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Should Christians try to influence laws and politics? Before explaining my own understanding of this question, I need to mention what I think are five wrong views. After that I will propose what I think is a better, more balanced solution.
A. WRONG VIEW #1: GOVERNMENT SHOULD COMPEL RELIGION
The first wrong view (according to my judgment) is the idea that civil government should compel people to support or follow one particular religion.
Tragically, this "compel religion" view was held by many Christians in previous centuries. It played a large role in the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) that began as a conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics over control of various territories, especially in Germany. There were many other "wars of religion" in Europe, particularly between Catholics and Protestants, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Eventually more and more Christians realized that this position is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus and inconsistent with the nature of faith itself. Today I am not aware of any major Christian group that holds to the view that government should try to compel people to follow the Christian faith.
But other religions still promote government enforcement of their religion. This is seen in countries such as Saudi Arabia, which enforces laws compelling people to follow Islam and where those who fail to comply can face severe penalties from the religious police. The law prohibits public practice of any religion other than Islam and prohibits Saudis from converting to other religions. But it must be noted that other Muslims also favor democracy and allowing for varying degrees of freedom of religion.
In the early years of the United States, support for freedom of religion in the American colonies increased because many of the colonists had fled from religious persecution in their home countries. For example, the New England Pilgrims had fled from England where they had faced fines and imprisonment for failing to attend services in the Church of England and for conducting their own church services.
Several teachings of the Bible show that "government should compel religion" is an incorrect view, one that is contrary to the teachings of the Bible itself.
1. Genuine faith cannot be forced
Government should never try to compel any religion because, according to the Bible, genuine religious belief cannot be compelled by force. Jesus and the New Testament apostles always taught people and reasoned with them and then appealed to them to make a personal decision to follow Jesus as the true Messiah. Jesus invited people, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mat 11:28; compare Acts 28:23; Rom. 10:9–10; Rev. 22:17).
Anyone who has brought up children knows that not even parents can force children to believe in God. You can bring them to church and you can teach them the Bible, but each child must make a personal decision to trust in Jesus as his or her own Lord and Savior. Genuine faith cannot be forced.
Someone might object, "But what about laws in the Old Testament that ordered severe punishments for anyone who tried to teach another religion (see Deut. 13:6–11)? Wasn't that part of the Bible?"
The answer is that those laws were only for the nation of Israel for that particular time. They were never imposed on any of the surrounding nations. Such Old Testament laws enforcing religion were never intended for people after Jesus came and established his "new covenant" (Heb. 8:8–9:28).
2. Jesus distinguished the realms of God and of Caesar
Another biblical argument against the "compel religion" view comes from Jesus' teachings bout God and Caesar. Jesus' Jewish opponents were trying to trap him with the question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (Matt. 22:18). Taking his opponents by surprise, Jesus said, "Show me the coin for the tax," and "they brought him a denarius" (v. 19). Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:20–21).
This is a remarkable statement because Jesus shows that there are to be two different spheres of influence, one for the government and one for the religious life of the people of God. Some things, such as taxes, belong to the civil government ("the things that are Caesar's"), and this implies that the church should not try to control these things. On the other hand, some things belong to people's religious life ("the things that are God's"), and this implies that the civil government should not try to control those things.
Jesus did not specify any list of things that belong to each category, but the mere distinction of these two categories had monumental significance for the history of the world. It signaled a different system from the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, where everybody in the nation was considered a part of the people of God and they all had to obey the religious laws.
3. Freedom of religion is a biblical value
Jesus' new teaching that the realms of "God" and "Caesar" are distinct implies freedom of religion. It implies that all civil governments—even today—should give people freedom regarding the religious faith they follow (or don't follow), and regarding the religious doctrines they hold, and how they worship God. "Caesar" should not control such things, for they are "the things that are God's."
Therefore Christians in every nation should support freedom of religion and oppose any attempt by government to compel any single religion. In fact, complete freedom of religion should be the first principle advocated and defended by Christians who seek to influence government.
B. WRONG VIEW #2: GOVERNMENT SHOULD EXCLUDE RELIGION
The opposite error from the "compel religion" view is "exclude religion." This is the view that says we should completely exclude religion from government and politics. According to this view, religious beliefs should never be mentioned in governmental functions or on government property and should never play a role in decision-making processes in politics or government.
This is the view promoted today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). According to it, religious belief should be kept at home and quiet. There should be no influence from religious groups in the political process.
Examples of this view are seen when people object to prayers being given at the beginning of a city council meeting, or when groups demand that the Ten Commandments be removed from public places. Supporters of this view seek to prohibit religious expression in high schools, student-led Bible studies, prayers before sporting events, or even a valedictorian talking about his or her faith at graduation.
1. It changes freedom of religion into freedom from religion
The "exclude religion" stance is wrong from a Constitutional viewpoint, because it twists the positive ideal of "freedom of religion" to mean "freedom from all religious influence"—which is entirely different and something the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the U.S. Constitution never intended.
In fact, the "exclude religion from politics" view would invalidate the very reasoning of the Declaration of Independence, on which the United States of America was first founded. The first two sentences mention God twice in order to say that God's laws authorize independence from Great Britain and that God is the one who gives human beings the rights that governments must protect:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men....
