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The necessary politics of the church

Churches must be political if they hope to keep from doing politics

iStock/Tom Cuneo

The necessary politics of the church
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Churches are not merely spiritual institutions, just as Christians are not merely spiritual beings.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, Christians and their churches have played a role within society. Ever since Christ told His followers to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, individual Christians have understood they have certain duties and responsibilities not only to other Christians, but to the political orders. Christians should be law-abiding citizens, and abiding by law in a democratic political order makes Christian citizens political actors, whether they like it or not.

Likewise, churches must engage the political order, whether they like it or not. In order for churches to be able to fulfill their primary spiritual mission of declaring the gospel, there is a sense in which they must be political. Put simply, churches must be political, especially if they hope to keep from doing politics.

The visible church was not and is not a merely spiritual institution. Brad Littlejohn helpfully notes that the church, “in its visible, institutional dimension, as a gathered congregation that must be organized, ritualized, and governed … is a part of the realm of what Luther calls ‘polity.’” By polity, Luther meant that the church is “part of the sphere of human authority which it occupies in common with the more mundane concerns of the family and the civil magistrate.” If a city passes a law mandating the maintenance of, for example, the historic architectural character of a neighborhood, the church must usually respect that law. A congregation with a 100-year-old stone building cannot disobey the city ordinance and build a neon-colored glass skyscraper just because the church has a spiritual function of saving souls.

Conversely, the church has the right to expect certain things of government. This does not mean Christians are asking for a state church—far from it. American Protestants embraced disestablishment. Dismantling state churches was seen by Anglicans, Baptists, and Presbyterians as an appropriate step toward the creation of a free society. Baptists in particular had experienced persecution in Colonial North America and wanted rights of conscience protected. Nonetheless those same Protestants—including Baptists—also believed that free society functioned best and that human society flourished most under a government that upheld a basically Christian moral and social order.

American Protestants believed that the church and government governed different realms, but that religion had a political effect and purpose.

American Protestants believed that the church and government governed different realms, but that religion had a political effect and purpose. Religion—faith and piety—formed the minds and morals of American citizens so that they could carry out their civil duties and purposes.

Early republic Baptists, firmly committed to religious liberty, simultaneously worked with church and state to educate citizens and to make the citizenry of the American republic pious and virtuous. Baptist pastor and historian Obbie Tyler Todd noted that Isaac Backus, a vehement enemy of state churches and a champion of religious liberty, nonetheless “believed in the ‘sweet harmony’ between religion and civil government.” Backus urged the teaching of the Bible and religious documents in public schools and, Todd noted, bristled “at the thought of a more secular America where Christianity was removed from the public square.”

Baptist commitment to Christianity having a public voice did not end with Backus’ death. Evangelicals, including Baptists, remained committed to Christianity’s place in the republic’s political catechesis. In 1965, Foy Valentine, then head of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, flatly stated that “in whatever way politics is defined, it is neither bad enough for Christians to withdraw entirely from it nor good enough for Christians to feel no necessity for permeating it with their moral influence.” In order for politics not to metastasize into something that would wreck the morals of the nation, or turn against Christian moral and social precepts, the church and Christians has to speak to politics.

In our own day, some evangelicals want their churches to do politics as its primary mission. Understandable fears about secularization and the sexual revolution have left Christians scared and convinced that only by politicizing their worship and mission can they save themselves. This has led to crass partisan affiliations with partisan politicians, and the debasing of the church’s inherently spiritual mission. But the church does have a political function, and that function is achieved through education, worship, and the proclamation of the Word of God. The church’s public witness will be political. The real question is whether that public witness is faithful or unfaithful.

Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.


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