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Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics

The relationship between Christianity and politics is a complex one. The Church has played a mixed role in the history of political liberty to be sure. At times it has suppressed political, religious and economic liberty. Yet despite that, and unserious caricatures of history from secularists like Steven Pinker, Christianity has been one of the most important forces for liberty and the idea of a limited state. Though Christianity is not a political program it nevertheless gives us a certain way of thinking about the state and the role of politics.

It is important to note that a Christian vision of government is not simply a secular vision of government with religion sprinkled on top. Secularism is not neutral. A Christian vision of government is grounded in key theological and philosophical ideas about the nature of God and reality, the importance of justice, the value of freedom, the role of the family, and a rich understanding of the human person as created in the image of God, made for flourishing, and called to an eternal destiny.

The question is, how do these things play out in our understanding of politics?

I will introduce five of the most important ideas that the Christian tradition contributes to the foundation for political liberty. But before I do, it is important to be clear that while Christianity gives us key insights into politics, Christianity is not a political program with specific policy recommendations. There is no single Christian model of government. Christians can hold a variety of political positions and can disagree about many things. What Christianity provides is an orientation—a foundation of how to think about politics and government—one that more often than not speaks about the limits of what politics can accomplish.

The State is Not Divine

The first element of a Christian vision of government is that the state is not divine. In fact, the whole idea of the limited state is intrinsically connected to the Christian tradition. Why? Because Christianity de-sacralizes the state. The state no longer has a sacred character.

As Lord Acton points out, when Jesus said: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what it God’s” his words were revolutionary. They also have profound implications of how we understand the state. Not everything belonged to Caesar. In antiquity, as Lord Acton wrote:

The vice of the classic State was that it was both Church and State in one. Morality was undistinguished from religion and politics from morals; and in religion, morality, and politics there was only one legislator and one authority.

There was no moral appeal beyond the state because Caesar and Pharaoh were divine.

But Christianity says no: The state and its leaders are not divine, and while they deserve respect, they do not stand above natural or divine law. Christianity reminds us that the state’s agents are sinners just like the rest of us.

This does not mean that Christians view the state and politics as evil, or even a necessary evil. Contrary to James Madison, even angels would need some government even if it were only for coordination and to decide which side of the angelic road to drive on. For Christianity, politics plays an important role, but it is a limited one. Christians view the state as important for coordination, administration of justice, and security and defense. But the state is not the source of truth and law.

To be clear—this does not mean that Christians throughout the ages have always respected this. There have been times when Christians—Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox have all politicized religion and abused political power in the name of religion.

There is always a temptation to divinize the state, to create a new Tower of Babel. This is a recurring motif, from the ancient kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria and Rome, in modern times with the French Revolution and its ideological descendants, the 20th century totalitarians, and contemporary technocratic state.

Christians have not been immune to the temptation to lift the state beyond its proper place. The temptation for Christians is not to divinize the state, but to politicize religion and look to the state to implement doctrine and other tenets of their faith as policy—or even go so far as to compel belief. But this is a departure from the original vision of Christianity and its intrinsically voluntary character. This does not imply secularism or that there is no place for the church to guide and influence the moral character of the state. But the attempt to compel belief turns Christianity into a political ideology which undermines the very nature of Christianity and ultimately leads to unbelief. As Joseph Ratzinger has noted, there have been periods where the church and state blended “into one another in a way that falsified the faith’s claim to truth and turned it into a compulsion so that it became a caricature of what was really intended.” Nevertheless, despite these failures the distinction between the claims of God and Caesar, remain. The nature of Christianity cannot accept a totalitarian state that tries to pull every aspect of life under itself.

The State is Not the Final Arbiter of Justice

The second main element, and a related one, is that the state is not the final arbiter of justice. The state is bound by the same moral laws as individuals.

Christianity rebukes the idea that the dictator or the majority determines or equals truth and justice. Some things are intrinsically wrong, and no state power or majority vote can make this not so. Because of this, human law must always be subordinate to divine law and natural laws. As Augustine, Aquinas, and the vast majority of thinkers in the Christian tradition have always held: an unjust law is no law at all.

Central to the Jewish and Christian idea of justice is that justice must be impartial. This idea is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. As Leviticus 19:15 states:

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.

This is the foundation for the idea of the rule of law—as opposed to the rule of men. Law must not be arbitrary. It must be fair, accessible, and offer citizens due process. The idea of impartiality is essential and is easily lost. It differs from the crony capitalist practice of giving benefits to the rich and well connected, and from much of the contemporary social justice idea that the poor should get special treatment at the expense of justice.

