This is an introduction to the theology that leads to political engagement by Christians. It explores the notion of the separation of Church and State, how this has been misapplied and re-thought of by significant Christian leaders in the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I conclude with a personal experience of what I consider positive political engagement looks like.
They say art is the thermometer of culture. In this sense, politics might be seen as the barometer of culture. And we might add that Christians should be the thermostat of culture (not the thermometer of culture). By this we mean that art in its various forms – literature, music, visual art, movies, poetry, photography, and fashion, reflect what culture finds acceptable, disturbing, desirable, praiseworthy, and even beautiful. And politics is the popular affirmation (the essence of democracy) of a set of legislative policy agendas that give direction to a culture.
Germany in the 1930s is a case study in the interplay between artistic culture, political climate and the role of religion. It wasn’t just that Adolf Hitler was evil. It was that he resonated with something not entirely righteous in the German culture. He became a barometric indicator of where Germany was now heading. When politicians feel public support for their raft of non-life policy agenda items, it is an indication of where our culture is heading. And when politicians take liberties with a non-life policy agenda, it actually feeds an indifferent culture with a diet to actually value non-life policies! And when this happens, it makes the Christian promotion of the Ultimate Life (eternal life) not only unappealing to a culture that increasingly values non-life, but repulsive! That’s why we might say that politics is at least the barometer of a culture. This is why it is not only necessary for Christians to collectively work together to shape what culture values, but possible for Christians to do so – but not possible if we ignore what happens in our political spheres.
It seems that in the world’s darkest moral hours, God’s light shines through fewer but it does so more intently. Such was the case when Adolf Hitler was beginning to mesmerise Germany. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was from a privileged background and from an early age dedicated his life to Christ. While Hitler was merely a barometer of where Germany was going to head, Bonhoeffer was attempting to be a thermostat by challenging his ministerial colleagues to return to Scripture and see why they must collectively challenge the rise of the Nazi Party. But Bonhoeffer largely failed to convince his colleagues of the necessity to engage in the political arena.
Because the pastors of Germany had fallen into a theologically liberal view of Scripture, they lacked the grounding for inspiring their culture with a grand vision of God. Consequently, they therefore also lacked the courage to challenge Hitler and his vision for Germany. The rest, as they say, is history. Hitler’s last known command was to have Bonhoeffer executed, whom he had imprisoned for most of the Second World War. But this was not before Hitler had instigated the most brazen national non-life policy agenda in the modern era including: a eugenics program, rampant euthanasia, mass abortions, and genocide (BBC). People with disabilities, birth defects, acquired diseases or illnesses, and non-Arian ethnicity, were deemed to be of less worth.
Today, advocates of non-life policy agendas have cunningly couched their policies with grossly inappropriate words such as, love, compassion, dignity, and equality. It was Confucius who reportedly said, “When words lose their meaning people lose their freedom.” But we could readily demonstrate that it’s not just people’s freedom at risk when words lose their meaning – it’s their very lives! Modern proponents of non-life policies have been tactically shrewd, although disingenuous, by then labelling anyone who disagrees with them as intolerant, bigoted, lacking in compassion. This has then created a cultural groundswell within our society to only tolerate the ideas behind these non-life policies, but to actively endorse them!
All this means is that those of us who promote the intrinsic worth of every human being despite their skin colour, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, ability, location or level of dependency, have a huge task before us. Not only do we have to do a far better job at making our case, we have to be tactical, winsome, and shrewd in how we go about it. The role that politics plays in this cannot be ignored. When politicians feel public support for their raft of non-life policy agenda items, it does two things: firstly, it indicates where culture is heading, and secondly, it moves the previously indifferent members of a society to accept – then support this non-life policy. Support creates values. When a society values non-life it is in peril of not merely cultural suicide, but individual eternal peril. Thus, we can see how the Bible’s gracious invitation to enter into the Ultimate Life is regarded not only as unappealing, but as being repulsive!
