The Purpose of Politics

January 8, 2024

It is almost always awkward to talk about politics when you are not quite sure of the partisan views of those with whom you are conversing. If you add religion to the discussion, the awkwardness is more likely to increase rather than dissipate.

But politics is not just about partisan disagreement, and the question of the place of a citizen's faith in the public square need not descend into culture war quarrelling. In fact, the best way to clearly and calmly answer the question "Should Christians care about politics?" is to set those conflicts aside and intentionally allow your mind to have an unguarded moment.

Let's begin at the beginning. What is politics? The English word "politics" (not to mention "policy," "polity" or "police") comes from the Greek word polis, which refers to "the city," "the civilization" or "the citizenship of a community." This implies a richer understanding of politics than how it is often portrayed in our media-driven popular culture, which tends to look at politics as only concerned about campaigns, casting votes, elections, candidates and holding public office.

But politics is far more than that.

After all, why would anyone bother to try to win elections, gain power and please supporters and constituents unless it were for some other end? In other words, what is the purpose to which all the common accruements of politics point? It really isn't that much of a mystery. If you think about, when people become politically active they do so because they want to advance what they believe is the good of the community.

To be sure, on some topics, there is sharp disagreement on what constitutes the community's good. This is why legislators, governors, presidents, judges and commentators often lock horns on a variety of controversial questions concerning social issues, the courts, public welfare, military engagement and international relations. Nevertheless, despite some deep political differences, at least one thing these citizens have in common is that they believe the world would be a better place if only the government implemented their views. This is one reason why liberal democracies, such as the United States, have political parties. They provide an organizational structure by which citizens with common philosophical and policy beliefs may work in concert with each other to elect people who will advance those beliefs.

"Scripture commands us to will the good of our neighbor in charity, service and justice; and politics is an important means by which one can fulfull this command."

Unlike most of our predecessors in church history and millions of Christians globally, many of us live in liberal democracies. (Liberal democracy is a type of government that includes some form of the consent of the governed, such as open and free elections, as well as legal instruments, such as a constitution, and public institutions, such as courts, to help ensure protection of its citizens' fundamental rights.) For this reason, we have the power to influence and shape the trajectory of our societies in ways that someone like the Apostle Paul would have thought unimaginable. We are free to run for office, support candidates, advocate for laws and policies, and exercise our freedom of speech and assembly in making our case to our compatriots.

Why would Christians want to exercise that power? The answer is found in the purpose of politics: to advance the common good. But why would we want to do that? It is an application of the very Gospel that we are commanded to obey. The number of places in Scripture in which we are told to will the good of others is nearly endless. Christ, for example, instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:37) and to engage in works of charity and mercy (Matthew 25:31-46), and asks us to broaden our understanding of neighbor in telling us the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37).

We are told by the Apostle James that the "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27, NIV). There are, of course, numerous other passages in the Bible that commend justice and condemn injustice (e.g, Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 58:6-10), with the Ten Commandments giving us the blueprint of God's plan for a rightly ordered, socially just community: we should worship God, honor our parents, maintain marital fidelity, neither covet nor steal the property or spouse of our neighbor, live with integrity in word and deed, and respect the intrinsic and inviolable dignity of human life.

As Christians, we are fairly confident what it means to will the good of others. However, we are also told in Scripture that "[i]f it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18, NIV), and in this world we are "foreigners and exiles" and that we ought to "[l]ive such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse [us] of doing wrong, they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (I Peter 2:11-12, NIV).

What this means for those of us who live in liberal democracies is that we have to exercise political power judiciously and thoughtfully while keeping in mind the perspective of both eternity and our non-Christian neighbors. For this reason, when we enter politics in order to advance the good, we have to understand both the inherent limitations of political action and the degree to which laws and policies, given certain cultural realities, can be effective in making people virtuous. As St. Thomas Aquinas noted in his Treatise on Law, "The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils."