The Common Good

The third major element of a Christian vision of government is the commitment to the common good. The common good consists of the political and the social conditions that enable individuals, families, and communities to “reach their fulfillment.”

It is important to note that the common good does not equal the good of the state. Individuals are not simply cogs in the machine of the state. Further, the community cannot be reduced to the political community. This is a common error. Nor does common good equal the greatest good for the greatest number. It is not simply more efficiency or more pleasure. It is rooted in a rich concept of the good life, always keeping in mind the eternal destiny of the person.

The state plays an important role in promoting the common good but cannot do everything. Its main role is in helping to create the conditions where people can flourish and to assist when necessary. As Thomas Aquinas explains, “It is contrary to the proper character of the state to impede people from acting according to their responsibilities—except in emergencies.”

A Community of Communities

This leads to the fourth main contribution: the importance of families and a rich and varied civil society.

Human persons are not radical individuals. We are social beings and flourish in community. We are born into families and into cultures, and flourish in communities. At the heart of society is the family. The family is the fundamental unit of society. While the state recognizes the family and has a place in regulating it, family is not simply a construct of the state. It is a natural community and a biological and sociological reality that exists prior to the state. This is one reason why the attempts to redefine marriage is an overreaching of state power and ultimately a totalitarian act. The state acts as the arbiter of reality itself. If biology can be redefined, what possible limits remain?

A Christian vision of government recognizes both the independence and social dimension of the family and its need to have space to flourish and live out its responsibilities. As Robert Nisbet and others have noted, the Christian vision of the family in politics sits in between the all controlling paterfamilias of Rome and the radically individualist nuclear family of modernity. Basic social and political issues such as education and private property are embedded in a robust role of the family. In education, the parents, not the schools, government, or churches are the primary educators of the children. In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII grounds his discussion of private property not simply in economic or political terms, but in the light of the family.

While families are essential, they cannot flourish on their own. The common good requires rich and varied civil society or what Alexis de Tocqueville called “intermediary institutions.” These include civic and neighborhood groups, churches, mutual aid societies, charitable organizations, schools, and various types of sodalities and voluntary organizations that solve social problems and build community.

One way to think about civil society is as a community of communities that promote the common good and encourage solidarity and human flourishing.

A Naturally Anti-Utopian Creed

The fifth idea, and one of the most important elements of the Christian vision of government is anti-utopianism.

The Christian tradition affirms the goodness of man, but it also recognizes the reality of sin. We are capable of great good. We are also capable of profound evil. This means that we need a government to protect people from harm and to punish evildoers. But it is equally important that we place limits on rulers.

As Lord Acton famously observed, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Christian vision of government is deeply skeptical of any utopian visions. It recognizes that we cannot create a perfectly just social order. Politics has an important role, but it is limited in what it can accomplish. As Joseph Ratzinger explained in his essay, “What is Truth, The Significance of Religious and Ethical Values in a Pluralist Society”:

It is not the task of the state to create mankind’s happiness, nor is it the task of the state to create new men. It is not the task of the state to change the world into Paradise. Nor can it do so . . . If it behaves as if were God . . . this makes it the beast from the abyss, the power of the Antichrist.

Politics cannot solve the fundamental problems of suffering, evil, sin, and death.  We cannot be redeemed by the state or technology, or the dictator or the majority. This anti-utopianism is not pessimism or apathy in the face of injustice. Nor is it false optimism that things will get better. What anti-utopianism does is put politics in its proper place and warns us that we cannot create perfect justice. In his Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger also observed:

Within this human history of ours the absolutely ideal situation will never exist and a perfected ordering of freedom will never be achieved. An ordering of things that is simply ideal; that is all around right and just will never exist. Wherever such a claim is made, truth is not being spoken. Belief in progress is not false in every respect. But the myth of the liberated world of the future in which everything is different and everything will be good is false. We can only ever construct relative social orders which can only ever be relatively right and just. Yet this very same closest possible approach to true right and justice is what we must strive to attain. Everything else, every eschatological promise within history fails to liberate us, rather it disappoints and therefore enslaves us.

