Should Christians Participate in Politics?

The next presidential election is one year away. In 2004 evangelicals voted for George W. Bush by a ratio of nearly 4-to-1 and seemed poised to have a major impact on Bush’s second administration. However, except for Bush’s Supreme Court nominees and opposition to stem-cell research, evangelicals have gotten little of what they desired. Disillusioned by recent political developments, especially the war in Iraq and Bush’s meager domestic accomplishments, as well as the seeming lack of an electable conservative Christian presidential candidate, many evangelicals are now tempted to retreat from political engagement.

The standard excuses for Christians ignoring politics are that Christ’s kingdom is not of this earth, politics is dirty, morality cannot be legislated, the separation of church and state prevents Christians from bringing their religious commitments in politics, Christians take opposite positions on many political issues and thereby cancel each other out, and Christians should invest their time, energy and money in more important tasks such asevangelism, spiritual growth and safeguarding orthodoxy.

When Jesus said that His kingdom was not an earthly one, He meant that, in contrast to the expectations of many Jews of His day, He had not come to earth to establish and rule over a political kingdom. Jesus repeatedly declared, however, that He was building a spiritual kingdom on earth. He also instructed His followers to be light, salt and leaven—to have an enlightening, preserving, uplifting effect on their societies. Moreover, His teachings, coupled with those of various Old and New Testament writers, supply guidelines and norms for political and social life. They command His disciples to work to produce nations that insure fairness, justice and civility and promote compassion and peace.

While some have been corrupted or at least tarnished through their participation in politics, many others have maintained their character and political integrity. Politics is no more inherently dirty or corrupting than business or social relationships.

In reality, all laws are based on moral principles. Prior to Roe v. Wade abortion laws were grounded upon a set of moral assumptions; Roe v. Wade and other subsequent decisions rest upon very different moral presuppositions. The failed Prohibition experiment of the 1920s and early 1930s is often cited to prove that we cannot force people to act in certain ways by passing laws. In the 1960s, however, our nation adopted civil rights laws that clashed with the racist attitudes many Americans held. Being compelled by law to treat African Americans justly appears to have helped diminish racial prejudice in the United States.

Almost all of our founders, whether they were Christians, deists or theistic rationalists, believed that religious values and traditional Christian morality were essential to the success of the republic they created. In the First Amendment they prohibited the establishment of a national church and insured freedom of worship. The much quoted phrase “the separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution but instead stems from Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, and the third president did not mean by its use that individuals must leave their religious values at the door when they enter political life. Indeed, he did not do so himself. In a democracy, all citizens have the privilege of arguing for policies based on their personal philosophical and religious commitments.

Although promoting evangelism, spiritual formation and sound doctrine are essential parts of the Christian mission, weighty issues are at stake in the political arena. The character, leadership and policies of our presidents and members of Congress have a significant effect on our domestic life and our relations with other nations. While we can tackle many important issues—global and domestic poverty, hunger, homelessness, AIDS, environmental destruction, the sanctity of human life, the oppression of women including sexual slavery, genocide, racial and ethnic conflict—in part through private organizations and individual actions, our government has a large role to play in helping alleviate these problems. Refusing to participate in determining our nation’s priorities, shaping its policies, and directing its expenditures robs Christians of a great opportunity (and obligation) to advance Christ’s true kingdom on earth.

Political leaders will always disappoint us in some ways. Their character will not be as exemplary as we desire. They will not deliver on some (or many) of their promises. They will compromise on issues when we think they should stand strong. It’s been that way from George Washington to George W. Bush.

We need, therefore, to have modest expectations about what can be accomplished through government. We will never achieve heaven on earth. Nevertheless, let’s continue to participate in politics, by campaigning and voting for candidates whose positions we support and whose character we admire, by studying issues, and by supporting organizations whose political stances and lobbying activities we value. Through doing so we can help, as Christians have done for centuries, make our nation and our world more righteous, just and peaceable.