By Gary DeMar
What is so troubling about Christian involvement in politics? Christians like John MacArthur, Cal Thomas, and Ed Dobson have written on the subject. MacArthur’s Why Government Can’t Save You includes the following subtitle: An Alternative to Political Activism. While MacArthur does not “believe we should remove ourselves from the political process,” he does object to “the prevailing mindset that makes political and social activism the primary business of Christianity and reduces faith in Christ to just another political force.” If that’s the nature of today’s Christian political activism, then I will join MacArthur in opposing it. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson (not to be confused with James Dobson) follow a similar theme in their book Blinded By Might with a subtitle similar to MacArthur’s book: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America. No one I know believes that politics and social activism are the primary business of Christians or that “government” or the Religious Right can save us.
Most Christians who get involved politically have seen some very disturbing trends developing. We’ve moved from no prayer and Bible reading in public schools, to making killing preborn babies legal, to the legitimization of homosexual relationships and marriages, to considering whether speaking out against abortion violates the racketeering statute (RICO), to suggesting that addressing the homosexual issue from the pulpit might be a “hate crime,” and whether it’s going to be legal for parents to educate their children at home.
If some men are about to rape your wife, enslave your children, and burn down your house, your immediate response would be to stop the perpetrators. There are real-world implications to laws that are already on the books and the way courts are using them, and there will be more if Christian involvement in politics becomes a negotiable feature in the development of a comprehensive biblical worldview. At the moment, politics, because it controls so many things in our lives, needs our immediate attention.
The controversy over the role that religion plays in politics is an old one. Jesus was accused of subverting the political order by “misleading [the] nation and forbidding [people] to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2). Christians were accused of promoting the idea that there was “another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). The designation of Jesus as “Lord” had significant political implications in the Roman Empire since the Emperor held the title of Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God.” Rome permitted and promoted religious diversity, just like today’s liberals, but it did not allow religious competition with the State, just like today’s liberals.
For more than 50 years, from the Scopes Trial in 1925 to the presidential candidacy of Jimmy “Born Again” Carter in 1976, conservative Christians did not develop a discernable political philosophy. The secularists took advantage of the indifference and moved the country in a decidedly anti-Christian direction. The major institutions were captured—courts, schools, seminaries—and turned into secular advocacy groups churning out disciples for the humanist agenda. With the help of the media and legal groups like the ACLU and Americans United for Church and State, the secularists began to flex their muscles and kick sand in the face of sleepy Christians relaxing on the beach of irrelevancy waiting to be “raptured.” Am I exaggerating?
I just received a copy of Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong that includes 20 articles written by John MacArthur and the Leadership Team at Grace Community Church. MacArthur’s chapter on “God, Government, and the Gospel” caught my attention. After rehearsing the political interests of Christians during the 2008 presidential election, MacArthur makes the following astounding comment:
Such political preoccupations are somewhat ironic considering the dominant premillennial eschatology of conservative evangelicalism. Our end-times theology tells us that until Christ returns, nothing can or will fix this crumbling world system. Yet our political practice suggests we are desperately trying to fix it nonetheless.
For years I have been criticized by well-intentioned Christians who are upset that I write articles critical of men like MacArthur who hold to an end-time point of view that discounts the future and minimizes the Christian’s role in cultural issues like politics. I’ve continued to tell people “prophecy matters.” For years, I have been dealing with issues related to the last days. I began to write on the topic of eschatology because Christians were using last-days theology as a way to explain the state of the world and why Christians can’t (shouldn’t) do anything to reverse present trends. MacArthur is a leading representative of this view when he writes, “‘Reclaiming’ the culture is a pointless, futile exercise. I am convinced,” he writes, “we are living in a post-Christian society—a civilization that exists under God’s judgment.” His premillennial eschatology is his guiding directive, as it is with millions of other Christians.
A good case could have been made by the people in Europe in the late fifteenth century who were living in a similar “post-Christian society.” Here’s how Samuel Eliot Morison opens his biography on Christopher Columbus:
At the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science, and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through the study of the pagan past.
Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. . . . The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna.
Change 1492 to any modern date, and the above description of the world of Columbus would fit just as well today. All the major characters and signs are once again in place, or so it seems. The Protestant Reformation was inaugurated 25 years later.
America is a mess, and we can include the world as well, because Christians, who say they have undergone a redemptive personal change, are keeping their personal transformation under wraps. There is fear by some Christian leaders that if Christians get involved in politics the gospel message will be diluted. There are Christians who don’t get involved in politics and have moral lapses. Jimmy Swaggart comes to mind. It doesn’t seem to register with these same critics that our non-involvement does not enhance the spread of the gospel. It is not inevitable that Christians, once successful in the political realm, will get “blinded by might.”
Christians are still sinners and there are always pitfalls and dangers in any endeavor, even those who distance themselves from so-called worldly pursuits. The church is not a haven from corruption. Have you noticed how often Paul deals with problems within the church (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1–2; 6:1–11)? Paul knows the temptation that some have in lording “it over the faith” (2 Cor. 1:24). Corrupt leaders (1 Sam. 2:12–25) and “savage wolves” (Acts 20:29) are not exclusive to politics. The Church is no more immune to “power politics” than the State. Have you ever been in a congregational meeting to vote on what color the drapes in the library are going to be? No one I know is claiming that government can save anyone or that politics is a substitute for the cross of Christ.
The assumption of so many opposed to almost any kind of social activism by Christians is the belief that social activism must always be preceded by gospel proclamation. Must we wait until pro-abortionists become Christians before we can pass laws outlawing abortion? I just heard recently from one critic who said that we need to love people. I’m all for that. But while I am loving my enemies, I still have my guard up. Jesus was the epitome of love. He healed people, fed thousands, and forgave sins. Still, He was crucified.
Ultimately, Christians who are faithful to the demands of the gospel, without the need of coercion or special laws, will make society better for everyone. As Michael Novak observes, “When there are 250 million consciences on guard, it is surprising how few police are needed on the streets.” But right now we do not have 250 million consciences on guard, and until we do, certain precautions need to be taken because of the sinful nature of man.
At this point in time, Christians are out of necessity playing defense, and this means politics is a necessary endeavor. We are like Peter of Haarlem, the lockkeeper’s son who stuck his finger in a dike when he saw that his town was threatened by flood waters. Peter could have gone about preaching the gospel, but at the moment, the town needed to be saved from an impending disaster. We are in a similar situation. We are about to be overwhelmed by a flood of governmental oppression.
The Christian faith and Christians are under attack. The day may come, because of our self-imposed silence and a preoccupation with a “rapture,” that we will be forced to be silent as a matter of law. Then what will we do?
Endnotes: John MacArthur, ed., Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009), 121–122. John F. MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (Dallas, TX: Word, 1994), 12. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942), 3. Edwin W. Lutzer, Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can’t (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1999). Michael Novak, “The Causes of Virtue” (a speech given in Washington, D.C., January 31, 1994). Quoted in Charles Colson, Justice that Restores: Why Our Justice System Doesn’t Work and the Only Method of True Reform (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 2001), 105.
Article posted February 24, 2009