What is your opinion on whether is it right for a Christian to be involved in politics?
I am wary of politics, perhaps because we lived for ten years in the Washington DC area. Certainly in part I am reacting to my study of what happened to the church when it started playing the political game, especially in the fourth century. At the start of the century, the fires of persecution were hot, keeping the church relatively purified. Then in 313 AD, the state decreed an end to persecution. By 325, the non-Christian Roman Emperor was telling church leaders how to run the church. And by 381, “Christianity,” which was increasingly corrupt, became the official religion of the Empire. You would think that with the powerful Roman Empire on your side, you would have nothing to lose. But the lure of the world and politics blinded the eyes of Christian leadership, and the church in effect sold its soul to the state, only partially recovering from its declension at the time of the Reformation, some 1200 years later.
On the individual level, I think it is rarely good for a disciple—especially for his family, if he or she has one—to plunge into the world of politics. A couple of years ago I was studying the Bible with a friend of a (recent) former U.S. president. His observation was that the higher up you go, the more corrupt things are. While the majority of persons who enter politics do so from good motives, he explained, after years of climbing the political ladder, the percentage of good motives falls off drastically. He guessed that perhaps only ten or twenty percent of politicians retain their integrity—and not one at the higher levels. As Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In other words, politics is a world of temptation for the soul (the greed; the money; the “favors” expected; the multitude of mutually exclusive obligations that push one to dissemble and evade the issues, instead of embracing them).
This is not to say that no Christian should ever enter politics, only that few ought to attempt it, and even then they must beware. After all, if politics was the way God wanted us to change the world, why is it that Jesus Christ never proceeded down the perilous corridors of politics?
Let me close by relaying the historical observation of a well-known Biblical commentator. Commenting on Isaiah 31:1–3 and the strong temptation of eighth century BC Israel to trust in political alliances to solve their problems—instead of relying on God—the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel wrote:
Isaiah could not accept politics as a solution, since politics itself, with its arrogance and disregard of justice, was a problem. When mankind is, as we would say, spiritually sick, something more radical than political sagacity is needed to solve the problem of security. For the moment, a clever alignment of states may be of help. In the long run, it is bound to prove futile.
• Politics were not the way of our Lord. While he did not forbid us from entering politics, he repeatedly warned us about true leadership, which is spiritual and humble (see Mark 10:45). Check out the podcast on Lording it Over...
• Politics fatally ensnared the church in the fourth century and presents pitfalls for us as well.
• Politics would place soul-damaging pressures on most of us. The rewards would rarely be worth the hazard.
• The “higher up” one goes in politics, the more one is expected—even forced—to compromise.
To end on a positive note, 1 Timothy 2:1–2 enjoins us all to pray for our political leaders. (Do not bad-mouth them, slander or gossip about them, or in other ways be unsupportive. Their job is hard enough.) If we model disrespect in this area, we should not be surprised if others disrespect us! The Christian’s attitude towards authority is always very revealing.
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