Christians are called to be a force of reconciliation, benefiting society in such a way that we attract unbelievers around us to God. Jesus told us, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16, NKJV).
However, this mandate sometimes becomes submerged in the midst of a "cultural battle" when the church seeks to influence political outcomes and bring its power to bear in the public sector. Scripture not only requires that we influence society, but it also demands that we behave in a respectful manner. The attitude we are called to maintain toward all people in all areas of life--including our civic participation--is summarized in 1 Peter 2:11-17, which concludes, "Honor all people..."
When Jesus said, "'Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's'" (Matt. 22:21), He was living under one of the most heretical dictatorships of all time. The emperor was esteemed as a god! Yet Jesus was making the point that those who would follow Him must contribute to society through government--even in times of bad government.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that politics becomes our primary method of improving the world. For the most part, politics is a person's effort to get government to support them--or at least make it easier for their group. Since we are called to live in society as servants, politics is a tricky venue for Christians:
First, of the three institutions established by God (family, the church and government), the only one driven by force is government (see Rom. 13:1-4). Therefore, Christians who are relying on politics to further their cause will be tempted to use force instead of the persuasion of the gospel itself (see Rom. 1:16).
Second, politics tempts us as believers to maneuver our group into a favored position, rather than a servant's position. Philippians 2:3-7 warns against the selfishness of focusing on our own way and extols the imitation of Jesus, who took on the form of a servant.
History reveals that what spiritual leaders gain in political advantage they lose in spiritual example. Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel observed in his book The Philosophy of History, "What popes acquired in ... direct sovereignty, they lost in influence and consideration."
Third, politics is combative in nature. I become nervous when I hear "take back America" language, as if our nation belonged to Christians at the expense of all the rest of its citizens.
I know we Christians feel persecuted by a secular government, and--in some cases--we are. But we need to be cautious of the opposite extreme, as the seventh-century political philosopher Charles de Montesquieu warned in his book The Spirit of Laws, "It is a principle that every religion that is persecuted becomes itself persecuting."
While lobbying, protesting and even civil disobedience have their place, the most effective long-term cultural and political transformation comes through pursuing an alternative focus: civic responsibility.
Instead of trying to use the government to get favor for our own group, civic responsibility is the act of following Christ in ways that will improve society for everyone. To follow Jesus' order, we must determine what our form of government (Caesar) would ask of us and then act on it. This is not a suggestion by Jesus; it is a command.
A SIMPLE TASK
In the United States, our job is simple: A citizen is asked not only to pay taxes, but also to give feedback and to vote, and, if led by God, to run for office. In a representative government, it is the job of each Christian citizen to convey his or her opinion to the appropriate government representative, and then to vote in the next election for whatever candidate would best represent that Christian citizen.
When we have done that, we are free to get on with the rest of our lives and not worry about the results. Some may suggest that this sounds too easy. Shouldn't we organize political action groups? Is an individual Christian citizen-based effort enough to make a difference for Christ in our society?
Consider this: According to the Pew Research Center, in 2002 82 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christians. Even the more conservative 2001 National Survey of Religious Identification puts religious identification with Christianity at 76.5 percent of Americans in 2001 and only 13.2 percent as "non-religious or secular."
If even a fraction of Christians would contact their representatives on a periodic basis, we would change every level of society. Our impact as individuals would be remarkable without even attempting to control society.
Christian leaders need to focus on biblically identified moral issues, not merely popular rallying points, such as abortion or same-sex marriage. While the Bible is very clear about the sanctity of human life (see Ex. 20:13) and marriage being between one man and one woman (see Gen. 2:18-25), even more often Scripture expresses concern for the poor living in the land (see Prov. 14:21), and justice for the disadvantaged (see Ps. 82:3).
How is it that believers in the United States are usually focused on one of these sets of issues but tend to ignore the other? The Bible, not political parties or singular issues, needs to be our guide to civic responsibility.
