As a professor of American politics teaching at a Christian college, I think about the connections between religious and political perspectives every day. Although this task is not always comfortable or easy, it is not only valuable—it is essential. Religious values and beliefs directly and indirectly affect how most Americans think about politics. To contribute productively to contemporary debates about American politics, we need to understand both the role of religion and the purpose and limitations of government.
Anytime we begin to talk about a serious topic, it is useful to know where everyone is coming from. We cannot help but bring our own perspectives, life stories, and viewpoints into a discussion. We all have ideas about how the world works and what we think is most important, and these ideas help shape our understanding of those around us. If three people are discussing effective parenting techniques, it is useful to know that one has three teenagers, another has a toddler and a baby, and the third has no children. Each person can contribute important insights to the conversation, but their views will likely, in part, reflect their personal experiences.
Here are three simple reasons Christians should care about politics and how our faith interacts with the workings of government:
Any frank discussion of religion in contemporary American politics must begin with the recognition that the United States is not, nor ever has been, exclusively Christian. The Constitution created a democratic government designed to protect individual freedoms. Freedom of religion, one of those cherished liberties, is a foundational principle of American democracy.
People from a wide diversity of faiths live in the United States and participate in American politics. According to recent survey data, about three of four adult Americans identify themselves within the Christian tradition, but dozens of other religions also have a place here. Consider one example: The number of Americans identifying as Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus has more than doubled in the past decade alone. These three religions combined now represent about the same percentage of the population as Jews. The religious group growing most rapidly is seculars, those who say they are not religious at all.
Just as I want the government to protect my freedom to worship as I choose, so must I promote policies that respect the rights of others to practice their religion. Furthermore, given the religious diversity of the United States, we should not expect everyone to accept nor to embrace political arguments that appeal exclusively to Christian principles and doctrine. Religious views and traditions can and should inform our political perspectives; indeed, the purpose of this book is to help you apply your faith to your politics with care and discernment. But even as we approach politics and government as Christians, we should do so aware that we are engaging in conversations with people from a wide range of perspectives.
A second underlying assumption builds from the first. Although some people may think that their religious views have little influence on their thoughts on politics, in practice this is rarely, if ever, the case. Views of religion, notions of right and wrong, and beliefs about the existence of a god or gods and life after death all affect politics, either directly or indirectly.
Consider a few examples of religion directly influencing politics. Some pastors, priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders teach their faithful to support particular political issues and candidates. Many people talk informally about politics when they gather for worship or other congregational events. At some houses of worship, interest groups distribute voter guides that “compare” candidates for office on a few select issues, sending a clear directive about which candidate deserves the vote.
“In politics as in all endeavors, Christians must not lose sight of their ultimate purpose.”
Because religious beliefs provide a basis for morality, religion also has an indirect but significant influence over political views.
In much the same way that religious teaching helps us discern right from wrong in everyday life, it also offers a framework for evaluating a legislative proposal, comparing candidates for office, or assessing the latest actions of the local school board. Even those who do not identify with a particular religion still uphold some form of moral code that, much like an explicitly religious worldview, will affect their approach to politics.
If religion really affects everyone’s views of politics but we don’t all share the same religious views, how do we reach enough agreement to govern effectively? Although the context of American politics makes it difficult to reach democratic consensus, I believe that Christians can serve important roles in shaping and guiding both politics and the wider culture. These beliefs lead to my third starting point: politics and government are important, but the most important Christian calling is to love God and follow Him.
As participants in a representative democracy, we need to learn about politics and government to help us make positive civic contributions, but influence in government and politics should never be our primary goal. Political power is enticing and potentially very dangerous; the lure of power can quickly turn us away from serving God. In politics as in all endeavors, Christians must not lose sight of their ultimate purpose.
In his classic writing On Christian Teaching, Augustine writes to a young church trying to interpret Scripture correctly and avoid heresy. He points to love as the guiding principle of Christianity, reminding his readers of Jesus’ explanation when asked what was the greatest commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40). Keeping in mind what Augustine calls the “double love” of God and neighbor will help us discern God’s truth from false teaching and provide a guide for Christian thought and action.
by Amy E. Black
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