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On God and politics

John Adams warned against the forming of political parties. He feared the divisiveness would tear the nation apart — with good reason.

The highly partisan press of Adam’s day was merciless in their attacks not only on his character, but also on his appearance. One newspaper regularly referred to Adams as “His Rotundity” and vilified him as a hypocrite, a stooge of the British, and a man divested of his senses.  Another declared him old, bald, blind, crippled, and toothless.1 Well, we’ve come along way since those early days of the republic, haven’t we? OK — maybe we haven’t!

Religious faith has only added coals to the fires of partisan political heat, past and present. Indeed, people of faith have fiercely debated different understandings of the so-called separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment. Many insist that the constitutional separation of church and state was never meant to keep the church out of the public arena, but rather to preserve the independence of the state from religion, and, just as important, the independent voice of religion in the public square. The danger, of course, is always the blurring of the lines between religion and politics, or the risk of co-optation. The “religious right” has been the loudest public voice over the last decades, but of late the “religious left” has endeavored to take back the public religious debate. The net effect is “identity politics,” wherein a candidate’s evangelical or progressive faith becomes a litmus test that virtually trumps everything else. 

While vacationing in Colorado in August, my wife and I took a day off from hiking and went shopping in the nearby town of Estes Park. Friendly shop owners would usually ask where we were from. Upon hearing that we resided in Washington, D.C., they invariably began talking about politics. In fact, one shopkeeper eagerly told us of a customer he had encountered earlier in the day who was lamenting the Democratic nominee for president, saying, “As a Christian I could never vote for Barack Obama because he is a Muslim.”  My first instinct was to avoid the conversation and to escape back up into the mountains! But my second instinct (putting aside the misinformed assumption that Obama is a Muslim) was to ask the question: Should it matter whether a political candidate is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist? 

For me, the answer is clear: a candidate’s religious affiliation doesn’t count for much, or at the least is of subordinate importance. What counts is whether a political candidate can promote the common good. Indeed, it is one thing to affirm one’s right to express faith in the public square, but it is quite another to require belief, especially a particular kind of religious belief, of a political candidate.

There is solid biblical foundation for this perspective. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, both spoke of pagan rulers, Assyrian and Babylonian, as accomplishing God’s purposes — people who were hardly believers. Neither were the governing authorities to whom the apostle Paul refers in Romans 13. What Romans suggests is that governing authorities, whether they recognize it or not, are instituted by God to restrain evil and promote the good, and to the extent that they do this work, they are to be obeyed as one would obey God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything a ruler does is godly. Calvinists, in fact, have held that tyrannies and unjust exercises of power are not ordained of God and should be resisted.

Yet even Reinhold Niebuhr, who was more realistic about the corruptions of political power than most Christian theologians, also believed that there was something called “residual virtue” in the world. Thus he insisted that the work of politics should not be about the victory of one ideology over another, but rather about working for relative justice and peace on the one hand, and avoiding the twin dangers of tyranny and anarchy on the other.2 For Niebuhr, the great dangers of political life are tyranny (too much government) and anarchy (too little government). 

Following Niebuhr, as well as Paul, I would suggest that our election year debates ought to have a clear focus on how much government is necessary to promote the common good, justice, peace, and how much government is an infringement on our freedom. Our debate ought not to focus on a candidate’s personality, religious beliefs, race, or gender, but rather on the balance of power in government that is necessary to promote the common good. How much taxation, for example, is too much or too little? How much governmental regulation is too much or too little? This kind of debate can transcend the standard partisan politics that are currently tearing us apart, because no one is in possession of the whole truth. 

Political theorist Michael Walzer provides a wonderful image for how we might go about our work: We “can acknowledge each other’s different ways, respond to each other’s cries for help, learn from each other, and march (sometimes) in each other’s parades.”3 This is a foundation from which Christians can move into the public square to promote good. In fact, to the extent that we seek a balance of power that serves the purposes of God, the possibility of walking in one another’s parades is not simply a good idea — it is our calling.  Moreover, the election before us holds promise, for both presidential candidates once had a reputation for bipartisan commitment — one that will hopefully reemerge.

The Apostles’ Creed makes reference to “the communion of saints,” and a fourth- century commentary on the phrase suggests that it refers to all people, within or outside of the Church, past, present and future, who pursue justice in the world.4 Our confessional heritage, in other words, gives us grounds for joining in this parade.


Roger J. Gench is pastor of The New York Avenue Church in Washington, D.C.


1 David McCullough, John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001, pp. 485, 500.

2See Langdon Gilkey, On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, University of Chicago Press, 2002, pp. 33- 49.

3Quoted in Eric Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Pilgrim Press, 1999,  p. 18.

4 Theodore W. Jennings, Loyalty to God: The Apostles’ Creed in Life and Litany, Abingdon Press, 1992, pp. 194-95.