Editor’s note: The following conversation between Live Action News contributor Murray Vasser and Dr. Hellerman is one that we believe is insightful. While we know that our readers come from many faith backgrounds, we trust that everyone will find worthwhile this honest conversation on faith and politics. Note that like all Live Action News articles, the views expressed are solely those of their respective authors. Additionally Live Action does not make partisan or federal election endorsements.
The following is a conversation I had with Dr. Joseph Hellerman concerning his article “Jesus & Politics: Ramping up for November 2012,” published here on the Good Book Blog. Dr. Hellerman is a pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship and a professor at Talbot School of Theology. He completed his doctoral research at UCLA, where he studied the social history of the early Christians, and he has authored numerous academic monographs and journal articles. This dialogue is reposted with his permission.
Jesus and Politics: Ramping up for November 2012.
I am receiving an increasing number of e-mails from persons in my church championing this or that conservative political cause. One dear brother has become particularly persistent in his attempts to get his church leaders to jump on the political bandwagon. I recently responded in some detail:
Dear Oceanside Christian Fellowship Brother,
Thank you so very much for taking the time to forward these materials to me, but I must confess that I just do not have a burning desire to get involved with the political process.
If I vote in November (I say “If” because I find no biblical mandate to do so, though I generally have in the past), I will do so (a) as an American citizen with Christian values, who is participating in the political process, and who would like to see my daughters enjoy the same America I have enjoyed, but not (b) as a representative of the Christian community who is attempting to influence the broader culture with Christian morality.
I will try to explain the difference by sharing a handful of convictions I hold:
- Jesus profoundly challenged religious nationalism. In fact, I wrote a whole book on the issue.
- Our calling as followers of Jesus is to build an alternative social reality—the Christian community—one that is radically distinct from the state. It is not our calling, as a Christian community, to legislate morality for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). (This does not mean that individual Christians are not to participate in the political process. I am writing here about our public stance as a people of God.)
- If we are determined to change the culture by legislating biblical morality, where do we draw the line? I don’t hear Christians who oppose legalizing homosexual marriage lobbying to outlaw adultery, or fornication, or obesity, or greed. These glaring inconsistencies leave an indelible stain on any attempt to ‘Christianize’ the moral contours of American society. And just whose ‘Christian’ morality do we legislate? Some Christians are convinced that consuming alcoholic beverages is a sin. Do we lobby to outlaw the sale of alcohol? History has certainly demonstrated the futility of Christians trying to influence broader societal values via the political process on that issue.
- A Christianity that expends its energies trying to fix the world by legislating morality—rather than serving the world through acts of justice and mercy—alienates unbelievers, because all they hear about is what we are against, rather than what we are for. This is why ministries like Sharefest (which mobilizes churches in Los Angeles to engage in work projects in the community) build bridges and make friends between believers and unbelievers, while “anti-this,” “anti-that” Christian political agendas build fences and generate enmity. Please note that I am not advocating a gnostic-like, world-negating perspective vis-à-vis society-at-large. I am suggesting, instead, that we exchange what has become an adversarial political stance toward the broader culture for an aggressive program of community service, mercy ministry, and evangelistic outreach.
- I am not convinced that we could change the broader culture, even if we wanted to. This book, which articulates a Christian political philosophy similar to the one that I have held for quite some time, explains why.
- Even assuming that we could change the values of the dominant culture, to do so by wielding political power would be to engage in an ill-fated agenda that has, again and again, throughout church history, compromised the very message of the cross that we preach.
History, in fact, has much to teach us. When Constantine adopted Christianity, after several centuries of marginalization and decades of persecution, most Christians were delighted to have “their man in the White House.” A century later, when the Goths sacked Rome, one Christian leader, Jerome, lamented, “Jerusalem has fallen, Jerusalem has fallen,” so easily had the church bought into the idea that the Constantinian empire was now a “Christian nation.”
Jerome was wrong. There was/is no “Christian nation,” post-Pentecost. The era of a national people of God ended with national Israel, with the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. Indeed, the Constantinian “marriage” of the early church to the Roman state proved to be disastrous for the integrity of the Christian project—a mess that we didn’t even begin to untangle until the Protestant Reformation, centuries later.
A contemporary of Jerome’s, Augustine, had a much more biblical vision of the relationship between the church and the Roman state. In response to the sack of Rome, Augustine notes, in the City of God, that the “city of man”—secular empires—come and go, while the City of God lasts forever.
The idea that it might be America’s time to “go” is a sobering one, and I am not unaware of the potential cost of my perspective for life as we know it. Someday soon we will likely lose our tax write-off for charitable giving to our churches. Someday it will be illegal for Oceanside Christian Fellowship to discriminate by refusing to hire a homosexual pastor. And someday it may even be considered a hate-crime to preach against homosexuality in a public setting.
So be it. The church will have no tax write-off and no professional staff. And we will meet in homes, just like the early Christians, who, it seems to me, had a whole lot more genuine spiritual influence upon the dominant culture than we have had in America, in recent decades, at any rate.