In other words, the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that both the laws of nature and of God gave our country the right to become an independent nation. They claimed divine authorization for the very existence of the United States of America! Furthermore, the signers said that the purpose of government is to protect the rights that are given to people by God ("endowed by their Creator"). This is hardly "excluding religion" from government or important government publications.
The First Amendment to the Constitution likewise declared: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech." What they meant by "an establishment of religion" was an established state church, a government-sponsored or government-endorsed denomination or specific religion. But they did not intend this amendment to exclude all religious speech and activity from government building and activities, for our nation's early political leaders continued praying publicly to God at government events, even having church services in the Capitol for many years.
The phrase "separation of church and state" does not occur anywhere in the Constitution. It was first seen in a letter from Thomas Jefferson in 1802, in which he assured some Baptists in Connecticut (the Danbury Baptists) that the government would never interfere with the affairs of their church. The First Amendment was never intended to guarantee that government should be free from religion or religious influence. The only "freedom of religion" that was intended was freedom from government sponsorship of one particular religion or denomination.
2. It wrongly restricts freedom of religion and freedom of speech
The First Amendment also excluded any law "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. This is directly opposed to the "exclude religion from government" view, which actually seeks to prohibit Christians and Jews and others from exercising their religious freedom when speaking or giving a prayer at a public event. Their free exercise of religion is taken away from them.
This view also wrongly restricts individual freedom of speech. Why should a high school valedictorian not be free to express his own viewpoint in his graduation speech? Speaking a religious opinion in public is not compelling people to accept that viewpoint!
3. It was never adopted by the American people
The "exclude religion" view was never adopted by the American people through any democratic process, but it is being imposed on our nation by the exercise of "raw judicial power" by our courts, and especially by the Supreme Court. This has been an increasing problem for the last several decades in America.
The Supreme Court decision Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) was especially significant. In that case the court said that government actions "must not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion." It did not say "advancing or inhibiting one particular religion" but "religion" in general. (An earlier decision in 1947, Everson v. Board of Education, had said something similar.) This kind of "exclude religion" view was never adopted or approved by the American people but simply decreed by our Supreme Court, taking to itself powers it never legitimately had.
4. It removes from government God's teaching about good and evil
The Bible says that a government official is "God's servant for your good" (Rom. 13:4), but how can government officials effectively serve God if no one is allowed to tell them what they believe God expects of them? The Bible says that government officials are sent "to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good" (1 Peter 2:14), but how can they do that if no spokesmen from any of the world's religions are allowed to give them counsel on what is "good" and what is "evil"?
Such a viewpoint has to assume that there is no God, or if there is, his moral standards can't be known. And by rejecting the idea of absolute standards that come from God, this viewpoint leads toward the moral disintegration of a society.
We see the payoff of this view in the rampant moral relativism among today's young adults who were taught as children in "exclude religion" schools, schools where "because God says so" could no longer be used as the strong foundation for moral conduct as it had been for the first 200 years of this nation.
C. WRONG VIEW #3: ALL GOVERNMENT IS EVIL AND DEMONIC
According to this third view, all use of government power is deeply infected by evil, demonic forces. The realm of government power is the realm of Satan and his forces, and therefore all governmental use of "power over" someone is worldly and not the way of life that Jesus taught.
1. Support from Luke 4:6
This viewpoint has been strongly promoted by Minnesota pastor Greg Boyd in his influential book The Myth of a Christian Nation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005). Boyd's views in this book have had a large impact in the United States, especially on younger evangelical voters.
Boyd says that all civil government is "demonic" (p. 21). His primary evidence is Satan's statement to Jesus in Luke 4:
And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours" (Luke 4:5–7).
Boyd emphasizes Satan's claim that all the authority of all the kingdoms of the world "has been delivered to me" and then says that Jesus "doesn't dispute the Devil's claim to own them. Apparently, the authority of all the kingdoms of the world has been given to Satan."
Boyd goes on to say, "Functionally, Satan is the acting CEO of all earthly governments" (p. 22). This is indeed a thoroughgoing claim!
2. The mistake of depending on Luke 4:6
Greg Boyd is clearly wrong at this point. Jesus tells us how to evaluate Satan's claims, for he says,
When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).
Jesus didn't need to respond to every false word Satan said, for his purpose was to resist the temptation itself, and this he did with the decisive words, "It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve'" (Luke 4:8).
And so we have a choice: Do we believe Satan's words that he has the authority of all earthly kingdoms, or do we believe Jesus' words that Satan is a liar and the father of lies? The answer is easy: Satan wanted Jesus to believe a lie, just as he wanted Eve to believe a lie (Gen. 3:4), and he wants us to believe a lie as well, that he is the ruler of earthly governments.
By contrast, there are verses in the Bible that tell us how we should think of civil governments. These verses do not agree with Satan's claim in Luke 4:6 or with Boyd's claim about Satan's authority over all earthly governments. Rather, these verses where God is speaking (not Satan) portray civil government as a gift from God, something that is subject to God's rule and used by God for his purposes. Here are some of those passages:
The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men (Dan. 4:17).
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.... For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good ... the authorities are the ministers of God (Rom. 13:1–6).
Excerpted from Voting as a Christian by Wayne Grudem Copyright © 2012 by Wayne Grudem. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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