Why Is It Difficult for Religious Values to Become Political Values?

I will never forget something that I heard many years ago in my first university political science course. I had a professor who was very open about his liberal attitudes. In fact, judging by some of the comments he made, it was clear that he harbored a certain amount of hostility toward conservatives. Nevertheless, he made a statement in lecture one day that really hit home. He said, “Christians make horrible politicians. Why?” he said, “Because devout Christians will not budge when it comes to compromising their beliefs. And politics needs compromise.

For a moment I was taken aback. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that he was absolutely right. Of course, Christians can compromise on some things like most anyone else but they should not compromise on certain things. Rest assured that I don't intend to persuade you to identify with a certain political party or to support a particular politician. This blog entry is concerned with more important issues.

In this country we are blessed with a relatively tolerant and liberal political system. It is relative because we should by no means consider our nation to be the ideal in all questions of government. That way of thinking may fit under the label known as “American exceptionalism” and this mindset has gotten us into trouble over the years. But, the temptation is a great one. And when I write “liberal” I do not mean that in the sense of a liberal versus a conservative political attitude. I am not referring to progressivism. In political philosophy, liberalism usually means something very different. It means inclusive and pluralistic behavior as opposed to exclusive. In other words, we live in a country where majority and minority interest groups, whatever they may be, are given access to government decision-makers and the political process. Winston Churchill has been quoted saying, “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Most would probably agree that it is not a perfect system, but it is among the best we have come up with so far in many ways.

Portion of the first page of the Constitution of the United States (Public Domain)

American Christians are especially blessed because for those Christians who are also citizens there is recourse when it comes to voicing their grievances. We have recourse through our political behavior. Moreover, in the United States the Christian has the privilege to translate their personal values into public political values through several means. Our Constitution calls this a right but as a Christian I still consider it something of a privilege. We know that God could have just as easily placed us into a church family living in a different corner of the world where tolerance and freedom are not so cherished.

In this country we have a system based on the “Principal - Agent” relationship. You and I are the principals. We are the source of ideas, grievances and change. Most importantly, you and I have the power to choose our own agent in the government. We usually do this through direct or indirect elections. But this relationship inherently creates its own set of problems. For the sake of this article I’m going to make up an entirely fictitious example, but it is a plausible example because it has taken place throughout the country over the years and over different issues. 

For example, I believe that Missouri public schools should allow any religious group to pray on public school property or else they should ban all prayer. Now, there are two candidates running for the same seat in the U.S. Congress for my district. And in my state only one candidate can win his or her district. One of them holds the same view toward prayer in Missouri public schools as I do. The other candidate believes that only Christians and Jews should be allowed to pray on public school property. They believe that if you are Muslim or pagan you should not be allowed to pray on school property.

In this case, if I wanted to translate my religious values into this very specific political issue it would be an easy choice. I have done my research. I know where this candidate stands on the issue. I am going to vote for her. In fact, I have heard her give an interview on talk radio and she stated that she will never budge on this issue. Well, she has my vote. Some Christians might believe that voting is about all we can do to participate in the great democratic work. Know your personal beliefs which hopefully come from a place of sound doctrine and sincere Bible study, not from your emotions. And do your research. Know who you are voting for. But, you don’t have to stop at voting. There are lots of other things you can do like volunteer for your preferred candidate’s campaign. Canvass your neighborhood with information. Write to your representatives who hire staff to read letters from their constituents. And, of course, you can always donate money to a campaign.

Did you know that, by law, the federal government must provide any serious presidential candidate with free money for their campaigns? But, there is a catch. That candidate is not allowed to accept public donations for their campaign and there is a cap on that free money. But, if the government money is turned down then the candidate has no limit on how much money they can collect from public campaign contributions. So not surprisingly, that government money is no longer used by serious contenders for the presidency. All of them go to the public now in some measure. The last major party candidate to accept government campaign money was John McCain in 2008. So, in a very pragmatic way this might be one of the more direct, if not effective, ways to exercise your political power as a citizen. Do your homework and find out which challenging or incumbent representative most closely adheres to your values and donate money directly to their campaign for a seat in the government. Chance favors that they are really going to need it. And pray that they will fulfill their promises when they get to Capitol Hill as they represent you as an agent.

Wouldn’t it be great if life were that simple? There’s an elephant in the room and I think it would be better to spend our time talking about why it is so difficult to translate religious values into political values. Let’s go back to my example on prayer in Missouri public schools. It seemed as if I had found an excellent candidate for turning my religious values into political values and political action.