This is why I disagree with the policies and goals of both the Christian right (James Dobson, Chuck Colson, et al) and the Christian left (Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd). When our kids were little, Joann and I learned so very much from Focus on the Family about parenting. But I pretty much turned Dobson off when he transitioned from family to politics a decade or so ago.
I imagine that hearing all this from one of your pastors disappoints you, brother, but I have worked through this in my own mind over the years, and I am quite settled in my position. Others will see things a whole lot differently, and I certainly respect those who take a contrary position. Your passion for Christ is to be applauded. I will always think very highly of you as a brother in Christ.
In Christ Our True Lord & King,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important subject. Like you, I am disgusted with the way patriotism has been wed with Christianity in America. However, as a pro-life activist, I strongly disagree with the other conclusions you have drawn. I hope you will forgive me for using a little satire to explain why. It is not my intention to be disrespectful, but I do believe this is the most effective way for me to communicate my concerns. Consider this fictional letter from an Anglican minister to Thomas Clarkson, the great abolitionist:
Dear Thomas Clarkson,
Thank you so very much for taking the time to send me these materials concerning the slave trade, but I must confess that I just do not have a burning desire to get involved with the political process.
You ask me to preach against slavery from the pulpit, circulate your petition after services, and urge my congregation to boycott sugar. However, as a representative of the Christian community, I have no intention to influence the broader culture with Christian morality. It is not our calling, as a Christian community, to legislate morality for unbelievers. If we are determined to change the culture by legislating biblical morality, where do we draw the line? If we are to outlaw slavery, must we also outlaw cursing and drunkenness?
And just whose “Christian” morality do we legislate? For many years, only the eccentric Quakers opposed slavery. You are the first Anglican minister to publicly stand against the trade, and there are still very many in our community who find nothing wrong with slavery.
A Christianity that expends its energies trying to fix the world by legislating morality alienates unbelievers, because all they hear about is what we are against, rather than what we are for. As I am sure you have noticed, many people do not like William Wilberforce. He makes them angry, and has brought ridicule on the entire evangelical community. They speak of the “damnable doctrines of William Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies,” and many consider him a traitor to the Crown.
Finally, I am not convinced that we could change the broader culture, even if we wanted to. For millennia, all cultures and all religions have accepted the institution of slavery, and the economy of the empire is dependent upon the trade. Furthermore, even assuming that we could change the values of the dominant culture, to do so by wielding political power would be to engage in an ill-fated agenda that has, again and again, throughout church history, compromised the very message of the cross that we preach.
Instead of petitioning parliament and boycotting sugar, why don’t you spend your time helping the poor and telling people about Jesus?
These are great comments, critiques, rebuttals, etc. Keep them coming. We all learn from the dialogue.
Thank you for taking the time to read my response to your post. I don’t mean to be impertinent, but would you mind answering a few direct questions?
- If you had lived in England in the 1790’s, would you have urged the church to publicly join Thomas Clarkson in opposing the slave trade?
- If you had lived in Germany in the 1930’s, would you have urged the church to publicly join Dietrich Bonhoeffer in opposing the Nazis?
- If you had lived in Alabama in the 1960’s, would you have urged the church to publicly join Martin Luther King Jr. in opposing racial segregation?
You state that you have not found a biblical mandate to vote. I would suggest Proverbs 24:11-12:
Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Surely we did not know this,” does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?
My previous post garnered some lively response, to say the least. Murray Vasser offered the most thoughtful and pointed critique. Since my response would not fit in a comment slot, I’ve posted it separately to contribute to the ongoing dialogue
Before you read what follows, please take the time to read the original post, along with Murray’s comments. [Disclaimer: This series of posts represents one professor’s opinion, not the position of Biola University or Talbot School of Theology.]
You are not being impertinent at all. Those are legitimate challenges that help us all to think more carefully about our positions. I am, of course, properly rebuked by your questions, since I find myself answering in the affirmative in each case. Yet, as a historian, I cannot help but remain troubled by the inverse relationship I see, over the centuries, between the purity and power of God’s people, on the one hand, and the degree to which the church has had access to political power, on the other. Religious nationalism ultimately failed in OT Israel, and it has failed in most of Christian history, as well (Constantine and his successors, Charlemagne, the Crusaders). There are, of course, wonderful exceptions (e.g., Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands), but the point remains a valid one. I stand by much of what I wrote, in principle, at any rate.
So how do I harmonize an affirmative response to your questions with my convictions about Christians and American politics? Well, let me “think out loud” a bit here, hoping that further dialogue will help to sort this out.
First of all, it seems to me that much of the politicking that goes on in evangelical circles has a whole lot more to do with (a) “restoring” or somehow “re-Christianizing” America, than with (b) fighting against the oppression, marginalization, or murder of those who have no voice. The former endeavor, moreover, is consistently wed to a particular political party, carrying in tow all the polarization that currently characterizes partisan politics at both state and national levels.
