When Stephen Colbert appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” earlier this month to promote his new book America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t, the comic title wasn't his only nod to confusion. Colbert professed perplexity that evangelical Christians “have to base all [their] political decisions on absolute biblical truths that must not be denied” in a political arena where such truths often are denied.
It wasn’t clear whether the Roman Catholic satirist or his on-air character actually was befuddled. It is clear, however, that many evangelicals are genuinely confused about just the issue Colbert raised: how to apply biblical principles to politics in an increasingly pluralist culture. Should we aim to regain majority political support for a biblical worldview? Should we focus on cultural renewal and stop pressing a Christian viewpoint politically?
Questions framed at the level of strategy and tactic, however, already have zoomed in too close to the confusion to consider adequately the fundamental biblical principles that should guide Christian civic engagement. A biblical worldview ought to produce a distinct political apologetic about why and how to engage in politics for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.
Christian Citizenship: What and Why?
Whether daunted by the complexity of the issues, reacting to partisan rancor, or dubious about the value of the political process generally, many believers simply keep their distance from politics. But disengagement is not appropriate—or even possible. The exercise of citizenship is a matter of stewardship for the Christian.
Citizenship is one of our callings. When the subject of calling comes up, we tend to think first of the occupation that fills the bulk of our time, but our callings also include other roles, relationships, and responsibilities. Our first call is to glorify and enjoy God, and our everyday callings are the ways we pursue that end. For example, one of my callings is working in public policy, but others include being a church member, sister, neighbor, and citizen of Virginia and the United States. Stewardship of these relationships and responsibilities means directing them to God’s glory.
The blessing of living in a self-governing society carries particular responsibility. In a free society, citizenship involves a wide range of decisions that require much reflection. Good stewardship in this case requires at least a basic understanding of civics and issues of debate, but a Christian’s grasp of the matter ought to go beyond an 11th-grade government curriculum. A biblical worldview should shape our diagnosis of the problems politics seeks to address and our vision of how to resolve them.
That begins by understanding the integration of politics with the rest of life. Politics isn’t just election season and what happens in Congress. It’s not primarily about the endless debate on Fox News or MSNBC. Politics is about the way we order our lives together, and servants of the Creator and Lord of the universe make a vital contribution to that endeavor. Politics is the way we figure out how to meet everyday needs, solve problems, and sort out our differences. It’s about harmonizing diverse interests and building consensus about what's worth pursuing as a society. We work out issues in all kinds of forums—from family room to boardroom to congressional hearing room, each with its own authority structure, each exercising a variety of roles and responsibilities.
We ought to approach all these arenas with a coherent biblical worldview. It is necessary and proper for Christians to enter the public square with a biblically shaped perspective. This is not unique. Everyone brings fundamental assumptions to public discourse, whether they call those commitments “religious” or not. Voting is an exercise in expressing a worldview. Every public policy expresses a moral judgment about what is good, from seat belt laws to tax reform to the definition of marriage. To apply a Christian worldview to such questions of public policy isn’t self-interested. It’s serving our neighbor.
After all, we serve the God who defines the common good. The first cultural task God gave human beings was to order society and care for creation in a way that reflects his design for human flourishing. Applying that charge in our American public policy context today means seeking consensus that reflects that design. We use reason to persuade, recognizing that competing presuppositions sometimes may cloud the capacity to reason together. Even so, we appeal confidently to the best interest of the other on the basis of our beliefs because we know that God has placed eternity in the hearts of all human beings—a longing for the transcendent, for fulfillment, for wholeness.
Christian Citizenship: How?
Christian citizenship begins with solid systematic theology. A political philosophy is most secure when it rests on the bedrock of biblical anthropology. A biblical worldview provides a unique vantage point on the individual as image of God and on institutions ordained by God for certain roles and responsibilities in society. What we believe about the nature and purpose of human beings shapes our perspective on public policy, from abortion to welfare to international relations. What we know about the roles and responsibilities of family, church, and government influences our understanding of the society ordered toward true human flourishing.
