Read an Excerpt
City of Man
Religion and Politics in a New Era
By Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner, Christopher Reese
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2010 Michael J. Gerson and Peter Wehner
All rights reserved.
Religion and Politics: Friends or Enemies?
In the course of our common pilgrimage of faith, one of the many things we discover is that the Scriptures can be difficult to reconcile. At times, different verses and injunctions seem to make different claims and to demand different and sometimes even contradictory responses.
For example, Jesus tells us, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." And yet, five chapters later in Matthew's gospel, Jesus says, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."
In the book of Romans we learn that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," even as we are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us to honor our fathers and mothers, and St. Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church—yet Jesus declares, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, hiswife and children, ... he cannot be my disciple."
Are these and other verses truly irreconcilable? No; but reconciling them requires careful study and reflection. It can be dangerous, or even heretical, to build whole doctrines on a single verse without taking into account other verses and, especially, the historical context.
What is true about the Bible's prescriptions in general is true in particular for its teachings on Christian involvement in politics and governance. On one side we are told that Jesus is Lord of everything. According to the Christian account of things, God has never been detached from the affairs of this world; to the contrary, He has played an intimate role in its unfolding drama—from the creation, to the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, to the incarnational presence of Jesus. God, the Bible teaches, is the author of history, and is not indifferent to the realm of politics and history.
So it would be foolish to exclude politics from the things over which God has authority, especially since civil government was itself established by God. Of the hundreds of prohibitions in the sixty-six books of the Bible, none is against people of faith serving in government.
We can put the point much more positively than that. In the Hebrew Bible, certain kings win the outright approval of God. In the New Testament, St. Paul argues that Christians should be good citizens and faithfully discharge their obligations to the state. Jesus Himself says we should render unto God the things that are God's and to Caesar the things that are Caesar's.
Still more positively, Christians should care about politics. The reason is that political acts have profound human consequences. It makes a very great difference whether people live in freedom or servitude; whether government promotes a culture of life or a culture of death; whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity. And whatever form of government we live under, we as individuals are enjoined to be mindful of our own civic duties. The prophet Micah tells us to do justice and to love mercy. We are called to oppose evil, to see to the needs of "the least of these," to comfort the afflicted, to feed the hungry, to help free the captives.
But doesn't the Bible also clearly teach that some things are far more important than politics? It does. Before the time of Jesus, it was expected that the Messiah would come as a political leader. Instead, He came as a lowly servant, born not to noble privilege but in a manger in Bethlehem. The disciples recruited by Jesus did not enjoy worldly status or influence. On a high mountain in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus by offering Him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He declined, emphatically.
Jesus and His disciples also demonstrated a profound mistrust of power—especially political power. The focal point of Christ's ministry—the objects of most of His energies and affections—were the downtrodden, the social outcasts, the powerless. Regarding a Christian's place in the world, Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world." None of the disciples led anything approaching what we would consider a political movement, and all of us are urged to be "strangers and pilgrims" in the City of Man. Finally, there is Christianity's most sacred symbol, the cross—an emblem of agony and humiliation that is the antithesis of worldly power and victory. History, especially the history of the church, may seem to offer its own reasons for demarcating Christianity from the sphere of politics. According to the social philosopher Jacques Ellul, every time the church has gotten into the political game, it has been drawn into self-betrayal or apostasy. "Politics is the Church's worst problem," Ellul wrote. "It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the Prince of this World."
Given these cross currents, it is little wonder that throughout history Christians have adopted fundamentally different, and even diametrically opposed, approaches to politics and governing.
The Anabaptist tradition—which grew out of the Reformation and now includes the Amish, Mennonites, and Plymouth Brethren movements —takes the view that Christian allegiance should be to the kingdom of God alone. If politics demands deep involvement in this world, holiness involves separation from it. For some Anabaptists, the duties of a Christian are restricted to praying for those in political authority, paying taxes, and passively obeying the civilian government. Others focus more on the example of the church itself as an alternative society. "The first task of Christian social ethics," writes Duke University's Stanley Hauerwas, "is not to make the 'world' better or more just, but to help Christian people form their community consistent with their conviction that the story of Christ is a truthful account of our existence."
