Christianity and Politics: A Case Study

Nothing like tackling two of the hottest topics going – and when you combine them you really can get explosive results. So put me down as a glutton for punishment I guess. But some things are important and well worth talking about, even if a lot of flak may come your way.

My point here is simply to share a beef. I suppose I have many, but one of my persistent beefs is how some believers insist that Christianity should have nothing to do with politics, and it is simply unspiritual or un-Christlike to seek to utilise politics for any godly purpose.

These folks somehow think political engagement is spiritually ‘defiling’ or opposed to the gospel. I think such beliefs are foolish in the extreme, as well as harmful and in fact unbiblical. But a general case for social and political involvement has been made elsewhere.

Some of my articles which address this include:
billmuehlenberg.com/2011/12/06/christianity-and-political-involvement/
billmuehlenberg.com/1997/10/10/the-case-for-christian-social-involvement/

The foolishness of such a position should be readily apparent. Simply reflect on some of the great works done by Christians over the centuries. Many of them utilised the political process to achieve godly outcomes. If righteousness exalts a nation, then working for godly government and righteous legislation should be part of our work as Christians in the world.

Imagine how Wilberforce would have fared if he listened to his misguided brothers and pulled out of politics. We might still have slavery today. And imagine if the civil rights activists in America in the 1960s refused to countenance law changes and policy shifts. We might still have Blacks at the back of the bus there.

There is nothing wrong with harnessing the levers of political power to accomplish Christian outcomes. Sure we must offer all the usual caveats:
-while most things may have political implications, politics is not everything
-politics, like everything else in a fallen world, is corrupt, so it can only go so far
-it is never a question of choosing between political means and spiritual means, but engaging with both simultaneously
-we ultimately put our faith in Christ and the transforming power of the gospel, and not in politics alone
-power politics can of course be corrupting, so we must use it cautiously and wisely
-the gospel message ultimately transcends party politics
-if we are not careful, churches can be co-opted by politics

These and other cautions and warnings must always be kept in mind. But with those provisos in place, let me make another pitch for the importance of political involvement, and how it can be used for securing much-needed godly outcomes.

This comes out of my recent studies on the Booths: William and Catherine, and their work in England and the founding of the Salvation Army. They began as passionate soul winners of course, but soon realised that it would never be enough to only proclaim the gospel while not addressing the very real needs of those to whom they were ministering.

They both also had a love for the poor and needy, and much of their gospel efforts were directly aimed at the outcasts, the poor, the destitute: those the established churches tended to ignore altogether. Thus they ministered to drunks and prostitutes and all sorts of down and out folks, especially in places like East London.

In dealing with the very real needs of prostitutes who lived such a horrific life, they quickly realised that they must also be involved in legislative change to help stamp out this great evil, or at least greatly ameliorate things. And urgent action was desperately needed.

These were not just women trapped in this dark trade, but girls as well. As Trevor Yaxley explains, “In 1885 English law offered virtually no protection for young girls against these brothel owners and white slave traders.” A House of Lords committee had looked into this, but a bill to raise the age of consent was defeated, so the legal age of consent in England remained at thirteen. One member had even suggested it be lowered to ten!

Like Wilberforce and his work on the slave trade before him, the Booths undertook careful investigation into this sordid trade, to find the information and evidence needed to change the conscience of an ignorant nation and an unwilling parliament.

It was a horrid situation: there were 80,000 prostitutes and 2000 pimps in London alone. One in every 50 Englishwomen was a streetwalker. It brought in eight million pounds a year – a huge amount in 1885. Getting mere statistics was not enough however. They even devised an undercover scheme by which they might get first hand info and evidence about this sordid and horrific trade.

They found that many girls were tricked and trapped into the business, and many were sent to Europe and elsewhere as white slaves. And many of London’s most respected citizens were those who used these girls for their vile pleasures. Here was an entire nation up to its ears in depravity, sin and debauchery.

The Booths thus launched a “Purity Crusade” to take this demonic trade head-on. They spoke throughout the land sharing their findings and the horror stories. A sympathetic newspaper editor published their stories as well. The conscience of the nation had to be awakened – and that began by letting people know what was actually going on.

They circulated a petition calling for three things: the protection of children under 18; making it illegal to procure children; and making it illegal for men to procure women. They gathered 393,000 signatures and presented that to the House of Commons.