I find it revealing, Murray, that each of the issues you raised relates directly to “b,” above, and only secondarily, if at all, to “a.” That is, I hear in your challenges a passion for people—not a passion for Christian nation. If I am hearing you correctly, we may have a bit more common than you think.
As I reflect on your comments, Murray, I find myself more than ready, for example, to encourage my church to champion the cause of the unborn, but much less inclined to jump on the “traditional marriage” bandwagon (Prop 8 here in CA), since the latter is so often tied up with the Constantinian project of “re-Christianizing” American culture—a project which, I remain convinced, is doomed to failure. My challenge as a pastor, then, is to help my people see the difference. This is not an easy task given the polarizing fervor among numbers of evangelicals (fueled by conservative talk radio) concerning the upcoming election.
Finally, Murray I suspect that defining issues like the ones you raised—where the church should speak in a unified voice to the culture—are rather rare. Your list (slavery–holocaust–civil rights) covers nearly two centuries. Some generations of Christians will likely not face situations like these at all.
So, I suppose I should qualify my original comments by applying them generally to the relationship between Christians and the political arena. The church’s involvement in such defining issues then becomes exceptional—rather than characteristic—where the relationship between “Jesus and politics” is concerned. If the church is to become politically active, we should save our efforts for key issues like the ones you raised, and eschew ongoing nationalistic agendas that are closely aligned to a particular political party.
Thank you for your response. You are correct that I am concerned with category (b) and not category (a). I have no desire to “re-Christianize” America. Nations cannot be Christians, only people, and laws cannot make people Christians.
However, you are incorrect in your implicit claim that category (b) is not “consistently wed to a particular political party.”
This is the platform of the Democratic Party: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”
This is the platform of the Republican Party: “Faithful to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence, we assert the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”
Tragically, this means that to be pro-life is to be partisan. I hope to see the day when this is no longer true, but that day has not yet come.
President Obama has remained a fanatical champion for abortion rights throughout his political career, though he often lies about his position to appear more moderate. As a state senator, he voted against a bill that would simply have prevented doctors from discarding newborn babies who survived abortion attempts, even though the bill contained this clause: “nothing in this section shall be construed to affirm, deny, expand, or contract any legal status or legal right applicable to any member of the species Homo sapiens at any point prior to being born alive as defined in this section.” When the Supreme Court upheld the ban on “partial-birth” abortion, Obama stated, “I strongly disagree with today’s Supreme Court ruling.” He has never at any time voted to support any restriction on any abortion procedure.
His four years in office have done inestimable damage to the pro-life movement, both in American and around the world. On his third day in office, he issued an executive order overturning the Mexico City Policy, which prevented US dollars from funding abortion oversees. His administration successfully lobbied in Kenya to expand abortion rights in that country’s new constitution. Planned Parenthood came under tremendous fire not long ago after the pro-life group Live Action released a series of undercover videos in which actors posing as sex workers entered Planned Parenthood clinics, where they received instructions on how to get secret abortions for the fourteen-year-old girls they were trafficking. Obama was unfazed by the videos, and casually dismissed the scandal in an interview. The videos sparked renewed efforts in congress to defund Planned Parenthood, but Obama came to the rescue and refused to sign a budget which did not include that funding, threatening to shut down the government. During his term, he appointed two justices to the Supreme Court, who will religiously uphold abortion rights. He recently voiced his opposition to a bill which would have banned sex-selective abortions, sparked by another round of undercover videos from Live Action. His massive healthcare reform has devastating implications for the pro-life movement, and if the Supreme Court upholds the HHS mandate, religious organizations will be required to directly fund abortion inducing drugs.
Another four years under Obama will without any doubt further entrench abortion rights in the American bureaucracy and legal system. No reasonable person can deny this.
Therefore, I believe Christians must vote in November, I believe they must vote for the pro-life candidates, and I believe pastors must preach this from the pulpit.
However, as a young evangelical, I am fully aware that this is an immensely unpopular position to hold. (I am speaking now to my fellow “young evangelicals,” Dr. Hellerman, so if the following critique does not fit you, please disregard it.) I am afraid the real issue is that we are desperate to be perceived as progressive. We would gladly embrace the glamour of martyrdom, but to stand in a picket line beside a soccer mom with a flag on her t-shirt, Sarah Palin on her bumper, and Rush Limbaugh on her radio is a shame that we simply cannot bear.
But this is abortion:
Let’s just say…we left the leg in the uterus just to dismember it. Well, we’d probably have to dismember it at several different levels because we don’t have firm control over it, so we would attack the lower part of the lower extremity first, remove, you know, possibly a foot, then the lower leg at the knee and then finally we get to the hip. And…we typically know that the fetus is still alive because…we can feel it move as we’re making our initial grasps…It’s not unusual at the start of D&E procedures that a limb is acquired first…prior to anything having been done that would have caused the fetal demise. – Dr. Martin Haskell
Dr. Hellerman, you stated that “defining issues like the ones you raised—where the church should speak in a unified voice to the culture—are rather rare….Some generations of Christians will likely not face situations like these at all.”
Dr. Hellerman, you and I are not in one of those generations.