At the other end of the spectrum are figures who have wanted the church to govern earthly affairs, so as to bring society better into line with their understanding of God's will. This view goes back at least to the Roman Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century first granted Christians freedom of worship, along with political privilege. Under his rule, Christian bishops functioned in an official political capacity, and the power of the state was used to enforce doctrine. In the course of a century or so, the position of Christians in Rome went "from the church against the state to the church for the state."
Pope Innocent III, who lived in the thirteenth century, viewed himself not simply as a spiritual leader but as a temporal ruler—and he proved it by seizing authority away from the secular government. During his reign, the papacy was at the height of its power; it was, in effect, a theocratic superstate. In more recent times we have the model of the Church of England, the officially established church of the realm, and one that believes it has an affirmative duty to shape society. In fact, the bishops of the Anglican Church of England sit in the House of Lords, where they are called "the Lords Spiritual."
Between these two poles one finds thinkers such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, and, approaching our own times, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
St. Augustine ranks as arguably the most influential Christian thinker after St. Paul, and his book The City of God may be the most influential Christian work of the Middle Ages. In addition to its many other significant achievements, this book created what has rightly been called a "theology of history."
It is to Augustine that we owe the concepts of the City of God and the City of Man—the former anchored in "heavenly hopes," the latter in "worldly possession." Tracing the history of these two cities, Augustine concludes that, ultimately, the City of God will triumph. Until then, however, we live in the City of Man, the result of the fall and of a defect in the human will.
For Augustine, the purpose of the state is to restrain evil and to advance justice, for, "in the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized brigandage?" But such justice can only approach true—divine—justice insofar as it is informed by the "heavenly hopes" that flow from the City of God. As the theologian Robert E. Webber comments,
[T]rue justice exists only in the society of God, and this will be truly fulfilled only after the Judgment. Nevertheless, while no society on earth can fully express this justice, the one that is more influenced by Christians and Christian teaching will more perfectly reflect a just society. For this reason, Christians have a duty toward government.
Martin Luther (1483–546) propounded a different vision: two kingdoms, one carnal and the other spiritual, each needing to remain separate from the other and each making its own legitimate demands. Still, Luther's views, while somewhat dualistic and quietist, did not advocate withdrawal from the world or preclude Christian participation in political affairs. We need both kingdoms, Luther maintained, "the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about eternal peace and prevent evil deeds."
To John Calvin (1509–1564), God was not only Lord and Creator but "a Governor and Preserver, ... sustaining, cherishing, superintending all the things which He has made, to the very minutest, even to a sparrow." The sovereignty of God, in other words, extends to all spheres, including all human institutions. The active purpose of the state, Calvin wrote, is "to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to reconcile us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquility." Beyond providing merely for peace and safety, civil authorities, according to Calvin, are the "ordained guardians and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, honor, and tranquility."
The nineteenth-century Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper struck a somewhat more moderate note. Arguing for "sphere sovereignty," he saw three spheres—the Church, the State, and Society—each distinct but interrelated with the others, all part of the created order, all governed by God. "Instead of monastic flight from the world," Kuyper wrote, "the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position of life."
Like Kuyper, the twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth also took a relatively benign view of the state, believing that it, like the church, served Christ's divine purposes beyond simply restraining evil. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most influential twentieth-century articulators of the church-state relationship, believed in the necessity of politics in the struggle for social justice, even as he understood the sobering limitations of politics in this fallen world.
As we have seen, in historical experience, one can discern an ever-swinging pendulum of political engagement. Consider, in modern times, a single American denomination—the Baptists. For a long period, many Baptists were led by their dispensational theology to concentrate on winning souls instead of engaging theworld. But it was also from within their ranks that ministers and activists like Jerry Falwell would emerge to argue for restoring America's "moral sanity" as an urgent Christian imperative. "Conservative Fundamentalists and Evangelicals can be used of God to bring about a great revival of true Christianity in America and the world in our lifetime," Falwell wrote in 1981. This is a story we will return to.
