In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution states that the government shall not establish a religion. And while not contained in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence, founding father Thomas Jefferson’s writings encourage the separation of church and state. Yet many Christians draw on their faith while making decisions, casting votes, or running for office. Is this appropriate? Does it present a conflict?
America: A dialogue of worldviews
The Bible doesn’t tell Christians to establish their own country, nor does it condone one political system over another. However, the Bible does give advice about government and politics because Christianity is a worldview—a holistic way of understanding life and the world.
Christians, like people of other faiths or no religious faith, engage with coworkers, neighbors and government every day. As they do so, they seek to incorporate faith-driven perspectives into everything they do. It’s inevitable that their faith will impact their political positions and ideas. This is a sign they’re trying to live in ways that align authentically with their deepest-held convictions.
Like all worldviews, a Christian worldview (even varying versions of it) deserves to have its ideas included in America’s dialogue, and those ideas deserve the chance to be put into action if they prove themselves worthy. The political realm is an area where Christians, like all other Americans, have the opportunity to express their vision for what the world ought to be. But they don’t (or shouldn’t) expect any laws to make anyone ‘more Christian.’
Where Christianity and politics intersect
In the Christian church’s early years when Christianity was a minority religion with little political influence in the Roman Empire, Christians engaged in politics by filling gaps. Christians cared for individuals who fell victim to the unjust imperial system of Rome, to political abuse, or to civil laws that conflicted with Christian values.
Today, the Christian church operates in a similar manner when it feeds people who are hungry or helps people who are homeless. In fact, when the government is unable to accommodate local needs, you can often find churches working alongside—or independently of—the government to fill those needs.
Engagement without ultimate reliance
The church should not endorse specific political parties because we don’t expect politics to solve all earthly or spiritual problems. Instead, we understand that God has placed us into “vocations” (or callings) in our careers, in our families, among our neighbors, etc.
As Christians participate in these callings, they serve the world because they believe God Himself is active in everyday human labor, family responsibilities, and social interactions. Among these responsibilities is political engagement, so you will find individual Christians voting in elections, serving in political offices, and volunteering in community service.
A Christian lens on politics
Church and State
Christians consider themselves members of “two realms” at the same time—an earthly realm and an eternal one. They see these realms as distinct, but believe they have duties and privileges in both. Furthermore, they believe God ultimately rules both realms in different ways.
When Jesus was asked whether his followers should pay taxes, he responded, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25 NIV). He was referencing the distinct earthly and eternal realms, mentioning duties we have in each.
The “two realms” concept is not talked about in the Bible explicitly, but it’s a reasonable way to understand Jesus’ teaching, given:
- He talked frequently about his own eternal realm (often using the word “kingdom”),
- He made it clear that his kingdom/realm wasn’t going to directly or immediately replace earthly governments (John 18:36), and
- He called us to obey earthly governments (Romans 13:1) as long as those governments don’t force us to defy him (Acts 5:29).
The “two realms” concept is similar to Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” in that it would have church and state be clearly distinguished. However, we believe a good deal of cooperation and interaction is inevitable between the eternal and earthly realms because both involve humans—who are whole, integrated beings. Jesus tells his followers that they live in both realms at the same time, and that we shouldn’t neglect either one.
In fact, we believe anyone’s religious or personal belief system could well exist in a similar tension with their views on government—distinct, but interacting in certain ways.
Is the United States a Christian nation?
In our understanding, the United States is not a Christian nation—nor was it founded as such. While many of its founding fathers were Christians, some were deists, and others might have been closet agnostics (their views were varied and nuanced).
The founders did, however, incorporate Christian principles into the nation’s governing structure. The majority of the founders felt that Christian civilization, as inherited from Europe, had led to the best kind of social order for mankind. So the founders designed a free, self-governing, just society—one informed by a Christian worldview (see a longer treatment of this here).
The role of government
What do Christians think the point of government is? The Bible puts it this way:
“The one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (Romans 13:4-5).
The idea is simple: citizens ought to respect their governments. Governments ought to remember that they are, above all else, servants, and are responsible to protect their citizens. This view of government’s role has actually deeply influenced the Western world—for example, in many countries governing officials are called ‘minister’, which in Latin literally means “servant.” There is also an idea of accountability here: all rulers are supposed to serve God by protecting all of their citizens and punishing the ones who do wrong. At the end of the day, they have to answer to someone higher than themselves.
When can I resist my government? What if a state leader is tyrannical or disregards God’s law?
Some have taken Romans 13 to mean that we have to obey all rulers and governments, even those that are unjust or evil. Others assume they can resist or ignore government when government doesn’t line up with their personal ideas of how things should be done. Neither of these extremes takes the fuller picture of the Christian message into account. But somewhere between the two, we might have to make some real choices one day. How can the words of Jesus and the Christian message throughout the Bible help us do that?
It’s a challenging topic, and Christians continue to disagree about it. One reason for this is that several overlapping Bible passages seem to apply; for example:
- “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2).
- “Do not resist the one who is evil… if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:39-40).
- “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
- “Seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, defend the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17).
There isn’t a surefire way to put these commands together, but one reasonable way to look at it is as follows. The context of Romans 13:2 is talking about a government that is otherwise doing its duty: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13:3). God is a God of justice, and if injustice is being done to another person, love (Matthew 22:39) might very well involve defending them (Isaiah 1:17), even if the injustice is coming from a governmental authority or system.
When we are told not to resist evil (Matthew 5:38-42—also a challenging topic for another discussion), the reference seems to be to evil that is only affecting us; a corrupt government would be oppressing a large number of people around us, and again defense could come into play.
Christianity doesn’t have easy answers to questions like this, but too often people assume that means it has no answers, or it just contradicts itself. That’s not true. It needs to have complex answers, because life is complex. With some patience, study, and discussion, often the Bible can send us in the right direction.
What do we do with all of this?
The challenge, and beauty, of living in America is that we have agreed to live with and listen to one another. It can be hard to listen to people whose opinions differ from our own. Yet that difference and disagreement is the strength of our system, not a weakness. The answer is not to exclude the Christian faith or all religions from politics. We ought to listen to one another’s worldviews, and to take those worldviews seriously, as we strive to love one another amidst our clear differences.
Some ways we can apply this:
- Befriend, listen to, and learn from people we don’t agree with politically.
- Recognize that in the earthly realm, there is no perfect form of government or easy solution to complex social and global problems.
- Remind all rulers, authorities, and governments that they are accountable to a higher law.
- Seek to have all governments care for the poor, serve their citizens, and restrain the evil that fills our world.
- See our daily vocations (callings) as ways to serve our neighbors and people in need.
- Hold elected office or another public service role.