This is only a brief introduction to the Christian tradition and its implications for politics. There is of course much more to say and lots to discuss and debate. But at the core of the Christian vision of government is the human person created in the image of God. The purpose of politics is to serve man, not for man to serve the state. The Christian vision of government places politics in the context of our human freedom, the call to human flourishing, and in the light of our eternal destiny.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 29, 2019 at 20:32:12 pm

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Image of Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics – Melvin Charles McDowell, Member of PA Republican State Committee, Representing Bedford County
Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics – Melvin Charles McDowell, Member of PA Republican State Committee, Representing Bedford County
on May 30, 2019 at 03:19:58 am

Thanks for this . I agree with these reservations. We should be cautious about the idea of the 'common good.' For Christians, only God is good, and if the sate is not sacred then the state does not determine the will of God for practical purposes. Hence it is for individuals in free communities to reach their view of goodness and the function of the state in this regard is to enable people to live out their vision of the good life subject to the principle that this is a reciprocal obligation - ie I may live out my vision only to the extent that others have same right (the essence of liberalism). As Roger Williams found, 'good' government is like a pilot in troubled waters - he or she navigates to safe harbour using technical skill, but is not responsible for the spiritual welbeing of the passengers. If the state is not sacred, then it is secular and neutral in matters of faith. This does not mean that people or ideas are neutral, it means that as we construct the state (ie as we determine our own behaviour in relations that construct the state) we do so on the basis that it is neutral in matters of faith ie the state does not enforce a specific faith orientation. This is in fact a Christian finding - uniquely so. This is not the same as enforcing a 'secular ' faith on the French revolutionary principle !

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James Paul Lusk
on May 30, 2019 at 09:14:05 am

The third major element of a Christian vision of government is the commitment to the common good. The common good consists of the political and the social conditions that enable individuals, families, and communities to “reach their fulfillment.” - Michael Miller

Christian salvation emphatically does not mean "self fulfillment" for either the individual or community. Salvation does not mean to "realize one's potential" and good and evil are not a failure to "realize potential" or self fulfillment.

The human self is like an empty pot filled by God, not self filled.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on May 30, 2019 at 11:43:39 am

Many people look outside this world for answers on how to live in this world. I consider myself an Aristotelian. Therefore, I try not look to the supernatural for answers on how to understand the natural. The argument from ignorance for the existence of God is just that: an argument from ignorance. Ignorance is not evidence.
A few years ago I read a little article that I found very helpful in not getting entangled in the contradictions inherent in the believe in the supernatural. The article was titled: "Reclaiming Spirituality for Lovers of Live" by Craig Biddle. You can find the article at: https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2016/07/reclaiming-spirituality-for-lovers-of-life/

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Adri Kalisvaart
on May 30, 2019 at 16:02:23 pm

Your point is decidedly not so. If it were true, there would be no need for the Holy Spirit to work within a believer to conform him/her to the image of Christ. Romans :28-29. The work of the Holy Spirit is to establish each person's unique expression of Christ which then would be that person's fulfillment. This is why it is wrong for a Christian to judge another Christian as the work of the Holy Spirit is uniquely tailored to each individual and what He may be working on me about may not be His focus on you at all.

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Mark Caswell (Jersey Mark)
on May 30, 2019 at 16:24:01 pm

Thanks for your reply Wayne.

A couple of quick points.

I did not say that Christian salvation was “self-fulfillment.” I said that one of the key elements of a Christian vision of government is the recognition of the importance of the common good.

I then went on to define the common good which includes a number of conditions that enable families and individuals to “reach their fulfillment.” Here I linked to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes.

The primary goal of Christianity it to get people to heaven to spend eternal life with God. At the same time, Christianity is deeply concerned with human flourishing during our lives and with the conditions that help promote human flourishing. This is not the end of course, but it is important. As a friend put it, God did not create the Garden of Eden like a prison camp. And Christ did not annihilate creation from the cross.

Additionally, I do not think it is correct to say the human self is an empty pot. We are created in the image of God with a specific nature. This includes among others things, reason, free will, embodiment and an eternal destiny, and each one of us is unique and unrepeatable.

But I do agree with you that salvation is not self-fulfillment.

Thanks
MMM

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Michael Matheson Miller
on May 30, 2019 at 16:45:06 pm

[…] Here is a piece I wrote for Law and Liberty on 5 Insights that Christianity Brings to Politics […]

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Image of 5 Things that Christianity brings to our understanding of politics – Acton Institute PowerBlog
5 Things that Christianity brings to our understanding of politics – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on May 31, 2019 at 00:41:40 am

I do not want Christianity to bring any insights into American politics. I want Christianity to stay OUT of politics. Freedom of Religion for Americans also means Freedom FROM religion. Let Christianity stay in Church and OUT of our government.

