It’s high political season here in the US of A. It is after all, a presidential election year, and we’re just a few weeks away from Election Day. We’ll be treated to the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this very evening. It’s one of those times when all things seem to be coming up politics. But this is also an exceptional time for Christians to reflect on the necessity of the separation of Christianity and politics.
I know, I know – voting is our civic duty, what if Christians don’t vote, the Democrat (or the Republican) will ruin the country, what about our children’s futures…yes, I’ve heard it all before. But that’s why we need to reflect on the potentially toxic nature of politics in regard to Christianity.
A lot of non-Christians recognize the need for separation, though they generally frame the argument in a different direction.
(If you’re not a Bible-believing Christian, you may not be able to relate to this article. It’s mostly aimed at Christians who like a large dose of politics with their religion, which is something I take issue with.)
The Usual Arguments for Separation of Church and State
Though we rarely hear about the need to separate church and state from within Christian ranks, it’s far more common among non-Christians. They even see it as a fundamental civic doctrine, referred to as the separation of church and state. The term itself is generally credited to Thomas Jefferson, in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, written in 1802.
Now if I can offer what is solely a personal opinion, I believe that there is a faction within the US who use this doctrine as a rallying point to marginalize or even eliminate religion, particularly Christianity (since it’s historically the dominant faith in the nation). This is not an unusual practice either. It’s a core tenet of the “-isms” – socialism, communism, fascism, utopianism, among others. Most -isms see religion as a philosophy that competes with political and social movements, and must therefore be restrained or removed.
If you’re a non-Christian, I hope you can appreciate why many believers think that there’s something akin to a war on Christianity in the US. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian, it’s hard not to notice it. For example, don’t dare utter the name of Jesus in a public place, lest someone be mortally offended or a law or statute be broken.
However, that’s not to say that I don’t get where the secular argument is coming from.
The Dark History of the Marriage of Church and State
If you’re Christian, you have to freely acknowledge that the marriage of church and state does have a dark history. This is largely what more reasonable secularists are attempting to prevent by upholding strict enforcement of separation of church and state. (That said, the popular claim that religion is the cause of most wars is categorically false.)
We’re all familiar with the persecution of Christians during the Roman Empire. However, in the fourth century A.D., as Christianity became the dominant and official religion of the Empire, the corruption of both the church and state began to take hold.
The Roman Empire collapsed shortly after, and Western civilization rolled into the Middle Ages, frequently referred to as the “Dark Ages”. Tragically, the Church had something to do with that darkness.
In those times, the waning political structure often used the Church as a source of legitimacy. This was a convenient arrangement given that the government of the Roman Empire itself was growing progressively weaker and more fragmented. But after the Empire formally collapsed, it was replaced by hundreds of “city states”, mini-nations revolving around a specific city or town. This created a patchwork quilt of independent states that were governed by wealthy individuals, and self-declared kings and other assorted nobility.
It was easy enough to see where a close affiliation with the Church served to advance the agenda of the new nobility. The alliance enabled them to claim legitimacy from the Church, at a time when the whole concept of a nation state was in serious doubt.
This was also a convenient arrangement for the Church. With the Church being the only remaining institution with any credibility, it parlayed that advantage into political power. With the Church and the “state” now squarely in coalition, living conditions for the masses declined rapidly. The decline was economic, intellectual and political, virtually eliminating individual freedom of choice for a thousand years.
But the Middle Ages weren’t the only time that church and state combined in an unholy alliance. There’s also the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, and other assorted events in which the Church played a critical role in legitimizing carnage against humanity.
The Separation of Christianity and Politics – Why it’s Necessary
Despite my own personal Christian leanings, I’m generally in favor of the separation of church and state. However my support for the doctrine is limited to control of the power structure. I believe that the secular crowd goes too far when it attempts to squeeze religion out of the culture, as if it’s some sort of cancer that needs to be purged – but that’s a subject for a different day.
My view of the need for the separation is based on my fear that the political establishment will corrupt the faith, rather than the more common secular interpretation that Christianity will poison the state.
It’s been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Neither the churches nor people of faith – or any people for that matter – are immune to the negative traits that power conveys. Otherwise good people have turned pure evil with the introduction of a little bit of power to their lives.
Political power is toxic to Christianity. Not only does it hold great potential to corrupt the faith, but it’s virtually impossible to represent a spiritual inspiration, while at the same time being responsible for maintaining the courts, the military, and the administration of public spending. Somewhere along the line, you lose your soul, and that’s exactly what has happened to the church whenever it’s become politically connected.
Christianity has Been at it’s Best When it’s Been Out of Favor
It’s almost ironic that Christianity has had its finest moments during the times and the places where it represented a struggling minority. We can think of the first century A.D., when Jesus began the faith, and it was steadily advanced by a ragtag group of underachieving disciples.
