Rev Kyle Paisley
It is a common misconception that religion and politics are so distinctive that they have no mutual bearing and should never be mixed.
As the argument goes, it can serve no useful purpose for Christian ministers to involve themselves in political matters, offer counsel to or criticism of government, or have a voice in the public arena.
Strange to relate, but some of the strongest advocates for non-involvement cannot help themselves.
Like Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister and sociologist, who crudely asserted, “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”
But the same self-styled “positive prophet of red-letter Christianity” (www.tonycampolo.org), is not a bit behind the door in his attempts to influence the political thinking of others. He publicly lent his support to Hilary Clinton, and has written ‘A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics’. Talk about patent irony! Campolo seems to think he can mix religion and politics without ruining the “ice cream”. Perhaps his “ice-cream” is of such poor quality the mix wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Clerics who argue for non-involvement do well to remember that a complete separation of religion and politics is virtually impossible.
This is not to say that Christians should treat the two as though they were one, and assign to politics the unique authority which belongs alone to the Gospel of Christ. This becomes a hindrance rather than a help to political progress. Taken to its logical conclusion it would mean that Christians in politics would only come to terms with others who were prepared to share their theology.
But there is no warrant for this narrowness anywhere in the Bible.
For example, the story of Abraham shows that there can be a meeting of minds on matters of mutual interest. He came to terms with the Canaanite king Abimelech without compromising the exclusivity of his belief in the one true God. Genesis 21 tells a story of truth, justice, respect, and a righting of wrongs.
The story of Joseph also shows that men of faith can have a place in politics, even in government, alongside others who may not share their convictions. He became second in command to Pharaoh in a nation whose religion was far removed from his. Pharaoh recognised his gifting for the work. The faithful Hebrew, who came to power providentially, said, “God meant it for good.” Also, the prophet Daniel held public office in heathen Babylon, and in Medo-Persia, without denying his true identity.
It should also be noted that the same Book which reveals the exclusivity of Christ’s claims (“I am the way, the truth, and the life” – John 14:6), without any contradiction also commands, “As much as lieth in you, leave peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18). So it is possible to be narrow religiously, and at the same time broad politically. Christians must hold the Gospel without compromise. They can do this and still be an influence for good in the political arena.
Of course, party politics and public life is not for all.
Personally, I feel no calling to it. But I wouldn’t cut off opportunity from others. Churches that have a kind of blanket ban on political involvement do themselves and society a great disservice when they could be salt and light.
Some of the best influences in politics have been churchmen.
I think in particular of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was a dissident Catholic priest who lived in 14th Century, and is best known for His translation of the Scriptures into English. It was the first time Englishmen had a complete Bible in their mother tongue.
But his influence was not restricted to religious matters. His reputation as a great philosopher earned him respect at the highest level. He commanded the favour of the political establishment, and was sent to Bruges as a government commissioner to discuss with Pope Gregory’s representatives a number of points of dispute around papal taxes and church appointments.
In his great work De Civili Dominio (‘On Civil Dominion’), Wycliffe discusses at length the just arrangement of authority in church and state. His political thinking was influenced by Richard Fitzralph of Dundalk, another leading scholar at Oxford, and his theory on lordship. Wycliffe reasoned that the Church had more than its fair share of property, and that the king was bound by God to relieve her of her wealth. Secular government should serve as a guard against ecclesiastical corruption.
But Wycliffe never thought to make secular government a law to itself any more than he thought the Church should be a law to itself. He wrote, “A lord ought not to treat his subjects in a way other than he would rationally wish to be treated in similar circumstances” (De Officio Regis).
Clearly, his religious convictions guided his political thought. He had the rule of Christ in mind – “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12). He also said, “Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes…We must question whether the laws enforcing villeinage are comfortable to the law ‘The son shall not bear the injustice of the father.’” (sermon extract, c.1380).
So then, it is possible to mix religion and politics.
As long as the two are not conflated, and as long as the Word of Christ takes the lead, great good can be done for all.
