by Jonathan Den Hartog, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
It’s an election year, and political news seems almost impossible to avoid. Considering our responsibilities as citizens of two kingdoms—heavenly and earthly—many Christians across the nation are following this election closely, while others are attempting to avoid it as much as they can. Though the names and positions of the candidates change with each election cycle, we have come to expect strong disagreements in the pews as well as in the political arena.
This should not surprise us. Christians in America have been wrestling with how to be involved in politics for over 200 years! In our media-saturated, spin-cycle, immediate-response society, recent rounds in this centuries-long wrestling match appear to be more heated and inflamed when we see harsh verbal attacks win out over thoughtful, civil dialogue.
But does wisdom really come from a single news cycle? As an historian of American history, I would advocate that we can gain a richer perspective for Christian engagement with politics by reflecting on our country’s past.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AT THE REVOLUTION
Let’s start by considering religious liberty in the new nation. At the American Revolution, some churches were officially recognized by their states and even received tax monies for support. After the Revolution, the states began to remove these special privileges from specific denominations. In fighting for disestablishment (the removal of governmental support) in Virginia, James Madison—who would shape the Constitution and later serve as President—drafted the “Memorial and Remonstrance,” a petition signed by hundreds of Virginians. This document pleaded with the legislature to end the Episcopalian establishment in Virginia for the health of both the Church and the State. These petitioners—many Baptists and Methodists—agreed with Madison that the health of the churches would be improved if there were no governmental interference. When Virginia disestablished, it laid the groundwork for other states to follow suit.
RELIGIOUS PROTECTION OR SEPARATION?
Madison’s thinking and actions shaped the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which promised (as the first freedom) that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Many Christians believed this religious protection to be necessary because the nation already had a wide diversity of Protestant denominations. Rather than favoring one denomination, Americans asked for the equality of religious liberty.
These freshly minted Americans immediately had to figure out what this did and did not mean. They quickly concluded that it did not mean that religious concerns had no place in the public square. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson suggested to the Danbury Baptists that it meant a “wall of separation” between Church and State. Jefferson was playing politics at the time, and his interpretation was not accepted in the nation—not even by the Danbury Baptists! Instead, Christians from a variety of perspectives continued to let their political opinions be formed by religious convictions. This historical recognition offers a rejoinder to 20th-century Supreme Court cases that have cited Jefferson’s vision as the authoritative interpretation of the period, which is patently not true.
CHRISTIAN DIVERSITY, POLITICAL DIVERSITY
In retrospect, we can realize that structurally there have been many positive results from religious liberty and that, while recognizing American religious diversity, it should not be seen as a negative thing for individual faith commitments to shape political convictions. On the other hand, this religious liberty also means no single model of public or political engagement is best at every moment. Hence, after two centuries, Christians continue to live and wrestle with this tension for faithful engagement.
In their wrestling with issues and level of involvement, Christians have demonstrated their capacity to offer positive contributions for civil life. Great examples of this come from the nineteenth century, when, flowing from the Second Great Awakening, American Christians worked to reform society and politics in a more just direction. Part of this contribution was caring for the “least of these.” Evangelical reformers created benevolent institutions to provide for orphans and widows, to help sailors on shore leave, and to help young men newly arrived in expanding cities (the origins of the YMCA).
Through creating public, nongovernmental organizations, evangelicals helped to build ties that would bind a burgeoning society together.
Christians also got involved in politics, calling attention to injustices. Many protested the removal of the Cherokee Indians under Andrew Jackson—they tried to prevent the “Trail of Tears.” Christian motivation also inspired abolitionist activity, as many believers pointed to the moral wrong of slavery in the South. Christians thus took a prophetic stand, pointing to moral wrongs of the day and calling for reform.
In noting these positive contributions, though, the American experience also reveals that Christians can and do disagree on policy prescriptions. From any time period, we can identify devout Christians who took opposing political stances through emphasizing different biblical principles. Christians rallied to both the Federalists and the Democrats in the early republic, to the Whigs and the Democrats in the mid-nineteenth century and to Republicans and Democrats in the twentieth century. Recognizing this dynamic should warn us against a triumphalist crowning of a single political party as “God’s Party.”
GOD IN THE CIVIL WAR
The tragedy of this divide played out dramatically—and tragically—in the Civil War. Christians joined armies in both the North and the South, and revivals swept through both armies. It was Abraham Lincoln who pointed to this irony in his second inaugural address. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln observed. This religious fratricide only added to the sorrows of the war. In facing this dilemma, Lincoln came to assert that “The Almighty has His own purposes.” In other words, God’s plan transcended the goals of both sides. In asserting God’s power and sovereignty, perhaps we, too, might pause to consider that God’s goals go beyond our partisan agendas. If so, we might be well served to think long and hard about what Kingdom goals need to be represented in our political endeavors.
TRUTH AND LOVE
This historical background points me to consider several passages of Scripture more deeply. First, I am reminded of Proverbs 18:17, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” Without being open to having our ideas challenged, we can assume that our positions are totally correct. We should always be open to being asked questions and even to reconsidering our positions.
Second, I am moved by the injunction of Ephesians 4:15 to be “speaking the truth in love.” This strategy doesn’t deny truth—it’s predicated on truth. This seems an important point to hold: we can and should bring strong convictions to the public square—and allow others to do the same. But when we communicate our convictions and opinions, we need to do it with love, respect and humility, not anger, dismissal or pride. Tone matters. When facing those with whom we disagree, I’m reminded of James’s direction to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). In our current culture, we are pushed to be the reverse. If you doubt this, check the comments section of any controversial Internet posting.
What would happen if instead of posting anonymous potshots, Christians engaged in loving, serious, thoughtful dialogue? It might not produce total agreement, but it might produce goodwill that could be healthy for our republic.
I’ll conclude with an example that I love to share with my Modern U.S. History class. Fannie Lou Hamer grew up under Mississippi’s system of racial segregation, and in the 1960s she joined the Civil Rights movement to end that injustice. She made clear that she was working for change out of her Christian love for others. More than just legal change, she aimed for racial reconciliation as an expression of the Gospel, believing that Christ had risked all to reconcile us to God.
When confronted with opposition and violence, she didn’t back down because of her faith. Even when she and her companions began to have some success, she proved that she couldn’t be co-opted by the political process, despite proffered bribes of politicians.
For Hamer, power was not the end, faithfulness was. It was that larger vision, bolstered by faith, which ultimately helped bring about change. Perhaps such examples from our history may encourage us to be “faithfully present” as Christians confronting political matters today.
Jonathan Den Hartog holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Notre Dame. He was recently selected as a 2012–13 Visiting Fellow with Princeton University's James Madison Program for American Ideals and Institutions. Den Hartog is married to Jackie, adjunct professor in the Department of English & Literature, and they have two daughters and a son.