We are living through perhaps the highest profile presidential race of the last quarter century at least, which is saying something considering that time period contains the 2008 race featuring the political phenomenon called Barack Obama. He was a politician who became a celebrity thanks to his charisma and his hugely successful campaign. But now we are living through the campaign of a billionaire celebrity who has become a politician. The effect is different and seems to break out of the ordinary categories. Donald Trump has found a way to formulate the headlines he hopes to see and then work backwards, as one writer suggested. In any case, Trump was already a celebrity before he spent about 12 years as the prime time star of NBC’s The Apprentice.
This infusion of pop culture into the political culture has led to some unexpected results. For example, the crowds at events are bigger. Millions more tune in to debates. And the nature of the debates has changed to feature more explosive fireworks and a more potent degree of personal confrontation. People are watching. And one hopes they are thinking, especially the Christians who have much to consider amid the lights and noise.
What Does God Expect of Us?
What do Christians need to know? I will address myself primarily to American Christians, though this advice applies to a wide variety of citizens around the globe. The first thing I want to emphasize is that if you are a citizen and have the legal right to vote, to assemble, to speak, to organize and engage in other political activities, then you possess a small part of the sovereignty of your political community. To say it more briefly, you have a little piece of the power. As Christians, we know that God expects us to exercise stewardship over the things we possess. As members of a democratic republic, we have the power to participate and we should take that power seriously. Don’t bury the coin of citizenship. We should register to vote, become informed on the issues, share our thoughts with others, teach our children about being citizens, and maybe even run for office. For many people, such capabilities lie far out of their reach. You have been born into a society that provides you with political rights. Exercise them with both love and prudence.
The Point of Politics
The stewardship of our political rights takes me to my second point. What is the point of politics? Should we try to establish all of our preferences into law? Theoretically, we could legislate more and more of the parts of our existence. Government could reach farther and farther. We could require people to engage in a certain amount of beautification of their homes. It would be possible to require employers to provide a perfectly balanced lunch to all of their employees each day at work. We could outlaw the overuse of cologne or perfume. We could eliminate wasteful choice and aesthetic variances in favor of a single, efficient mass-produced automobile. We could mandate that families have no more than two children because we think the population should not be allowed to grow. We have already seen a government limit its families to a single child.
There are any number of things we could choose to do with political power. For my part, I find Luther’s discussion of the Sermon on the Mount informative. He completely accepts the sermon’s admonition to Christians that they should not resist evil when it is done to them. This is not a command only for special Christians who undertake a spiritual vocation, but to all Christians. However, there is little virtue in non-resistance in the face of harm done to one’s neighbor. Love of one’s neighbor means that just as we would give food or water to a neighbor in need, we should also help them to have safety, order, and protection. God provides government so that we might have this protection. In Romans 13, Paul writes that the ruler in authority “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” By considering Luther’s view and the scripture just referenced, I have come to the conclusion that the one thing that is really unique about government is that it bears a special relationship to the use of force, coercion, and punishment. The government is the one entity in society that we entrust with this terrible power. Recognizing that force is at the heart of the power of government, we should not easily resort to such an authority. For that reason, we will do better to solve as many of our problems through virtue than through coercion. Thomas Aquinas noted that if government overreaches, it may provoke a greater rebellion than if it had not acted at all.
Considering Caesar’s Coin
It is difficult to stop with only three things, but for a third thing I would like all Christians to know about government I would choose the jurisdiction set out by Christ when he considered Caesar’s coin. Noting that the coin bore Caesar’s image, Jesus said we ought to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. The thing I want to highlight is that human government is not ultimate in nature. It does not command everything in our lives. There is a limit. The governing authority may order us to do things that it is not entitled to dictate. This is the matter that Christians in various wedding businesses are struggling with today. State governments may tell them that they have no choice but to offer their services for a same-sex wedding - regardless of their faith or conscience. But they struggle because there is something within them that recognizes the state is overstepping its bounds. It is to their credit that they struggle with rightly dividing the territory that belongs to God versus the area he permits to government for our good.
As we work our way through this political season, may we all seek God’s wisdom as we make decisions about what government should do and to whom we trust that power. We are accountable to God for our political life as we are in every other part of life.