“Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics,” by Robert Benne, is a little book with a great title.
Benne is American, Lutheran, and discerning. He not only understands the role of religion in our country’s past, but the role of politics in our religious present. He also has a knack for answering the basic questions Christians ask about politics, and he does so in a clear and concise way.
In a world where political books are ubiquitous, it is notable that there are so few good books that thoughtfully analyze how politics and the church should intersect (MacArthur’s, Why Government Can’t Save You, is a favorite of mine, but also an exception that proves the rule; Grudem’s Politics is good, but unwieldy). It is naive to say that the church should say nothing about the political issues of the day, and it is outrageous to argue that the church should have political change as one of its missions. But is there a good argument for a thoughtful middle ground?
Benne provides that argument. He begins by explaining some really bad ways people have tried to fuse religion and politics. There are the separationists, by which he means those who reject that there should be any intersection between God and government at all, and the fusionists—those who say there should be no daylight between the two.
The problem with the separationists, Benne points out, is that it they end up making mockery of the Christian world-view. They claim that Christianity has nothing beneficial to offer the structure of society, and no moral guidance for government. Separationists end up producing passivity that at one extreme produces the German church under the Nazis, or at the other extreme the practical agnosticism of many American Christians who don’t see how their Sunday affects their Monday-Friday. A world where separationists had their way would have no doctrine of vocation, no just-war theory, and no comprehensive view of providence.
The problems with the fusionists are historic. The church-state model has always ended up being bad for both the church and the state. The concept of common grace is lost on the fusionists, as they seek to baptize every part of any government they are part of. Reading this section I couldn’t help but lament current Christian leaders who feel the need to say Trump or Clinton are believers, in order to justify voting for them.
The most serious problem with the fusionists is a confusion of the means/ends distinction. The church is a spiritual body made up of spiritual people meant to advance a spiritual kingdom. But the fusionist sees the church as a means to advance a non-spiritual end, namely politics. This confuses the order, Benne notes, and “instead of salvation for all, politicized religion offers salvation only to those on the right side of political fault lines” (25).
There is a better way. But before explaining what that is, Benne pokes holes in some more spurious assertions about politics and religion. First, he demolishes the idea that separation of church and state means that the church should not be active in politics. That is isolation¸ not separation. Moreover, it flies in the face of American history, where churches were involved in abolition, the end of segregation, and women’s suffrage movement. It flies in the face of current history, where liberal causes are often advanced by main-line denominations, and social justice protests are organized by churches. Our media loves to point out those partnerships, and in so doing they demonstrate that the only “separation of church and state” they really believe in concerns churches advancing a non-politically correct cause.
And this is the best part of Benne’s book. He traces out how most main-line denominations began adapting social causes at the expense of religious truth. As they did so, their leaders became more and more liberal, while their churches became more and more empty. Ironically:
When the mainstream Protestant churches and the Catholic Church are less able and willing to form their members morally and spiritually, those churches put heavier emphasis on their role as public actors. A nasty observer might note that when the churches can no longer persuade their own people they make greater attempts to get their way politically through more coercive means (87).
In order to avoid that failure, Christians need the basics of a theological world view in order to make sense of politics. They must understand that people were created by a holy God, and are in his image. We are exalted, but fallen. Then we need to connect that fallenness to the gospel, and the church to the mission of advancing the gospel. With this comes the means/ends distinction—improving the world by abolishing abortion is a means, the end is the advancing of the kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel.
There has to be clear understanding in our thinking of what Benne calls “the qualitative distinction between God’s salvation and all human efforts” (51). In other words, political work is not salvific. But, “that does not make it unimportant, for God has chosen to reign in another way in addition to his reign by the gospel in the hearts of individuals” (52). Here is where the doctrine of common grace is essential. God designed government to work as a form of grace to the world, and Christians should esteem it as a tool for that purpose.
Government then should be a simple expression of love to one’s neighbor, and Christians most definitely want to a part of that.
So, how should churches be involved in politics? Benne gives four ways:
By teaching (for example) that lying, stealing, and adultery are bad, churches act as a light to the world, and we influence the morality of society. In addition, we create the future political leaders of the world, who then would know that lying, stealing, and adultery are wrong, and presumably then would govern accordingly.
We connect the simple and straight-forward moral commands of the Bible to the ethical dilemmas of the world. We reason from our theology to our character, then to ethics. We explain: because we are in God’s image, and murder and selfishness are both sin, that abortion is also sinful. Or, because God is a God of truth, and lying is sinful, lying under oath is also sinful. Benne explains that, “[this] ‘bringing to bear’ is not a simple straight-line process, but nevertheless one that brings Christian wisdom and morality into play” (58-59).
This process assumes that churches have some ethical knowledge that would help society, and while it comes from a faith-perspective, it is formed by vigorous moral convictions. When these are deeply embedded in people’s consciences, it affects how they view politics.
In light of the ethical demands of the Christian conscience, churches should be involved in third-party organizations to advance moral issues to make our world a better place. The most obvious example is pregnancy resource centers, or pro-life advocacy groups.
Now, why the need for a third-party organization? Benne answers:
It is good that the commitment to specific policies is done by independent voluntary associations, not by the church. Identifying the church too closely with such specific policies will make it one more interest group in the contest for political influence and power, and undermine its capacity to bring a universal message to all sinners (93).
Obviously not all issues are as “straight-line in their reasoning” as abortion and perjury. This is where the wisdom of church leaders come into play.
The final category of church involvement is when a church actually mobilizes for a political purpose. Where pastors encourage their people to “Vote no on Proposition 4” or “Vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger.” This should be the most infrequent of all approaches, Benne warns, because if every election is “the most important election ever” for the church, then the church is reduced to just another interest group in the eyes of its citizens (95).
There are countless examples of churches using this approach wrongly—mainstream denominations in the US clearly want to advance liberal politics more than biblical ethics, so they now find themselves largely ignored. There are also examples of incidents where churches decided to stay quiet and not use this means—again, Germany under Hitler, or South Africa under apartheid (where many churches even declared their ambivalence to it in their statements of faith).
But when the moral issue is clear, there is a straight-line connection from theology—morality—ethics—political solution, and there is an effective way the church can be involved, then this becomes another tool to help advance the cause of grace in the world. Benne gives several practical steps for churches to help them think through this option (such as a church statement on the issue that reflects serious thought and which shows an understanding of the means/ends distinction, as well as which points out a number of different response to achieve a social goal; 104-5).
For those that want to think seriously about the relationship between politics and the church, I strongly recommend this book. If its practices were followed, then more Christians would rightly see government “as an instrument of God for preserving a basic order and justice that enables people to live and flourish, while ensuring time and space for the church to proclaim the gospel, which is the church’s central mission” (53).