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Piety & Politics: Why policy matters

A friend recently asked me whether God cares about his political positions, or whether he is involved in political issues at all. Having dealt with this question myself some time ago, I answered with a definitive “Yes.”

It is an important question for any person of faith to confront, because it stems from the recognition of a very important truth—that the creator of the universe is much more concerned with our eternal souls than temporal circumstances. It would seem that we should spend more time reading scripture and sharing the gospel instead of debating tax rates, environmental regulations or foreign policy.

And what about this: Can’t God work in peoples’ lives regardless of their situations? Does a person’s relationship with God have anything to do with their money, education or healthmuch less the political or economic system into which they happen to be born?

Christians who are engaged in the discussion over public policy must never forget that God is bigger. In John 18:36, Christ tells us that His kingdom is “not of this world.” In Matthew 22:21 we are told to “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Our agency on earth is that of a son or daughter of God, long before that of a citizen or diplomat. We must make the distinction between what is holy and what is convenient.

But at the same time, we cannot ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters in need. In fact, serving those around us is fundamental to the Christian life, as the acting out of God’s love. We are called to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Christ tells us to look after orphans and widows, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. For two millennia, the Church has taken upon itself a dual commission of delivering redemption to both earthly and eternal despair. And we don’t have to be pastors or missionaries to play our part—we carry it with us to work, school and the voting booth.

In the political sphere, this involves such things as protecting the innocent, ensuring justice and impartiality in law, and preserving the basic and essential freedoms that allow for the development of healthy communities. These are objectives that all Christians can line up behind. But it is the means of achieving them that divide us into our respective camps. Which one is right? That must ultimately be judged at the individual level, but it is a core mission of Values & Capitalism to make the case for a particular approach.

To perceive whether God cares about public policy, one need only think about the many heroic figures throughout history that decided to take their concerns beyond the church walls. The film Amazing Grace surveys the career of William Wilberforce, who almost resigned from public life after his evangelical conversion, but instead became a leading figure in ending the British slave trade. A number of American founders perceived their duty in a providential context. Benjamin Franklin, on the very year he attended the Constitutional Convention, became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Martin Luther King, Jr.—known to all as a key figure in advancing not just civil rights, but in advocating a non-violent movement toward peace and brotherhood in the U.S.—was the reverend of a small Baptist congregation in Atlanta, having earned a bachelor of divinity and Ph.D. in systematic theology. Like his namesake, it was Dr. King’s passion for truth and justice that put him at the forefront of dramatic social change.

Not all faithful leaders are recognized in monuments and movies. Countless unnamed statesmen, artists, businessmen, priests and paupers have contributed great services to mankind. Whatever our station in life, we ought to be concerned with the needs of those around us. Yet—and this is where we often fall short—it is with equal urgency that we learn how to effectively serve them. As the French Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson is often quoted, “Piety is no substitute for technique.”

Public policy is not amoral. Our collective decisions regarding the distribution of benefits, punishments, opportunities and restrictions have a direct affect on real lives. God may not care whether you identify with a particular partisan or ideological label, but he certainly cares whether your actions in the public sphere increase or reduce the general wellbeing of his people.