It should not surprise us then that even among Christians there is disagreement on what policies and laws, if any, would be best in advancing the common good. Consider, for example, questions of economic justice. Though all serious believers maintain that we have an obligation to care for the poor and the vulnerable as Scripture teaches us, the Bible and Christian tradition are silent on what sorts of government policies and laws would be the most effective in providing assistance to these fellow citizens.

Consequently, reasonable Christians offer contrary models on what would count as economic justice. Some defend approaches that place a greater emphasis on free markets with the assistance of local governments and subsidiary institutions, while others advocate more elaborate social welfare programs under the authority of the federal government. Because there are good arguments for both points of view, and because both have the same goal of caring for the poor and vulnerable, neither can rightfully claim to be the final Christian word on the matter. This should also be our mindset whenever we find ourselves in disagreement with fellow Christians on many (though certainly not all) of the other contested political questions in the public square. For this reason, we should not be quick to condemn a brother or sister for not following Scripture when in fact he or she may be merely rejecting our political prescriptions and not the precepts of our shared faith.

So far we have only discussed the common good justification for why a Christian should care about politics: Scripture commands us to will the good of our neighbor in charity, service and justice; and politics is an important means by which one can fulfill this command. But there is also an ecclesial justification: a just political regime must allow for the flourishing of the church and its many ministries and missions so that the Gospel may be lived and preached and souls saved.

Why is this important? Recall two stories from the Book of Acts and one from history. In chapter 5, the Apostles found themselves confined to a public jail by the religious authorities of their day. After having been freed by an angel the prior evening, the Apostles were ordered to appear before the authorities to explain themselves. In that setting the high priest told the Apostles, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name" (Acts 5:28, NIV), to which Peter replied, "We must obey God rather than human beings" (Acts 5:29, NIV).

Acts 16 records the case of the public beating, imprisonment and release of Silas and the Apostle Paul for preaching the Gospel. Instead of silently walking away as they are released, Paul told the low-level officials that he and Silas were Roman citizens and that the magistrates who ordered their public beating and imprisonment should have to answer for violating their civil rights. When the magistrates were informed of Paul's complaint, "they [became] alarmed...[and] came to appease [Paul and Silas] and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city" (Acts 16:38, 39, NIV).

In early America, some states had established churches, for the Constitution's prohibition of religious establishment applied only to the federal government and not the states. (It was not until 1947 that the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, which had become law in 1868.) In one of those states, Connecticut, the established church, Congregationalism, was supported by a religious tax that all citizens, including non-Congregationalists, had to pay. Although one could request an exemption and ask the government to redirect your payment to the church of your choice, it was often difficult to obtain.

It was this state of affairs that animated the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut to enlist the support of then-President Thomas Jefferson in their cause to disestablish Congregationalism in their state. In a famous 1802 letter in reply to their request, Jefferson tells the Danbury Baptists that he agrees with their cause and hopes that the State of Connecticut will follow the federal constitution in "building a wall of separation between Church & State[,.... an] expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience."

What is the lesson in these three stories? It is this: Christians need to care about politics because politics, whether we like it or not, cares (or will care) about you. The idea that the government will "leave the church alone" as long as we mind our own business has been rarely borne out in practice. To be sure, the American experiment (until relatively recently) is the exception and not the norm in human history, but there is no assurance that it will not eventually appropriate the growing hostility to religious free exercise found among elites in education, law and media. For this reason, Christians have to be especially diligent in protecting the integrity of the message and mission of their own institutions, including churches, schools, and charitable organizations, even if it means boldly challenging the conventional wisdom of the dominant culture.

This will not be easy. But we really have no choice if we hope to take seriously our Lord's command that we should "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 12:17, KJV). For if the church and its mission, message and institutions are not God’s, then nothing is.

Dr. Francis J. Beckwith is professor of philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015), recipient of the American Academy of Religion's 2016 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Constructive-Reflective Studies