Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Christianity and Partisan Politics

Jun 1, 2006

A reader of this site posted a comment in which he (rightly, I believe) questioned whether I am correct to align myself with more-or-less the conservative side of politics. I replied to his comment with a comment of my own, but felt that his query was so important that it warranted a whole article-length response. Thus this article.

In response to his concerns (and those of others like him) can I say that I quite agree that ultimately Christianity transcends left/right politics and cannot be contained within either. As C.S. Lewis has reminded us, there is always a problem with “Christianity and…”. Christianity and socialism. Christianity and freemasonry. Christianity and nationalism. Christianity and a certain view of science, and so on.

Christianity cannot be tied down to any one political party, to any one cultural expression, to any one social system, to any one philosophy, etc. It transcends all these. Having said all that, however, one can still ask whether certain cultural practices, certain political platforms, certain social policies, etc., happen to more closely reflect basic Biblical principles than do others.

Thus all worldviews, political systems, social policies, legislative proposals, and cultural norms, need to be judged in the light of Biblical Christianity. And some may well come closer to the Biblical ideals than others. (But all will fall short of being a perfect reflection of these ideals, since we live in a fallen world.) Let me give just one example of this.

Christianity and economics as a test case

Most Christians would agree that a Biblical principle such as justice is quite important indeed. But how that principle is manifest in this world, and through what policies, and so on, becomes a matter of debate among believers.

For example, some Christians might argue that economic justice comes better through socialism or the welfare state. Other Christians might believe that economic justice best comes through the free market or international capitalism. Those issues can be debated, even though both sides may agree that justice is an important Biblical theme.

Thus Christians may well agree on the broad issues (social justice, etc.) but disagree on the means of obtaining or achieving them. One has to be careful not to claim the high moral (or Christian) ground here. There may be as many Christians who believe that economic justice can best be achieved by a free market as there are those who believe it comes by a socialist approach. And those issues can be talked about at length. One can even debate, with full Christian conscience, whether or not multinational corporations are a force for good in the world, for example. The case is not as closed as some believers might indicate.

Many Christians believed utopia had arrived on earth when the Soviets come to power. Others argued that this instead was one of the most unjust and barbaric regimes around. Marx’s talk of concern for the poor, etc., quickly seemed to get lost in Soviet power and imperialism. Power corrupts, and giving all the power to the state or the welfare bureaucrats can be as unjust as concentrating it all in the hands of corporations. So there is more than one way to approach such issues.

Thus it is not just a question of saying (or implying), as some do, that one may be a better or more biblical Christian because one is into social justice issues, or concerned about the poor, etc. The real question is, what economic and political policies actually help the poor? For example, what policies actually are both fair and just, but do not encourage sloth and irresponsibility as well, which are also other vital biblical concerns. The questions are complex and varied, and Christian idealism may need to be tempered with political realism.

I am quite happy to debate the merits of various economic and social policies. But I recognize that Christians can be on either ends of the spectrum, and there is room to move in discussing these things.

Therefore the real debate comes down to which economic system best reflects and implements those biblical concerns. It may well be that perhaps no one system fully does, and there may be a place to combine elements of several systems. (Of course I am aware that some may argue that such a “third way” has often proved to be unviable, but that is another question.)

This can be taken much further of course. Where would a Christian stand on an issue like Liberation Theology? Some would argue that this is Christianity in action, and that Jesus was a socialist, and so on. Others would point out that Liberation Theology actually conflates the gospel into Marxism. That is, Liberation Theologians reduce the gospel into Marxist categories. Thus sin is identified as oppressive capitalistic structures, salvation is understood to be the overthrowing of those structures, etc. An orthodox understanding of the gospel seems to get lost and replaced by Marxist praxis. Then again there are the related questions as to whether Marxist socialism has ever really helped the poor, and so on.

So the debate continues. And believe me, I have been a part of many of these debates. Indeed, I often have robust debates with my friends on the religious left concerning these very issues. And I certainly consider such people to be my brothers in Christ, even though I may strongly disagree with many of their political and social views.

Political preferences

I obviously believe (although I could be wrong, and am open to being convinced otherwise) that on many of the moral/cultural issues, the political left is further away from the Biblical ideals than is the right. Not always, but mostly.