Christians who are active in their churches need to be aware of what particular activities might place their nonprofit status (governmental exemption of taxes and protection from certain forms of legislation) in jeopardy.
The American Center for Law and Justice (http://www.aclj.org/Info/ Irs501.Asp) offers a document that aids congregational leaders on how much liberty we have to be involved as Christians in our governmental processes.
Here is a thumbnail guideline for involvement: if we are involved as groups, there are specific boundaries. If we are involved as individuals, pastors included, we are free to state our opinions very plainly and be involved at any level.
The much-feared phrase "separation of church and state" has no power when it comes to the personal involvement of Christian citizens at any level of government--including elected and appointed office. We are always free to follow, voice and vote the dictates of our moral conscience as formed by Scripture. In fact, we are called to do so.
The emphasis on personal and individual responsibility is for a very good reason. God's focus for us is always on the spiritual maturity of people, not the control of institutions. Our job is not to convert the government; it is to convert ourselves. The Bible is not so concerned with how religious a government is. The concern is how righteous the people become in response to the government.
The many national organizations for Christian involvement will not engage any but the most activist of believers. Real grass-roots involvement will be prompted by one of two sources: an issue that so radically affects Christians so personally that they cannot ignore it, or a local church leader who will help Christians get involved.
Conventional wisdom holds that there are three reasons people--including Christians--are not more responsive as citizens: (1) They don't know what the main issues are; (2) They don't know what to do about it; or (3) They don't think that their involvement will make much of a difference.
A local leader can help people get involved in three ways:
First, be a source of alert to the congregation for important local, state and national issues. For the last type of announcements, the local leader can receive updates from national and local organizations by signing onto their e-mail lists (such as the Family Research Council [www.frc.org] and The Christian Citizen [www.thechristiancit izen.net]).
Second, the local leader should continue to educate Christians that our jobs are not to win elections, but to witness to the living values of Christ, and do so in the spirit of Christ. That will make the efforts a spiritual, not merely a political, exercise.
Third, the local leader can be a consistent source of enabling and empowering congregational members by seeing to it that voter-registration drives and citizen meetings for community concerns can be held in the church building. He or she can also recruit members of the congregation who are called to help develop creative ways for the church to be a voice in government.
Christians need periodic teaching on what the Bible says about current issues. They also need a tool that will let them participate in a simple and timely way. Sometimes the right tool will be a national petition, but more often it will be something that addresses local and state issues as well.
For instance, The Christian Citizen is an instrument for the use of local leaders to help their congregations be involved. When a pastor sends an e-mail to those who have signed on under their church's name, the users will be able to immediately send an e-mail to the appropriate government official.
As most leaders know, unless people can respond immediately and simply, the chance of their involvement diminishes rapidly. The Christian Citizen enables a church leader to alert his or her congregation on local and state issues as well as national ones and lets that local leader empower them for input.
Our job as Christians is to be witnesses (see Acts 1:8). We don't have to convert the culture politically, but we do have to be the voice of Jesus that speaks up for what is right. We must be active in our government, but not depend on its power for our success.
In his book The Paradox of American Power, Joseph S. Nye Jr. explains two kinds of power: "Hard power" is the coercive kind of force that belongs to governments. But in a global age that requires cooperation to insure long-term success, this kind of power will yield diminishing returns.
"Soft power" is the winsome kind of influence that advances one's cause by listening to and serving those beyond one's own group. Our success as the church will depend upon our ability to exert soft power, influencing hearts, not merely controlling the political situation of our day.
Log on to the "Pastors' Discussion" at www.ministriestoday.com to answer the question, "What areas of civic responsiblility has the American church neglected?"
Joel C. Hunter, D.Min., is pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida. He is the author of Prayer, Politics and Power (Tyndale) and the founder of The Christian Citizen (www.thechristiancitizen.net), a Web tool for connecting believers, Christian leaders and their elected officials.
Marriage in the Balance
Why Christian leaders should enter the debate on the future of traditional marriage.
