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The Old Question: Politics and Religion

by Roger Shinn

Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, November 2, 1964. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

"I feel strongly that it is wrong to mix political opinions with personal Christianity."

"Am I wrong in thinking that Jesus never took a political stand?"

" The church’s responsibility is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to induce people to . . . lead Christian lives."

These three statements from one week’s mail raise once again an old, old question. It seems strange that such statements should need an answer in the year in which Rolf Hochhuth’s stinging play, The Deputy, has made painfully clear the moral failure of churches in Germany that neglected political issues and concentrated on spiritual and institutional questions.

Actually, almost all Christians believe that their faith relates to politics at some points. Some see the issue in communism, some in devotional exercises in public schools, some in concern over pornography, some in issues of social justice. Although many people accused pre-Civil War churches of "interfering" in politics when they opposed slavery, today we wonder how any churches were able to avoid the issue. Future Christians will probably wonder why the churches of our time did not do more about the ethical problems that are the stuff of politics.

Let us admit that Christians and churches can make dangerous mistakes in the political arena. Churches have used pressure to gain special privileges; hierarchies have dictated to church members. Christians have made foolish ethical judgments because they lacked technical competence in economics and politics. They have introduced religious prejudice into electoral campaigns and have so tied themselves to political factions as to neglect their ministry to men of diverse views. Sometimes churches have written into public law their specific moral standards.

When so many mistakes are possible, the temptation is strong to divorce "personal Christianity" from "political opinions." Yet because politics deals constantly with human welfare and ethical issues, the Christian Church cannot neglect it.

The most celebrated economist of our time, John Maynard Keynes, once wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury that economics had its origin, at least partially, in ethics. He continued, "There are practically no issues of policy as distinct from technique which do not involve ethical considerations. If this is emphasized, the right of the Church to interfere in what is essentially a branch of ethics becomes even more obvious." The same statement can be applied with equal force to politics.

To evade major issues of social ethics is cowardice. Surely any reading of the Old Testament makes that point clear. The New Testament puts less emphasis on direct political judgments, both because of its eschatological setting and because Jesus and his disciples were not even citizens of the political empire in which they lived. Nevertheless the New Testament indicates that Jesus took his stand against one political group, the Zealots, and did not hesitate to call King Herod "that fox." His followers, when they are voting citizens, deny his lordship if they neglect to serve him in politics.

There are good reasons for Christian restraint in political judgments. Politics involves questions of fact, of probability, and assessment of leaders on which men of ethical sensitivity often differ. In a world of sinners, purity is rarely set against corruption in the way campaign oratory makes it appear. Furthermore, the loyalty of faith must always live in some tension with the tentative opinions and bargaining methods that politics appropriately cultivates. These factors should keep the Church from becoming a community of the politically like-minded.

Christians should readily recognize that they may be mistaken in political judgments. This is no excuse for evasion: the fact of fallibility does not reduce men to silence in theology, ethics or politics. But there is need for three kinds of restraint. (1) Churches should be more cautious than individuals or groups of Christians in taking political stands. (2) Christians, especially churches, should be more ready to make pronouncements on issues than on candidates—always recognizing that times come when issues and men are inseparable. (3) Christian judgments should never stem solely from the clergy but should involve lay specialists with skill in public affairs.

After all this is said, the Christian must always remember that the cardinal article of his faith is that the Holy God has entered fully into the life of mankind. The Church cannot claim holiness by escaping the common life.

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