Evangelicals’ Fraught Relationship with Politics

Editor’s Note: The following is a lightly revised version of a speech given at the second annual National Conservatism Conference in Orlando at the beginning of November 2021.

A Failure of Nerve

Protestant evangelicals have lost their nerve when it comes to politics. Or at least many of their leaders want them to. This might seem like a strange thing to say given the massive support for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 among self-identified evangelicals, but it still bears out. It is certainly true that evangelicals on the whole are politically active, but there are many reasons today why they have come to have a fraught relationship with politics.

In this talk I will focus on two reasons for this “fraughtness.” First, many opinion-forming evangelicals argue that a vigorous engagement with politics will lead to a form of idolatry and worldly-mindedness that causes Christians to lose sight of their heavenly calling and destiny. And second, there is a popular narrative that blames much of what is wrong with the world today on the cultural and ideological forces unleashed in the Protestant Reformation.

Concerning both of these points, a healthy dose of classical Protestant political thought will help evangelicals regain their confidence to engage in contemporary politics without the nagging fear that they are somehow abandoning or subverting Christian spiritual priorities.

This rich tradition of Protestant political thinking, one that has had such a large impact on American political history, is a tradition with which evangelicals are often unfamiliar today. And it is not a dead tradition: it has much that is right, good, and proper to offer our nation.

Politics or Heaven?

On the first point, the fear that the spiritual nature of Christianity will become corrupted by a focus on the this-worldly practice of politics, consider Tim Keller, a prominent evangelical pastor in NYC, who says that “while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.”[1] Perhaps even more telling is the title of the article in the New York Times from which this quote comes: “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.” Christians, in other words, shouldn’t take sides in America’s political divide. We must be decidedly neutral when it comes to party politics. (Although social concerns palatable to those on the left are often curiously retained under this banner of neutrality.)

Or consider Joe Carter, in an article entitled “How to Know if You’ve Made an Idol of Politics” at the popular evangelical site The Gospel Coalition, who writes: “I consider politics to be, at best, a necessary evil, not something I would put ahead of God.”[2]

Or Erick Erickson, touted recently as a possible replacement for Rush Limbaugh, who insists that at Christ’s return he “won’t care who voted. He won’t care who you voted for. He won’t care about your plan for the national debt. He won’t care about politics.”[3]

All of these writers in their own way come back to the same basic point: politics is dirty business; it corrupts the soul; it turns people away from what really matters (the salvation of the soul) toward earthly matters of no eternal significance. That is to say (for many at least): politics turns people away from what really matters if one’s politics corresponds with the priorities of the right. If one’s politics happens to be in line with the priorities of the left, you’ll often find evangelical opinion formers straightforwardly equating their views with those of the Bible (caring for the poor, abused, marginalized, and so on). Their own political priorities are framed as non-political, as nothing more than the priorities of the Bible itself.

This aversion to political action did not define Protestants in the past. A particularly striking example can be found in Samuel Rutherford, the 17th century Scottish Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and rector of the University of St. Andrews. Rutherford was a prolific author, but his most famous writings are two: a collection of his letters and Lex, Rex, a treatise on the nature and limits of kingship. The letters have become famous for their spiritual depth, providing a special comfort for those undergoing persecution and suffering. These letters are decidedly focused on heavenly matters, at times approaching what can only be called a kind of Puritan mysticism.

In one (Letter 88), to a woman whose husband had run afoul of local authorities for his faith, he writes:

When we shall come home and enter to the possession of our Brother’s fair kingdom, and when our heads shall find the weight of the eternal crown of glory, and when we shall look back to pains and sufferings; then shall we see life and sorrow to be less than one step or stride from a prison to glory; and that our little inch of time – suffering is not worthy of our first night’s welcome home to heaven.[4]

Rutherford continues in this vein across all 365 of the collected letters. Surely someone so focused on the next life would agree with Erick Erickson that Jesus doesn’t care about our politics or with Joe Carter that politics is at best a necessary evil?