One way to think about human flourishing is in terms of right relationships, among both individuals and institutions. Human beings are made for relationships, and we can think of this relational capacity in four dimensions: a person’s relationship with God, self, others, and the material world. Brokenness in any of these areas mars human flourishing and often ripples into other areas, starting a cycle of relational breakdown. A fatherless child, for example, is more likely to have a child of her own outside marriage. A gambling addict’s misuse of money may cause family hardship or disruption.
The cultural mandate makes each of us responsible to strive for wholeness—shalom—for our neighbors in all these relational dimensions. We do so through individual relationships and through our participation in various social institutions, especially the family, church, and government. God has ordained these institutions with distinctive responsibilities that help meet the needs of individuals and communities. Looking at political questions through this institutional lens can help us discern more clearly how to think about government's particular role versus other institutions.
Throughout Scripture, the family has the primary role in human society. The family is responsible for the many needs—material, relational, emotional, and spiritual—of all its members. Intimate, loving, permanent relationships provide accountability and comprehensive care.
No individual is an island, nor is any family. Some needs exceed the family’s capacity, and other social institutions help to meet those. The church is equipped to meet a broad range of needs, and particularly transcendent needs that go beyond material well-being.
Government is established by God’s common grace for the good of fallen humanity. Its charge is to keep the peace through the rule of law and the use of force to punish evildoers. Much of government's role in maintaining a just society is to protect the space in which other institutions such as the family and church pursue their respective roles and responsibilities.
The capacity for human relationships expresses itself in many other ways as well—in businesses, Boy Scout troops, and book clubs, for example. Family, church, government, business, and civil society institutions all play a part in meeting needs, solving problems and cultivating human flourishing.
We should seek public policy that respects these institutional roles, with incentives that reflect the reality of human nature. Take the question of domestic poverty, for example. The government safety net provides material resources for those in need, but poverty in America goes much deeper than material need. Poverty remains unacceptably high despite $1 trillion annually in government spending on antipoverty programs. For too long we have overlooked the relational character of poverty: among poor families with children, 71 percent are headed by a single parent. Children in these households are more likely to repeat the cycle of dependence on welfare as adults.
Tackling poverty requires responses from multiple institutions to restore a culture of marriage and to reform the government welfare system. The safety net should help those truly in need. Able-bodied welfare recipients should be required to work or prepare for work. For public policy to do otherwise would be to deny the human dignity of those whom welfare is supposed to serve.
Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. Churches have enormous relational capital to help rebuild a healthy marriage culture. This begins with sound preaching on the theological as well as public significance of marriage. A congregation animated by the Bible’s extraordinary vision of marriage should swell with creative ideas for outreach to neighbors suffering from the collapse of the institution.
Government policy also shapes the culture of marriage. One of the reasons to oppose same-sex marriage is that it would further disconnect childbearing from marriage and codify the absence of a mother or a father in a child's life. No-fault divorce laws ought to be reformed, and marriage penalties should be eliminated in the welfare system.
Sorting Out Our Lives Together
Politics brings together fallen human beings with transcendent longings to sort out our temporal lives together. Christians are called not just to engage in but to ennoble that endeavor. With a biblical understanding of the nature and purpose of human beings as individuals and in God-ordained institutions, Christians are equipped to pursue human flourishing in its fullest sense.
As citizens of a self-governing society, one of our callings is to steward the rights and responsibilities of our political order. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Some are called to public policy; some have an avocational passion for politics proper. But all are called to basic stewardship of the gift of political freedom and the goal of true human flourishing.
Developing a basic framework about individual flourishing through relational wholeness and about institutional roles is a good place to begin pursuing our lifelong calling of citizenship.
Resources: One resource that provides further investigation of this relational/institutional framework is Seek Social Justice, a DVD study guide produced by The Heritage Foundation, WORLD Magazine, and Compass Cinema.