Legislating Morality? Christians, Law and Politics.

Posted on December 17, 2013 by


Once upon a time, there was a group of Presbyterians and other Christian denominations in America who argued for the “crown rights of King Jesus” to be embodied in government and specifically in the United States Constitution.  I know it sounds strange to our modern and secular ears to hear that in 1864 this odd group even met in Xenia, Ohio to draft a constitutional amendment.  The text of their amendment appears below:

We, the people of the United States,

humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves and our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Now this is pretty radical, even for the post-Civil War Congress, and it was never ratified.  What is my point in bringing back an obscure attempt to insert God into politics?  My point is to cause us as Christians to seriously engage in a discussion—a “conversation” in popular jargon—about the place of Christian ideas in our government.  It would certainly appear that some at least in the political class and in the “bureaucratic class” are determined to eradicate any public evidence of a Christian culture in America.  Some of this I am indifferent to, though the attempts are quite petty and vindictive.  I would rather see genuine implementation of Christian principles in law and politics than see merely symbolic displays alone—if I had to choose between the two.  And the proposed amendment itself may have turned out to be merely symbolic even had it been ratified.  After all, what is a “Christian government”?  I can imagine about 100 denominations, each submitting their own ideas about what that ought to look like.  But the very audacity of such an amendment, Don Quixote-style, has to get some reaction from us.

I am seeing the rise of an interesting movement in evangelicalism called the “Two Kingdoms Theology” or “R2K.”  It represents perfectly the issues at play.  Proponents of R2K very simply (maybe I am being overly simplistic) argue that the church essentially has no role in political or legal culture.  This “sphere” of life (shades of Herman Dooyeweerd) is to be left for the pagans.  The implications are far-reaching.  For example, some R2K proponents would support homosexual marriage sanctioned by the state, abortion, again, sanctioned by the state, or other more libertarian notions.  To be sure, they believe many of these actions are sins, but they cannot, in their opinion, be addressed in the political-legal realm.  Christ has no crown rights in the political realm in this theology.  To put it more broadly, R2K theology forecloses cultural engagement by the church in politics and law. 

The biblical justification provided by the Two Kingdoms advocates is not to be dismissed lightly.  Most of its supporters are fairly sophisticated scholars (Michael Horton, David VanDrunnen, Daryl Hart, and others).  The historical roots of their position are a bit fuzzier.  The Reformed churches, from which this theology has arisen, have never held to such a position, either in their confessional statements or among their major theologians (John Calvin, Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, Jonathan Edwards, and many others).  But there is a close resemblance of the Two Kingdoms theology to the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.  In addition, the Two Kingdoms theology has affinities (perhaps accidentally) with libertarian political ideology, which in turn has attracted a growing number of Christians.

Where does this leave us?  It should be fairly clear by now that I do not hold to a Two Kingdoms theology.  I do not however dismiss it as unimportant.  If nothing else, it may cause Christians to begin to engage seriously in a discussion of where the church ought to stand with regard to political engagement.  Most evangelicals have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from any hint of Theonomy or Reconstructionism, a view that supports not only Christian cultural engagement, but the validity of the details of the Mosaic Law in the legal-political realm.  The view of most is that this is too draconian, too “barbaric,” although I must ask whether there is a more sophisticated and biblical argument in opposition.  And there is, by some very good scholars who are fair to Theonomy.  But for the most part, the alternative to Theonomy has been, well…almost nothing.  There is no real theological argument that both refutes Theonomy and preserves Christian engagement in the political realm.  The substitute for a theology is activism, but only activism, without a clear basis for it.  Oliver O’Donovan, a British political theologian, has doen some interesting work in trying to show us how the idea of the Kingdom of God can inform our political ideas and our engagement.  But his ideas would not resonate much outside an Anglican tradition and at any rate, are a bit arcane for most to find helpful.  Beyond that, Russell Moore, in his excellent The Kingdom of Christ, provides a possible framework for the church.  But he does not explicitly apply his ideas to Christian theories of politics.  That task is left to others.

Of course, we also have the very old natural law tradition that asserts that we can have knowledge of certain moral truths, such as “do no harm.”  Everyone either knows this directly or can derive it through reason.  Political thinkers have said we can also derive truth about what one ought to do in the social realm.  And Christian natural law thinkers have said that we do not need the Bible to know these political truths (they point to the period before the Law and to Romans 1).  The most obvious problem with this tradition is that we don’t know that what we say we know is true because we don’t have an external standard by which to judge.  Natural law theory is reduced to asserting that its knowledge is true because it must be.  Now natural law theory has performed pretty well historically  when it has been most closely tied to the Judeo-Christian biblical-theological tradition.  As it gradually disentangled itself from that classical tradition, it also lost its grounding (note Grotius onward).  Natural law may well end up completely untenable.

Thus, we as the church need to decide what our position will be from a biblical standpoint.  The issue will not go away.  The world increasingly impinges on us in many ways.  We are confronted with it whether we like it or not.  How then does God call us to relate to it? 

The first and most important principle for Christians to understand is that their foundation for all knowledge rests on Scripture.  To remove that foundation is to remove Christianity from the realm of knowledge.  All knowledge then would have to come from what we observe and reason, without any basis in special revelation.  We cannot go that route.  So assuming the Bible as a basis for our political-legal principles, the only remaining question is how to interpret the Bible and how to discern what it tells us about the way we engage with that political-legal world.

Notwithstanding the R2K theology, I cannot find evidence in Scripture that would wall the church off from exerting political-legal influence.  If this evidence could be found, why have we had so much of Scripturally-rooted law and political thought embedded in our institutions of the government, especially our legal system in the West generally and in the United States specifically?  The church it seems would already have rejected engagement.  I simply cannot find it.  Now if one takes only the New Testament as a whole it is possible (though not plausible) to say that since Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, etc. don’t explicitly call us to advocate for some type of “Christian state” or for “legislating morality,” then we should not do so.  This argument from silence (maybe there is not as much silence on the issue as they might think) is not convincing.  Just because, Jesus for example, did not call for engagement does not mean He opposed it.  After all, His mission was salvation, not political-legal reform. 

As for interpretation itself, of course this is always an issue.  If one sees the Old Testament law as so fully “abrogated” that it effectively contains no useful principles for Christian political-legal thought today, then one is pretty much relegated to the New Testament.  But even here, Romans 13 contains something useful regarding the purpose of government.  And the New Testament also does not forbid engagement in the political arena.  On the other hand, if one accepts the reading of Matthew 5: 17-20 that the Old Testament law has not been abolished (even effectively) then all of it has at least principial relevance to the political-legal situation.

Whatever the nuance adopted, Christians simply must confront their position on politics and law in serious fashion.  If they don’t the secular culture will do it for us.  We can either allow them to do so without objection or we can realize that the church has a prophetic voice in its exhortatory sense.  That voice can only legitimately be rooted in the revelation given to us by God that enables us to “think His thoughts after Him,” imperfectly (yes) but really.