Is Joel Belz right that the church should say more about politics?

In a recent column in World Magazine Joel Belz wondered whether churches have become too cautious or fearful in engaging politics. Belz notes that churches rightly steer away from endorsing candidates or political parties, and he agrees that Christians need to make it clear that their “spiritual and heavenly allegiance” is much more important than their “worldly character.” But he suggests that given the “radical secularization of our culture” churches may need to step up the political instruction. As would be expected in this sort of argument, Belz invokes the legacy of the pastor turned Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, along with Kuyper’s ringing declaration of the lordship of Christ over every area of life.

What is Belz looking for in particular?

When the Bible says that “righteousness exalts a nation,” it seems minimally appropriate for churches and their ministers to help their people understand better in practical political terms what that righteousness looks like. What does “righteousness” mean when we think about tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues?

Belz doesn’t answer the question but he does direct his readers to a course offered by Summit Ministries.

I agree that the church should teach its members the basic principles of Christian political theology, many of which are helpfully summarized on the website of Summit Ministries. Christians should know what Scripture says about God’s ordination of the state in the context of the Noahic Covenant, about government’s responsibility to secure basic justice for the poor and the oppressed, about the obligation to pay taxes and give honor to the civil magistrate, and about the need for the church to obey God rather than human beings when necessary. And it would be very beneficial for pastors and teachers who have the expertise to hold a Sunday School series on some of the principles of Christian political theology as taught by the tradition running from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas to the reformers and beyond.

But Belz seems to be pressing further when he speaks of what righteousness looks like in “practical political terms,” applied in particular to “tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues” (emphasis added). Does Scripture really teach what righteousness looks like in practical political terms in the 21st Century United States of America on a hundred different issues?

I know some pastors who argue that based on Christian principles the government should definitely tax the wealthy at higher rates than it currently does. I know others who argue that anything other than a flat tax rate is virtual theft. Some contemporary Christians think Jesus demands a crack-down on illegal immigration. Others argue that the principles of mercy and of hospitality to strangers should temper such a crack-down. And while many conservative Christians assume that Christianity calls for a limited government that leaves matters like education, health care, poor relief and the church outside of the supervision of the state, they might be surprised to find out that a theologian like Calvin found it quite sensible that the state should have oversight over all of these matters; indeed, in his commentaries he argues that it is within the obligation of the state to establish schools and hospitals, as well as to provide for the poor and pay the salaries of the ministers of the church.

Calvin may have been wrong, of course. But how sure can we be that Scripture provides the answers for which we are looking if Calvin (and all other Christian political theologians prior to the advent of modern liberalism) came to such different conclusions than we do? Belz wants the church to recover its prophetic edge. But if the church’s hearers are not convinced that it is truly the Lord speaking when the prophet says “Thus says the Lord” the effect will be the destruction of the church’s credibility, not the recovery of such a prophetic edge.  Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell saw themselves as prophets but outside of their small group of already convinced followers few shared the conviction.

In a thoughtful review of Kenneth J. Collins’s recent book on politics and evangelicalism, my friend and former teacher Jay Green, professor of history at Covenant College, suggests that Collins comes close to conflating thoughtful Christian engagement with libertarianism. Green writes,

although Collins encourages evangelicals to move “beyond ideology” as a solution to our current impasse, the cumulative effect of his own persistent grievances against the modern secular state amounts, in the end, to a book-length argument on behalf of an almost reflexive libertarianism. In other words, the central concern that seems to animate Collins’s book isn’t the divided soul of evangelicalism as much as the moral (il)legitimacy of the modern liberal state. I waited in vain for Collins to advance (or at least acknowledge) some semblance of a Christian case for the state as a God-ordained institution, established to do his bidding, even when its goals and methods are unholy and its thirst for expansive power unquenchable. (Consider the regime the apostle Paul was living under when he penned the 13th chapter of his letter to the Romans.) Treating the robust exercise of state power as little but oppressive, or denying that participation in “power politics” can result in anything but corruption, seems to undervalue or simply ignore the extent to which all such activity is done under a sovereign God as an extension of his good government.

I sincerely appreciate Collins’s admonitions against evangelicals shilling for or baptizing secular political ideologies, as well as his warnings against confusing political movements with God’s kingdom. I do not, however, believe that his persistent libertarian contempt toward government power provides a very helpful path forward. I think he meant to gesture toward a public code for evangelicals leavened by a Wesleyan ethic of love and self-denial, which is attractive in many ways. But his analysis reads more often like a treatise on behalf of what David Brody has called “Teavangelicalism”—an alliance between evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives. If we hope to support a robust Christian vision for public life, we must be properly wary of government propensities toward tyranny. But we must also ingest a healthy dose of realism that understands coercive power not as a unique invention of modernity, but as an intrinsic and complex feature of the human condition.

I share Green’s concern. Although I agree with Belz and many other Christians that the church should proclaim the whole counsel of God, including what that counsel says about political theology, I am not very confident in the ability of most pastors and teachers to engage in “practical political terms” on a hundred different issues while at the same time rising above their own political predilections and loyalties (whether to the left or to the right). If the church wants to maintain its prophetic edge it needs to focus on what Scripture actually teaches, encouraging Christians to work out these principles in citizenship and vocation and in a spirit of service to their neighbors (think Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism). But that won’t happen unless the church steers well clear of practical political matters, on a hundred different issues.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on October 23, 2012, in Abraham Kuyper, Culture War, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is Joel Belz right that the church should say more about politics?.

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