by Jojo Ruba
When Gordon Dirks became Alberta's new education minister, critics instantly attacked him as unqualified. They weren't referring to his experience as an elected provincial representative or the chairman of the Calgary Board of Education. Clearly, he had the right work experience. Instead, many critics said he was unqualified because Dirks was a pastor at Centre Street Church, a church that supports traditional marriage.
Of course Christians aren't just attacked for their views on homosexuality (though it's the popular issue of the day—but more on that in another post). InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has lost official status in California universities (and the funding that goes with it) because the student clubs make their leaders sign a statement affirming they have a Christian faith.[i] Christian prayer is banned from many high schools and public events in the US.[ii] A Nova Scotia public school banned a student's t-shirt because it was not inclusive when it stated, "Life is wasted without Jesus."[iii]
Despite the growing number of political attacks, many Christians still argue we shouldn't be engaged in politics. Some say that we shouldn't impose our Christian views in the political arena. Others say politics is just a distraction from our work as evangelists since government can't save anyone anyway. That was actually the title of a book by well-known Christian pastor, John MacArthur. But these examples show that Christians are already involved in politics merely by holding onto a faith the culture rejects, and that when evil happens, we keep silent at our peril.
What is Politics?
Part of the reason why Christians can argue that we shouldn't participate in the political process is that they don't seem to understand what the word "politics" actually means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition says this:
1 a : the art or science of government. b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy. c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.
When I worked on my Master's degree in Political Science, one of the common debates we had was whether our program was actually a "science." Science implies an objective way to look at a topic and politics was the direct opposite: it was all about debating issues based on our subjective opinions.
MacArthur argues that focusing on these political debates actually hinders evangelism. Though he concedes some politics is necessary, such as voting, he says focusing on it antagonizes the people we are supposed to evangelize:
During the past twenty-five years, well-meaning Christians have founded a number of evangelical activist Christian organizations . . . in an ill-conceived effort to counteract the secular undermining of American culture. . . . Sadly these believers have often displayed mean-spirited attitudes and utilized the same kind of worldly tactics as their unbelieving opponents.[iv]
But not only is this a reaction to mostly American politics, it clearly is a strawman. Just because you debate a person on an issue, that doesn't mean you have to debate that person in a negative way. It's not debate that is the problem, it's how you debate that can be antagonistic. For example, I have been in countless debates, including formal abortion debates with professors and abortion advocates, where I've been thanked for sharing my views. A professor at the University of Calgary, after discussing abortion with me, even said, "I really don't agree with you but you make a lot of sense. Thanks for being here to debate with me."
Besides, Jesus clearly spent a lot of time publicly debating Pharisees, even antagonizing them by calling them "whitewashed tombs"[v] and "children of the Devil."[vi] And they debated all kinds of issues, including the proper role of the government![vii]
But that's why politics is considered a science. These debates focus on what is the right way a government should act towards its citizens. Though it pursues this goal by relying on the insights and experience of ordinary people, the goal itself is still objective—there is a right and wrong way for government to act.
What is the Proper Role of Government?
People have debated the proper role of government ever since we began to live together. Every large group of people needs to coordinate itself to determine how to share resources, where to find the best shelter, and how best to defend itself.
As societies grow, government's role becomes more complicated and widespread. For example the very book that MacArthur writes to argue against political activism is governed by politics. His ideas are protected because the US has free-speech laws. Federal regulations govern the kind of paper or printing press the book company uses. Local governments even impose various taxes on MacArthur's book sales. In other words, MacArthur is relying on certain political realities to allow his book to reach the public.
But these realities would not exist if political activism hadn't taken place. If the American Revolution didn't happen, the American Bill of Rights wouldn't exist to protect freedom of speech. If political activists didn't push for safety rules, printing shops could use dangerous chemicals or have unsafe work practices to print their books. If citizens didn't complain about their taxes, governments could impose such hefty taxes that items, such as books, could not be affordable to the general public.
All of this underlines a basic truth: in a democratic country, we're the government! We're responsible for electing the people who make our laws. That means whether we participate in the political process directly or not, we're responsible for the laws.
MacArthur and other critics of political activism often argue that because Jesus and His disciples didn't do any political lobbying, we should not do so either. But Jesus and most Christians throughout history did not live in a democratic country. They were not responsible for the laws of the land. Jesus didn't speak out against slavery or child abuse as part of a political platform, because that tool wasn't available for Him!
That being said, He clearly articulated a proper role of government: that government was there to serve humanity as humanity served God, not the other way around. The disciples lived that way too, because in every town they visited in Acts, they were confronted with government officials who tried to censor their gospel proclamation. Instead, they responded that they had to obey God's laws more than human laws.
And that's why it's so puzzling for MacArthur to argue that "the ideal human government can ultimately do nothing to advance God's kingdom."[viii]
I think Christians in North Korea or ISIS-controlled Iraq would strongly disagree. When a country that has laws protecting religious freedom and freedom of speech, Christians have more of an ability to share the gospel! When people aren't beheaded or thrown in jail for sharing a Bible, more people will read the Bible!
Western Christians were always part of the discussion of the proper role of government. We've wanted to ensure that we had a platform to speak biblical truth to others. MacArthur wrongly juxtaposes "politics" and "evangelism," because no Christian suggests that government action takes the place of Christian evangelism. Rather, government policy can protect Christian witness.
In fact, that is the history of democracy in North America. Both Canada and the US benefited from missionaries who came to Canada and blazed trails, started communities, and interacted with the Aboriginal groups. Christians helped lead political parties, brought in legislation such as universal healthcare and fought for basic rights such as the abolition of slavery. All of this happened because Christians stayed politically connected.
Our national anthem actually contains a political statement that Christians can agree with when it says, "God keep our land glorious and free."
[i] Josh Dulaney, "Cal State University Strips Official Status from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship," ContraCostaTimes.com, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.contracostatimes.com/california/ci_26623744/cal-state-university-strips-official-status-from-intervarsity.
[ii] Samuel Smith, "Tennessee High School Cheerleaders Find a Way to Sidestep Ban Against Public Pregame Prayers; Lead Entire Stadium in Lord's Prayer," The Christian Post, September 22, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.christianpost.com/news/tennessee-high-school-cheerleaders-find-a-way-to-sidestep-ban-against-public-pregame-prayers-lead-entire-stadium-in-lords-prayer-126831/.
[iii] "N.S. student suspended for wearing pro-Jesus T-shirt," CTV News, May 3, 2012, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.ctvnews.ca/n-s-student-suspended-for-wearing-pro-jesus-t-shirt-1.804824.
[iv] John MacArthur, Why Government Can't Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2000), 5.
[v] Matthew 13:27.
[vi] John 8:44.
[vii] Matthew 5, Matthew 12, Matthew 19, Matthew 22, Matthew 23, Mark 2, Mark 3, Luke 6, Luke 10, Luke 14, Luke 20:22, John 8:17.
[viii] MacArthur, Why Government Can't Save You, 7.