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God and Man and Politics

A Christian perspective on the public square.

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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The authors bring to their task a keen appreciation of its complexity. They know that faith is personal but that political theology—religious teachings about political life—has public consequences. To take two opposing cases: Whereas German Christians in the 1930s were encouraged by their faith and some religious leaders to accommodate Nazism, in the 1950s and ’60s African-American and mainline Christian churches inspired the overturning of discriminatory laws. The authors know that men and women of faith are prone to conflicting mistakes: Some invoke religious authority for partisan ends and enlist it on behalf of schemes of oppression while others cover themselves in religious authority to justify turning away from political life and to ignore grave affronts to human dignity. And the authors know that the Bible is multifarious and appears contradictory, not least in its admonitions both to reform civic life and withdraw from politics.

Gerson and Wehner follow Saint Augustine, who taught that the tension between faith and politics is real—as is the connection between them. The City of God should be the object of man’s highest hopes, according to Augustine, but while dwelling in the fallen and flawed City of Man, human beings should pursue justice, of which politics and government are a necessary part, in light of man’s ultimate ends but also in awareness of the deficiencies of human nature.

Gerson and Wehner offer five propositions or precepts to guide the harmonization of politics and religious faith in a free society. First, the state’s powers and responsibilities, which begin with protecting citizens, differ from the moral obligations of individuals and, therefore, political morality differs from individual morality. Second, and similarly, the duties of the church, which has responsibility for a diverse community of believers, differ from those of individual Christians. Third, while Scripture sheds light on the spirit in which politics should be practiced and on the principles that should guide social life, it does not articulate a plan for good government, issue public policy prescriptions, or prescribe the prudential steps necessary to achieve even those ends on which Christians tend to agree. Fourth, the obligations of a Christian citizen are relative to the regime under which he or she lives: In a liberal democracy, which respects rights and is grounded in the consent of the governed, citizens are generally obliged to respect the law even where it is necessary to change particular policies and enactments. In an authoritarian or totalitarian state, which “engages in acts that are intrinsically evil,” it may become necessary to resist the law and rise up against the state. And fifth, it is a mistake to suppose that one can read God’s will in earthly events.

Such considerations have not always governed Christians in their role as citizens, and the authors are acutely aware that Christian involvement in American politics over the past 40 years has left much to be desired, religiously as well as politically. At the same time, Gerson and Wehner show sympathy for the religious right’s original grievances arising, in the 1970s, out of the progressive elite’s aggressive use of public policy to impose their views on the country. They also credit the religious right with reintroducing into public debate the importance of character, discipline, and authority. And they stress the diversity of strands within the evangelical movement—pointing out, for example, that as early as 1973 the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern called for assisting the poor and oppressed and overcoming racism. But Gerson and Wehner firmly reject the religious right’s “narrow agenda,” its tone, at once “apocalyptic, off-putting, and counterproductive,” and its theologically misguided determination to view America as a Christian nation rather than as a nation “informed by a Jewish and Christian understanding of human nature” and, therefore, “designed to be a nation where all faiths are welcomed, not one where one faith is favored.”

Christian conservatives’ political views, though, have been “changing and maturing.” They remain firmly set against abortion, and opposition to same-sex marriage is strong, even as a new attitude of tolerance toward gay marriage is emerging. Other issues, moreover, are coming to the fore: These include protection of the environment, defense of religious freedom and relief of suffering around the world, and, not least, reversal of the Obama administration’s spending increases and expansion of the federal government, which Christian conservatives see as a threat to prosperity and freedom. At the same time, newer leaders such as Rick Warren, the bestselling author and senior pastor of Saddleback Church in southern California, have brought a less partisan and more positive tone to public debate.

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