But we shouldn’t despair. We have three sources of hope that we can arrest this trend. Firstly, we have the encouragement of the Scriptures, secondly the power of the Holy Spirit, and thirdly the reminder of history. All three sources of encouragement involve a level of cooperation between church groups and their leaders.
THE REMINDER OF HISTORY
England, 1740 – 1780 compared with 1793 – 1833
Between about the years 1740 to 1780, a 40 year preaching revival occurred in England led by John Wesley and George Whitefield. At the end of that preaching revival there was little to no net growth in the Church. But from 1793 to 1833 the churches in England reported exponential growth and paved the way for the “Victorian Era”. The only difference between these two forty year periods was the political climate! The climate changed from 1793 largely due to the leadership of William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) who in 1790 had established a band of like-minded colleagues who became known as The Clapham Sect (depicted below).
Coinciding shortly after William Wilberforce’s conversion, his new view of the interplay between politics and religion led him to seeing his role as a politician differently. He recognised that his country was already in a moral crisis. Women were being routinely abused. Children were being exploited in every way. Animals were the object horrific mistreatment. And the African English were thought of as sub-human! Wilberforce saw legislative reform as an opportunity for the reformation of manners in England. By highlighting what was unjust, corrupt, immoral and impolite, Wilberforce contributed to England coming to accept that they had fallen short of what he referred to as “good manners”. The result over his 40 year political career was an exponential growth in the churches of England as people increasingly saw their need of the Saviour. At one point Wilberforce was accused in the Parliament of seeking to legislate for all England to convert to Christianity. But Wilberforce disputed this with the lament that if he could he would. But he had come to understand that conversion to Christ was necessarily a matter of individual response to the Saviour’s offer of forgiveness.
At last, on 22 June 1813, when the Commons had been wearied night after night by the debates on every aspect of Indian diplomacy, commerce, and finance, Wilberforce rose in a full House… ‘That remedy, Sir, is Christianity, which I justly call the appropriate remedy; for Christianity then assumes her true character…when she takes under her protection those disregarded beings on whom philosophy looks down with disdain or perhaps with contemptuous condescension… Compulsion and Christianity! Why, the very terms are at variance with each other – the ideas are incompatible.”
John Pollock, “Wilberforce: God’s Statesman”, Kingsway, Eastbourne, 1977, pages 237-238
Even though Wilberforce was campaigning for reforming the criminal code (he introduced the principle of Habeus Corpus), child labour regulations, the abolition of the slave trade, laws against cruelty to animals, publicly funded schooling for children, improvements of factory conditions for workers, and the removal of trade restrictions against British missionaries working in India (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wilberforce_william.shtml), these reforms ultimately served an evangelistic purpose.
One of the core premises of Gospel proclamation is the lostness of mankind. History seems to indicate that the Gospel’s hope is most welcomed when its audience understands the implications of this premise. That is, we all stand guilty before God and therefore in need of His forgiveness through the Saviour. This is arguably what became clearer during period of Wilberforce’s political career and helped to create this fruitful season of evangelism for the British Church.
SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE?
Unlike the United States of America, Australia has never had a constitutionally enshrined separation of Church and State. Rather, we have had from the outset of our Constitution, the cooperation of Church and State. (Note: A form of the concept of “separation of Church and State” arguably began with Augustine and his book, The City of God, written about 420AD. It was Martin Luther who espoused that the government by the State had no jurisdiction in ecclesiastical (church) matters and vice versa. This idea was a reaction to the abuses of power around the time of the Reformation. These Lutheran views were arguably the dominant factor in the modern notion of separation of Church and State.)
From the appointment of Rev. Samuel Marsden the first magistrate in colonial New South Wales, to the adoption of explicit policies of state aid for denominational schools in the 1960s, Australia has had a very consistent tradition of church/state cooperation “Separation of church and state”, along with “pleading the Fifth”, are phrases that we have learned from the US, and which merely serve to confuse once they are taken out of the context of the American Constitution. What Australia does have is a principle of state neutrality, or equal treatment, when dealing with churches.
