Politics is the “science and art of government” (Oxford Dictionary). Any person or party who tries to win government and/or keep government is involved in politics. So, too, is anyone who tries to influence the appointment of a government and/or the policies of a government.
The question for Christians is: Should we be involved in politics? Can political action and Christian devotion mix? Is it possible to participate in the art of government while maintaining a state of integrity? In short, may the people of God participate in the politics of men—and if so, to what end and by what means?
I Politics in perspective
Christians involved in, or concerned about, political affairs can take some guidance from Hebrews 13:14: “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” This statement helps us to keep our political concerns in balance. It reminds us of four truths.
Firstly, we are mortal. We will not live in this world forever. There will come a time when we must meet our Creator, who will judge us not on our affiliation with a political party but on our affiliation with the risen Christ.
Secondly, all human ideologies and institutions are transient, fleeting. Therefore, we should not value earthly philosophies and institutions above their worth. We should not attribute to them an importance their impermanence belies. We should not act as if political and social structures and programmes are our first and final concern.
Thirdly, our future is in the otherworld. The writer to the Hebrews says of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, “These all died in faith … having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland” (Hebrews 11:13-14). As Christians, we “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). Indeed, we not only desire, we already belong to, that better country. For in addition to our worldly citizenship, we “are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
Fourthly, our allegiance is to the King of kings and our confidence is in him. As Christians, we should not be political partisans. Our political support should always be critical and conditioned by the require-ments of righteousness as revealed in God’s word. We should not blindly adhere to any party or ideology. We should not wholly trust anyone but God. We know the wisdom of the psalmist’s words: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Psalm 118:8-9).
We are going to die; our institutions will not last; our home is in heaven; we dare not fully trust any ruler but God: these four observations seem to argue against Christian involvement in political affairs. But in fact they do not. They merely help us to keep politics in perspective.
For paradoxically, behind mortality we glimpse eternity and behind transience we glimpse permanence. Hence, when we understand the fleeting nature of life we come to value human endeavours both less and more. Less, because we know they will not last in their present form. More, because we know they will have eternal consequences. What we do now, whether good or ill, matters. It matters right now and on into eternity.
Christians are required to love God first; but they cannot love him without loving their neighbour, who is made in his image. Christians are required to set their desire on things above; but they cannot do this unless they show due concern for things below. A saving faith always results in a serving life; and that service is often directed to God via our fellow man.
The provision of good government is one way we may serve both God and man. Therefore it is not only acceptable but also necessary for Christians to be concerned with the political affairs of the nation and the world.
II A political parable
There is a parable in the book of Judges (9:8-15) that has political significance for God’s people:
The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, “Reign over us.” But the olive tree said to them, “Shall I leave my fatness, by which gods and men are honoured, and go to sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the fig tree, “Come you, and reign over us.” But the fig tree said to them, “Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the vine, “Come you, and reign over us.” But the vine said to them, “Shall I leave my wine which cheers gods and men, and go to sway over the trees?” Then all the trees said to the bramble, “Come you, and reign over us.” And the bramble said to the trees, “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”
Whatever this parable originally meant, it certainly confirms the maxim that “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.”
It is significant that the trees first approached three good and noble trees to “sway over” them. However, the olive, the fig and the vine considered politics to be either disreputable or diversionary: it is an undignified business, or at best unimportant. These noble trees had, so they thought, better things to do. As a last resort, the trees petitioned the bramble; and this worthless bush became king by default.
“Take refuge in my shade”, said the bramble to the trees; “but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” We may be sure that the trees could no more take refuge in the bramble’s shade than they could stop the fire coming from it to consume them. And we may be sure, too, that when the fire came, the olive, the fig, and the vine were not spared.
Should the fire of bad government consume our nation, would Christians escape the flames? And even if we had some fire-proof ark, would we be justified in fleeing to it when, with our help, the fire could be quenched or confined?
If we want enduring good government, we need to be involved in the political process. But before we can do this, we need to establish our political objectives.
III Key political goals
What ought to be the political goals of the people of God in the present age? Several objectives come readily to mind.
Solomon tells us that “Righteousness exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). A chief aim, then, is righteousness. What we mean by this is that we will strive to ensure that our personal and national behaviour corresponds with the commands and character of God. Whether individual or collective, we want our actions to be informed by “rightwiseness”.
In order to ensure that righteousness is respected in our nation, Christians should guard against the adoption and implementation of wrong policies by our government. Our second objective, then, is vigilance. We should be the nation’s watchdogs. We should bark and bite every time our government tries to open the gate to unrighteousness.
