Last week Peter Kirk of the Gentle Wisdom blog in the U.K. responded to two fellow Brits on the subject of Christians in political life.
The conversation was British enough for me to feel a bit out of the loop. However, the basic position taken by Peter and those to whom he was responding was that Christians have made a hash out of it whenever they have injected themselves into the political process and therefore it would be better if we Christians left organized power politics to others with less history of intolerance and pig-headedness (my word, not Peter’s; obviously, you can read Peter’s original post, highlighted up above to find exactly what he said).
I wrote a response to his post but it was long (what a shock!) and I did not wish to drop all that onto his very civilized site. I emailed him instead and asked his druthers. We agreed I would post my response here and give him a chance to link it to his site and then he could comment.
(I should say about Peter: he is a man after my own heart. He is a theologically conservative Charismatic Christian who knows he may be wrong on this or that and is quite progressive politically and knows he may be wrong here and there as well. In short: a humble believer who knows what he believes and why, and my newest long-distance friend.)
So, below find my comment where I disagree, in a loving Christian way, of course!
Peter and all,
I know next to nothing about your current politics except that you have had three viable parties for a while and have a parliamentary government rather than a federal system like in the U.S. Your head of state is a little old lady with a very big budget but no power and your head of government is also a member of your legislature. I certainly agree with the separation of the offices of state and government but I cannot understand how the PM and his ministers can get anything done with both administrative and legislative responsibilities.
All that said, your remarks on Christians in politics versus a Christian political party made me think. I have always wished we could have a Christian political party over here although it is nearly impossible right now, given how our “separation of church and state” is presently framed within our popular understanding.
I thoroughly support our institutional separation of churches from government and I believe no government should dictate church policy, nor should a church or churches be in a position to dictate government policy. That said, every human being needs to be able to live out his or her faith in all of life and to organize with those who share the same worldview. A Christian political party is not a church and should have no formal ties with a church. Therefore, as a political organization, a party does not actually violate the separation of church and state principle. But tell that to most U. S. citizens and see what you get.
You, however, have an opportunity which we in the States do not have right now. You could organize a Christian party without violating anyone’s interpretation of your constitution, as far as I can see.
For the most part, your discussion reminds me of the buzz which, as I understand it, surrounded the early history of your Labour Party. For years, there was tremendous fear over what the Labourites would do if they ever gained power. Then, (I think) a Tory government fell and the Whigs could not put together a coalition (or something like that) and so for the briefest of possible periods, someone named Mac Donald – is that right? – from the Labour Party led a care-taker government. And all the terrible things which the Tories and Whigs had been spouting about the dangers of a Labour government instantly transforming England into a socialist state just did not materialize. And so the great irrational fear of a labor government dissipated, at least in the popular imagination.
I am not surprised to hear similar specters and fears of “inquisition” and “theocracy” raised over the prospect of a Christian party exercising power in the U.K. Your arguments come, I believe, out of the same barrel of fearful fruit used by our Enlightenment brothers and sisters concerning the “dangerous superstitions” which “all religious motives and attitudes” contain, as they tell it. The bogey-inquisitor-man has been used for centuries by secularists to frighten Protestant Christians away from the exercise of political power with the fearful image of “the Papists” gaining control. You quote C. S. Lewis as spouting this meme quite strongly. Lewis’ close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to one of his sons of Lewis’ irrational anti-Papist sentiments and it is not surprising to read such language in his strong statement against persons of (the wrong) faith exercising power in deeply intolerant ways. That is the secular argument against Christians ever exercising political power and you have echoed that position well.
This leaves me with a question: How, then, are Christians to fulfill their mandate to make all nations into followers of Jesus if they can never organize politically, if they can never demonstrate on the earth what gracious, healthful, healing and just government looks like?
I remember a story from a course I had in British History at the University of Minnesota, lo, these many years ago. As the prof told it, Oliver Cromwell, upon completing the conquest and occupation of London, called his officers together to coordinate the organization of the city and Henry Ireton, as I recall, wanted to discuss the disposition of the theaters.