Dr. Lindsay Stoddart, 2006 Cathedral Address For The Opening of Parliament of Tasmania
Yet some Christians have uncritically accepted the mantra that religion and politics don’t mix (espoused by those who argue for a separation of Church and State) and the accompanying by-line mantra- you can’t legislate morality. The reality is, every politician’s views are shaped by their religious convictions. Even atheism is a religious view! All too frequently the claim made by an atheist that they are “religiously neutral” goes undeservedly unchallenged. It is an utter nonsense to claim that a politician can privately hold a particular view while publicly supporting an opposing view. Since laws necessarily establish the right and the good and discourage the wrong and bad, we can only legislate morality (since morality is the measure of right and good conduct).
Christianity’s influence upon public policy is not fully realised when laws are passed legislating for its citizens’ conversion to Christianity. As Wilberforce stated, legislation cannot spiritually regenerate (convert) someone. Christians are not seeking to impose Christianity by legislation. Rather, Christianity’s influence upon public policy is fully realised when adequate, appropriate, fair, and just legislation – which upholds the sanctity of life (the most basic human right is the right to live), defends the equality of all people, protects the unique role that the marriage of a man and woman and their family affords a society, ensures the liberty of all people to respectfully practice, promote and defend their religious convictions, creates a sustainable economic environment through taxation and incentives where its citizens enjoy rewards that are commensurate with effort and risk they have invested and appropriately penalises acts in criminality, injustice and corruption.
This legislative vision will not satisfy those theonomists who would like to legislate for Christian ‘laws’. But such a vision for legislative potential is in keeping with Christianity’s broad concern for all people – not just its own. This is why Australian seatbelt legislation just might be the perfect case-study for what legislating good morality looks like, and the very real connection between such legislation and the Church’s evangelistic pursuits.
WHY SEATBELT LEGISLATION IN AUSTRALIA WAS SO IMPORTANT
In Australia, the use of seat belts by all vehicle passengers is compulsory. The states of Victoria and South Australia introduced a requirement for belt anchorages in 1964, although not for the belts themselves. In 1970, the use of seat belts by vehicle occupants was made compulsory in the state of Victoria, followed by the rest of Australia and some other countries during the 1970s and 1980s. The subsequent dramatic decline in road deaths, equivalent to thousands of lives saved in Australia alone, is generally attributed to seat belt laws and subsequent road safety campaigns. Seatbelts are not required for bus occupants, reversing drivers, and those driving some slow moving vehicles. The laws for these differ depending on the state or territory with jurisdiction.
In 1970, one thousand seven hundred and sixty one people lost their lives in Australian road accidents. By 1999, this annual road toll had been better than halved (source).
The turning point in the escalating road toll coincided with the legislative requirement that all cars be fitted with seatbelts and that all passengers compulsorily wear them. The legislative requirement for seatbelts serves as a model for legislating good morality which is grounded in Christian values.
The numbers of road deaths was spiralling. Something had to be done. Seatbelts were shown to be a part of the solution based on the data from other countries where seatbelts now compulsory. Seatbelts were shown to be a workable solution to the problem. Prior to them being made a legislative requirement, the various State governments engaged their broader communities in dialogue explaining why seatbelts were needed. I was a lad at this time and remember this process. I also recall the subsequent education campaigns to promote their usage that was implemented into schools. The process of proposing and then implementing seatbelt legislation serves to demonstrate that legislation always has an educative function. When the new seatbelt legislation was introduced, my parents refused to wear them. They would often remark that it wasn’t necessary for such short trips such as a visit to the local shops or the next city. But over the ensuing years, they too, like all other Australians, buckled up. Legislation changes culture. Legislation affects what a society values.