What about Christ Himself and the world of politics?
Advent illustrates how men in high office may unwittingly fulfil the plan of God. Caesar’s census compelled Joseph and Mary to be in Bethlehem. Jesus was born there, as had been predicted centuries before. Herod’s plan to kill the Christ-child made Him a migrant in Egypt, without which it could not have been said of Him: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
But though the powers that be serve the purpose of God, Christ never avoided His responsibility to those powers.
One day, certain religious zealots engaged Him on the vexed issue of paying out of turn so that they could betray Him to the authorities. His answer was unforgettable. He pointed out the image of Caesar on a penny they brought Him, and then said: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
This was a clear acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Roman government, and a compelling argument for good citizenship. It would not have gone down well with those who despised the occupying power in their own country. Still, it was right and it was designed to keep things in order, which was in everyone’s interest.
It is a good thing Jesus wasn’t minded to listen to any who might have suggested – “Best say nothing. Don’t get involved. Keep to religion, not politics.”
The example of Jesus also silences the thoughtless notion that if Christians seek to influence political thought they will only undermine their faith.
Christ’s encouraging submission to government should not be seen as weakness but as strength. The other half of His famous saying is: “Render to God the things that are God’s.” Submission to government is ultimately for His sake, and because “the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Rom.13:1). Yet, when civil power sets itself against religious freedom and would stifle the preaching of the Gospel, Christians are bound to obey God, and to reject the directive of the civil power.
There is another striking example of Christ’s attitude to politics – His personal description of men of state.
He did not indulge petty criticism. But He did call a spade a spade. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and ruler of Galilee, was insanely jealous of the popularity of others and hated that crowds were thronging to hear Jesus preach in his dominion. He found a friend in the Pharisees, who urged Jesus to leave Galilee and go to Jerusalem. They pretended to have His best interests at heart, but wanted Him in the power of the religious hierarchy in the capital. They said, “Depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.” But He saw through their shallow device, refused their suggestion, and sent them back to Herod with the news: “Go tell that fox!”
This was the perfect description of a deceitful and cunning politician who was completely lacking in moral scruples. Interestingly, the fox referred to in the Biblical text is a she-fox. This is a reminder of the influence of Herodias, Herod’s sister-in-law, with whom he was having an adulterous affair, and who moulded Herod to be just like her. Christ’s contempt for Herod is one of the finest proofs of His righteous character, and the very opposite of that despicable flattery which is too often extended to men in public office.
The last recorded encounter of Christ with a political figure is at His trial, when He stood before Pontius Pilate.
The Roman governor found himself in the middle of a bitter religious dispute, and was looking for a compromise whereby he could pacify the people and yet show clemency to the accused. The Lord Jesus used the occasion as an evangelistic opportunity. He declared Himself a King, and said, “I came into the world for this purpose, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” It was then that Pilate asked the great question which many are still asking today, “What is truth?”
Men and nations are in a very poor state indeed if they are ignorant of truth. Refusing the possibility of an absolute will result in a hopeless inability to make right decisions. If we think there is no truth, we are all at sea. Clergy and politicians alike may be all at sea. Trouble is, they carry their people with them.
We all need the right perception of truth, because if we take something to be true which isn’t, and base life choices upon it, our foolishness will soon become apparent. Abraham Lincoln had a humorous way of teaching people about the folly of him with a decision based on supposition. After listening to their arguments, he asked, “How many legs would a sheep have if you called its tail a leg?” They quickly answered, “Five!” The President then said, “No, it would only have four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one!”
As well as having the right perception of truth, we need to know the power of truth.
Jesus said, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free” In speaking of the truth, He is the truth He speaks of. All of us can know Him if we only listen sin, doubt, ignorance and fear, and makes us wise in respect of our duties. He should be our guiding Light in religion, politics and all other matters.
Rev Kyle Paisley is a minister at Oulton Broad Free Presbyterian Church in Suffolk.
You can follow Kyle on twitter here.
Leave a Reply