For example, from my perspective I believe that those seeking to hold on to Biblical principles would take a dim view of things like drug injecting rooms, the legalization of all drugs, the legalization and promotion of all types of sexuality, the dismantling of the family, the promotion of abortion and euthanasia on demand, and so on. These types of polices are usually championed by the political left, not usually the right (there are exceptions of course). Thus on these sorts of issues I feel more comfortable with the right.

But if the left gets it right on certain issues, then I certainly support them. For example, the Greens tend to be off on most things, from my point of view. But they have been good on the gambling issue, and I hear they are willing to publicly campaign against Victoria’s Religious Vilification laws. To that extent I support them one hundred per cent.

And there are of course many things on the right I may not support either. Often a rugged libertarianism characterizes the far right, and as a Christian I have real problems with that. If they argue, as say John Stuart Mill did, that the state has no compelling reason to be involved in most moral/cultural issues, I obviously disagree. So some of the libertarians on the far right come close to meeting up with the anarchists on the far left, and I am not comfortable with either.

And that opens up another whole debate: is there any one form of government that is more in line with the Biblical standards than others? I am not a theocrat (contrary to the claims of some who like to malign me and my position). But how do we assess democracy from a Biblical point of view, for example? Are we to agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others? There are many related and complex questions here.

It really gets down to the question of church/state relations, the relationships between Christianity and culture, and the relationship between Christianity and the world. All these are very big topics, and all have been debated vigorously over the centuries. Indeed, some have felt that believers should have nothing to do with the world, or at least with ‘worldly’ things such as politics. (A classic evaluation of some of these sorts of questions is the 1951 work by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. There he examines five different positions on the relationship between Christianity and culture.)


The person who sent in his comment is quite right to suggest that we dare not fully align Biblical Christianity with right-wing politics (nor, I might add, with left-wing politics). But having said that, I again raise the following questions: are some political parties or positions more in tune with Biblical concerns than others? How is a believer to think about politics in general? How should we vote at any given election? What principles should guide a believer as he approaches complex social issues? Should believers run for office? Can a Christian in good faith be part of a political party and still be true to his or her beliefs? Many such questions arise, and it is incumbent upon all believers to give serious and prayerful thought and consideration to such matters.

I hope this reflection gives an indication of where I am coming from, and provides a glimpse into the rationale of CultureWatch.

[1523 words]

4 Responses to Christianity and Partisan Politics

  • We are in a priviledged position as believers to be able to vote, have a say and most importantly be able to pray for our nation and our leaders. In nations unlike our own we as Christians would be harassed, tortured or even killed for doing these things.
    I believe that political parties like the Liberals (some of their members), Family First and other parties that stand up for Biblical principles and values should be backed by believers in intercessory prayer. Am I wrong to believe that we will see an end to abortion, homosexuality, pornography etc in this nation if we unite in prayer? I’m certain that it is not going to happen with believers sitting on their hands or even being critical of our government’s competency (including Christian representatives) to tackle the big issues.

    Jessica Magno, Narre Warren, Victoria

  • An informed and interesting article.
    Indeed Christians are represented across the political spectrum from Hugo Chavez to George W Bush. Of course people will have their own political preferences but I believe that we must see the benefits of each system. Unfortunately we seem to get lost in hypocracy. Take for example economic justice, I’m sure the poor in the developing world would welcome either a truly free market economy or the opportunity to create tarriffs and legislation to give them an advantage. However the west continually imposes its will on developing countries thus keeping them in a cycle of poverty. We must ensure that our actions although even sometimes well intentioned do not cause more harm than good.

    David Sturdy, Launceston

  • That’s a good article, Bill. It’s important for us as Christians to know where we stand and to be sensitive to political shifts in our national and state parties. For example, it seems that the federal labor party is a little further to the left than it was 15 years ago but is becoming more conservative, especially since the last election. The federal liberal party seems to be moving to the right also, perhaps a little bit too much for my comfort. It’s a good thing that taxation and compulsory voting requires us to be active and thoughtful with our voice and our vote.

    Damien Carson, Wynnum, QLD

  • Your comments raise the question of just how do we define the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the political sense? These seem to me to be relative terms and their meanings change depending upon the user’s own personal political convictions. For example on the moral issues, I would say that in Australia over recent decades all political parties have shifted toward the ‘left’ of the spectrum. Your corespondent Damien above would have us believe the federal Liberal party has moved too far to the ‘right’, but I would say that is an absurd claim. The fact that so many Liberal MPs are to be found taking an anti-Christian position on life issues would suggest that the party should at best be considered in the centre of the left/right spectrum.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

Leave a Reply