Is God a Democrat? A Republican? Was Jesus a conservative, liberal, socialist, or libertarian? Those are jarring questions. Yet, because faith informs one’s values and values inform one’s political leanings, it is understandable why religion and politics often intersect and overlap. And because there are myriad different concepts of Deity (hence, the thousands of sects plus varying degrees of nonbelief in the world) and many divergent political beliefs (so that even within each Christian denomination there are adherents spread across the political spectrum) the inevitable result is friction, contention, and disagreement.
Can we agree on this at least? Let’s agree that those who worship the Creator and accept the Savior should let His redeeming grace lift us higher instead of trying to squeeze him into limited and limiting human beliefs. Neither God nor Jesus can be reduced to any human philosophy, political or otherwise. Politics is human; God is divine. The human is the realm of mortal, material, flawed, and imperfect beings where many wills collide, compete, and clash; the divine is the realm of the immortal, spiritual, perfect Holy One where there is but one will. For those who find this phraseology problematical, I apologize; it’s often difficult to express spiritual concepts with mere human language, and even with the clearest communication there are often different slants on these transcendent concepts. Let’s just say that none of us should be overly confident that we have the infinite God and His Son figured out, when even Jesus’ own disciples, who abode with him for three years, repeatedly didn’t “get it.”
Christians have many different opinions about what constitutes good government. Jesus said that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). That marvelous statement still leaves an important question unanswered: As long as we live in this world, what kind of civil government is right for humankind? The Bible does not contain an explicit blueprint for government. It does, however, provide abundant guidance and clear precepts for moral conduct in our thoughts and deeds that should influence our politics. Liberty, justice, charity, right, and wrong are dominant themes throughout the Bible. The political challenge is to get them in the right balance. In I Samuel, chapter 8, it is plain that the highest form of government would be for the people to follow God’s laws, and that any human king (and by extension, human government in general) will be prone to abusing the people under its authority.
Just how much power a human government should have has been a perennially vexing problem ever since. Founding Father James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Alas, of course, men are not angels, so how much external government do they need? Robert Charles Winthrop, erstwhile Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (1847-1849), stated, “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled, either via power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible, or by the bayonet.”
Personally, I prefer the Bible to the bayonet. Consequently, I think that America’s Founding Fathers – despite their differing understandings of the Christian religion – came pretty close to solving the problem of government correctly. In the Declaration of Independence they affirmed that government’s raison d'être and sole legitimate function is to preserve, protect, and uphold man’s God-given unalienable rights. The key principle in governmental administration was to be negative law – that is, the government should enforce the essential laws outlined in the Mosaic Decalogue – and not the “positive law” of ordering what good things citizens must do. The great moral philosopher Adam Smith explained this fundamental and practical difference between law and gospel in his classic work, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
Many American Christians have a different opinion about the proper role of government today. Some desire to expand the scope of government as strongly as I favor shrinking it to the size our founders envisioned. And I must concede the possibility that we living in America today don’t deserve the limited government that our founders established. Perhaps Joseph de Maistre was at least partly right when he wrote, “Every country has the government it deserves." John Adams believed, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” It may be that the American people have moved away from moral self-government to a degree that renders our original constitutional order impracticable today.
Christians hold many opinions about the proper role of government today. Perhaps the only point we can agree upon universally is that the only perfect government is found in the kingdom of heaven.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.