If we are to be effective watchdogs, we should not allow ourselves to be chained to any political organisation. Hence, our third objective is indepen-dence. We should strive to act in the political arena without becoming party-political. We do not want to place undue faith in any government or party. We want to be honest in matters of criticism or praise. We may support one party as “better than” (or “not as bad as”) another but we will never support it uncritically.
Our integrity depends upon our independence, and so too does the way we are called to live. The apostle Paul instructs us to pray for our government in order “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life”
(I Timothy 2:1-2). We want to be left alone. We do not want the government to do for us things we can and should do for ourselves. We want to minimise government interference in personal, family and church life so that we can get on with our daily affairs in a godly manner.
Our fourth objective is conservation. We must conserve, preserve, defend our democratic institutions. Because it provides both the freedom to expose lies and the mechanism to control corruption, constitutional parliamentary democracy (involving separation of powers, rule of law, accountability of governments, freedom of expression and respect for human rights) is one of the best secular servants of righteousness known to man. In our fallen world, democracy preserves justice, freedom, truth and prosperity as no other political system.
Democracy embodies a view of human nature identical to that of Christianity—namely, that men and women are corrupt. Consequently, whether they are kings or commoners, they must be restrained. Democracy works on the principle that no person or group of persons may be trusted with excessive power. It works by providing a system of checks and balances on government. Democracy is the art of distrust—and that is why Christians can tentatively trust it.
Righteousness, vigilance, independence, conservation: for the Christian, these are prime political goals. Interestingly, they are also the means by which the goals are to be achieved.
IV Proposals for political action
There are several ways that Christians can be involved in the political process. Before mentioning these, however, it is worth noting a foundational matter.
In a democracy the rights of citizenship belong to Christians as much as to anyone else and it is not improper for us to use those rights. Paul demonstrates this on several occasions. In Acts 16:37 he asserts his rights as a Roman citizen to extract an apology from the authorities for false imprisonment. In Acts 22:25 he asserts his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid a scourging. In Acts 25:11 he asserts his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar. Being a Christian did not strip Paul of his rights as a citizen, nor did it prevent him from claiming those rights. The same is true today for Christians living in a democracy like Australia. This means that (among other things) we have a right to get involved in the political process.
This involvement can take three forms.
Influence on the government: One way to get involved in the political process is to attempt to influence government policies. No less than other citizens, Christians have a right to hold and to express distinctive views—and we have a right to try to influence our governments in order to bring about the implementation of those views. We can exert influence by expressing our views to members of parliament by phone or letter or email. We can also exert influence by attending rallies, signing petitions and writing letters to newspapers—and by encouraging others to do likewise.
Selection of the government: Another way to get involved in the political process is to cast a vote with care at election time. Political parties vary in the degree to which they sympathise with Christian values, so we need to find and vote for the most sympathetic. Ways to evaluate the various parties include reading their platforms, heeding the media statements by their leaders, and noting the voting patterns of their parliamentarians. A little care before voting can save a lot of care afterwards. Certainly, it is better to elect a sympathetic government than to lobby a hostile one.
Entrance to the government: Yet another way to get involved in the political process is to run for parlia-ment. In a democracy, Christians, too, may endeavour to enter parliament through the electoral process. There are two main methods of doing this. One is to join a mainstream political party that is not hostile to Christian values. The other is to join a Christian political party that actively promotes Christian values. Either course of action is potentially useful.
Of course, running for parliament is not the only reason for joining a political party. Christians may take up membership in order to help the party frame good policies, select good candidates and run successful election campaigns.
Joining a mainstream political party poses some dangers. The Christian party member may be tempted either to forsake what is right for what is expedient or to place loyalty to the party above loyalty to the Lord. But these dangers may be braved by Christians who genuinely seek to honour the Lord through political action.
The right to engage in the political process involves a responsibility to educate ourselves in political realities. We need to keep abreast of current affairs. We need to guard against media bias. We need to develop a biblical mindset and learn how to apply biblical principles to government policies. And we need to persevere in doing these things, confident that the Lord will use our efforts for his purposes.
The prophet Isaiah states: “When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him” (59:19, AV). Yes. And the wonder of it is that, when we yield ourselves to his control, we are the standard the Spirit lifts up.
This essay was first published as “Politics and Piety: Some Christian Considerations” in The Australian Baptist, Life News and New Life in 1987. It was revised and republished as “Christians and Politics” in Life News and New Life in 2004.