I have no plans to run for a political office but I have found a woman who thinks like me. She shares similar values. I intend to choose her as my agent in Washington during the next election cycle. I know that we agree on this issue of prayer in public schools as well as many other issues, but I also find out that she supports Planned Parenthood funding. The other candidate is against Planned Parenthood like me but he goes way too far on the “prayer in schools” issue. Remember, he believes only Christians and Jews should be allowed to pray in public school. And we are not talking about public assembly. We are just talking about prayer at any place and at any time on school property. But both candidates belong to the same political party. Both profess to be devout Christians.

 As a result, it turns out that neither will budge from their views. Accordingly, what ends up happening to many Christian citizens is this all-too familiar resignation to choosing the “lesser of two evils,” whatever you may believe that to be in this case. Believe it or not, there is a political theory out there that attempts to explain why this problem arises in democracies and how we could fix it. But, most of us are not scientists. We are not policy-makers. We are just ordinary people, so to speak, trying to do what is right.

So, in my case, my conscience tells me that whomever I choose out of these two candidates, they will not be my ideal candidate and will not result in a perfect one-to-one translation of my personal religious values into political values/action. I will go as far to say that a perfect transfer of values is nearly impossible when it comes to your personal beliefs and the public political sphere outside of the church. And it would be dangerous to try to force that onto our American society. In fact, I believe it would be morally wrong. On the one hand, that is not a value our country was founded on. 

Donald S. Lutz (1984) published a well-known study to investigate what types of literature and philosophies most influenced the Founding Fathers between 1760 and 1805. Lutz studied a sample from the thousands of extant letters and diaries of a handful of our Founding Fathers. Then, he literally counted how many times a certain literary work or author was quoted or mentioned. Positive and negative views toward the citations were ignored. Granted, this may be too simplistic of a research design but it is straightforward and patterns are easily observable. Some have misrepresented and misquoted this study. Others see the study as flawed. Others still have used the results to perform more detailed analyses. Nevertheless, Lutz invites readers to take a brief glance into the minds of the Founders. We see how the European Enlightenment had a great influence on the design and birth of our country. In this particular study the most often-cited work was the Bible. And the most often-cited biblical book? The book of Deuteronomy. In fact, in some instances it far outnumbered other books and authors. I was pleased to see that study.

It may be safe to say that the Bible certainly influenced the thinking of our Founding Fathers. No respectable historian would deny that. However, it would not be correct to say that our country was founded as a Christian nation. There is no evidence that this was the case. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, would be classified today as a deist. He “rejected the idea of the divinity of Christ” (monticello.org) and he often butted heads with other politicians, especially the conservative John Adams. But, even John Adams understood that an individual’s beliefs were separate from the moral foundations of a country.

Adams made a famous statement when he wrote the twelve articles of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed in 1796. In Article 11 of this unanimously ratified treaty it becomes very clear where he and the Senate stood on this question. Article 11 states that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”

John Adams believed that only a moral nation could sustain the Constitution but it was not the federal government’s responsibility to direct the beliefs of its citizens. There is no state religion in the United States. That is the institutional and practical reason why it is difficult to translate religious values. We practice the freedom of religion or the freedom to practice no religion in our country. But, this leads to more philosophical explanations. Our government was designed in a way that would not give precedence to one particular set of beliefs or values, Christianity included. This is how a liberal democracy is designed to function. It is inclusive of other viewpoints and other belief systems. I challenged part of this theory in my undergrad capstone because there is always an exception but, on the whole, it is true. And I believe Christians are better off because of it.

The birthplace of the United States of America
Independence Hall in Philadelphia by Ferdinand Richardt, 1858-63 (Public Domain)

I already mentioned the Principal-Agent conundrum. We must trust that someone other than ourselves will do what they promise to do. But what about those politicians who simply disagree with certain aspects of the Christian worldview? You will find them in all sorts of political landscapes but at the end of the day, they will disagree with you. Which one will have more influence when all is said and done? Who gets to decide what direction our country will take? It is a privilege to be able to influence the morality of our country without fear of harsh reprisals. But, whether it is our next-door neighbor or the Congress in the Capitol, God has already appointed a time for His gospel. The days where God was truly the king of an earthly government have been long gone for centuries. As far as I know, the Israelites were the only people to have experienced this. Their moral, civil and criminal laws came directly from God’s revelation through Moses and other prophets. He even consented to dwell among the Israelites in a habitation that He arranged.

The question I am getting to is this: How much effort should Christians be putting in when it comes to installing their beliefs within the halls of Capitol Hill, the White House, and the Supreme Court?

