Terrible politics, worse religion?

February 8, 2021

Religion and politics can make for a toxic mix, as we have sadly seen in recent days. Jonathan Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, once advised: ‘Don’t mix religion and politics. You mix religion and politics, you get terrible politics and even worse religion.’

And yet until his premature death just months ago, Sacks was one of the leading moral voices in Britain consistently addressing social, ethical and political issues from a biblical framework. So clearly he did not mean faith had no place in the public square. Nor that believers should not speak out on social and political issues. 

Exactly how religion and politics relate remains a subject of muddled thinking in evangelical circles on both sides of the Atlantic–concerning the recent presidential elections, Christian nationalism, Brexit and to a lesser degree the European Union.

Sacks himself was a member of a political institution, the House of Lords, in which he sometimes spoke out on faith issues as follows:

…the politicisation of religion and the religionising of politics (…) throughout history, has been a deadly combination. In the long run, it will threaten us all, because in a global age no country or culture is an island.

After the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries, a group of thinkers, among them John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Benedict Spinoza, sat down, reread the Bible and formulated some of the most important ideas ever formulated about state and society: the social contract, the moral limits of power, the liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration and the very concept of human rights. These were religious ideals based on the Bible, which is what John F Kennedy meant when he said in his inaugural address that “the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God”.

There must be some set of principles that we can appeal to, and be held accountable to, if our common humanity is to survive our religious differences. Religious freedom is about our common humanity, and we must fight for it if we are not to lose it. (House of Lords, 15.07.15)

Sacks affirmed that the Bible had played a central role in even shaping our modern politics. So why should not churches or synagogues ever speak out on political issues? Should faith leaders ever advise their congregations for whom, what or which party to vote? 

Some church traditions have thought this question through more than others. In his introduction to Evangelicals in the public square, J. Budziszewski laments that ‘although evangelicals have long played a part in the public square, they have never developed a clear, cohesive Christian view of what politics is all about’. Evangelicals tended to be ‘intuitionist’, trusting their ‘sanctified common sense’ but mistrusting the work of the intellect, as Mark Noll observed in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. While perhaps convinced that Jesus is lord of every area of life, including the public square (government, education, media, business, sports…), evangelicals tend to think of faith in individualistic terms: ‘If only everyone was converted, the public square would take care of itself…’ 

Thus evangelism, personal discipleship and church planting usually remain the focus of evangelical mission, eclipsing the flourishing of human life in all aspects, the restoration of God’s purposes for all of humanity and all of his creation, summed up in the one Hebrew word: Shalom

While missional thinkers rightly urge the church to become missional, ‘joining God in the neighbourhood’ instead of focusing exclusively on church-centred programmes, we need also to take a step further: towards ‘joining God in the public square’.  

Fortunately there are guides, past and present, to help us. 

Abraham Kuyper, while a man of his times, still has much perspective to offer us for our times. He was both a churchman and a politician – but did not mix the two. He stepped out of the one role to take up the other, motivated by his faith. He taught that the church as institution should proclaim God’s ordinances, his truth, his purposes and his justice – but not step out of her calling, commission and competence by speaking out on specific political policies or candidates. However, the church as the body of Christ, sent out as teams or individuals into the world–including the public square–was to act and speak as salt and light within political parties, labour unions, professional associations and educational institutions to ‘re-establish God’s holy ordinances in church and home, in state and school, for the benefit of the nation.’

One contemporary guide is David Koyzis, with whom I will be speaking tomorrow on this month’s Schuman Talk, about these questions of faith and politics. Join us live, or watch later, on www.youtube.com (search for Schuman Talks).

Till next week,

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