Christ and Politics

Garry Wills’ claim in a recent op-ed in the New York Times “Christ Among the Partisans” that “there is no such thing as a ‘Christian politics’” is biblically and historically suspect. Wills cites Christ’s statement to Pilate, “My reign is not of this present order” (John 18:36), and his declaration, “Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God what belongs to him” (Matthew 22:21), to contend that Jesus had “no political message or program.”

Although Christ did not have a distinctive political agenda, his teachings have implications for all aspects of life, including government and politics. He told his followers to be salt, light, and leaven in the world, which necessitates participating in the political arena. Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat, but he does care about politics. After all, much good or evil can be done through government. Jesus said that he was the vine and his followers were to be the branches; that is, they were to produce good fruit in all areas of life. Although there is no single Christian approach to politics, the Bible encourages believers to serve as political officials and to craft laws that incarnate its norms of justice, civility, peace, and virtue.

A long tradition of Christian political philosophy stretching from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin to Reinhold Niebuhr to John Paul II argues that the state is ordained by God and that the political realm is subject to his rule (see, for example, Romans 13:1-5; Psalm 24:1, 97:9, 99:2, 102:15). Jesus told Pilate: “you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Christian theologians and leaders throughout the ages, not just current leaders of the religious right, have urged believers to apply biblical principles to their corporate life. This is especially important in republics where citizens choose their representatives and help devise their laws.

Government officials, like clergy, parents, or teachers, hold a God-given office and therefore have a responsibility to serve him through their callings. Christians should focus more on the Bible’s larger themes than on single issues, as do many evangelicals and conservative Catholics. They should support policies that benefit the common good and work to achieve public justice, not try to gain special privileges or advantages in society. Thus they should support policies that provide racial justice, protect the environment, encourage just accumulation and use of wealth, use force appropriately, promote peace, and alleviate poverty and disease around the world. Simply because many American Christians have often failed to address these issues from a biblical perspective is not a valid reason for ignoring the relevance of Scripture today.

Wills maintains that Jesus “was the original proponent of a separation of church and state” and contends that asking “what would Jesus do?” in the political realm is misguided. Faith—although not always orthodox, Christian faith—had a powerful influence on the thoughts and actions of many presidents. Most chief executives did not confine their religious convictions to their private lives. While presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush rarely talked explicitly about Jesus, many of them were guided by their personal faith and their understanding of biblical teachings in their work. Many of them argued that God rules the universe, that the dictates of reason and revelation reinforce one another and supply a basis for both individual morality and public policy, and that religious faith best sustains the nation’s constitutional democracy and provides the strongest safeguard and support for republican virtue and liberty.

Most of our presidents used biblical motifs to define and defend the nation’s goals and purposes. Many of them argued that faith in God was essential to sustaining America’s traditional values, strengthening its resolve, and solving its problems. Numerous chief executives testified that they valued prayer and frequently sought divine assistance in making decisions and leading the nation. Their faith helped many of them gain perspective, establish priorities, be confident about their decisions, endure trials, and accept defeats. Presidents often used religious rhetoric to satisfy the expectations of American civil religion and justify their policies. But they also frequently employed it to comfort the grieving, challenge citizens to promote justice, appeal to commonly held moral values, and invoke God’s blessing on America and thank him for his guidance. Christ’s teachings are still relevant to politics, and our history demonstrates that trying to implement them can help advance justice, peace, equality, compassion, and virtue.