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How Should Christians Approach Political Debates? - An Excerpt from Five Views on the Church and Politics

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Politics and the Church is a topic that draws out our passions. Five Views on the Church and Politics offers a helpful, balanced overview of five Christian views as General Editor Amy Black brings together five key political traditions within Christianity: Anabaptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Black Church. This resource will enable you to consider the most significant Christian views on political engagement and then to draw your own, better-informed conclusions.

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Five Views on the Chruch and PoliticsIn contemporary politics, one need not look far to find examples of Christians aligning themselves on different sides of major political debates. One Christian organization argues passionately for government action on a public policy, even as another argues loudly against it. How should Christians approach political debates over divisive issues such as health care, the environment, immigration, and more? Instead of calling all followers of Christ to speak with one political voice and claiming to resolve political debates definitively, this book highlights different Christian approaches to politics and the principles that animate them.

As the contributors to this volume have demonstrated, Christians throughout the centuries have debated the extent to which church and government should interact and have wrestled with divisive political issues. Each of the five views represented in this book introduces concepts and vocabulary useful for discussing the proper role of government, the place of political participation, and the purposes and foundations of the law. Interaction with these rich theological traditions can help guide those seeking to think more deeply about their Christian witness in politics.

Politics and Government in a Complex World

The contributors have offered a range of perspectives on the role and purpose of government, the formal political and institutional structures of a state, and politics, the informal process for addressing social and economic problems. Like everything in our fallen world, government and politics are broken and incomplete. When most corrupted, governments insulate leaders from the people and promote tyranny and oppression. When designed well, government institutions divide power and authority, provide internal and external checks on political power, and connect the people with their leaders. At its best, government serves the common good and makes positive contributions that benefit many people.

Political scientist Harold Lasswell famously described politics as determining “who gets what, when, [and] how.”1 A wide range of people — elected officials, government bureaucrats, representatives of business, labor, and special interest groups — compete in the political arena, raising their particular concerns as they make collective decisions. When working well, the political process makes a way for everyone in society to flourish. At its worst, self-interest reigns and the process grinds to a halt. So long as societies continue to face collective problems and decisions, government will be necessary, and political issues will divide people.

Modern governments have accomplished many great things. Most industrialized democracies have solved the simplest problems affecting society. For example, few people living in these countries worry about access to clean water, utilities, public education, fire and police protection, and infrastructure like roads and bridges. Their governments have assessed the needs and developed plans for providing these public goods.

Most of the easy work has been accomplished, but important and difficult work remains. The remaining social problems that government might address are the most complicated and entrenched, and they rarely have clear or easy solutions. Thus the issues under public debate become sources of significant disagreement and conflict. Policy experts honestly disagree about what path government should take and the extent to which government can help at all. To complicate matters further, on the short term they postpone making politically difficult choices.

Given the wide range of perspectives within the Christian tradition and the complex and divisive nature of politics, it shouldn’t surprise us that Christians also disagree about how to approach politics and government. The late Congressman Paul Henry explained the dilemma:

If orthodox Christians practicing charity toward one another cannot come to agreement on matters where there appears to be direct biblical teaching (such as the administration of the sacraments or eschatology), it can hardly be expected that they will come to agreement on those matters where biblical teachings are arrived at only indirectly and inductively.

The historic traditions of Christian thought we have explored in this book offer tools for navigating the complexities of politics and government and present distinctive ways to apply biblical teaching to these questions. Examining some of the key areas of agreement and disagreement can help shape our understanding of how we, individually and in our churches, should interact with the political sphere.

Historical Traditions, Contemporary Applications

…The contributors have identified fundamental principles and raised questions that inform political discussions. A final task remains: placing these traditions in the context of contemporary American politics. Given the diversity within the five traditions presented in this book and the complexity of issues debated in the public square, this is no simple task. Even so, the distinctive principles and emphases from each tradition tend to pull adherents in different partisan directions.

Unlike many other modern democracies, the United States is dominated by a two-party system. Although the nation’s founders thought they had created a system free of political parties, they have been in place since 1796. A combination of tradition and various structures of the constitutional system has created an equilibrium in which two, and only two, major parties vie for power against each other at any given time. Parties are broad-based and address a wide range of issues. Party leaders, elected officials, and local activists within each party do not act in lockstep; the diversity within the two major parties leaves room for much inter-party disagreement. Despite this, the two parties are politically distinctive from each other. The Democratic party is the most natural home for those with liberal or progressive views, whereas the Republican party is known for its ideological conservatism. Republicans typically favor a smaller government that provides fewer services and are more concerned that the government protect morality. Democrats are more likely to favor a larger government that offers more services and are more skeptical of governmental protection of morality.

To what extent do the views presented in this book correlate with the politics and goals of the Democratic and Republican parties? As we will see, none of the perspectives compared in this book overlaps completely with the dominant positions of either of the two major parties. The teachings of some traditions will fit more naturally with one or the other party, some will agree more with one party on certain issues and the other party on others, and some traditions are internally divided between their more politically — and theologically — conservative and liberal branches. (Pgs 217-220)

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To read more on these five views, order your copy of Five Views on the Church and Politics today.

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