A production of Sola Media
White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Should We Keep Religion Out of Politics?


Michael Horton

Release date:

November 3, 2014


Ethics Politics

As we pull into the final stretch for mid-term elections, the media frequently asks, “Should Americans keep their religious views out of politics?”

You never know exactly what someone means by the question. And the people who answer quickly usually don’t either. So let me hazard a rough reply, based on what I think folks mean by the question.

Option One: Religious convictions are deeply personal and private; they shouldn’t shape a voter’s public policy perspectives.

This view, associated with John Rawls and Richard Rorty, assumes that religion is a “conversation stopper.” However, it is a naïve position because it assumes one’s most deeply-held convictions don’t have anything to do with how one thinks about life and the common good. It’s hardly a news alert that noted atheist Richard Dawkins thinks it’s immoral not to abort children with Downs Syndrome and that if we love our pets enough to put them down, we should be as “compassionate” to human beings. Everyone brings his or her worldview into the voting booth and Christians shouldn’t allow themselves to be bullied into thinking that they must not.

Christianity has all the more reason to claim our most basic allegiance. Christ is Lord, proved publicly in history by his resurrection from the dead. For those who embrace that truth, Christ’s lordship is not just true for me, but for everyone. Christ is the eternal Word by whom and for whom all things exist, and in the fullness of time he became human to save sinners from death and hell. From the beginning, his was a public and universal claim. Whether it is right or wrong, it’s not private. And it changes everything.

Consequently, it’s impossible for a Christian to separate his or her most deeply-held religious convictions from judgments about the common good.

Option Two: Public arguments have to persuade. The properly coercive arm of civil government shouldn’t give preference to one religion or church in public policy decisions.

Government creates laws, and enforcement agencies—like the police—make sure that they’re followed. “Christ is Lord” is not just a private claim, but also a public one. Positive law is grounded in natural law—the law of God known to the conscience of everyone as God’s image-bearer, even if the truth is suppressed in unrighteousness. Christians should make explicit their religious grounding for public policies, while offering arguments that prick the conscience of unbelievers to reconsider the nihilistic path to which their presuppositions lead.

However, politics is the realm of negotiation and compromise. Our clashing worldviews lead to clashing political policies, and often even those with the same worldview differ on how exactly to apply it to specific policies. Instead of focusing on all out “wins,” we should focus on making arguments that are at least good enough to persuade enough folks to mitigate the damage that their ungodly worldviews could and would accomplish if consistently worked out. It’s only Christ-honoring and neighbor-loving for us to make those convictions explicit—and more honest than most secularists.

And yet, we must never—ever—cross the line of trying to invoke the properly coercive powers of the state to sanction a particular theological argument or justification for a particular public policy. For Christians, that’s not ultimately because of the First Amendment, but because Christ’s kingdom advances by the sword of the Spirit—the Word of God—and not by the sword of state power. There are many arguments that I make for the public and universal truth of the Christian faith, but I would be conceding ultimate authority to Caesar and denying the gospel if I thought that good laws could create a good society and coercion could produce a godly society.

To conclude, a few suggestions for navigating the complexity:

  1. Don’t be bullied into separating your Christian convictions from your views of the common good. As a Christian, I affirm the value of human life on the basis of a host of theological convictions grounded in special revelation (Scripture). It’s only honest to share these deeper convictions with neighbors.
  1. Don’t assume that because something is true—objectively and universally—it should be legislated and enforced by state power.  It’s one thing to communicate my distinctively Christian rationale for a particular position. It’s another to expect my non-Christian neighbor to support a policy that can only be argued on that Christian basis.  To put it differently, a host of beliefs are engaged when I vote for a candidate or ballot measure.  But if it’s a matter of the public good, I should be able to defend what I think is a good policy on grounds that a non-Christian might find plausible.  No, none of us comes to general revelation neutrally.  But remember that we are all made in God’s image, including rebels, and that the Spirit restrains wickedness and promotes justice by his common grace.  When you offer good “general revelation” arguments, you’re not disengaging from the teachings of special revelation (Scripture).  The book of nature and the book of Scripture are in perfect harmony.
  1. Recognize that politics is the realm of give-and-take, as citizens with radically different convictions and even more radically different policy solutions try to reach compromises. If we can’t live with compromises, we can’t live in civil society. We’re not compromising our faith when we stop short of the full justification that we would offer for the value of life. Common grace is a restraint upon sin, not its elimination.
  1. Be courageous and Realize that even Christians can affirm diverse policy solutions on the basis of a shared worldview. Imagine Christians of different political leanings on other issues coming together with one voice to protect the life of the unborn and other vulnerable members of society. Rarely are policy decisions as cut-and-dried as abortion-on-demand or euthanasia. Scripture gives us the spectacles for viewing all areas of life, but not for determining every issue in life. That’s where Christian liberty comes into the picture. Otherwise, the church becomes a Republican or Democratic political action committee, a priestly auxiliary of MSNBC or Fox News.
  1. Pray. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

Decisions made in Washington and the state houses are very important. The cosmic battle between the ascended Christ and the kingdoms of this age is discerned in many policy crises. It touches our own families and neighborhoods every day. However, it’s particularly where the church witnesses to Christ that Satan’s opposition is most keenly felt.

The ultimate locus of this battle is “in heavenly places,” where the ultimate weapons are God’s Word and Spirit. When Christians pray—and especially when they come together to pray and to receive Christ with all of his benefits in Word and sacrament, Christ’s kingdom spreads and Satan’s prisons are claimed for his redeeming reign. Christ has won the decisive victory, though Satan and his hosts continue their insurgent skirmishes.

So let’s not confuse the mid-term elections—or any civil contest—into the cosmic battle that can only be waged by Christ’s gracious advance through his wonderfully liberating means of grace.