STATECRAFT AS SOULCRAFT
What, then, are the views and insights we ourselves bring to this matter? How do we think Christians should approach matters of politics and governing?
To begin with, we reject the notion that Christianity and politics are at odds or irreconcilable. This is a form of Christian privatism. It has more in common with the ancient Gnostic view that creation is inherently evil than it does with the injunctions and teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
As all human activity—from the mundane to the profound, from personal lives to professional careers—falls under God's domain, so authentic Christian faith should be relevant to the whole of life; it ought not to be segregated from worldly affairs. "All our merely natural activities will be accepted," C. S. Lewis said, "if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organisation which exploits, to its own supernatural end, these natural materials."
We readily stipulate that, according to Christian teaching, the main purposes God wants to advance are non-political. As we saw earlier, the New Testament itself contains very little discussion of politics, and no obvious political philosophy. Christianity's core concerns have to do with soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and eschatology (the doctrine of final things such as death and thelast judgment), with the cultivation of personal virtues, and with the rules that ought to govern the behavior of individuals and the community of believers.
But God also cares about justice. And as Augustine wrote, politics can be a means through which justice—"the end of government" in the words of James Madison—is either advanced or impeded. Does this mean that the church is wrong to model itself as an alternative to this world? Not at all. But that model should not be understood as counseling subordination or powerlessness in the face of evil.
The sociologist James Davison Hunter grapples with the possibilities of political engagement in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In speaking about his book, Hunter has raised a number of questions about how much we can expect politics to accomplish.
What the state can't do is provide fully satisfying solutions to the problem of values in our society. There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of family values, the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency, or to the spread of vulgarity.
Hunter concedes that laws "do reflect values." But, he insists, laws "cannot generate values or instill values, or settle the conflict over values." Therefore, he urges Christians to be "silent for a season" and "learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization."
Hunter is a thoughtful and fair-minded analyst, and measured in his conclusions. But he imputes too little influence to the state and the political process. They are more important than he thinks.
"A polity is a river of constantly changing composition," George Will wrote in Statecraft as Soulcraft, "and the river's banks are built of laws." The laws of a nation embody its values and shape them, in ways large and small, obvious and subtle, direct and indirect, sometimes immediately and often lasting. The most obvious examples from our own history concern slavery and segregation, but there are plenty of others, from welfare to education, from crime to drug use, to Supreme Court decisions like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and Roe v. Wade.
Laws express moral beliefs and judgments. Like throwing a pebble into a pond, the waves ripple outward. They tell citizens what our society ought to value and condemn, what is worthy of our esteem and what merits our disapprobation. They both ratify and stigmatize. That is not all that laws do, but it is among the most important things they do.
Suppose that, next year, all fifty states decide to legalize marijuana and cocaine use, prostitution and same-sex marriage. Regardless of where you stand on the issues, do you doubt that, if such laws stayed in effect for fifty years, they wouldn't fundamentally alter our views, including our moral views, of these issues? The welfare laws that passed in the 1960s helped create a culture of dependency among the underclass—and the passage of welfare reform in 1996 started to reverse it. Rudy Giuliani's policies in the 1990s helped transform New York, not only making it a far safer city, but radically improving its spirit and ethos.
Hunter is right that neither politics nor the state can "provide fully satisfying solutions to the problem of values in our society." Nothing can provide fully satisfying solutions to the problem of values in our society. The question is the degree to which perennial human problems can be ameliorated, and attitudes and habits thereby improved. A civilized society takes that task seriously. The work is done in our nation by many different institutions, from the family to school, from houses of worship to Hollywood, from professional sports to the military. Each has a role to play, and so does the state. Indeed, the state can have, for good or ill, a major influence on the others.
Excerpted from City of Man by Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner, Christopher Reese. Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Gerson and Peter Wehner. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.