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When we enter the polling booth are we still Christians?

In his latest article at the Daily Caller Brian Lee asks whether or not it matters if a president has orthodox Christian faith or not. Lee answers the question by comparing the Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney to America’s first three presidents: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. His conclusion, on the basis of sound historical scholarship and the rejection of wishful thinking, is that these towering figures, the beloved Founding Fathers, give us plenty of evidence to demonstrate that they were not orthodox Christians. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams explicitly denied cardinal tenants of the Christian faith, while there is no evidence that George Washington ever participated in the Lord’s Supper in his life.

Lee concludes,

[I]n God’s providence, the men who shaped our nation’s founding and served as its heads of state for the first 20 years of its existence managed to accomplish great things, despite their apparent rejection of God’s saving work in Christ. What does this tell us?

The work of statecraft is not the work of salvation.

That’s a relatively mild point to make, but given how many Christians seem to assume they can only support political causes or candidates that are explicitly Christian, it is a necessary one. If your primary concern in today’s election is to vote for a professing Christian then there is far more evidence in Barack Obama’s favor than there is for Mitt Romney or for Washington, Adams, or Jefferson (if they were alive and running). Yet Lee’s point reminds us that we are not going to the polls to choose the leader of the spiritual kingdom, or even the ultimate Lord of the political kingdom. Rather, we are choosing the President of the United States for the next four years.

Yet Lee’s point is not, and this needs to be emphasized, that we should leave our Christian faith, or the authority of Scripture, outside of the polling booth. He writes,

Surely, Christian faith, and all that it entails — confessing the truth of God’s Law, one’s own sin and the saving work of Christ — informs one’s view of the civil magistrate and the just execution of its highest office.

In a previous article, arguing that pastors should not politicize from the pulpit, Lee made this point even more clearly:

In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political…. One care barely open one’s mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God’s word has nothing to say on these matters.

Lee’s point is crucial. The advocates of the two kingdoms doctrine, from the beginning of its history, have consistently argued that civil magistrates are obligated to rule according to the principles of justice as revealed in natural law and Scripture. Martin Luther, despite caricatures of the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine that are largely based on a distorted version of the doctrine from the Nazi era, raised the standards for Christian statesmanship so high that he insisted that a Christian prince will be a “rare bird in heaven.”

This might surprise critics of the two kingdoms doctrine, and in fact, it may surprise some of its most vocal proponents, some of whom seem to view the two kingdoms perspective as a “movement” designed to isolate religion and politics from one another rather than as a theological distinction intended to guide and qualify Christian political engagement. The two kingdoms doctrine is not a movement, it is not the possession of a few self-appointed spokesmen (myself included), and it does not require pastors to be silent on what Scripture says that is relevant to politics and civil government, let alone Christians to bracket off their Christian faith when they go to the polling booth.

In fact, despite appearances in some of the polemics that rage across the Internet, I think most Reformed people get this. Most of them embrace the substance of the two kingdoms doctrine as a reminder that the kingdom of God proclaimed in Scripture is never to be confused with cultural and political institutions that nevertheless are ordained by God and hold legitimate claims over Christians in this life. I’ve tried to demonstrate this over the past few months by identifying numerous theologians who invoke the two kingdoms distinction in their writing (i.e., John Bolt, Richard Phillips, Justin Taylor).

(Election Day in Philadelphia, 1815)

This week I received a mailing from a Presbyterian church in Atlanta in which the pastor, who I’m quite confident would not identify himself as part of any sort of “two kingdoms” movement, offered his congregation pastoral advice regarding today’s election. The pastor carefully reminded the congregation that government is ordained by God to rule in accord with justice, but he warned the congregation not to conflate Christ’s spiritual kingdom with the political earthly kingdom. Why not? Because when we conflate the two kingdoms we tend to assume that politicians and states have the obligation of using their coercive power to advance the spiritual cause of the kingdom of God. Worse, we fall into the danger of identifying America as God’s special nation, analogous to Israel. The pastor went on, however, to remind the congregation that Scripture does teach us standards of justice that government is bound to respect and defend, such as the sanctity of life and of the institution of marriage, and that they should keep these standards in mind when voting.

Most Reformed Christians agree with this I think. We might put things somewhat differently, we might highlight different biblical principles of justice, and we might hedge our reminders in more or less qualified language. But nearly all of us agree that pastors should avoid politicking from the pulpit even while they should not refrain from speaking to us the whole counsel of God. They should not extrapolate from Scripture simplistic guidance for contemporary American politics that was never intended by the divine or human authors, but they should call us to put on the mind of Christ, using the wisdom and revelation God has given us as we take our opportunity to help ensure that the government God appointed to punish the evil and reward the good does in fact keep that mandate. They should remind us, in good two kingdoms fashion, to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, that all these other things may be added unto us.

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