Recently, I was asked to speak in chapel at a Christian High School. So I told the students I wanted to talk about Christianity and Politics. Why? Because I think the 2016 Presidential Election will be the most important one in my lifetime.
Let me be clear. Politics is not the most important thing in life. Just being the church, living out day by day what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus is more important than politics. But politics is still important.
Politics in this election cycle has already proven to be exceedingly nasty, vicious, dishonest, and depressing. So many good Christians conclude: We should just forget about politics.
That, I believe, is a huge mistake for two reasons: one practical, one theological.
1. Political decisions impact the lives of billions.
First, it is a simple historical fact that political decisions have a huge impact—for good or bad—on the lives of billions of people. Think of the devastation and death the world might have avoided if German Christian voters had not helped elect Hitler to public office. Think of the freedom, goodness, and joy that followed for tens of millions from the fact that evangelical politician William Wilberforce labored for over thirty years and eventually persuaded his colleagues in the British parliament to outlaw first the slave trade and then slavery itself throughout the British Empire.
It is through politics that country after country has come to enjoy democracy. It is through politics that nation after nation has stopped jailing and killing “heretics.” It is through politics that we develop laws that either restrict or permit widespread abortion, protect or weaken religious liberty, harm or empower the poor, and protect or destroy the environment. Politics is simply too important to ignore.
“One way Christians must live out our belief that Christ is Lord, even of political life, is to think and pray for wisdom to act politically in ways that best reflect Christ our Lord.”
2. Jesus is Lord.
The theological reason for political engagement is even more compelling. The central Christian confession is that Jesus is now Lord—Lord of the entire universe. The New Testament explicitly teaches that he is now “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to the risen Jesus (Matt 28:18). Christians who know that must submit every corner of their lives to this wonderful Lord.
Since we live in a democratic society where we have the freedom to vote, our vote—or even our failure to vote—shapes what happens in the important arena of politics. One way Christians must live out our belief that Christ is Lord, even of political life, is to think and pray for wisdom to act politically in ways that best reflect Christ our Lord.
But that raises the question: How do we let Christ be Lord of our politics? A biblically balanced agenda is crucial.
“If you want to be truly Christian in your politics, you need to ask: What does the Bible say God cares about?”
Does God Care about Politics?
If you want to be truly Christian in your politics, you need to ask: What does the Bible say God cares about?
When we ask that question, it quickly becomes clear that the God of the Bible cares both about the sanctity of human life and economic justice (especially for the poor); both about marriage and peacemaking; both about sexual integrity and racial justice and creation care.
In January of this year, I spoke to a large conference of hundreds of Christians in Washington at an event called Evangelicals for Life. The conference was held to coincide with the annual March for Life which calls for an end to widespread abortion on demand.
I explained that for many decades, I have believed and taught that Christians should act on the belief that from the moment of conception, we are dealing with persons, human beings made in the image of God. And for many decades, therefore, I have been a part of the movement to reduce abortion both by legislation and through supportive programs to assist unwed pregnant mothers.
But over the years, I have also been disturbed by what seemed like a fundamental inconsistency in much of the pro-life movement. They talked a lot about combating abortion but often seemed unconcerned when poverty, starvation, smoking, environmental degradation, racism, and capital punishment also destroyed lives of persons made in the image of God. It was not entirely unfair when some joker said it looked as if we believed that “life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
“I agree with Pope Francis, who said when he spoke to Congress last year that Christian faith teaches ‘our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.'”
It bothered me when I saw that some pro-life leaders opposed government funding to search for a cure so that people with AIDS would be able to live; it bothered me when an important pro-life senator fought to end abortion but then defended government subsidies for tobacco which destroys the lives of persons; it bothered me when pro-life advocates failed to support programs designed to reduce hunger and starvation and save the lives of millions around the world.
I agree with Pope Francis, who said when he spoke to Congress last year that Christian faith teaches “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
“[I]f we want to be truly Christian in our politics, we cannot be one-issue voters.”
Because of global poverty, millions and millions of people die unnecessarily every year. Every single day, 18,000 children under five die, mostly from hunger and preventable diseases. That is like about 35 jumbo jets crashing every day. Many of them die of pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria which are easily treatable. But their poor parents and poor countries lack the resources to provide the inexpensive treatment. President George W. Bush launched, and President Obama continued, an historic program called PEPFAR which has saved the lives of millions of people that malaria or AIDS would have killed. But major politicians in recent years have called for dramatically cutting this kind of life-saving program. Should not biblical Christians urge Congress to increase, not cut, effective governmental programs that reduce poverty and prevent unnecessary death?
Smoking is also a pro-life issue. Smoking kills about 480,000 people in the U.S. every year. Around the world, the death toll from smoking rises to about 6 million each year.
Environmental degradation is also a pro-life issue. Global warming, unless we act soon, will cause devastating climate change that will lead to the death of millions of poor people.
Racism is also a pro-life issue. We all know how dreadfully true that has been in our history. White racism made it possible for us for centuries to enslave tens of millions of Africans made in the image of God. After slavery ended, thousands of lynchings murdered African-American men. Today, young black men are far more likely to be shot by white policemen than are young white men.
Capital punishment is a pro-life issue. I have never understood how killing a person guilty of killing another person is the best way to teach people not to kill and to respect the sanctity of human life.
Toward a Biblically Balanced Political Agenda
So if we want to be truly Christian in our politics, we cannot be one-issue voters. We must have a biblically balanced agenda that is pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-sexual integrity and pro-peace and pro-creation care.