Thoughts on Integrating Faith, Politics, and Public Policy

There are two things one does not talk about in polite company, religion and politics.  I happen to have a passion for both, and to various degrees, my professional life has moved in both circles.  Integrating these passions well then, is something I care about, and that leads to the question of how that should be done.

My goal here is not to set out a treatise for all people at all times.  Rather, I just want to share some thoughts based on my journey.

On the one hand, I do not think there should be a separation of church and state that extends to one’s own soul.  Nor do I see the state as the primary vehicle for extending Christ’s reign on earth. How then should a Christian live an integrated life when it comes to religion and politics?  And if I don’t see the state as the primary vehicle for extending Christ’s reign on earth, why care about it all?  I think the prophet Jeremiah gave a beautiful answer to this question, when he addressed the Jews who had been carried away into exile. He said, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

So how do we do that?  Here are a couple big ideas I want to lace together to answer that question. One, is the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  Another is the need to integrate faith and vocation.  A third is Kuyper’s idea of sphere sovereignty, the idea that the state, the church, civil society, (that is, non-profits and the like) and the family each have their own sphere in which they are uniquely called or sovereign.  Each sphere owes their ultimate allegiance to Christ, but one does not rule over the other.  This was an especially useful template for Kuyper, as he sought to lead in an early 20th century European context.

From time to time, Christians criticize one another for allowing politics to distract from the gospel, or in the alternative, for not being sufficiently aware of the gospel’s implications for society.  These critiques are sometimes partisan.  Most pastors recognize that each Sunday they speak to audiences that are divided on what the implications of the Gospel are for our public life.   Although, as the nation becomes increasingly partisan, and sometimes divides by zip code, pastors may also realize they are surrounded by people who largely agree with them.

So how do we pull all of this together in a principled way?

Here is how it works for me.  It need not work this way for everyone.  But I think it is worth all of us giving this some thought.

As a Christian, nothing is more important to me than the Gospel of the Kingdome of God.  When I wore an official pastoral hat, I took care to rarely talk about politics, because I did not want anything to distract from what I felt was of chief importance.  While I certainly believe in the priesthood of all believers, and in some sense feel that pastors are no different then the rest of us, the fact is that pastors have unique role in Christ’s church, and politics often are a distraction from the Gospel.

However there are exceptions to the rule.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote on this eloquently, in his famous Letter from a Birmingham jail, where he called on pastors to take a stand for justice and equality, and not sit silently by.  From time to time, there arises an issue so important, like overt prejudice, or the persecution of believers of any faith, that it warrants the church taking a stand.  It is important that if the church chooses to do so, that her internal and external life and witness be consistent with its stand.  (See John Howard Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State.) It must be cautious not to get drawn into too many political battles.  But there are exceptions.  Sometimes she needs to take a stand.

Different than the visible or organized church, is the individual believer. (There is a worthwhile conversation to be had on the nature of the church vis a vis individual Christians, the church global and the church local, but I don’t want to get into that here.)  There is a reawakening in the church today on the topic of integrating vocation and faith.  Also, for some time, Christians have spoken of the need not be silent, and that all people take their values into the public square.  In any given trade or vocation, Christians should be thinking about how their faith, and the values that come from it, should influence their public life. It then holds, that Christians with a sense of calling in the areas of public policy or politics should also integrate their faith and vocation.

Note the distinction here.  The church is different than any given believer. Particular Christians can be involved in politics and public policy as their passions and calling dictate, but this is different than the church taking such a stand.  Furthermore, Christians should be cautious how closely they link a particular stance with any sense of Biblical mandate.  Sometimes one can take that position, but it must be done very cautiously.

So let me be clear.  The gospel of the kingdom of God is of chief importance to me, and I see it as operating on the highest plain.  At an altogether different level is the need to integrate faith and vocation, and well below that is the details of public policy and politics.  I care about all of these things, but I see them as being on different plains conceptually, and of different degrees of importance.  And yet, real life works best when it is integrated.  I believe that the way to integrate these things is by advocating for a consistent set of values in all spheres of life, while recognizing that each of us have different roles as individuals, and that the church, the state, civic life, and the family each occupy different spheres.  There is a time and place for everything.  Interestingly, this is not always clear on social media.  We post articles about all kinds of topics side-by-side.  It is easy to lose an sense of proportionality in the importance we place on things.  Jokes, politics, cats, and the Gospel, they all look similar on social media.

Here is an example of how I do this.  The Bible is clear that we are to care for the sojourner and the alien.  Certainly we should do that in a literal sense, caring for those who cross our path.  It does not however follow, that on a continuum of reasonable public policy options, (moving from left to right) that one options is conclusively more Biblical than the other.  One could argue that after careful study, that person believes that one approach will best serve the needs of immigrants, (I have my opinion) but that would not be the same as stating that such an approach was the Christian approach.

In practice, my goal is to first understand the values that the Bible calls us to give attention to, and then, at a different level, to advocate for the public policy positions I feel best encapsulate those values.  That is, the positions I take are influenced by my understanding of my faith.  But they are not based solely on my faith. They are also based on research, science, and hopefully wisdom.

Here is another example.  A civil engineer’s science is not a matter of faith.  But she is usually called upon to build things that have an impact on others.  (Some have written whole dissertations on a theology of the built environment.) Where her science of building intersects with other people or the environment (and when wouldn’t it) there will usually be a value proposition.  And here, her faith should influence what she does.   A bridge may need to be built in a way that minimizes its impact on a particular neighborhood, or the environment.  The engineer who does that well, and uses her creativity to help facilitate that goal is integrating her faith and vocation.  The same approach holds for public policy. My faith does not directly dictate the details, but it does inform the values I bring to the table.

Some Christians have a calling to serve their whole community in a public way, as a city planner, politician, prosecutor, or civil engineer.  Daniel and Nehemiah are examples of this in the Bible. The challenge for those of us in public roles is to hold our values central, and not get carried away with a short sighted, often partisan view.

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