“The Public Square Is a Battleground of Gods.” A Conversation on Faith and Politics

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Convention season has arrived. The Republicans hold their national convention this week in Cleveland, and the Democrats will hold their convention on July 25-28 in Philadelphia.

As we reflect on the conventions and upcoming 2016 Presidential election, how should your faith inform your politics? Should you bring your faith into the public square, or should you try to remain neutral?

To help us answer this question, Bruce Ashford, Jonathan Leeman, Steven Harris and Hunter Baker gathered at Southeastern seminary in March 2016 to discuss how we engage politics with the gospel. In the beginning of their conversation, they addressed the relationship between faith and the public square.

Here are a few key highlights:

On the 2016 Election So Far
Bruce Ashford: “The 2016 election cycle has been a real carnival. I’m 41 years old. I have never seen anything like this. So far, we’ve had Presidential candidates who are conservatives, progressives, nationalists, libertarians, socialists, and we’ve even had some rhetoric that’s borderline fascist. Here comes everybody. And then there is the certain ambient imbecility of a certain sector of the American populace. There is a certain sector (fairly large, apparently, which includes political pundits, citizens, and even candidates) who have created a toxic environment and… are walking into the public square, yelling and sweating and shouting and demonizing each other.

“In the middle of all of this, you’ve got some Christians who have withdrawn. They’ve said, ‘politics is evil stuff. I don’t want to dirty my hands.’ … There are some religious leaders who have said that Christians shouldn’t be involved… You’ve got some who have withdrawn because they’re frustrated. Things have gone so bad, they’ve just quit. They’ve taken their marbles and gone home. You’ve got others who have thrown themselves into it with a messianic fervor.”

Should American citizens get involved in politics?
Hunter Baker: “You talked about the poisonous atmosphere which turns people off and makes people want to stop participating. Part of the reason that’s happening is that we have become so incredibly pluralistic, we have so many different beliefs, and never before have we had so much ability to self-reinforce our own beliefs, like on Facebook or talk radio or whatever. Whoever you are, you can find a nice core of people who’ll say, ‘You’re right!’ That’s part of what’s going on. As pleasant as that is, it is unpleasant — even physically unpleasant — to have someone say that you’re wrong.

“… But in terms of our involvement, a lot of people will look at the Bible and say, ‘Christians simply have to obey whoever the ruling authority is. It doesn’t seem to be a handbook for political activism.’ But at least let me speak to the American context. In our context, the people have the sovereignty of the American system. All of that sovereignty, all of that power of our system, is divided up between all of us. So in the same way that you would have stewardship for the money you have or the relationships, you should have stewardship for your politics or your political activity. That should be under the lordship of Christ just like anything else. You should take that very seriously and inform yourself and participate and try to bring a Kingdom worldview to your politics.”

Never before have we had so much ability to self-reinforce our own beliefs.

What if people are too busy for politics?
Steven Harris: “As a democratic republic, the people are endowed with the power to wade into this space and have their views represented via elected officials. As citizens, Christians in particular, we have the responsibility to wade into that space as well, bringing our worldview in tow and influencing that conversation.”

Jonathan Leeman: “A hearty yes for four reasons: obedience, justice, love, redemption.

  • “Obedience: Rendering unto Caesar in a democratic environment means getting engaged and acting. We are Caesar, in some sense.
  • Justice: Government exists for the sake of justice.
  • Love: Love neighbor as ourselves…
  • Redemption: Genesis 9 and the establishment of government comes before Genesis 12 for a reason. We need the protection of society so that God’s plan of redemption can carry itself out.”

What are some ways to contribute to the common good publicly?
Jonathan Leeman: “The most obvious, biblical way is to pray. Pray for President. Pray for the Senate. Pray for the House. Pray for judges. Pray for public school teachers and administrators. Pray for the various authorities in our lives. Every Christian should be doing that in their corporate and personal prayer life. Obviously watching the news, getting informed, getting educated. And then, I think there’s something of a moral imperative to vote as part of rendering unto Caesar.”

Should we bring our Christianity into public discussion?
Jonathan Leeman: “Richard John Neuhaus famously made the point that the public square shouldn’t be naked — that is, bare of your religious beliefs. I would go a step further and say it can’t be naked. I don’t think you can separate your religion from your politics. I don’t think anyone [can].

“I think the public square is a battleground of gods. Each of us is there, defending our own set of assumptions about what should be right and what should be wrong. So whether it’s me or the secularist or the Jew or the Hindu, everything [we] would do in the public square has a set of moral assumptions behind it:

  • A set of anthropological assumptions (what is man?),
  • a set of moral assumptions (What’s right and what’s wrong?),
  • and behind that necessarily a set of theological assumptions — the Christian and secularist alike.

“When I go into the public square, I can’t separate myself from those assumptions — whether we’re talking about abortion, homosexuality, healthcare, funding for national parks, it’s all based on a certain set of assumptions.”

Hunter Baker: “Politics is not like fixing the toilet or sewing up a patient. Politics, there’s a lot of meaning. It matters what you think. It matters what you believe. Politics is not in any way a cold and sterile activity.… Politics is largely inseparable from these larger questions of meaning. You cannot hire a mercenary in politics.”

You can’t separate your religion from your politics.

What’s an appropriate relationship of church and state?
Hunter Baker: “What does it mean [that there’s a separation of church and state]? If we really understood what it meant, we would not get all upset about it. The problem is that the court misinterprets it, politicians misinterpret it, various bureaucratic officials misinterpret it. The separation of church and state simply means that there is an institutional separation of church and state.

“So, our preachers are not bureaucrats in the ‘Department of God.’ People tithe, but they don’t pay taxes that are tithes. There’s not a formal legal link. The state does not dictate that all the residents of North Carolina must be Presbyterians or something like that. That’s what the separation of church and state is.

“What has happened is we have translated separation of church and state into secularism. We have turned that concept into secularism, meaning that religion is supposed to be segregated off from society. That’s the mistake, and that’s what we’re rebelling against.”

Separation of church & state is not the same as the separation of religion & politics.

Jonathan Leeman: “The separation of church and state, which I think we would all affirm as separate institutional authorities, is not the same thing as the separation of religion and politics. We tend to conflate them, but those are separate things.”

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Center for Faith and Culture

The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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