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Intersection of Life and Faith

Perspective: Religion and Politics

  • Bill Haynes Senior Policy Analyst for Cultural & Worldview Studies at the ACLJ
  • 2002 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Perspective: Religion and Politics

The age old adage goes, "Religion and politics don't mix." Period.

End of discussion, right? That may indeed be a popular philosophy, but does it square with the teaching of the Bible? Or does it square with the philosophy of our nation's founding? This basic question must be faced during this election period.

It is true that the eternal is more important than the temporal things of this world. There is no doubt politics is a part of the temporal. However, simply because it is less important eternally does not mean that Christians are to ignore it completely.

"Politics" is a word that many people consider synonymous with "dirty." There are certainly plenty of examples that would support this view. Is it possible that politics has gained that reputation because Christians have avoided taking it seriously? Far too often, Christians have even failed to vote, much less take a close look at the character and positions of a candidate that will have a positive or negative effect on our culture.

Unquestionably, the church was a vital part of our nation's founding. Had it not been for the clear preaching from the pulpit, the moral force of this nation would have been lacking. The pastors of the churches in those early days played an important role in the call for freedom, as expressed by one writer: "During the revolutionary era, the pulpit played a key role in encouraging dissent. The political activism of these black-robed ministers earned them the name 'the black regiment.'" (1) These pastors understood that Christianity was not to be seen as isolated from every other area of life. To have avoided this fact would have been to deny that Christianity is more than just something you "add on" to your life, but rather, it is something that permeates every aspect. In Biblical Christianity, it is improper to draw a hard distinction between the sacred and the secular. Everything we do is to be considered sacred, and should be carried out "as unto God." (2)

Historian John Wingate Thornton details how the "election sermon" in early America made a profound influence on the culture of that day. He states, "Indeed, the clergy were generally consulted by the civil authorities; and not infrequently the suggestions from the pulpit, on election days and other special occasions, were enacted into laws." (3) This demonstrates the reality of what John Quincy Adams meant when he said "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity." (4)

The annual "Election Sermon" was a perpetual memorial that continued down through the generations from century to century, and "still bears witness that our fathers ever began their civil year and its responsibilities with an appeal to Heaven, and recognized Christian morality as the only basis of good laws." This reflects the words of the prophet Habakkuk 1:4 -- Therefore the law is ignored, And justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore justice comes out perverted. In other words, without God man will only produce sinful and unjust laws.

Not only did the churches and pulpits of our young nation preach the "election sermon," but they also called the church and the citizens to days of "fasting and humiliation," and to days of "thanksgiving." They expressed that they did this to "seek the Lord for His direction," to "entreat the help of God," as well as for "humiliation to seek the face of God." (6) The civil authorities sought the aid of the pulpit because they recognized a deep need for God's favor and direction to build a nation of freedom and justice. If we are to keep a nation of freedom and justice, we too must recognize that God is the source of wisdom and protection. We must have pulpits that fearlessly declare the truth of God to all the situations of civil life, as well as religious life.

It is true that not all the pastors and churches agreed completely on the course of action to be taken during the period leading up to the American Revolution; but they did all consider it their responsibility to speak clearly to the issues of the day. Ellis Sandoz, Professor of Political Science at Louisiana State University, states that while they may have disagreed on some things, they "almost all agreed that political liberty and religious truth are vitally intertwined." It was the proclamation of the colonial pulpit that apart from religious truth the liberty they sought would not become a reality.

There are many today who would like to silence the voice of the church altogether. They rely on the doctrine of "separation of church and state" to say that the church should not speak to public issues, but only to spiritual ones. This simply does not square with what the Bible teaches. The fact is that many of the cultural issues that are critical to Christians and the church are intertwined with the political world. To fail to speak to issues that are sometimes framed as "political" would mean that the church, and the church's pulpit, would fail to carry out the clear mandate of scripture.

Consider Isaiah's words:

"Cry loudly, do not hold back; Raise your voice like a trumpet, And declare to My people their transgression. And to the house of Jacob their sins." (8)

The voice of the church is to be loud and clear. The Jerusalem Bible catches the spirit of this verse well, as it renders it: "Shout for all you are worth." The attitude conveyed by this word is speak clearly and loudly, spare no one, and be sure that all hear you.

Many, if not all, of the issues that are facing our nation carry with them a clear spiritual and moral dimension. The church must speak to all these issues with a clear and loud voice or else place itself in the realm of the irrelevant. For years the church has understood that abortion was sinful, and a blight on the nation. Pro-abortion groups have long called this a political issue and one with which the church should not "interfere."

Today the church is faced with issues that in past generations it would not have expected to speak to. Two examples are the issue of national security and antiterrorism. If the Bible is correct -- and it is -- in stating in that the primary responsibility of the state is the protection of its people from evildoers (Romans 13:1-5 ), then this becomes an issue in which the church must be interested.

Does it mean that "political" sermons should become the main diet from the pulpit? Of course not! The church, in the early days of this nation, spent one day a year with the "election sermon" and others as needed to call the citizens to prayer, thanksgiving, and humiliation. The problem today is that the church has failed to continue the practice of the early American church: to call for righteousness in public life, as well as in personal, private life.

We are facing a time in the history of our nation when there must be a clear voice spoken from the pulpits of our land. They cannot simply be filled with pious platitudes, but must speak boldly to the issues that are facing our country today. God's word gives clear instruction as to how a nation may go about being strengthened. In Proverbs 14: 34, King Solomon is unambiguous when he says, "Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people." May we who are charged with preaching the truth of a sovereign God not shrink back from proclaiming "the whole purpose [counsel] of God" (10) as the Apostle Paul expressed was his desire to do.

There are, without a doubt, proper ways to do this within the context of our legal system. The American Center for Law and Justice has prepared information that analyses the issue of what is allowed by churches and ministries. You can find this paper on our website at www.aclj.org/resources/politicalspeech/voter.asp.

The church is the heart and soul of our great nation. We must remain true to our call to be "salt and light" (11) by speaking the "truth in love" (12) to our nation in days that cry out for moral clarity in times of great challenges.

For more information about the American Center for Law and Justice, or to join their email list, visit the ACLJ website.

Author's footnotes:

1. Cassandra Niemczyd, Christian History, "Little Known or Remarkable Facts about Christianity and the American Revolution", Issue 50, p. 2

2. Colossians 3:17

3. John Wingate Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1860), p. xxii

4. ibid. p. xxix

5. ibid. p. xxiii

6. ibid. p. xxii, footnote 2

7. Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), p. xii

8. Isaiah 58:1

9. Romans 13:1-7 - "Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor."

10. Acts 20:27 - "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God."

11. Matthew 5:13-16 -- "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.14 "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

12. Ephesians 4:15