Christianity does NOT have a good record of helping nation states to govern well. In Germany in the 17th century, some counties lost more than 80% of their population as Catholics and Protestants killed each other to prove out what good Christians they were. In China during the Taipeng Rebellion in the 19th Century -- it all began with a man who said he was the brother of Christ and his reincarnation -- more people were killed than all the people killed by Hitler, Mao, and Stalin combined. That's why the CCP greatly distrusts ALL religions; Christianity the most.

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Joel Friedland
on May 31, 2019 at 00:44:31 am

These are insights of the Southern Baptist Convention, not Catholicism, Lutherism, or Calvinism.

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JOEL FRIEDLAND
on May 31, 2019 at 06:39:54 am

I loved this article. It was very nicely laid out and you covered a huge amount in very few words, as a comparison with any other article on the same topic will show. Thanks for writing it.

My 2 cents: While most of the insights here explain why orthodox Christians lean conservative, reason #4 is probably one of the biggest reasons we don't always see eye to eye with secular conservatives and libertarians. We believe that in addition to individual, families are also natural and beneficial social units and so we are committed to the preservation of the natural family.
Many secular right wingers are entirely focused on individuals and forget about how important families are. Sometimes they even lack a theory of children or families at all, as they are so focused on rational, autonomous individuals.

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Sean OConnor
on May 31, 2019 at 09:52:39 am

Christianity has so much more to offer politics. The theologians associated with the University of Salamanca, Spain, in the 16th century distilled political principles from the Bible and natural law that gave us capitalism. Most important were the sanctity of property and the importance of limited government. Property requires that the owners be able to dispose of it as they wish and that requires free markets. The state’s only purpose is to protect the life, liberty (including religious freedom) and property of its citizens. It can collect taxes for those, but any taxes above that are theft.

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Roger McKinney
on May 31, 2019 at 13:08:48 pm

[…] is a piece I wrote for Law & Liberty on 5 Insights that Christianity Brings to Politics.  I […]

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Image of 5 Insights Christianity Brings to Politics - Michael Matheson Miller
5 Insights Christianity Brings to Politics - Michael Matheson Miller
on June 01, 2019 at 02:30:18 am

[…] Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics (Michael Matheson Miller, Law & Liberty): “It is important to note that a Christian vision of government is not simply a secular vision of government with religion sprinkled on top. Secularism is not neutral. A Christian vision of government is grounded in key theological and philosophical ideas about the nature of God and reality, the importance of justice, the value of freedom, the role of the family, and a rich understanding of the human person as created in the image of God, made for flourishing, and called to an eternal destiny.” This article is a particularly Catholic way of thinking about this subject (one of several Catholic approaches, I should add). […]

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Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 205 - Glen Davis
on June 01, 2019 at 08:54:05 am

Discernment must apply, as the Bible (words of God) always ask Christ’s followers to:

Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother: (Zechariah7:9 KJV)

And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. (Ephesians5:11 KJV)

Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake. (Titus1:11 KJV)

This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith; (Titus1:13 KJV)

They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.

Forgiveness is also a must. So is repentance. Also do not be judgemental.

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Hanna
on June 01, 2019 at 09:01:42 am

Hi Joel,
Do you truly understand the definition of Freedom of Religion ?

“You want...”?

How about “I want”, “they want”?

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen. (哥林多后书13:14 KJV)

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Hanna
on June 01, 2019 at 09:08:17 am

That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: (以弗所书1:17 KJV)

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Hanna
on June 01, 2019 at 16:39:03 pm

By using the term The Common Good I was happy to see I was not the only one rubbed the wrong way. Commen Sense could easily have been inserted without effecting this essay at all.

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Robert Cox
on June 02, 2019 at 12:26:51 pm

I think you are misunderstanding what the author is saying. The Church does teach that man, as a social being, does find his fulfillment--that is, his way to the Good, the True and the Beautiful, which is Beatitude or God-- in community with others. Participating in and promoting the common good is an "obligation and is inherent in the dignity of the human person." Catechism of the Catholic Church #1913.

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Image of Ruth Joy
Ruth Joy
on June 02, 2019 at 12:30:31 pm

I think you are misunderstanding what the author is saying. The Church does teach that man, as a social being, does find his fulfillment--that is, his way to the Good, the True and the Beautiful, which is Beatitude or God-- in community with others. Participating in and promoting the common good is an "obligation and is inherent in the dignity of the human person." Catechism of the Catholic Church #1913.

