Election day is only one day away. How should your faith inform your politics? Should you bring your faith into the public square? And if so, how?
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 to engage politics with the gospel. Their comments are particularly relevant in light of Tuesday’s election.
Here are a few excerpts:
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“In the middle of all of this, you’ve got some Christians who have withdrawn.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 … There are some religious leaders who have said that Christians shouldn’t be involved… You’ve got some who have withdrawn because they’re frustrated.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.”
The separation of church & state is not the same as the separation of religion & 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.”
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.”
Bruce Ashford: “One of the problems [in discussions about religion and politics] is a wrong definition of what religion is. We see this in the narrowing of religious liberty right now that freedom of religion is increasingly being defined as freedom of one to worship God privately, in the inner recesses of one’s heart.
“That view of religion is sort of a view where religion is the belief in a supernatural deity. And what in the world would a supernatural deity (who’s mythical anyway) have to do with our common life together? So keep him out of it. If you want to do that at home or in your little church, go ahead and do that.
“But the Bible defines religion [as] heartfelt, and it’s whatever we ascribe as ultimate. So we could worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Or God as Muhammed presented him. Or we could be worshiping sex, money or power — whatever we absolutize, love, trust and obey.”
Idolatry lurks beneath the surface of every modern political ideology.
Does a candidate’s faith matter?
Bruce Ashford: “So as I see it, when we take a look for example at a Presidential candidate, they always ask us the question: Does that candidate’s faith matter? My response is usually three-fold:
- “You do want to look at their professed faith. Do they profess to be a Christian, a Muslim or an atheist?
- “But then on a second level, you want to ask: Are there ways of telling what that person actually ascribes ultimacy to? Sexual pleasure, money and wealth, power, success? At that level, that’s a functional god, and no matter what a person professes, there are these functional gods that vie for our obedience, even for us on this stage.
- “And I also think that that [for] all of the modern political ideologies, idolatry lurks beneath the surface. For socialism, it would be the god of material equality. For Liberalism (with a capital L), it would be liberty, wrongly viewed. For nationalism, it’s the nation. For social conservatism, it’s preserving some golden era of the past. [For] social progressivism, it’s some golden era in the future, and so forth.”