These were not the wealthy and powerful of society, but the the scorned. Lowly in wealth and occupation, having no political standing, and mostly being social outcasts, early believers in Christianity eventually overtook the mighty Roman Empire.
It’s an example of what can happen when you are properly aligned with the Truth. Social and economic isolation, as well as direct persecution (and execution), couldn’t suppress the advance of the faith throughout the known world.
It’s still true today. While it’s become fashionable to assume the common belief that Christianity is in decline, that’s a perception that’s skewed by population trends in the Western countries only.
Yes, Christianity is in relative decline in the US, and more so in Canada and Western Europe. It’s not that people are flocking to other faiths, but rather that record numbers of people are claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever, or some form of customized made-up religion. Yet Christianity is growing dramatically in most of the rest of the world. Growth is occurring in Asian and African countries where Christianity isn’t welcome, and staging a resurgence in Latin America.
The experience in the Western industrial democracies seems to indicate that if Christians get too comfortable in a culture, people begin drifting away from the faith. Rather than impacting the culture, the culture is influencing Christianity, until Christianity fades into oblivion.
Does Your Faith Guide Your Politics – or Do Your Politics Guide Your Faith?
Maybe I’m on the wrong path here, but I’m of the opinion that Christianity requires that we step above the fray. Yes, there is and always will be conflict and crisis in the world. And while politics is seen as the preferred way to deal with them, we have to acknowledge that politics can’t save us and fix the world – otherwise it would have already happened.
It can even be said that the world has created a false god in politics. People expect our problems to be solved by enforced collective action, and when that action fails to do what it promises, we simply declare that more needs to be done. It’s a vicious circle without end, and without hope.
Along the way, factions develop on two or more sides of any political issue. That’s usually a recipe for conflict, not settlement. How much should people of faith want to be part of that conflict?
Based on my interpretation of Scripture, Christians need to be a voice of reason. Instead we often become partisans – and even zealots – in the political process.
I’ve become concerned as well that different Christian groups have become too closely associated with certain political parties. For example, white Christian evangelicals tend to be staunchly Republican. Meanwhile Black Christians overwhelmingly lean in favor of the Democratic party. There’s often considerable tension between these two groups, who should be on the same side on major issues.
What kind of witness is this to the world, when we can’t even show unity between each other?
This is the predictable outcome when we get too deeply – and emotionally – involved in the ways of the world. The world overcomes us, and our Christianity takes a back seat.
Our witness is stronger when we place faith above politics and other distractions.
Keeping Politics in Proper Perspective
Does this mean that we shouldn’t take part in the political process? Some people of faith believe this to be the case. I’m not sure that’s right or wrong.
But when we decide to participate, we must remember that politics isn’t our salvation. The world won’t go to Hell in a handbasket because Candidate X wins the election, any more than it will draw closer to Heaven if Candidate Y wins.
For perhaps the first time in my lifetime, I don’t see a faith dog in this election hunt. Or at least there hasn’t been much discussion on that front by people of faith.
It may be that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are representatives of the current religious trend in America (increasing secularism). Both are nominally Christian, but neither has any overt Christian faith, or makes any meaningful public faith-based professions.
According to Wikipedia, Trump was raised Presbyterian, but seems to have maintained only very loose religious ties in adult life. Hillary, meanwhile, was raised in the United Methodist Church, where she reportedly continues to participate.
However, at election time, candidates do their level best to appeal to various people groups, and that includes Christians. Though we shouldn’t judge the faith of others – after all, we’re all at different levels – Jesus does say that you will know a person by their “fruit” (Matthew 7:15-20).
What “fruits” are the candidates best known for? Hillary is all politics, while Trump is all business. In fact, in the normal course of events, both candidates seem to follow an agenda that specifically excludes faith. We might even assume that Christianity is a liability for a tough businessman like Trump, and especially for a politician-at-heart like Hillary, for whom outward professions might upset many in her Democratic support base.
Both are egotistical, self-promoting, and more than a little bit arrogant. In fact, the Christian in me finds both to be more than a little bit hard to stomach. If either are believers at heart, then they’re choosing to keep their faith under a bowl (Matthew 5:14-16).
The point here isn’t to analyze the faith of either candidate, but to recognize that there’s little about this election that’s in any way spiritual – if any elections ever are. So, enjoy the “show”, participate in the election if you want, but don’t go assuming that we’re a step closer to Armageddon if your candidate doesn’t win. In this political season, let’s let our faith come through, and our politics take a back seat.
We can suspect that our faith will be more important than ever after the election is over.