Conventional wisdom for a polite society dictates that the two topics of conversation to always avoid are politics and religion so, I thought I would try to hit both topics in one post.
As a new election season kicks off, politics is coming more and more to the forefront of our national conversation, even though the actual election is more than a year away. (Gonna be a long year…) People of faith often struggle about how their faith should inform their vote. Should the government its power to enforce Christian morality? Should the government be doing more to help the poor? Isn’t that the church’s job? How does a large Christian community coexist in a democracy with other large groups that diametrically disagree with the Christian faith or the notion of religion at all?
Viewpoints on these issues are varied among Christians. The government can be a powerful force for social good and change, and some believe that the best way to show love to the poor is to leverage the government’s resources toward relief for the poor. Others believe that society as a whole is benefited more when the government acts to grow the economy, providing jobs and building wealth which lift people out of the cycle of poverty. Economists and politicians have been arguing over these philosophies for a long time, and there are plenty of intelligent educated people who come down on both sides of the issue.
Peter and Paul both speak clearly about the importance of respect for government authority because the government is God’s earthly arm for justice, which we can all agree is a good thing. Unfortunately, there is little Biblical precedent for interacting in our modern system of governance. Governments around the time of Paul and in the Old Testament days were less democratic. Israel in the time of Jesus was oppressed by the Roman Empire. In the days of the patriarchs, the nation of Israel was ruled by a theocratic class of priests and judges, while in America we are culturally very big on the separation of church and state.
Some might view this separation as diminishing God’s influence in the public realm, but I disagree. I think it is an invaluable gift to the church to be free from involvement from the government. Much like a tenured college professor is free to teach and write as he sees fit, a church that is not under the thumb of the government is free to preach God’s word as they believe it without adulterating influences.
There are several ongoing debates about various laws that people believe infringe on religious liberty. Most of these battle are ultimately resolved in the court system. Consequently, one of the most important features of our system of government is a judicial branch that checks legislative or executive overreach that infringes the rights of the disenfranchised. While I think it is unwise for the church to become involved in many aspects of government (more on that later), this is an area where I believe it pays to be vigilant, for two reasons.
The first-and most obvious-is that the church can defend itself from restrictive laws that prohibit our constitutional rights to free practice of faith. There are many faith-based legal groups doing good work on that front, which is a necessary and worthwhile effort to protect Christians and people of faith from persecution. (Note, the preceding paragraph can sound overly paranoid, so allow me to clarify that I don’t think there is a concerted effort in our society to persecute Christians, although there is a surprising swath of people who regard the church with derision and vitriol. However, the freedom of religion is a fundamental tenant of our culture, and I believe it is important to keep that belief in the forefront of our thinking and conversation.)
A second way I believe the church should be heavily involved in the legal system is through advocacy for the disenfranchised. The legal system is vast, complicated, and intimidating. The poor and uneducated have virtually no hope of navigating it without legal counsel from faith advocacy groups. I think this is an area where the church can be a prominent voice for the downtrodden, either by assisting with appeals in wrongful criminal cases, advocating for humane prison conditions, or raising public awareness of the way in which various legislation negatively affects otherwise voiceless communities such as the disabled. There are myriad other examples of how to show Christ’s love through social work and legal advocacy within the government system.
I believe a careful reading of the life and teachings of Jesus show that one of his top priorities was always bringing the disenfranchised to have a seat at the table. His followers were social rejects and outcasts. Samaritans, adulterers, tax collectors, and lepers. He generally paid far more attention to these people than to the rich and powerful. Jesus fought for the inclusion of everyone, and so clearly we should do the same.
As James 1:27 says, “True religion that is pleasing to the Father is to look after orphans and widows.”