Of course, I cannot answer that for any of you. I have my opinion and I would certainly say that there needs to be some effort if I hope to continue to have the privileges that I enjoy right now as an American Christian. But, like many other things, there should also be a point where I realize that this world is not my home. I’m just passing through.

Why is it difficult to translate religious values into political values for the Christian? Because this world is not their home. In “The Social Contract”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was very critical when it came to devout Christians. He believed that Christians made for poor citizens of a dynamic nation because they are inclined to submit to whatever government is in place. Subsequently, they are ideal citizens for tyrannical governments. I think he misunderstands certain facets of Christianity but sometimes he makes very true statements. Consider this quote from “The Social Contract” in 1762:

“The country of the Christian is not of this world. He does his duty, indeed, but does it with profound indifference to the good or ill success of his cares. Provided he has nothing to reproach himself with, it matters little to him whether things go well or ill here on earth. If the State is prosperous, he hardly dares to share in the public happiness, for fear he may grow proud of his country’s glory; if the State is languishing, he blesses the hand of God that is hard upon His people.” - Book IV, Chapter VIII. Civil Religion, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762

Later in the same chapter he writes:

“True Christians are made to be slaves; they know it and are hardly moved by it. This short life is worth too little in their eyes.” - Book IV, Chapter VIII. Civil Religion, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762

He wrote these statements with a mind to be critical of Christians but in doing so he hit the nail on the head. It is a logical conclusion that Christian goals are very different from earthly goals. So, Christians should not be surprised when their values are shut down at some point in the political process by someone or by some group of people who do not share their values. But by all means, they cannot take those values away from them. So, we might be able to say that turning our religious beliefs into political beliefs is quite a simple process. The only problem is that we live in a world where God no longer dwells in a tabernacle in the middle of a great nomadic camp. Nor does He dwell in a temple built of stone on a lofty mount. There is no temple like that in the federal district. Instead, we are told that He dwells inside of us: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” - 1 Corinthians 3:16

We live in a country and during a time where man has devised his own form of government, a government that was founded on principles that only occasionally brought God into the equation. And again, I think Christians are better off because of it. The United States was never mentioned in our Constitution as being a country of God’s people, only a place for them to dwell in freely. But, in the Bible the church is called of God’s people. The Bible says believers desire “a heavenly country” - Hebrews 11:16.

I believe that we are so blessed and privileged in this country that it is easy to forget how often and how violent religious values have opposed political values in other places and at other times. Usually against one’s own will. Simon Peter is the one we usually associate with the sword, but the other Simon, called the Zealot, is also worth considering because this other Simon carried a title that may signify his membership to a political sect of Jews that wanted to incite the province of Judea to rebel against the occupying Romans and kick them out by force. I want to think that his views changed drastically once he began following Jesus and hearing His message of peace and service. Yet, for some reason when he needed to be differentiated from Peter, the politically-charged name of “Zelotes” stuck. He is also called Simon the “Cananite” by some translations in Matthew 10:4, but this is not to be confused with the Canaanites of the Old Testament. This is the Aramaic form of the word “Zealot.”

Historians are not sure whether or not this sect was still around by the time Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. But, some would be willing to concede that the Zealots were one of the political ancestors of the groups that incited insurrection later on and which eventually incited the Romans to destroy Jerusalem.

I am always left wondering how Simon the Zealot managed to reconcile his politics with his apostleship. Or did he ever reconcile the two? Personally, I think it would have been very difficult for him. I can see the possibility of a deep rift forming in this man’s heart as he witnesses the earthly ministry of the Messiah. I can imagine him thinking: here stands before me a Man who truly has the power to do what so many Judeans and Jews have wanted for generations. Now might be a good time to urge fellow Jews to accept Jesus of Nazareth with the promise of political freedom. Might this Jesus ever take up the cause of the Zealots? I think it’s possible that Simon was obliged to put aside his politics for more important work. The work of spreading the gospel. The work of the church.

We have no way of confirming this history, but according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, “Simon the apostle, called Cananeus and Zelotes, preached in Mauritania, and in the country of Africa, and in Britain: he was likewise crucified.” Who knows what might have become of this Simon had he insisted on putting more time and energy into the earthly politics of his time rather than the eternal work of the Gospel? The question of religion in politics is certainly an important question and one worth considering, but an even greater question exists. How can we translate our personal religious beliefs into personal daily actions? Which do you think will have more influence in the end?

Works Cited:

1. Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review, 78/1 (Mar. 1984), 191


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