20 Quotes from Jonathan Leeman on Rethinking Faith and Politics

The following 20 quotes caught my attention as I read Jonathan Leeman’s outstanding new book, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (Thomas Nelson, 2018). Also check out Collin Hansen’s TGC podcast conversation with Leeman.


It’s my sense that one of Satan’s greatest victories in contemporary America has been to divide majority and minority Christians along partisan lines. (9)

Church and state are distinct God-given institutions, and they must remain separate. But every church is political all the way down and all the way through. And every government is a deeply religious battleground of gods. No one separates their politics and religion—not the Christian, not the agnostic, not the secular progressive. It’s impossible. (13)

The local church should be a model political community for the world. It’s the most political of assemblies since it represents the One with final judgment over presidents and prime ministers. Together we confront, condemn, and call nations with the light of our King’s words and the saltiness of our lives. (14)

Just as our hearts are battlegrounds of gods, so the public square is a battleground of gods, the turf of our religious wars. Either we ask the state to play savior, or, to say the same thing a different way, we demand it plays servant to our gods. Sometimes our gods agree with one another; sometimes they don’t. And that’s when the fighting starts in the public square. . . . A nation’s public square is where a citizenry wages war on behalf of their gods. (28)

The holy battle rages on, even if we deny it. Our gods determine our morality, and they determine our politics—unavoidably. They are not always consistent with one another. They are not always apparent to us. But they are always there, determining our political postures and positions. There is no such thing as a spiritually neutral politics. (29)

Imagine an airport security metal detector that doesn’t screen for metal but for religion standing at the entrance of the public square. The machine beeps anytime someone walks through it with a supernatural big-G God hiding inside one of their convictions, but it fails to pick up self-manufactured or socially constructed little-g gods. Into this public square the secularist, the materialist, the Darwinist, the consumerist, the elitist, the chauvinist, and, frankly, the fascist can all enter carrying their gods with them like whittled wooden figures in their pockets. Not so for the Christians or Jews or Muslims. Should they enter and make a claim on behalf of their big-G God, the siren will sound like a firetruck. What this means is that the public square is inevitably slanted toward the secularist and materialist. Public conversation is ideologically rigged. (35)

The existence of hell is one of the most difficult things in the Bible to believe. Yet the path to political peace, harmony, and wholeness begins with the acknowledgement that we deserve hell. Until we do, we will continue to assert our right to rule. And as you assert your right and I assert mine, we cannot help but clash. “Give me the steering wheel.” “No, give me the steering wheel.” (58)

Joining the new-covenant community means we can be done using our various groups in the grand project of self-justification. We no longer need to prove we’re insiders to anyone, least of all to ourselves. It allows us to hold all those memberships with a loose grip. We can use them for good where we can, but let them go where we cannot. We are no longer slaves to any of our groups. Remarkably, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is history’s grand source of political unity. (66)

It doesn’t matter whether people acknowledge the Bible as their book. The relevance of the Bible to politics depends entirely on the reality of God and the judgment of God. If either God or his judgment is not real, the Bible has no relevance whatsoever. But if God and his judgment are real, the Bible is eternally relevant. Does that mean Christians should impose the whole Bible on fellow Christians and non-Christians alike? Well, we don’t have the right to impose anything on anyone. But God does. The better question is, what commands does God impose on which people and how and when? Yes, he means to impose some things on everyone right now through governments. That’s why he gives authority to governments in the first place. Other things he imposes right now on children through parents. And still other things he imposes right now only on members of churches. In short, God assigns different jurisdictions to different institutions. Our task, then, is to pay close attention to what jurisdictions God has established for governments, for parents, and for churches, and only recommend those commands that he has authorized for each. And he will ultimately judge everyone accordingly. (81–82)

