“Religion shouldn’t interfere with politics!” That’s a cry that I’ve heard over the years from both Christians and non-Christians. It is also highly relevant for me, as Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland. EAI’s brief is to connect, equip and represent Evangelical Christians, churches and ministries. Inevitably this involves tackling political issues.
My reply usually takes the form of a series of questions. “Do you think the world would be a better place if William Wilberforce hadn’t campaigned for the abolition of slavery? Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer have just kept his mouth shut when the Nazis were carting Jews off to extermjination camps? Would you prefer it Martin Luther King had concentrated on pastoring and had waited to see if the non-religious would lead the struggle to end racial segregation in the United States?”
Usually, those examples produce a different response. The person who, a few seconds earlier, had been arguing that religion has no business getting involved in politics, grudgingly says, “Ah! Now those kind of things are different.”
Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer and King all represent Evangelical Christian activities in the political realm that ‘pass the history test.’ Most people, whether they are Christians or not, look at those campaigns as making the world a better place. These three Christian leaders are inspirational figures (which is why preachers like me mention them often in our sermons!)
I am currently in the process of writing a book about another, lesser known, occasion when born-again believers took political action in a way that changed the world for the better. In the Nineteenth Century, the Salvation Army in England fought, and won, a battle to prevent the trafficking of children for the purposes of sexual slavery and prostitution. They saw the age of consent in Britain raised from 13 to 16 – a move that was then copied by virtually every civilised nation in the world. The reason why it is illegal for adults to pay for sex with children is because Bramwell Booth and other Christians got involved in politics. Over a century later we can see that their actions pass the history test.
Unfortunately there have been other Christian forays into politics over the years that don’t pass the history test. These include various attempts to enforce Christian morality and doctrine on people – sometimes, as in the Inquisition and the Crusades, accompanied by appalling violence and cruelty. We can think of ‘blue laws’ that try to prohibit shops from opening on Sundays. We might mention the Prohibition campaign in the United States, which led to the Eighteenth Amendment and thirteen years where it was illegal to drink a glass of wine in a restaurant (but not illegal to drink the same wine at a communion table in a church). In more recent times we’ve seen the Moral Majority campaign in the USA fight (and lose) a long series of culture wars.
Let’s face it, most of us would never dream of citing these kind of campaigns when we want to support the principle of Christians involving themselves in politics! They don’t pass the history test! Few people, irrespective of whether they are Christians or non-Christians, see these kind of campaigns as having changed the world for the better.
So what makes the difference? What was different about those Christian political activities that passed the history test. Why do preachers proudly use Wilberforce as a sermon illustration while trying their best to avoid mentioning the Prohibition campaigners?
One of the key differences is the way in which certain kinds of political activity use Scripture. Contrary to popular belief, quoting the Bible is perfectly consistent with running an effective and attractive political campaign. But are we using prohibitive texts or redemptive tests? Prohibitive texts are the ‘thou shalt not’ passages of Scripture. Political campaigns that use prohibitive texts, even when pursuing a good cause, create the impression that we are simply trying to impose our moral standards upon others. Redemptive texts, however, texts that speak of justice and freedom, demonstrate a concern for the well-being of others. Martin Luther King could have quoted many ‘thou shalt not’ texts to demonstrate the sinfulness of segregation, but he touched many more hearts by using redemptive texts such as Amos 5:24 “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
If, as Christians, we want our interventions in the political sphere to pass the history test, then we need to be more like Martin Luther King, and less like Father Ted’s “Down With This Sort of Thing.” Redemptive passages of Scripture need to inform, and characterise, our political activity.