A recent article by Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw has once again awakened the curious and troublesome topic of Christian political ethics. Without summarizing the entire article, I think it important to address the talking points Mouw takes up.

In the article, Mouw reflects, how after many years, evangelical dean Carl Henry was right given his approach to Christian political ethics. In an essay submitted to Christianity Today in 1967, Mouw puts forward the thesis that political pronouncements ought to be put forward under the auspices of the Church; that is, it is the Church making political pronouncements and not merely individual Christians (though, to be honest, this raises further questions on the possibility of there ever being a Protestant consensus on political issues).

Henry disagrees in the reverse. In his own axioms of political engagement (see below), Henry argues that evangelical political pronouncements can largely be done, in my own phrasing, by “negation.” According to Henry, the Church is incapable and lacks the authority to make informed and positive public policy recommendations. Instead, the Church is “declare the criteria by which nations will ultimately be judged, and the divine standards to which man and society must conform if civilization is to endure” (see axiom #3). Not only is the church incapable, according to Henry, but the task itself lies outside the realm of the church’s main stated objective, primarily being evangelization.

For now, here are Henry’s axioms:

1. The Bible is critically relevant to the whole of modern life and culture—the social-political arena included.

2. The institutional church has no mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.

3. The institutional church is divinely obliged to proclaim God’s entire revelation, including the standards or commandments by which men and nations are to be finally judged, and by which they ought now to live and maintain social stability.

4. The political achievement of a better society is the task of all citizens, and individual Christians ought to be politically engaged to the limit of their competence and opportunity.

5. The Bible limits the proper activity of both government and church for divinely stipulated objectives—the former, for the preservation of justice and order, and the latter, for the moral-spiritual task of evangelizing the earth.

It is axiom #2 which raises the questions of whether Christians—and the Church—can offer positive policy pronouncements.

Enter Kuyper, who, according to Mouw, offers the mediating position between himself and Henry. Though Kuyper would have agreed with the limits of the Church’s political pronouncements, Kuyper’s thought, echoing Catholic Social Teaching, claims the Protestant equivalent of Mediating Structures—“Kuyper would have insisted that, between the gathered church and individual Christians going out into the world to struggle with applications to specifics, there is an important intermediate area of activity. Christians must form a variety of organizations that focus on specific areas of cultural involvement, in order to engage in the kind of communal reflection necessary to develop a Christian mind for the area in question. This means that it is important, say, for Christians who are deeply involved in policies and practices relating to concern for the poor to develop specific proposals building on the general principles proclaimed by that church, by deliberating on these matters in groups that have the expertise to struggle with them. And it is even appropriate to present those policy proposals as Christian-inspired specifics, even if they move well beyond what the church—as church—has a right to say.”

As one who is constantly oscillating between these two positions, I must agree with Mouw that Henry is right on this issue. Theology, it’s limits, and history have vindicated Henry.

I would love feedback from the readers of Mere Orthodoxy on this topic. What do you think? Is it better for Christians to work individually to impact our political culture, or should the Church work institutionally to advance particular agendas and candidates?

Posted by Andrew Walker

  • Christopher Benson

    Hello Andrew: Good blog. Good question. I answer it as a Protestant in the Reformed tradition. I will be interested in answers from Catholic and Orthodox readers – if there are any. In my opinion, neither the church nor the individual should work to influence the political realm. Kuyper offers a welcome “third way” through institutions that “develop specific proposals building on the general principles proclaimed by that church, by deliberating on these matters in groups that have the expertise to struggle with them. And it is even appropriate to present those policy proposals as Christian-inspired specifics, even if they move well beyond what the church—as church—has a right to say.”

    I respect the work of these institutions: Ethics & Public Policy Center, Family Research Council, American Center for Law and Justice, National Association of Evangelicals (public affairs wing), Witherspoon Institute, The Rutherford Institute, Center on Religion & Democracy (University of Virginia), Center for the Study of Law and Religion (Emory University), J.W. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies (Baylor University), and The John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law.