According to a Barna Research Group (BRG) survey released June 21, 2004, no one is more in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage than evangelicals (83 percent, versus 58 percent of political conservatives, 56 percent of Republicans, 49 percent of Protestants and 47 percent of those self-described as born-again).
However, evangelicals' antipathy toward the legalization of same-sex marriage is essentially neutralized by the fact that only 52 percent of the general public are in favor of a constitutional amendment banning it, versus 43 percent opposed.
On July 15, this slim margin was not enough to persuade two-thirds the members of the Senate to pass the proposal--not to mention two-thirds the members of the House of Representatives and three-quarters of the states that would have been necessary to pass the amendment.
"This issue is reminiscent of the battle over abortion," George Barna notes in his analysis of the survey results. "Millions of adults say they would never have an abortion, they would not want their children to have an abortion, and they believe that abortion is morally wrong--but that the decision ought to be left up to each individual as to what is right or wrong for them."
Many suggest that the confusion surrounding the definition of marriage provides an opportunity for Christian leaders to reinforce the biblical conception of marriage and family.
If the church fails in this, some argue that the homosexual movement itself will enforce its own definition of family. As Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson notes, activist gays have already set their sights of changing the culture's view of their behavior by influencing curriculum in the public educational system.
"That's why there is a tsunami of homosexual propaganda flooding over our culture and invading the classroom," he said in a recent interview with New Man magazine.
"One of the primary objectives of the homosexual agenda is the indoctrination of children and future generations through public education. It is highly effective, especially among the young."Public Service
How churches can practically engage political issues from a biblical perspective.
1. Have nonpartisan voter-registration drives at the church
2. Alert members of the congregation to national issues that have a direct moral and biblical connection such as abortion, same-sex marriage, poverty, racial discrimination, environmental (creation) issues, and so on. Give them directions on what they can do to let their voices be heard. Give them sample letters that can show how they can respond.
3. Alert members of the congregation to local and state issues, such as zoning for "adult entertainment" businesses, gambling laws and marriage laws.
4. Write well-thought-through opinions for the local paper to be included in the editorial section.
5. Encourage believers to run for various offices in government.
6. Conduct community-service projects that have nothing to do with elections, but build credibility for the church and bless all other citizens.
7. Get to know your government representatives, as much as possible. Decisions are usually made on the basis of input from close relationships.
Church attendance is often indicative of a person's political loyalties.
Political strategists are expecting that the November elections will further reveal what they call the "religion gap" in American society. No, the growing divide isn't between Catholics and Protestants or Jews and Gentiles, but between the devout and the nominal.
The National Survey of Religion and Politics at the University of Akron noted that in the 2000 election 68 percent of those who attended religious services more than once a week voted for George W. Bush, while 32 percent voted for Al Gore.
A 2004 USA Today/ CNN/Gallup Poll found that 54 percent of respondents who attended church once a week identified themselves as conservative, 33 percent as moderate and 13 percent as liberal.
In a June 2, 2004, article in USA Today, Susan Page suggested that the volatile issues of same-sex marriage, partial-birth abortion and the war in Iraq will make the gap even more pronounced in the 2004 race for the White House.
"During the New Deal era, people voted more on the basis of their perceived economic interests than their perceived values," says Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager. "From the '60s forward, values became a more important dividing point between the two parties and between political candidates."
Notably, before 1972, religious practice made little impact on one's habits at the ballot box. But after the social upheaval of the 1960s, Richard Nixon appealed to the traditionalist views of those he called the "silent majority." As a result, in a margin of 10 percentage points, those who attended church once a week voted for Nixon.
This gap was only exacerbated in 1973, when the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling forever changed the face of American politics, and the fight over the definition of human life trumped most economic sensibilities that devout Americans possessed.
In the final assessment, it could be argued that Christian leaders may more effectively influence political outcomes through evangelism and encouraging faithful church participation than by attempting to sway the voting habits of unbelievers.