Here is why distinguishing between straight-line and jagged-line issues is important: churches and pastors should bind consciences on straight-line issues, while leaving jagged-line issues in the domain of Christian freedom. The more something is a straight-line issue, the more the church will institutionally address it. Pastors will talk about it from the pulpit, and a church might exercise discipline over it. The more something is a jagged-line issue, the less pastors should lend their pastoral weight to addressing the matter, and Christians on both sides of an issue should be made to feel welcome. . . . So much political dialogue among Christians these days thoughtlessly and divisively treats everything as a straight-line issue. (90, 93)

Life in a multiethnic church is incubating me in humility, understanding, and a desire for justice. It’s teaching me to walk and think more carefully, to speak more circumspectly. It’s teaching me to love my enemy and look for the plank in my own eye. It’s teaching me a better politics. By God’s grace, I trust that I will continue to grow, maybe even catch up in my political thinking to brothers and sisters to the left and to the right of me. (134)

If you claim to care about politics and you are not an active member of a local church, I’m tempted to think you don’t understand politics at all. You are like someone who claims to love cars because you play with Matchbox cars on the floor making “Vroom!” noises. How easy it is to make pronouncements on political policies from afar. Get up, climb inside a real car, and turn on the ignition. Join a church and figure out how to love the person who looks different from you, or who makes a lot more or less money than you, or who even sins against you. (135)

The church’s most powerful political word is the gospel. And the church’s most powerful political testimony is being the church. There is more political power in the gospel and in being the church than there is in electing a president, installing a Supreme Court justice, or even changing a constitution. If you don’t understand that, you should not be a pastor. Change jobs. An excellent president or constitution might make a decades-long impact. An exceptional president or constitution might be felt for centuries. A faithful pastor and church, however, work on the time scales of eternity. They don’t just pass laws. Through God’s Word and Spirit, they change hearts. They raise the dead. They give sight to the blind. They usher people into true righteousness and true justice and true love. (146)

A pastor’s occupation is conscience-binding. And he should only bind the conscience of his hearers with the Word of God. It is not his political opinions, calculations, or best guesses that call into existence the things that are not and then give order to this glorious new creation. (150)

Don’t expect to build a multicultural church unless you’re living a multicultural life. Moreover, if you are in a monoethnic church in a multicultural context, it may be that your church is more partisan than you realize. (156–57)

If you want an outwardly engaged church, you must continually emphasize the fact that the church’s upward engagement, not its outward engagement, is ultimate. (159)

One sign that you identify more with your ideological tribe than you do with Jesus is that you cannot hear what’s good when it comes from another tribe. (182)

Here is what’s crucial for American Christians to recognize. True justice doesn’t start with our rights. It starts with God’s righteousness and his understanding of what’s right. We do justice by doing what’s right, which includes respecting people’s rights. First right, then rights. The order is crucial. What God says is right is the root; rights are the flower. (216–17)

The secular approach to race and ethnicity either insists that everyone should conform to one objective cultural norm (perhaps the more common conservative error?), or insists that everyone is different and that we cannot understand one another (perhaps the more common progressive error?). The Christian path affirms both our common humanity and our created differences. It requires color-blindness with respect to our oneness in Adam and (if believers) in Christ (Gal. 3:28). It requires color-consciousness with respect to our different experiences, histories, and cultural traditions, as well as the unique ways different people can glorify God (1 Cor. 12:13–14; Rev. 7:9). (221)

God’s common grace grants many a nation better than it deserves, but I have little confidence that America will long remain strong, prosperous, and free without any concept of God’s righteousness and justice somewhere in the background. That’s not because I believe in a civil prosperity gospel: obey God and the nation will be blessed as his chosen people. It’s because I believe the way of God’s righteousness and justice is the way of wisdom. And prosperity and flourishing ordinarily come to the wise. The nation can be strong apart from God’s righteousness, like a totalitarian state is strong. Or it can be “free,” in some impoverished and mangy sense of that word, like a stray dog is free. But it won’t be both. Which brings me back to healthy churches. If there is hope for the nation, it’s through the witness and work of churches. Our congregations have the opportunity to live transformed lives as a transformed culture through a transformed politics in their own fellowships right now—all for God’s glory and our neighbors’ good. (238)


Previously in the “20 Quotes” series:

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