There are several areas of theology about which I find myself thinking on a consistent basis. One of those topics is the integration and relationship between the Christian worldview and political-economic science. (This probably isn’t terribly surprising given the fact that I entered college as a social studies major.) Lately, I have found myself thinking about these issues again… and on a frequent basis as well. This has much to do with some recent studying I’ve been doing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His views on government and the Christian’s relationship to government has sparked this internal conversation ablaze within me once again. …Well, some of these thoughts will now be spilling out in this post.
As always, these thoughts are in process; and I’d love to hear your feedback. But first, let me share with you the following video that will serve as a spring board into several of my thoughts, which will be listed below.
Distinguish between “Christian” morals and Christian
One should distinguish Christian morals from Christianity, which is centered on Christ and His Gospel. (One should also keep in mind that many Christian morals are shared with other religions and are not distinctively Christian. Therefore, to speak of “Christian morals” in some situations, although potentially accurate, may be misleading.) Likewise, one must distinguish between (1) government policies that promote morality or human flourishing that align with Christian thought and (2) a fundamentally Christian nation, i.e., a (hypothetical,) political entity that is centered on Christ and His Gospel. Political systems can promote some Christian thought, values, and practice without being fundamentally Christian.
Realize the philosophical thought upon which America was founded
One should realize that America was founded by a group of individuals of whom many (most?) were deists, an enlightenment pseudo-Christian belief-system, a very non-Christian worldview actually. Similarly, the political and economic ideologies on which our nation was founded were based on the rather non-Christian (but not necessarily anti-Christian) philosophical thoughts that were born out of the enlightenment. This reality does not necessarily invalidate all or parts of these ideologies and the political systems to which they lead (i.e., the United States’). But it does mean that we shouldn’t call them Christian or unquestionably accept them as Gospel truth. We should be willing and able to criticize them.
Christian founders does not necessarily equal Christian foundation
One should realize that even if a government was (hypothetically/potentially) founded by Christians, this would not necessarily imply that the nation itself was founded on Christian principles or exclusively Christian principles. In other words, Christian founders does not necessarily equal a Christian foundation, at least politically speaking. Likewise, a nation predominately composed of Christians does not necessarily make the nation, as a political entity, Christian.
Be able to separate Christian influence on the political system from the political system itself
One should keep in mind that (hypothetically/potentially) having Christian founders or having a nation founded on some or many Christian principles (and/or at least principles that are somewhat in line with or not directly conflicting with Christian principles), does not unquestionably justify the political system they proposed. In America’s case, America’s political system was born out of enlightenment thought, which was not exactly Christian. Believing our nation was Christian in it’s founding can be dangerous in that it can lead us, as Christians, to unquestionably embrace our political and economic system despite potentially harmful and unbiblical qualities.
Please understand me: In this post I am not denying the influence Christianity had on the founding of America. But I am suggesting we should be able to distinguish that influence from the political system itself.
Promotion of some Biblical principles ≠ Biblical political system
One should not fall prey to the idea that America’s political and economic system is Biblical and flawless because some of its elements correspond to and promote certain Biblical principles. Although this may be true, this does not unquestionably validate the system as a whole, which may also contain unbiblical and harmful elements. The promotion of Biblical principles in a given political or economic system does not make it Christian and does not mean it lacks unbiblical and harmful aspects as well. One can provide evidence for the promotion of some Biblical principle in almost any political system, even the most unbiblical ones. The same goes for contemporary political and economic policies and ideologies as well, which leads into my final thought.
Recognize the potential diversity of Christian political engagement
Finally, one should recognize the potential diversity of Christian political engagement. Various Christians throughout history have found themselves promoting distinct political and economic systems, some very different from one another. And this diversity of political support should not be seen as problematic in most cases.
We should probably view Christian political involvement somewhat like contextualization–pursuing a transcendent goal in different ways provided differing circumstances. The transcendent goal is primarily the advancement of the Gospel and secondarily the promotion of human flourishing, which involves promoting Christian values. However, relative to unique circumstances, culture, current economic situations, weather, diplomatic relations, world events, etc., this goal may be reached most effectively through differing political-economic proposals and systems in different incidences.
I am not suggesting that political and economic science is entirely relative. There are certain things that are clearly unbiblical, unwise, and harmful. And there are certain truths that transcend. But, we should remember that objectivity is not the same thing as universality. Objectivity in terms of principles and goals can still exist amidst a lack of universality in application; in other words, there will always be an objectively better policy and more ethical choice in each situation. Whether we can always know what those better policies and choices are is whole other issue… But I am not advocating a complete political-economic skepticism; we can definitely know things. I’m just suggesting that we can’t know everything.
So, I believe that this “contextualization perspective” (I realize I’m abusing the term “contextualization”) will help us to have a more sober, honest, and humble assessment of different political-economic proposals. First (1), Christians often fall prey to reductionism in political-economic discussions by ignoring the complexity of various political-economic situations. They hold up a certain abstract political ideology as if it were pristine and immune to various factors such as culture, society, current economic situations, world events, etc. On the contrary, we must realize that we are often not able to know exactly which proposal is preferred because we are not adequately able to predict all of the factors and their related effects. Second (2), many Christians advocate political-economic policies/systems as if they are flawless; on the contrary, no political system is near perfect given the fact that none can address humanity and creation’s fundamental problem–sin and the fall (for more on that, see my comments here). Therefore, rather than viewing things so abstractly (1) and so one-sidedly (2), Christians should more honestly and humbly assess potential pros and cons of various proposals from this “contextualization perspective.” We are seeking the advancement of the Gospel and the good of society (objectivity). But the best economic and political means to achieve that end may vary and be debatable even among Christians.