Sometimes I wonder just how out of touch I really am about what issues people really have with either Christians or the Christian faith. Recently, I asked a friend about topics I should address here in the Corner, and one of the topics he mentioned I mostly ignored, assuming that the answer to the question was so obvious that it didn’t even need consideration.
Boy, was I wrong! In less than a week, I heard the same question or comments directly addressing the question more than FIVE times! Here it is:
“Should Christians be involved in politics?”
I’ve heard and read very passionate arguments both for and against God’s people participating in political debate and working in politics, so it looks like it is time to just jump right into it!
Many Christians in the U.S. will answer the question with an adamant “no”. Most of those will give one or more of three basic arguments.
The first, and, in my opinion, the least compelling is based on United States tax law. The majority of churches in the U.S. are incorporated as tax exempt organizations under IRS code 501(C)3. One of the requirements for maintaining tax exempt status is that the organization and its representatives (staff, especially the clergy) may not endorse or encourage it’s clientele (parishioners) against voting for or against any political candidate while representing the church. Many (wrongly) interpret this as a prohibition of political discussion at all.
Therefore, the argument goes, Christians as a whole should not be involved in politics, especially the clergy, because if it is illegal for the clergy, it is at least unethical for the rest of God’s people.
I have two problems with this argument. First, it is a prime example of the Pharisee’s habit of taking a commandment and expanding it to ridiculous levels in order to safeguard from violating the original command. It is like the ‘Sabbath light’ – a lamp designed to automatically turn on and off during Sabbath because to flip a light switch is considered work, and work is prohibited on the Sabbath. Likewise, endorsing a candidate from the pulpit is prohibited, therefore no Christian should engage in politcs. Utterly nonsensical.
Second, there is some debate over whether the prohibition is Constitutional. I’ve provided links below to the official IRS statement about the Johnson Amendment (the rule in question) and arguments against it. Personally, I tend to believe that a pastor should preach what God has given him to say, and if it violates the tax code the church should seriously consider giving up tax exempt status in order to allow the pastor to preach freely.
In any case, there is no legal prohibition for Christians to engage in political activity other than as official representatives of a 501(c)3 organization – at least not yet.
The second basic line of reasoning against Christian engagement in political activity is that since we are instructed to be ‘in the world but not of it’ (a phrase not found in Scripture, although the concept is presented throughout) we should, as Paul says in Romas 12:18 to be at peace with all men. With the guarantee that any political view you hold will offend many and enrage some, we as Christians should limit our political activity to prayer.
The problem I have with this way of thinking is that throughout the Bible, from Samuel who anointed and advised the first political leader of the new Israelite kingdom to the Apostle Paul, who not only spoke of truth and justice to kings and political leaders but used his status as a Roman citizen to proclaim the Gospel to Roman authorities, God’s people have been active in political discourse. Beyond Biblical accounts, it is God’s people acting upon their conviction of God’s justice that have been actively responsible for the abolition of slavery on two continents, the establishment of laws designed to insure justice for the underprivileged, destitute, and marginalized and the founding of the United States. How then should we turn our back on our responsibility to bring as much of Gods justice and mercy to our land as possible?
Which brings us to the last argument, which is this: As Christians, we are citizens of God’s kingdom, and as such our allegiance is to Him rather than our government. Therefore, our engagement in the political arena should be limited to prayer, living a godly life, and obeying the laws of the land when they do not contradict God’s law. Anything else is idolatry.
The issue I have with this argument is that it ignores Scripture that indicate that withdrawal from attempts to influence our culture (and all politics is ultimately culture driven) is discouraged by our King and Savior. As the author of one of the articles linked below put it, “Rather than engage in the political process, Christians have a duty to elevate it.” In other words, when we express a political opinion, seek political office, and vote, we are called to “do politics” in a way that models Jesus’ teaching.
I believe that a large part of the confusion over whether Christians should engage in politics is due to the fact that we live under a governmental system that was unknown during Biblical times. The fact is, that the vast majority of people in Biblical times had absolutely no political influence at all in ANY nation, and the concept of voting for or participating in a political campaign is not addressed in Scripture – at least not directly.
However, throughout Scripture we are given examples of prophets, priests, and the leaders of the Church speaking God’s truth to the authorities as well as instructing them (and the people) to act justly, care for the poor and infirm, and protect life and property.
In theory, at least, in our country the ultimate political authority rests in “we the people”, who appoint (by election) representatives to enact and uphold those laws that will best benefit our nation. As Christians, we know that all nations are under God’s authority, and any laws that encourage actions or advocate against God’s principles will not benefit our country.
Given that, it is our duty before God not only to vote with wisdom and prayer, but to speak out in truth and (Godly) love about political (or politicized) issues that impact our individual and collective ability to follow a Godly lifestyle. It is also important that we speak out against wickedness and injustice whether it is popular or not.
Keep in mind that engaging in the political arena does NOT mean to descend to the mean-spirited name calling, ad hominem attacks, and emotional screeds that tend to pass as arguments of late. What I’m advocating is a calm, factual, Biblically based presentation of why you believe your stand on an issue is correct. If you can be persuasive, excellent, but if not, at least be peaceful.
Here are some links to articles that give some further perspective:
Should Christian Leaders Stay Out of Politics? is an article by Michael Brown gives a bit more depth to the topic
Relevant Magazine has an excellent article entitled 7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics.
The entire article by Shane Idleman is a good read, but I think this quote is the most important:
“If God has called a man to preach and teach His Word, that will be his passion. If God has called a Christian to pursue politics, that will be his or her passion, and so on. Problems arise when we become judgmental and fail to respect our differences. Activists should not expect everyone to share their passion for politics, and those who believe Christians should stay out of politics must understand that God clearly calls some Christians to the political arena. God established the concept of government, why would He not desire godly leadership?”
This article gives more discussion, with plenty of Scripture, on the topic
Christians-count.org has a very good article about why Christians should be involved in politics, starting with the premise that we need government.
The IRS 2007 statement on Charities, Churches and Politics explains the Johnson Amendment.
The Regent University Law Review (vol. 21, 2011-2012) has an article by Erik W. Stanley entitled LBJ, THE IRS, AND CHURCHES: THE CONSTITUTIONALITY OF THE JOHNSON AMENDMENT IN LIGHT OF RECENT SUPREME COURT PRECEDENT. It begins with a description of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”, which has since become an annual event.