The petition and the growing public outcry led to a law being passed raising the age of consent to 16. News of this spurred similar actions in Australia and the US. Their involvement in this also included setting up homes for these poor girls.

And of course they were up to their necks in all sorts of other practical social reform as they dealt with the poor, homeless, and marginalised masses of England. That of course has become the hallmark of the Salvation Army up to this very day.

The Booths of course knew that social and political reform alone would not be the answer, but that any gospel message had to be supplemented by such practical actions. As James wrote, it does no good to tell a hungry, destitute person, ‘I wish you well; be warm and filled,’ yet provide him with no practical assistance (James 2:14-17).

William Booth wrote about this: “To prevent any misunderstanding here let it be known that we only know of one way of stripping the miseries of men—that is by stripping them of their sins…. If you want to bless mankind, go to the root! … Our work is to deliver people by turning them away from their iniquities. That is a fundamental principle. But we want help in that matter from the government. We want our lawmakers to make just laws…. I said to a friend who is mixed up with politics, ‘I think the time is come when you politicians ought to have another party—a party based on morality…. Whatever differences of opinion there may be with regard to the special forms of government there can be no difference of opinion with good men that a good government ought to be the father of its people and the protector of their children’.”

They had a healthy biblical balance here. Only Jesus saves, and we must always proclaim the saving gospel of Christ. But it will be a barren gospel if it is not accompanied by social action and reform. The Booths knew this. William Wilberforce knew this. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this.

So has the real church of Jesus Christ throughout the ages. We must address the whole person – physical as well as spiritual needs must be addressed. Millions of blacks today are so thankful that Wilberforce knew this. Countless girls and young women are so thankful the Booths knew this. American Blacks are also grateful that King realised this.

And to do that will mean we will have to dirty our hands, and get involved in politics. There is no other way. As Norman Geisler has written: “What sometimes escapes Christians is the fact that the responsibility to love other persons extends to the whole person. That is, man is more than a soul destined for another world; he is also a body living in this world. And as a resident of this time-space continuum man has physical and social needs which cannot be isolated from spiritual needs. Hence, in order to love man as he is – the whole man – one must exercise a concern about his social needs as well as his spiritual needs.”

Quite so. And that is just what great saints such as William and Catherine Booth did to such great effect.

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6 Replies to “Christianity and Politics: A Case Study”

  1. This is an important subject to keep raising Bill. I was raised in the Sallies and they have certainly influenced my views on many things. One observation I have of Christians getting involved in politics is that many of them seem to drift, over time, to believe that only the left side of politics is the answer.
    I think they lose the understanding that it is God that changes lives and start to believe that politics is the whole answer. We need to keep a very clear view that politics and faith are 2 different subjects as we work to influence the politics out of our faith, not the other way round.
    It is the true salvation of the soul that brings major change to a person, as the early Salvation Army knew. It seems to me that those on the left side of politics believe that it is legislation that brings change to people.

    Warwick Murphy

  2. Dear bill, There is an old saying, The best way for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. If Christians do not get involved in politics, they will get the government they deserve.
    Regards, Franklin Wood

  3. Never lose the fire Bill, these giants of history need to told over and over again. We have weepy nostaglic view of history and with the instant gratification world we live in, this generation have no idea of the horrors of the past. The Salvos, Wesleys etc new change on the inside is the only way change is permanent. As Jesus said I bring a helper to abide in you.
    God Bless
    Charles Northcote

  4. Bill, I came across this great quote by Archbishop Charles Chaput: “We belong to God, and our home is heaven. But we’re here for a reason: to change the world, for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus Christ. That work belongs to each of us. Nobody else will do it for us. And the idea that we can somehow accomplish that work of changing the world without engaging the laws, the structures, the public policies, the habits of mind and the root causes that sustain injustice in our nation, is a delusion.”
    (USA Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput 090810)

    Geoffrey Bullock

  5. The modern Salvation Army needs to rediscover its roots. Somewhere along the way the Salvos changed from a church that believed that government is about implementing “just laws” (i.e. providing justice) to now believing that the primary role of government is to redistribute wealth via a welfare state. Is today’s SA church ever going to learn that “social justice” is nothing more than a Marxist substitute for true justice?

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

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