interested in the church and in the lives of Christians. Such a pietistic approach comes up against the story of the entire old testament, one in which Israel is called as a political body of people to be a priesthood to the nations (Exodus 19:5-6). One in which ultimately, the kingdom of God is said to smash to pieces the kingdoms of the nations (Daniel 2:44-45). And one in which the kings of the earth are called to submit to the Messiah who reigns at God’s right hand (Psalm 2:10-12).
So then, a Christian approach towards politics must take seriously this political thread which runs through the whole bible. It mustn’t attempt to create a holy huddle, separated entirely from the world and its political systems and structures of leadership. And with that, we shall consider two popular approaches which have been taken.
The first approach that we should consider is one built around the notion of “values”. Such an approach starts with the premise that what really matters is certain biblical values, such as ‘justice’ or ‘equality’. It derives these values from a number of different passages which mention such themes. Having derived these values from the scriptures, it then seeks to apply them in a political manner, usually via a pragmatic approach.
Usually proponents of this sort of approach tend towards more left-wing political beliefs. They tend to support things like the redistribution of wealth through taxation and a more equal distribution of power across the different members of society (or at least among differing groups of people). Since the values which undergird their politics are derived from various biblical passages and themes, they would argue that their political approach is derived from scripture.
Another approach, which is found more commonly in conservative circles in the United States, is built around the notion of “spheres”. It begins with the premise that God has structured society in a certain way, for his own glory. This involves the creation of different “spheres” in society, such as the state, the church and the family. Proponents of this view would argue that the bible gives different roles and responsibilities to each sphere, and that it’s wrong for one sphere to interfere with the role of another.
Proponents of this sort of view tend to have more right-wing political beliefs. They tend to support policies such as low taxation and minimal state interference in the existing power structures in society, to ensure that the state doesn’t encroach too heavily on the other spheres. They wouldn’t reject the kinds of values defended by proponents of the first view, but they would argue that such values are best realized through the structures and institutions that God has appointed for each purpose.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Clearly there are strengths to both of these views. Both of them seek to uphold important biblical principles, such as the importance of divinely ordained institutions with particular ends and purposes, or the importance of upholding biblical values such as justice and equality. However, both of them fall short insofar as they fail to pay proper attention to the context of the passages which they cite in defence of their respective positions.
A theme such as “justice”, for instance, has a very concrete connection to the covenant and to particular institutions in the old testament. Justice is not an open-ended theme which can be allowed to roam free of context in the bible. It takes on very concrete forms, such as the year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25:8-55. This included many elements which seem quite consistent with the value of equality at first appearance, such as the freeing of slaves (v54) and the restoration of land (v28). However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the freeing of slaves only applied to Jewish slaves – it did not apply to foreign slaves (v39-46). Also, the restoration of land was to the twelve tribes, meaning that non-Jewish citizens of Israel could never secure a long-term investment in the land. The year of Jubilee certainly embodied a kind of justice, but it also represented a kind of feudalism, ensuring that ethnic Israelites would always dominate in the land.
Different kinds of weaknesses can be seen in the second approach. Since the birth of the industrial revolution, words like “household” and “work” have drastically changed meaning. Prior to the industrial revolution, a household was sometimes more akin to a modern business than to a nuclear family. Sometimes it could even resemble a village. The household of Abraham had over 300 men trained as soldiers ready for battle, for instance (Genesis 14:14)! Modern distinctions between “business” and “family” and “government” simply did not exist in the same way in biblical times and so trying to superimpose those structures back onto the bible in rigid ways simply won’t work. A second (but related) issue is that proponents of this approach tend to take a “minimalist” view of institutions, only permitting them to do things which the bible specifically allows. This can sometimes lead to an overly prescriptive approach which fails to reckon with political realities in a sufficiently pragmatic fashion.
A Better Approach
What, then, is a better approach? Clearly we need the strengths of both of these approaches. We need to uphold the kinds of values which the bible upholds, but we also need to see those values embodied through the kinds of close-knit institutional structures which God honours. And in doing this, we need to be wary of all of the kinds of forces, both governmental and non-governmental, which could seek to disrupt such a process.
Take for instance the issue of schools. The debate over different approaches to schooling tend to fall into two broad approaches. Those on the “values” end of the spectrum tend to favour a more centralised system, with state-run schools and a more clearly defined curriculum applicable to everyone. Those on the “spheres” end of the spectrum tend to want a setup in which diversity is encouraged and independent schools outside of the curriculum are encouraged. The problem with both of these approaches is that in both cases they detach schools from the people who are closest to them, the former subsuming them under the government and the latter subsuming them under market forces. A better approach is to view schools as subject to particular local communities. This would probably involve local government oversight and funding, but it would also enable a more diverse range of educational approaches suited to each particular community.
Whatever route one takes in solving such problems, it’s important to uphold a balance of both pragmatism and idealism; of both favouring ideals and also the kinds of institutions which give those ideals their purpose and highest expression. This requires a great deal of wisdom and compromise.