This post, the second in my series on Religion and Politics, explores theological principles important for Christian participation in politics. Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “… there is no apolitical theology; neither in earth nor heaven” (On Human Dignity, 99). In their monumental sociological analysis of religion in America, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell illustrate that observation:
Beyond race, throughout America’s history other issues have had an explicitly religious impulse, whether it was the drive in the early 1800s to stop the delivery of mail on Sunday, or the campaign for Prohibition, or the broader Progressive movement. Given the close association of religion and American patriotism, opinions motivated by nationalism are often given a religious inflection. The American Revolution had religious impulses. So did anticommunism in the Cold War era, and so does support for the Iraq and Afghan wars today. Religion, however, has also inspired the political left—from pacifists to antiapartheid advocates to the movement to provide sanctuary for undocumented workers. (American Grace, Kindle loc. 5820-25)
Three theological constructs are particularly relevant to thinking about politics: the doctrines of God, creation, and human sin/finitude.
The United States Congress recently devoted legislative time to reaffirming that the nation’s motto is In God We Trust. What does that motto mean?
Is God sovereign, i.e., omnipotent? Christian answers cover the gamut of options. Calvinists, like Muslims, answer Yes, God is omnipotent, inshallah (as God wills). That is, nothing happens that God does not will. The orthodox Christian response has been yes and no, i.e., God is sovereign but permits humans at least some measure of limited autonomy. Some modern theologians, especially process theologians, have rejected the idea of God's omnipotence as inconsistent with both the reality of evil and limited human autonomy.
If God is in total control (Calvinism), then human participation in politics seems of minimal value. If the Roman Catholics and others who follow orthodox Christian thinking are correct, then human participation in politics is important. If progressive theologians are correct, then human participation in politics is vital because the future depends on both God and humans.
The issue of God's sovereignty has a second dimension. To whom (or what) do we give our ultimate loyalty? Totalitarian states strive to enshrine the state as the object of our ultimate loyalty. Pledging allegiance to God as the object of ultimate loyalty imposes an important constraint on patriotism. Christians in the first few centuries who refused to worship the Roman emperor understood that more than idolatry emperor worship sought to elevate the state above the living God.
Today, the issue of loyalty to God for Americans often appears in the context of choosing between symbols, flag or cross, or mixing the two. Displaying a nation’s flag in a religious space is generally wrong. People do not gather there as citizens of a particular nation but as children of the living God who is no respecter of nationality. The one powerful exception to that generalization in my experience was at the United States Naval Academy. There, midshipmen processed the U.S. flag, along with the Navy and Marine Corps flags, in and out of many of the services. However, in a symbolic gesture that emphasized the correct ordering of priorities, and in contravention of flag etiquette, they dipped the flags before the cross on the altar at the end of the service.
Finally, God's trinitarian nature in the Christian tradition models equality of persons, emphasizes the importance of community, and invites humanity to become co-creators with God.
The doctrine of creation paints the context for a Christian’s participation in politics. God created the cosmos and all living things. Life is interdependent. God therefore calls humans to exercise ecological stewardship, respecting the value of all life. God created humans in God's image, an act that bestowed dignity and worth upon humans. Human dignity is impossible without freedom; human worth is impossible without rights. Since God created all humans, all are of equal value and worth and should enjoy equal liberty and rights.
Negative human rights (this is not a pejorative term but indicative of the lack of obligation that these rights impose on others) include the rights enumerated in the U.S. Bill of Rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, a right to privacy, etc.
Positive human rights (these rights, unless negative human rights, may impose an obligation on other people) include rights that historically have received far less attention in the United States: a right to the basic necessities of life (i.e., food, water, shelter, and healthcare). Although the Constitution presumes the right to life, the Constitution never explicitly articulates this right. Christians argue about when a human life begins (cf. Ethical Musings: Abortion). But Christians universally support respect for life as a basic theological and ethical tenet of their religion.
All rights and freedoms, whether negative or positive, have limits. In broad terms, the limits demarcate the balance between one person’s rights and freedoms and the rights and freedoms of others. Thus, a person may not falsely cry Fire! in a crowded building nor offer human sacrifice. One important function of law is to define those limits as fairly as possible.
The third important theological doctrine for shaping Christian participation in politics is the doctrine of sin and human finitude. The various Biblical words for sin utilize three different metaphors for sin: missing the mark, falling short, and boundary transgressions. All three metaphors express a turning away from God toward self. From an anthropological perspective, sin represents the wrong use of human freedom or rejection of reciprocal altruism in favor of more self-centered behavior.
Sin inescapably taints all humans. Consequently, humans should not trust self or others with unlimited powers. Separating the branches of government into the executive, legislative, and judicial creates a system of checks and balances to reduce the likelihood of the abuse or monopolization of power.
Similarly, pervasive human sin requires accountability in politics. Among the important means of establishing accountability are elections and referenda, campaign finance laws, and having a transparent political process (good journalism is essential for this).
The three theological doctrines of God, creation, and sin are essential for shaping political philosophy and systems. My next post highlights important ethical constructs important for Christian political participation.