But what do seatbelts have to do with the Church’s mission? We may never be able to precisely quantify the answer but we may reasonably speculate that it has meant thousands of Australians have been won to Christ subsequent to their lives having been spared thanks to a seatbelt.
In recent years, Christian leaders have felt compelled to formulate certain declarations reinforcing classical Christian understanding of good public policy. The Manhattan Declaration was one of the first. In Australia, the Canberra Declaration was inspired by the Manhattan Declaration. These Declarations reinforce the traditional Christian views of the sanctity of life, marriage between a man and a woman, and religious liberty. Predictably, critics of such Declarations label the Declaration’s proponents as anti-gay, middle-aged, narrow-minded, bigots. Both of these particular Declarations were essentially private endeavours which received wider endorsement.
In my home-state of Tasmania, I was a part of a growing number of concerned church leaders increasingly alarmed at our State Government’s repeated attempts to promote non-life policies. By April 2013, in the previous two years, there had been repeated attempts to introduce: Doctor-Assisted Suicide (“voluntary euthanasia”) tabled as, “The Dying With Dignity Bill”, Anti-Constitutional Pseudo Marriage Unions (State-Based Same-Sex Marriage) tabled as “The Marriage Equality Bill”, and Third-Trimester Partial-Birth Abortion legislation which was even more bizarrely tabled as, “The Reproductive Health Bill”. Each of these legislative agendas promoted a radical non-life agenda.
Tasmania is an island state of Australia. In the Australian Federal Parliamentary system, each State is granted an equal number of Senate representatives. In the State Parliament, Tasmanians elect their representatives within a Hare-Clarkelectoral system. Added to this, Tasmania also has an Upper House (the Legislative Council) which is regarded as an independent house of review for legislation which is not controlled by any particular political party. (In Tasmania, the majority of Legislative Council members do not belong to a particular political party.) This gives minor parties and independent candidates the best chance possible of being elected. This means that Tasmania is often the focus of those with a radical national political agenda. It was this political environment that enabled the establishment of the Greens Political Party as a Tasmanian State-based party, then as a national political party (then internationally).
The first political party to be created with its basis in environmental issues was the United Tasmania Group, founded in Australia in March 1972 to fight against deforestation and the creation of a dam that would damage Lake Pedder; whilst it only gained three percent in state elections, it had, according to Derek Wall, “inspired the creation of Green parties all over the world.”
Wikipedia, Wall, Derek (2010). The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications. ISBN 978-1-906523-39-8, page 14.
By early 2013 the Tasmanian State Labor-Green Coalition was languishing horribly in the polls. The economy was the worst performing State economy in the nation. Tasmania had the worst unemployment rate in the country. The State debt had blown out to a record $426,000,000 (not including the unfunded State liabilities of an estimated $4,000,000,000). Yet with so many pressing fiscal challenges before the State, the Government’s attention was focussed on introducing euthanasia, allowing for the most liberal abortion laws in the world, attempting to convince the electorate that a relationship between two men was equal in every way to that of a marriage between a man and a woman, and had just flagged that they planned to introduce restrictions to religious liberties.
Against this backdrop, a collegial dialogue began among Tasmania’s church leaders. We felt an urgency to make a public declaration affirming what had always been considered core Tasmanian values. We anticipated that the Government would respond by saying that our views were not representative of all the church groups in Tasmania. We knew that our Declaration would need the backing of all major church and denomination leaders within our State to be effective. This was achieved. We knew that our Declaration had to be succinct and easy to articulate. We settled on three key words: Life, Liberty, Legacy.
We knew that our Declaration had to be launched well. Clair van Ryn (pictured right) accepted the position of spokesperson for the Declaration and presented our Declaration well before the media. Our launch took place in front of the Tasmanian Parliament House on Tuesday, 1PM, April 9th 2013 and was covered by every major electronic and print news outlet. The launch of the Declaration involved the Leader of Opposition Business (The Hon. Mr Rene Hidding, MHA, Liberal), and the Speaker of the House (The Hon. Mr Michael Polley, MHA, Labor).
