The politics of doctrine

The US presidential election is in full swing, and after a rather low key convention season spiced up only by Clint Eastwood and an empty chair it now looks like there is a proper race on the cards. Mitt Romney suffered a massive blow when footage of a meeting with major donors was released presenting his apparent views giving up on 47 per cent of the electorate. But any advantage gained by Obama was surrendered in his lacklustre debate performance. Even the swing states which looked like falling decisively for Obama are now up for grabs.

And in the past week or so two significant church figures have waded into the political fray with their more or less unequivocal support for Mitt Romney and the Republican Party.

I’ve said before and I will keep on saying so, politics cannot be separated from our religious beliefs. The US is famed for its separation of church and state, but this is a very different concept than separating politics from beliefs. The former is a structural arrangement where no church or faith has a institutional position above any others, the latter is the inevitable consequence of individuals with views, values and beliefs engaging in any democratic system.

To suggest that religious beliefs should not be involved in political decisions is to suggest that beliefs tagged ‘religious’ are worth less than other views, values or ideologies. It is to say they should have no place in politics and it marginalises religious beliefs at the expense of non religious, secular, values. Values which, I would argue (but will not do so here), however noble and agreeable are less rooted or sustainable.

All of this is a prelude to what is causing considerable discomfort as I observe the unfolding of the US election. I got in a little bit of hot water with some thoughts I threw out on this blog before the London Mayoral election earlier this year, in particular for stating my opposition to Christian political parties. Based on what I say above the question emerges: if the role of policies and ideologies in politics is to posit a view of the good life for individuals, communities and the nation, and that view of the good life for Christians stems principally from their religious beliefs why shouldn’t those beliefs come together to form a coherent political platform?

Furthermore, I want to say with some certainty that there is an important place for common and shared doctrine within the church and that we don’t each on our own decide what matters for our relationship with God. I also do not believe that doctrine should relate to solely ‘spiritual’ matters, for to draw such a distinction is to undermine the significance to the wider world which beliefs have. What I believe the Bible teaches, and is shared as the doctrine of the church, is not just good for individual believers or the community of the faithful but also all of society. So while my beliefs may be personal, they are also shared, and also, by their very nature need to be public.

And yet I do not think churches should back political platforms.

Last week I read an editorial in the Christian Post by Wayne Grudem and followed various links to find a four page document listing the views of ‘Party A’ and ‘Party B’ on 24 topics. This was in response to Pulpit Freedom Day which sought to provoke a judicial ruling on IRS regulations which restricted political statements from the pulpit but had been never tested in court. I was deeply uncomfortable as I read the editorial and despaired when I read the document in detail.

The landscape was further populated with controversy when Billy Graham issued a statement following a meeting with Mitt Romney that said everything possible to back him without giving a formal endorsement. The statement even ended: “I’ll do all I can to help you, and you can quote me on that”.

Wayne Grudem and Billy Graham are obviously entitled to vote for whoever they prefer, and they are also free to say so. They are free to join the campaign and even work specifically on outreach to churches on why one candidate is better than the other.

But they have both crossed a line. And that line is to suggest that there is only one candidate and party who Christians in good conscience should vote for.

I have read enough, although not all, of Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible to not be surprised by his position. Likewise Billy Graham is known to have been close to President Bush (both). There are three aspects of their statements where they mix partisan identity with religious belief in an unhelpful way.

Firstly, and this specifically applies to Wayne Grudem’s list of issues and party positions, it is a caricature of what the party positions are. The list is structured like a party political broadcast: ‘Party A is wonderful and does great things, Party B wants to kill all the kittens’. While the list doesn’t in itself tell you which side to support it is not an attempt to inform voters of the parties’ positions but to persuade them to vote for one side while parodying the other.

Secondly, both Wayne Grudem’s list and Billy Graham’s statement prioritise certain issues as the important voting pivots for Christians. When Billy Graham hails Mitt Romney’s strong moral values it is explained with reference to his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Likewise while Wayne Grudem’s list is wider it reads as though designed to complement the Republican party platform. Their position ignores the fact that some Christians, while caring about those issues may consider the position of other candidates on other issues as an equally or more decisive factor.

Thirdly, they are using their positions as figures of authority within the American evangelical church to support political positions and particular candidates. This comes back to where I began, I think there are important common stances for the church to take and hold to, and the rule of teachers and preachers to inform and disciple is crucial. But when this transcends into discipling congregations into the correct way to vote it misses the mark.

Because politics is difficult, it is messy, and it is complicated. And political parties are populated by human beings who in their frailty and falleness will fail to achieve all that they might even wish to do. And like all of us their motives will be a mixture of the noble and the misguided. Even politicians with explicitly Christian identity will disappoint. When we attach our Christian identity to a political programme we position the role of government above the role of God. And the irony of US evangelical leaders doing this towards a party that disdains big government is not lost on me.

The overt support of a specific political party also confuses motives with methods. While there are differences in the intended ends between the candidates and their parties, on many issues the differences are in how to achieve those ends. Take tackling poverty for example, neither party would desire that people stay in situations where they cannot feed their family, but how to respond is not something we can use the Bible to draw specific policies from. Any attempt to do so, and this is what Wayne Grudem tries to do is, I’m afraid, an incredibly poor use of scripture.

I think that Christians should engage in politics, and I think they should join political parties, I think we should also live in an acute awareness that how our beliefs are worked out on the political stage will vary. And therefore, any attempt to take religious beliefs and turn them into a political platform is fraught with challenges and, I believe, inappropriate to be expounded from the pulpit.

The words and actions of many leading figures in the evangelical church offering support to the Republican Party misses one final fact. Many evangelical Christians vote Democrat regardless of what their leaders say. By using the pulpit for something that it is not there to do there is the risk of exacerbating the cleft between what congregation hear and what they do. Tell people to vote, tell congregations to join parties, even help them get information about the parties. But if you cannot do so in a non-partisan manner, keep it out of the pulpit.

8 thoughts on “The politics of doctrine

  1. My feeling is you can’t vote to cut spending for the poor, the sick, and elderly (social safety nets, social security, ect…) then claim Christian values

  2. this is why i love reading your blog. i mean, it helps that i’ve been inclined to agree/share your point of view but you articulate it so well. and. well, you actually articulate it in a cohesive post, whereas i tend to react to things i read and my thoughts tend to remain disparate among various social media channels.

  3. “But they have both crossed a line. And that line is to suggest that there is only one candidate and party who Christians in good conscience should vote for.” YES.

    It’s also interesting to note that many evangelical Christian leaders are supporting Romney, citing religious reasons for doing so. If they’re basing it solely on religion, Obama would be a more logical choice, as he professes to be an evangelical Christian, whereas Romney is Mormon.
    These leaders seem to be sending mixed messages–their personal faith is what is leading their decision, but it is leading them to back someone who stands for the same things they do, but claims a different religion.

    To sum it all up: It’s a terrible messy time to be a Christian trying to decide who to vote for.

    • what makes it so messy is that there are a fair number of evangelical Christian leaders (and by fair, i mean, not insignificant) would cite religious reasons for supporting obama as well!

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