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Ruth Joy
on June 05, 2019 at 00:30:07 am

[…] Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics Michael Matheson Miller, Law and Liberty […]

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Image of PowerLinks 06.05.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
PowerLinks 06.05.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on June 05, 2019 at 01:02:21 am

[…] Regret – Off the Shelf 127 with Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes – Pete Socks at Catholic Stand Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics – Michael Matheson Miller at Law & […]

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TVESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
on June 16, 2019 at 00:38:51 am

Great article..enjoyed reading about the detailed information about Christianity Brings to Politics and the future of higher education.thank you for sharing the post.

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anisurrups
on July 06, 2019 at 16:55:30 pm

[…] Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics […]

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Image of t Does Christianity Bring to Politics? Part 2 – It'sAllGift
t Does Christianity Bring to Politics? Part 2 – It'sAllGift
on July 08, 2019 at 12:16:34 pm

[…] Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics […]

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Image of What Does Christianity Bring to Politics Part 3 – It'sAllGift
What Does Christianity Bring to Politics Part 3 – It'sAllGift
on July 12, 2019 at 10:47:23 am

[…] Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics […]

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Christianity is Anti-Utopian – It'sAllGift
on July 17, 2019 at 10:54:11 am

[…] Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics […]

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Image of What Does Christianity Bring to Politics? A Community of Communities – It'sAllGift
What Does Christianity Bring to Politics? A Community of Communities – It'sAllGift
on October 23, 2019 at 22:29:08 pm

[…] insights, highlighted in a long essay by Michael Matheson Miller on the Law and Liberty website, hold true despite the mixed legacy of […]

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5 ways the church serves the state - Eternity News
on December 07, 2019 at 20:11:26 pm

This is really well written. I am a Christian Anarchist, because of our modern dilemma in which the state and governments have overstepped their bounds and at times I feel we are on the brink of a totalitarian government in the US. I am also Christian Anarchist because I don't believe any of us can judge our neighbor, let alone another nation, rightly (only God can do this) and the job of the church, which is you and me, not a brick and mortar building or the institution which calls itself 'the church', is to love as Jesus loved, even our enemies. We cannot do this while wrapped up in an entity that exists to keep order and make judgment calls of other peoples and nations, which must judge continually and make border decisions that may or may not reflect the character of Jesus. There is also far too much corruption in politics that taint the Christian vision and purpose. Having a conversation recently with a group of brothers and sisters about politics and this very subject brought out the very worst of human behavior all in the name of Christ, whilst none of it looked like our Christ! I was amazed at how immature our Christians can be, and yet we are called to witness to Jesus and look like him to the world.... I believe God uses the government to keep order and will use them to bring the world closer to the day of our Jesus' return, but the church should stand separate entirely from the state and government; a very good reason was stated in looking at the behavior of our Christians when it comes to a political discussion. This said, the article is well written and idealistic; if we could achieve what it says the Christian involvement should entail, I would be more in favor of Christian involvement in government.

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kathy dunn
on September 07, 2020 at 23:50:02 pm

Your explanation of Jesus saying, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what it God’s," really struck me! I guess I never looked at it that way before, and I suppose never will again. Thank you! I've been diving more into what the Bible says about politics so that I can better understand how we, as Christians, should interact with politics. You can read a little about my conclusions at https://debtakesherlifeback.com/christians-and-politics/ if you'd like!

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Deb
on October 17, 2020 at 02:41:50 am

"Politics cannot solve the fundamental problems of suffering, evil, sin, and death."

The word "sin" has no meaning outside of some people's religious beliefs (most obnoxiously weaponized to attack those who dare have values disapproved of by said religious believers) and has no place in the political processes of a secular nation like the United States.
Certain flavors of Christians proclaim that government cannot intrude on individuals' God-given rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Only tyrants dare quash freedom. Except for abortion: then the same Christians totally quash individual autonomy and would place pregnant women on metaphorical 24/7 surveillance so they can be prosecuted even if they have a miscarriage (thanks, Texas!) for their negligence in not preserving the life of a "child."
The same is true for marriage. "Marriage was created by God. It is a religious occasion, to which the government has a secondary role!" Sorry. To start, this claim isn't even historically true, but beyond that, law must be rational, and religious beliefs are by definition irrational. ("Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.") In the United States, marriage MUST BE within the government's realm, to which people can have a secondary religious celebration if they choose. To hold otherwise would violate the Establishment Clause. It would also be Christian supremacy, which the flavors of Christian previously mentioned are too unprincipled to care that favoring one religion disfavors all others. What has disappeared is what actually is the crux of morality: "Do NOT do unto others what you WOULD NOT done unto you." Moral people curb their own power-hungry ways be realizing that steamrolling over others gives them no excuse when others take their place in power and trample the rights they hold dear for themselves.

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Dr. Jeffrey Hampl

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.