“The theatres?” Cromwell asked.
“Yes, sir. What shall we do about them? They perform the disgusting and bawdy works of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe…”
Cromwell is said to have thought for a moment and then said, “Close them. They are of the Devil.”
And so they closed the theaters. And the Devil laughed and said, “Theater is mine? Why, thank you, very much!”
The theaters, as you probably know, stayed closed until “Chuck the tooth” became king. Charles II opened the theaters as a part of his “restoration” and the theaters became more secular, more crass, more skeptical with Philip Sheridan, et. al., than what they had been with the earlier playwrights.
One could use this story as I am sure my empiricistic university prof did to highlight the repressive evils of “religious” government. I look at the story as a missed opportunity, a period of time when Christians, aided by a favorable government, could have advanced in many important cultural areas which could have been a blessing to their whole society. Christians have a responsibility to hold every thought captive in every area of life. If we do not do so, our enemy advances his designs. If we do not resist the Devil he will not flee. Christians did not use the brief period of the Cromwell’s Protectorate to develop Christian dramatic arts. Arguably, we have been playing “catch-up” in theater arts ever since.
No Christian political movement is going to be perfect. God, knows, mere competence requires practice and most Christians have had little of that in this area of life for many centuries. But what I am hearing in your discussion is the idea that Christians cannot be trusted with government because they will revert to intolerance. You assume, therefore, that intolerance is a Christian trait rather than a component of all governments in an earlier age. And therefore, because Christians cannot be trusted to do justice, persons without the light of the gospel, persons who grope in the dark, are the “adults” who should run the government on the basis of their dim humanist principles.
This is an ironic position to take, brothers and sisters: we are the children who are not to be trusted with adult power but those who do not know the law, the bounds and limits of God’s good creation, can be trusted. This is especially ironic since Israel referred to “the nations” as those who “did not know their right hand from their left,” and as “those who cannot go out and come back in,” both phrases they also used to describe young children.
So how might any Christian group which seeks to fulfill its mandate to disciple the nations in the area of government proceed today? What we need in a situation like this is the witness of a vanguard, an early expression of apostolic action in the (sad-but-true) foreign-to-Christians territory of politics. In your case you have such a template nearby.
A confessionally Christian political party has existed for centuries in the Netherlands, founded over two centuries ago by William (Guillaume) Groen van Prinsterer and brought to prominence under Abraham Kuyper who was PM of his nation during the critical period of the Boer War – a time at which he would have been no friend of the U.K., but perhaps bygones are bygones by now. The Anti-Revolutionary Party of Groen and Kuyper has morphed and merged with other groups but it has been the loyal opposition in the Netherlands more than once and when it held power, circa., 1899-1901, the nation did not fulfill any of the prophesied forebodings of the enlightenment liberals and conservatives. In fact, some very good things happened during its tenure and because of its influence ever since so that Christians as well as other groups found more room for their distinct value communities in Dutch life because the Christians had briefly been in power.
After 1920, the A-R Party never received more than 17% of the vote in the Netherlands but in 1977 it merged with two other Christian organizations to form the Christian Democratic Appeal and since then it has had a share in all but two Dutch governments. The CDA is alive and well, remaining, as I understand it, deeply devoted to issues of public justice but it is not the least bit given to requiring the nation to do this or that “religious” thing “because God said so:” no theocracy and no inquisition. The principles and practices of the CDA and its predecessor, the ARP, and also fellowship with those who have held positions of power as Christians might do any fledgling group good and save them from having to redesign a wheel many times over.
In sum, Peter and all, I respectively suggest you might want to re-think your positions on this matter. We who will rule with Christ, who will even judge angels, might want a bit of kingdom-coming political and juridical experience first. And I for one, would hate to have Jesus be forced to rely exclusively on “the wooden-shoes” for all such matters because no one else knows anything about doing government justly.
Any thoughts, brothers and sisters?
One organization which educates on this issue in the U.S. is Center for Public Justice (CPJ). Check them out!