Tim Keller on Christians and Politics

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Below is Tim Keller’s foreword for an excellent new book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, due out next week from Moody Publishers. This is the inaugural volume in “A Cultural Renewal Series,” edited by Keller and Collin Hansen.

(Foreword posted with permission.)

* * *

In the mid-twentieth-century, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote his classic Christ and Culture, which helped mainline Christian churches think through ways to relate faith to politics. In the end, Niebuhr came down on the side of universalism, the view that ultimately God is working to improve things through all kinds of religions and political movements. The result of his work was to lead mainline Protestant churches to become uncritical supporters of a liberal political agenda (though Niebuhr himself opposed such a move).

However, the mainline churches have shrunk and aged. Today, it is the more theologically conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches that are growing, and they now outnumber mainline Protestants. Yet at the very same time, the number of secular Americans—those who claim not to believe in God, or at least to have “no religious preference”—are also fast rising in number.

This creates a far more complicated situation than the one that Niebuhr faced over half a century ago. In today’s society we have both rising secularism and rising orthodoxy. We have political polarization that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. And we have an evangelical constituency that is growing and institutionally powerful, but which is also culturally impotent. Why? It is largely because it has not done the hard work of thinking through the same issues that Niebuhr pondered decades ago. But it must do so now in a very different cultural and historical situation, and with a much greater trust in the ancient sources of orthodox theology and in the reliability of the Scriptures.

The present volume seeks to do this in one particular area, that of politics. My friends Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner are excellent guides. They write as political conservatives, but they begin with a critique of the Christian Right. A very large number of young evangelicals believe that their churches have become as captured by the Right as mainline churches were captured by the Left. Michael and Pete recognize this and largely agree. But they counsel that political withdrawal is not the correct response, nor should alienated evangelicals go down the mainline path. Instead, they urge careful theological reflection, and the rest of this short volume serves as a guidebook to the issues that will have to be addressed, rather than as a finished manifesto of what this new political theology must be.

They begin by making critical distinctions between the roles of the believing individual, the institutional church, and the state. On this foundation, they introduce the issues of human rights, law and order, the role of the family, the nature of wealth and prosperity, and public discourse. In each case they define the field, show what religious believers can contribute, outline mistakes that have been made in the past, and finally hint about directions they would like to see believers take in the future. Evangelicals who are Democrats will probably wish the authors struck some additional notes or made some points differently, but overall this is a wonderfully balanced and warm invitation to believers of every persuasion to re-engage in political life, more thoughtfully than before, but as passionately as ever.

Some evangelicals will say that this is a distraction, that we should concentrate fully on the only important things—the defense of orthodox doctrine and the evangelism of the world. Yet, as the authors point out, in 1930s Germany, a faulty understanding of how Christianity relates to the political contributed to the disaster of Nazism, which in turn meant the loss of the German Lutheran Church’s credibility, evangelistic witness, and even orthodoxy. Something similar happened in South Africa, where an orthodox Reformed theology, invoking the views of Abraham Kuyper, created a civil religion that supported apartheid, and as a consequence has suffered incalculable loss to its standing in the eyes of the people. Ironically, the Lutherans followed a two-kingdom approach to Christ and culture, in which Christians are not to bring their faith into politics, while Reformed Christianity has been characterized by a view that Christians are supposed to transform culture. Both approaches, when not applied thoughtfully and wisely, have led to cultural, political, and ultimately spiritual disaster.

What does this mean? It means that any simplistic Christian response to politics—the claim that we shouldn’t be involved in politics, or that we should “take back our country for Jesus”—is inadequate. In each society, time, and place, the form of political involvement has to be worked out differently, with the utmost faithfulness to the Scripture, but also the greatest sensitivity to culture, time, and place. This book is a great beginning.

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