We knew that we had to have a smart internet presence where people could engage with us and even affirm the Declaration. BelieveinTasmania.com was launched along with an accompanying Facebook page for the Declaration.
We knew that the Declaration had to be named well. We quickly settled on The Salamanca Declaration. This was strategic for several reasons but it also had an exotic Tasmanian flavour to it.
The wording of The Salamanca Declaration was formulated over six months. This frequently involved me driving for two plus hours to have face-to-face meetings with the various church leaders for what might be no more than a thirty minute meeting, for me to then drive the two hours back home. We settled on the wording of The Salamanca Declaration being-
Seeking the common good of all Tasmanians, we put forward these points of agreement, that –
All human life is precious and the sanctity of life should be upheld regardless of race, gender, age, religion or stage of development because every human being is endowed by our Creator with equal and inherent dignity.
Every person has the right to worship God individually and in a faith community. The worshipper has this liberty as a God-given freedom. It entails freedom of conscience, and freedom to speak, gather, worship and generally act in accordance with the beliefs of their faith community. Those with religious convictions share the common democratic liberties which guarantee the freedom to publish, express, or proclaim their views in order to help shape our democracy.
A family is a God-given privilege which establishes an invaluable legacy for those involved and for the benefit of society generally. It is best embodied in the birth and development of children within a stable, loving home built around the marriage of a mother and father, and supported by the wider community.
The consequences of the launch of The Salamanca Declaration were very positive for the Church of Tasmania. The expected unimaginative criticisms were received from the main proponents of the non-life policies that The Salamanca Declaration addressed. The Premier accused us of not speaking on behalf of the majority of churches and the Christians represented by these churches. She clearly had not understood how wrong her assessment was. The government even sought a dissenting Church leader to speak against The Salamanca Declaration. They thought they had found one when it was pointed out to them that this person was neither a Church leader, nor a Tasmanian resident, nor even a Christian! The spokesperson for the Greens, Ms Cassie O’Connor offered ridicule. “This is nothing but a group of middle-aged caucasian men telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies!” Ms O’Connor didn’t maintain this criticism after it was revealed that the 18 Denominational Church Leaders was only the first layer of signatories to the Declaration – over 600 women had also signed up as Charter signatories!
Less than a year after its launch, a State election was called and the Labor-Green Government lost in a landslide. This was never the aim of the Declaration. Its aim is the opening statement of the Declaration, seeking the common good of all Tasmanians. Most of those politicians who were courteous enough to have us explain The Salamanca Declaration to them could see that we were far from the deserving objects of ridicule with which we were targeted. It became clear enough to most that the churches of Tasmania deeply cared for all Tasmanians irregardless of their religion, race, gender, or political persuasion. Many of the key churches involved in the Declaration began reporting increased Sunday attendances. And perhaps even more pleasing was the warm welcome into some of these same churches that many of our parliamentarians began experiencing. And a few of them have even ventured to become regular attenders at these churches. Thus, a year after the launch of The Salamanca Declaration, on Tuesday May 6th 2014, it was a very moving moment to be present at St. David’s Cathedral Hobart for the Opening of Forty-Eighth Parliament of Tasmania as every member (apart from one apology) was present to seek God for His blessing upon the government of our State. Our newly elected Premier, Will Hodgman (who now identifies himself as a Christian) read the prayer of King Solomon in what seemed to me to be a very prophetic moment for our State.
And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” ¶ It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.
First Kings 3:8-10
Do religion and politics mix? If by ‘religion’ we mean a Biblically informed Christianity which regards the Lordship of Jesus Christ encompassing all of His creation without an artificial distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ – and by ‘mix’ we mean a positive influence – then the answer is most assuredly: yes.
24th June 2014