by Kevin Hester
I recently read an article in Time magazine that traced the seemingly permanent impasse in the federal government to the election of a number of representatives during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. At a meeting with incoming House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and Congressman Vin Weber, Bush expressed his greatest fear that they would allow their “idealism…(to) get in the way of…sound governance.” His fear may not have been misplaced for Weber is noted to have said, “What is good for the President may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans.”
As we are entering a new presidential election season, I have done a great deal of thinking about the role of Christianity and politics. What is the relationship between idealism and practical impact? I can recall that growing up there was almost never any reference to politics or political ideas from the pulpit. With the rise of the religious right this seemed to change, especially following Falwell’s Moral Majority. Conservative Christians found a voice and technology has now provided them a platform for political discourse. Facebook has made it easy for individual Christians to promote any number of political ideas as “Christian.” The question is always; however, in what ways such ideas are “Christian.”
The Church has rarely had a monolithic position on its relationship to government. Not since the time of Moses (and later the Davidic kingship) has a particular political model held divine authority. Scripture is clear that government comes from and is ordained by God, fulfilling important roles in the divine economy (Rom. 13:1-7). God is sovereign over government and leaders (Prov. 21:1; Dan. 2:20-21; Ps. 22:28) and this is why Christians are instructed to be good, obedient citizens and to pray fervently for our leaders (1 Pt, 2:17; 1Tim. 2:1-4; Titus 3:1-2). But it is also why we are to pray that God’s kingdom will come (Mt. 6:10), and we are assured that this is indeed what will happen (Rev. 21:3-5).
The Church’s relationship with government has changed through the years. It is interesting to note that many of the passages found above were inspired by God and written during a time in which the Church was suffering under intense political opposition and oppression. The earliest apologists were quick to point out that Christians were good citizens who prayed for the emperor. Though they spoke to defend themselves and their rights as they proclaimed the gospel, they sought to live at peace with all men.
Following the rise of Constantine, Christianity came to express itself in more political ways. Even into the medieval period, although the Church and the government were separate, Christianity recognized mutual goals and God’s leadership of both “kingdoms.” The proximity of this relationship would prove problematic as the religious hegemony of the medieval period broke with the Protestant Reformation. New persecution and the legacy of the Hundred Years War would lead many of our Baptist forebearers to cry out for religious freedom by which, in part, they meant a fuller separation of the Church and the state.
This principle would be ensconced in the founding documents of this country. The Church and indeed the churches of this country had room to disagree with one another and still inform cultural norms and morals. It is the theological position that all persons are created in the image of God that informs such a relationship. Forlines states, “recognition that man is made in the image of God does not require religious conformity in a culture, but it does offer hope of a moral consensus.” He speaks with the voice of a prophet when he later argues that postmodernism undercuts the basic principles of democratic government: “it is not the purpose of civil government to endorse a plan of redemption, but it cannot carry on its function when it writes off all Truth.”
This is the world in which we now live. Evangelicals have struggled to respond. Recent articles have advocated the “Benedict Option” or the “Buckley Option.” J. Matthew Pinson has argued instead for a “Kuyperian Option” that is transformational in character. The early church offers us assistance here in both areas. One response to this new reality is to turn inward and work to teach and catechize members of our churches in “thick” communities of faith (Benedict Option). But this is only a means to an end. The ultimate goal is the gospel and the building of God’s kingdom. The second response understands that as the Spirit transforms lives, Christians will transform culture (Kuyperian Option).
So what does this look like? I’m not entirely sure. C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity wrestled with what a truly Christian country would look like and he kept bumping up against the same diametrically opposed political platforms that plague us today. He muses that should we visit a hypothetical Christian country, “we should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, ‘advanced’, but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old fashioned.” If Lewis is right, Christianity transcends political platforms in ways that make complete party loyalty impossible.
Christianity has much to say about economics, immigration policy, human rights, and sexual norms. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have cornered the market on the “Christian” view. Each party, like each individual Christian, has departed from God’s plan in different ways so that “people who are fighting for quite opposite things can both say they are fighting for Christianity.”
As our culture and our country become less Christian, we must not give up hope and we must not give up on our country. We may have awakened to find ourselves exiles but God’s word speaks to us here as well. In Jeremiah 29:7 we read, “And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” As we seek the welfare of our neighbors and our country, we promote our own. We are called to pray and to preach but our message is one of peace rather than division. Christian idealism may get in the way of “sound governance,” but what is ultimately good for the country may not be good for political parties.
We must work to strike a balance between building Christian communities and engaging our world with the gospel. We must “speak evil of no man” and be “gentle” rather than “brawlers,” so that the world may “come unto the knowledge of the truth” (Titus 3:2; 1 Tim. 2:4).
 I am not wishing to advocate here for a particular millennial position. God’s reign, though it currently exists in the minds and hearts of the faithful, will be manifested on earth; whether during an earthly millennium (premillennialism and postmillennialism), or in the eternal state (amillennialism).
 Justin Martyr, First Apology, 43-44; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 24; and Tertullian, Apology, 30-33.
 See Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity.
 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions. (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 147.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 84.
 Ibid., 85.