  • Agapified

    First, a concern after reading Christopher’s comment. I think the effectiveness (for lack of a better term) of these sort of para-church institutions is minimal at best. Put another way, when a church body or its leader makes a statement, more often than not, it makes the news. While that’s certainly not always a good thing, when was the last time you heard the Witherspoon Institute mentioned in a news story or in a typical person’s conversation? The ability to influence the public dialogue is simply not afforded to most non-church private institutions.

    On a larger scale, I’m worried that all three positions are either fraught with danger or nigh impossible. I think the best way to frame this conversation is simply as an extension of wider theological issues. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take just one: abortion. If “the Church” is going to speak for us we run into our first problem. Who is “the Church” that speaks for us? Is it a single leader? Is it a council? If it’s the former, you quickly alienate the Christians who refuse to reliquish their right, as western post-reformation individuals, to speak for themselves. If it’s the latter, how long would it take for them to produce an elegant, yet unreadable and noncommittal document that does nothing to actually proclaim some truth to the world? Nevermind that these councils in many denominations today would never be able to reach any sort of consensus on abortion.

    The biggest problem with relying on individuals to speak out on their own (besides the fact that, again, consensus is impossible) is simply that there’s no unifying direction or strategy. Some pastors teach their congregations to vote for pro-life politicians. Some pastors teach that we shouldn’t rely on the political system at all to fix the world’s problems. And, ultimately, most Christians probably don’t even listen to their pastors….

    At the beginning I mentioned one problem with “organizations that focus on specific areas of cultural involvement.” In addition, I think the threat of such an organization losing its Christian witness, identity, and motivation is a significant concern, particularly if they don’t operate under the “umbrella” of an official church body.

    So what’s the answer? Heck if I know. I worry that we put too much faith in the political system and the hope of manipulating it. However, I realize that Americans are supposed to, and Christian Americans will, participate to have their voice heard or forward their agenda. In that case, I’m all for relinquishing some of my ‘freedom’ to allow a voice from the Church speak for me. I’m not Catholic (yet), but this is where the Roman Catholic Church deserves credit. It speaks unequivocally about the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death. It’s in the Catechism, it’s taught from the ambo, and there is no question where they stand. This is *not* to say that all Catholics agree on abortion, just that the institution itself is very clear, and in our country through the USCCB, very motivated.

    And here’s where we begin to wade into deeper theological waters, past the buoy marked ‘Authority’…

  • Christopher Benson

    Agapified (I wish I had your real name address for purpose of address): What evidence is there for the claim that “the effectiveness of these sort of para-church institutions is MINIMAL at best”? If their influence in the political realm was negligible, would they consist to exist?

    Other than the Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams) or the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (Katherine Jefferts Schori), I cannot think of examples “when a church body or its leader makes a statement, more often than not, it makes the news.” Individual leaders in Protestant churches are almost invisible. Herein lies our dilemma. By contrast, statements from the Vatican or pope regularly get media attention.

    The Manhattan Declaration is an example of when church and para-church leaders tried to influence culture by uniting their voices across Christian divisions. Some news agencies reported the event, but I sense that America was yawning at this “last ditch” effort to change our profoundly secular culture.

    The biggest problem with churches and individuals speaking out on public policy is that they lack the requisite expertise. For that reason, I am thankful that EPPC or the Witherspoon Institute exist. And nor do I think such institutions should be tethered to a single ecclesial tradition. Our numbers are small enough, so Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and Jews should work together where they can.

  • Agapafied/Christopher,

    This is an important conversation (and thanks, Andrew, for beating me to the punch with the article!).

    It strikes me that the brilliance of Kuyper’s suggestion is that it splits the difference between the concerns raised here. It removes the Church proper from passing political judgments (Christopher’s worry) while not going to the opposite extreme of only allowing individuals to make a difference. The point of Witherspoon, FRC, etc. is that they are real institutions with real ends, and hence function as more than a collection of individuals in achieving those ends.

    That doesn’t address the practical difficulties of such institutions, but only their structural benefits in thinking about the relationship between Christ and the Church. They don’t pretend to be the Church, or replace it in any way.

