With a the federal election looming, I want to take some time to consider some of the issues around faith and politics from a Christian perspective. I do not intend to be party-political in these posts, but it is impossible not to avoid politics altogether and its important that we are able to think clearly about some very complex issues.
One of the claims often made by secularists is that religion has no place in politics. Certainly, it is argued, a politician’s religion should have no bearing on their politics and policy-making. In the secularist utopia Christians would also keep their religion out of the ballot box and there would be no church run schools, hospitals, or welfare agencies. Leastways, none in which religion has any influence.
I think, most of us would agree with the secularist — up to a carefully defined point. Most Christians I know uphold the principle of the separation of church and state based on Jesus’ words, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22.21, Mk 12.17, and Lk 20.25 all recount the same event.) It was one of the core values of the Baptist movement as they butted up against the 17th century English state church. In Australia, this principle is enshrined in section 116 of the Constitution.
“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
The no religious test clause means that to enter office, politicians and public servants can neither be required to subscribe to a religion nor disqualified by belonging to one. However, Section 116 is a long way from saying religion has no place in politics. An argument could be made that there shouldn’t be prayers at the beginning of parliament but, beyond that, there is nothing stopping a politician’s, or voter’s, religious beliefs influencing their politics. (The wisdom of certain decisions is another matter.)
So, most of us, I think, would agree we don’t want to see a state religion or bishops in parliament. But that’s different to saying religion and politics shouldn’t mix at all.
(Incidentally, it’s ironic that the principle of the separation of church and state exist at all because of the influence of Christianity in the West!)
The fact is that Christians have always sought to influence politicians and, to an extent, politics. When Paul appeared before King Agrippa in Caesarea (Acts 26), his goal was to win him to Christ. When the Christian emperor Theodosius sent troops to massacre 7000 men, women and children for sedition in Thessalonica in 390AD, the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, denied him communion until he was satisfied he had genuinely repented. In the late 18th/early 19th centuries, the British movement to abolish slavery was primarily Christian. British MP William Wilberforce, an Evangelical Christian, was at its forefront. (Of course, there were many Christians in favour of slavery, as were many non-religious people. The point is, Christianity motivated the abolitionists.) Incidentally, Wilberforce also co-founded the RSPCA!
One of the problems we run into in this discussion is different views on the nature of religion. In the West, religion is seen as private. Religion happens in churches and temples, and in the privacy of your own home and your own head. It should not, the thinking goes, leak into the public domain. Or at least, where it does leak, it should only be through charities or social justice, not through expressing moral or spiritual beliefs in the public domain.
The problem is, this is not a Christian view. Jesus’ public good works were framed in the context of his public preaching about the Kingdom of God (which has political connotations). His good works were evidence of that Kingdom and a manifestation of its power — divine, spiritual power.
Christians have a particular worldview in which humans bear the image of God but that image is marred by sin. This sin is at the root of so many societal problems and has both moral and social dimensions. Of course, if you want to fix the problem, ultimately you must go to the gospel, but the problem we are addressing encompasses values and morals as well as issues of justice and social welfare. We have a holistic vision for what healthy people and a healthy society means and you can’t have the social without the spiritual and moral.
Of course, none of this means that Christians should harness politics for the gospel, per se. Quite the opposite — that would bring capital-R Religion into politics and is always a disaster. But it does mean that our gospel convictions will, and should, influence our politics. The problem with trying to pry faith from Christian engagement in the public arena is that you remove what actually makes Christian activity effective, or Christian at all. Our power is not in our good works but in the gospel that is at the heart of those good works.
A second matter for Christians is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. There is a saying that goes, “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.”
This includes the ballot box, the floor of parliament, and civic engagement.
Again, this does not mean that we ‘impose’ our beliefs on other people. In fact, Christians won’t even agree what the Lordship of Jesus means when applied to a certain issue. Politics is messy and compromise is necessary but if Jesus is truly Lord, then every decision a Christian makes must be considered through the filter of faith.
As Christians we need to remember that we are in an ideological struggle. It’s not a struggle between progressive left and conservative right ideologies but between the ruler of the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. It’s what we call spiritual warfare.
One manifestation of this spiritual battle is in the political arena but in the end, this isn’t the most important arena. Politics can achieve a lot of good (or evil) but it can’t transform lives with the power of the gospel.
Nevertheless, we are in a unique place in history where Christians do get to engage with public life through both the ballot box and politics. The law requires that we engage in the process and protects our right to do so as Christians. When the secularist loudly declares that faith has no place in politics they are asserting an opinion, not a fact. And anyway, if I'm not meant to follow my own worldview, beliefs, values and convictions, whose am I meant to follow?
As citizens we are expected to engage in the political process, at least at the ballot box. As Christians, the Lordship of Jesus means that if we do engage, we must do so as people of faith and of the Faith.