Politicians have a bad habit: whether they’re Republican, Democrat, independent, or something else, they’ll say almost anything to get elected.
In this respect politicians are much like other marketers. If pretty girls get the attention of car-shopping men, car makers will put pretty girls in their ads. A candy company adds a little vitamin C to a confection and advertises it as a healthy food.
Politicians suffer from the same weakness. They’ll grab on to nearly anything that will sell their product (themselves) to a skeptical public. In the last couple of decades, a certain set of politicians—largely from the Republican Party—came up with a selling point that has seemed to work especially well: Christian faith.
These politicians say, “I am the candidate who will defend what the Bible teaches. I'll make laws against things you believe are wrong. I’ll enforce the things you want to happen. In short, I’ll make the surrounding culture supportive of your Christian beliefs.”
In recent years, we hear more and more from American politicians about not just moral values but about evangelical Christian values. It has become virtually impossible to get elected as a Republican without leaning in some way toward conservative Christian values and promising governmental advocacy for the ideas that conservative Christians hold dear.
I should clarify that many of these Christian values are also mine. However, if Abraham Lincoln were running for president today, it’s unlikely he could even be nominated by his own Republican Party. He was a member of no church, never publicly confessed a creed, and never publicly used religious beliefs to justify his policies.
Right now, let’s not make a judgment about whether today’s politicians are sincere or whether they’ll do what they promise to do. You and I both know that politicians, like marketers, promise more than they can deliver. The new SUV won’t make you as happy as the people on the advertisement appear to be; the new toothpaste won’t make your smile twinkle like stars; and the new president or senator won’t suddenly transform the country into a utopia.
Yet because politicians have gotten elected by playing to people’s faith, let me warn you that there are good reasons to be skeptical.
The history of government
The first time Scripture talks about government is when the Israelites left Egypt to return to Palestine. To get his ignorant, rebellious people across hundreds of miles of wilderness, Moses received orders directly from God—a form of government called theocracy. Once in the Promised Land, military or priestly judges continued a similar form of government.
Eventually, though, Israel got a king like other nations (1 Samuel 8:4, 5). Monarchy remained the nearly universal form of government all over the earth for thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans had forms of democracy, but Europe was ruled by kings and emperors for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until well into the second millennium after Christ that a few European rulers began to see the value of a government in which citizens decided who their leaders would be and what laws would govern them. Modern democracy is an innovation of only the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Although it was the first biblical form of government, there are good reasons why we don’t want to live in a theocracy now. In Old Testament times, God selected the people He wanted to be leaders, and He communicated directly with them. That doesn’t happen in the same way now. If a president of the United States came on TV and said, “I was talking to God this morning, and He told me that I am to drop a nuclear bomb on Poland,” I would be very frightened. (I’d have the same reaction if the speaker were a respected pastor or priest.) God is clearly in charge of world affairs (Psalm 24:1; Colossians 1:17), but we have no evidence that He communicates the precise lineaments of the future to government leaders today like He did to prophets of old.
What He has communicated to all of us is the outline of eternal salvation. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” says Scripture, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1, 2).
That shift in God’s communication strategy suggests that the way Jesus related to politics is a good guide for how we should. And Jesus, though a public figure Himself, was startlingly apolitical. Even though He had a Zealot (a member of a Jewish party that was dedicated to overthrowing Roman rule by any means possible) among His disciples (Matthew 10:4), you’ll look in vain for Jesus to take sides. The closest He came to a political pronouncement was to tell His followers to pay their taxes: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Hardly the revolution they were hoping for!
Why didn’t Jesus stand up against the Romans? With His divine powers, He could have ruled the world! Yet Jesus never placed much value on occupying an earthly throne. His kingdom, He insisted, wasn’t anywhere on this earth (John 18:36). Who ruled the nations down here was far less important to Him than that everyone understood the character and purposes of the King of the universe.
A big problem with politicians making laws that favor religious beliefs is that not all people have the same beliefs.
The book of Daniel tells the story of a group of sycophants tempting the Babylonian king to create a cult of the monarchy— to declare that the king himself was a god. This pleased the king, but not Daniel. And because Daniel stood up for the one true God, he was thrown into a den of lions (Daniel 6). Another time the king tried to incinerate several otherwise loyal Jewish subjects because they refused to bow to a massive golden idol he’d set up (Daniel 3).
Even in a country where most of us use the same Bible, we certainly don’t all understand it the same way. The uncomfortable truth is that if a politician is going to legislate in favor of one religious belief, he runs the risk of trespassing on another. Suppose, for example, that a politician decided that everyone should worship on Sunday (an idea that has been proposed from time to time through history). That would be fine for most Christians, but it would put Jews and Seventh-day Adventists (who observe the seventh day of the week) in a situation where they’d have to choose between obeying a human law or their understanding of obeying God’s law.
The politicians who give one religious group what they want may be taking freedom from another. And the practice of one’s faith is far too personal and consequential a thing to be decided by a legislative vote or executive action. That’s why the framers of the American Constitution spoke of a wall of separation between church and state.
John F. Kennedy articulated this well when he was attacked by some who disapproved of his Catholic religion. He said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. I believe in an America . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
That’s not to say God doesn’t care what decisions politicians make. God is concerned about every detail of life on this earth. “He rules forever by his power,” wrote David. “His eyes watch the nations” (Psalm 66:7). On many moral questions, religion and government overlap, and God expects good rulers to make and enforce laws that protect people and property.
But we don’t want government to legislate faith choices for us. Much of what you and I believe needn’t be made into public policy in order for us to practice it in our own lives and teach it to our families. God gives each of us the choice whether to serve Him. Shouldn’t we have the same respect for others’ religious freedom that we value for ourselves? I will always choose a government that defends everyone’s freedom to act according to their own convictions above one that’s willing to enforce my good convictions on others.
We ought not to pin our hopes for happiness upon earthly governments but on God’s power. Repeatedly in Scripture God is described as Sovereign above all earthly rulers. Paul calls Him “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15). And he affirms that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, “God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9–11).
So don’t be beguiled by politicians claiming they will legislate for God. God has no party affiliation, and He doesn’t need politicians speaking for Him. What He does need is for you and me to stand for Him—no matter what governments do.