    But Agapafied, it seems like one thing implicit in your critique of them is that they are ineffective. But it seems like (Christopher’s point) ‘making the news’ is too limited a notion of effectiveness. Some organizations (like AUL) are raising awareness in their constituencies about specific issues (although Charmaine Yoest is on the news a lot, so that’s probably a bad example).

    More to come, but other comments to respond to…

    matt

  • Bradley Ward

    My real name *is* Agapified. Agapified P. Bartlesby. Ok, maybe not. No problem using my real name, so I switched my profile around..

    I’ll concede that ‘making the news’ as proof of political effectiveness is merely anecdotal. However, I stand by the idea that “think tanks” don’t do much to move public discourse or policy in this country (unless you’re the Project for a New American Century). Why do they continue to exist? Because individuals and corporations are willing to pay for them.

    Which can lead to other problems… I think the American public is (rightly) skeptical of these sorts of organizations after seeing their influence in the Bush administration (Project for a New American Century and American Enterprise Institute). We’ve also seen corporations use their financial clout to establish or prop up these groups, serving to advance their own agendas under the veil of legitimacy that comes with a fancy name that includes the words “Institute”, “Policy”, or “Center”.

    To me, the bigger risk for Christians is trusting this sort of organization to be the faith’s primary representative in the political realm.

    Not to beat a dead horse, but I guess I still believe the Catholic Church itself does this the right way in our country – via the USCCB. Take a quick gander at what they’re involved in:

    http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/

    The beauty of this arrangement is that they’re able to approach individual issues with expertise while having direct accountability to the church’s hierarchy.

    And here’s the key: Without accountability, one could speak of the USCCB like this amusing description of another conservative Catholic organization, the American Principles Project, courtesy of Morning’s Minion at Vox Nova: “a project that is symptomatic of all that is wrong with the American Catholic right – partisanship over principle on every issue, an America-first nationalism, a radical liberalism in the economic sphere, a selective approach to morality, the all-too-ready embrace of Enlightenment-era reasoning, the tendency to focus on meaningless red-flag issues that fire up the base but do nothing to benefit the culture or the common good.”

    I believe being accountable to more than just donors and patrons keeps the USCCB from being a target of this kind of criticism. Yet we Protestants are so fragmented, we’ll never have such an organization to represent us.

  • Christopher Benson

    Hello Bradley. You may be right “that ‘think tanks’ don’t do much to move public discourse or policy in this country,” but I’m still waiting to hear evidence for this hunch.

    You claim: “The bigger risk for Christians is trusting this sort of organization to be the faith’s primary representative in the political realm.” I acknowledge this can be a risk, but it doesn’t need to be the “bigger risk” unless you think Christians should be speaking with ONE voice on political issues. We’re all too familiar with the diversity in Protestantism. If you’re a progressive evangelical, there’s Sojourners. If you’re a conservative evangelical, there’s Family Research Council. And so on. We tend to forget that there’s also diversity in Catholicism. Yes, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the “official” voice for the Roman Catholic Church in our country, but there are several Catholic advocacy groups that speak with other voices.

    Kuyper’s concept of “sphere sovereignty” is compatible with the Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms. Because Christians are subject to both civil and church authorities, we should recognize that the sphere of the church is to preach the gospel, teach the Word, and administer the sacraments while individual Christians
    can form institutions–separate from but supported by the church–that influence the sphere of the state.

  • This is a really good conversation.

    Bradley, are you familiar with the Overton window? It’s largely the reason think tanks exist–to push conversation toward the extremes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

    It may open up other avenues for “effectiveness” regarding think tanks. And it makes me want to look beneath the surfaces of political discourse to see how think tanks shape arguments about policy. I’m generally more optimistic than you are, I think.

    But your point about the main organ of the Church’s political speech being independent of the Church is interesting to me. I am going to have to think more about that.

    Also, regarding APP, I actually don’t think they’re an explicitly catholic organization. I’ve recently put in for a job there, though, so maybe I’m just hopeful they’re not. : )

    Best,

    matt

  • PastorBillv

    Andrew – what is your source for Henry’s axioms? I’d love to read the whole book/article/whatever! thanks much.