And yet this same Rutherford wrote Lex, Rex (“the law is king”) in which he sums up his own argument like this:

That power which is obliged to command and rule justly and religiously for the good of the subjects, and is only set over the people on these conditions, and not absolutely, cannot tie the people to subjection without resistance, when the power is abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and the subjects. But all power of the law is thus obliged, and hath, and may be, abused by kings, to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects.[5]

Lex, Rex is an extended argument against the divine right theory of kingship which would invert the order of his title to Rex, Lex (“the king is law”). Needless to say, King Charles II was less than pleased. With the restoration of mandatory episcopal church government in Scotland in 1661 Lex, Rex was symbolically burned at the stake, and Rutherford was deposed from all of his offices, escaping execution by conveniently dying first.

Rutherford’s sermons, letters, and other writings reveal a man who could by no means be accused of failing to attend to the spiritual and heavenly focus of the Bible. And yet he simultaneously applied himself to the burning political issues of the day, acting decisively to attempt to implement the political order he thought best. Rutherford was not abnormal among Protestants in the past. The widely-held contemporary evangelical belief that the only faithful Christian approach to concrete political decision-making is avoiding it would have been nonsensical in previous generations.

Frédéric de Rougemont, a nineteenth-century Swiss Protestant layman and politician, captures well the once mainstream Protestant view of political engagement in his book from the mid-1840s entitled The Individualists in Church and State when he writes:

The state—based on the divine institution of political authority, or sovereignty, and social authority—is an earthly community the primary purpose of which is to punish the wickedness of its members while striving to advance their well-being in this life with all the means at its disposal.[6]

Virtuous statecraft… politics, in other words, matters. The implementation of justice through political means is divinely ordained. If Evangelicals, who still make up such a large percentage of America’s population and of the Republican base, shrink back from this task the void will only be filled with those who will do great harm to our nation.

A Protestant Deformation?

The first fear about evangelical participation in political action, then, comes from within evangelicalism itself. The second reason derives from a historical narrative popular among some contemporary Roman Catholic writers on politics. This story draws an essentially unbroken line from the Protestant Reformation to the excesses and evils spawned by modern progressivist cultural and political ideologies. It is certainly a story too complex to analyze in detail here, but it is summed up in these words from Bradley Gregory:

In brief, the Reformation accelerated a process of increasing control over the Church by political authorities that was already evident in the 14th and 15th centuries, because the only forms of Protestantism that survived, thrived and were therefore able to have a major impact on large numbers of ordinary men and women, shaping shared religious identities, were those that received sustained support from political authorities: Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism. . . . This was a crucial part of long-term processes of secularization: Rulers, not church leaders, whether Catholic or Protestant, were calling the shots pertaining to religion already by the late 16th century.[7]

Patrick Deneen, I think, would agree:

[T]here is ample evidence that [liberal democracy and capitalism] are what [Editor’s note: i.e., all that] is left once Protestantism is distilled into its ultimate political and economic forms. To the extent that the political left has taken up the banner of egalitarian democracy and the right defends capitalism, it is arguable that we have reached the culmination of Protestantism’s trajectory—statist collectivism versus libertarian individualism, both being two sides of the same liberal coin.[8]

Secularization, statist collectivism, and radical individualism, then, all bequeathed to us by the Protestant Reformation. Deneen is right to note the connection between America’s constitutional order and elements of Protestant thought, but wrong about the link between Protestantism and “statist collectivism” or “libertarian individualism.” The reason I mention it is to note another of the main reasons evangelicals have become so averse to serious engagement with political theory and practice: deep down they’re worried that Deneen, Gregory and others are right. Admittedly, this is more of a concern among intellectually inclined evangelicals, but such people—pundits, pastors, seminary professors, and so on—do much to shape how average evangelicals in the pews think about politics.

While I, of course, can’t respond to this narrative exhaustively here I can sketch out an alternative perspective, one that would do much good if reintroduced into the mainstream of evangelical thinking on politics. Historically speaking it is undeniable that Protestant political thought significantly influenced America’s founding principles. Edmund Burke was correct when he wrote in defense of the colonists in 1775 that “the people are protestants; and of that kind which is the most averse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it.”[9] Whether it be the covenantal political theory of the original New England Puritans or the influence that the Protestant theory of resistance to tyrants had on the crafters of the constitution, Protestant ideas (sometimes framed in less overtly biblical terms) have significantly impacted the development of federalism, checks and balances, and the justification for resistance to oppressive forms of government.

To illustrate the Protestant impulse in American life I’ll briefly comment on what is likely the most famous sermon ever preached on our shores. It is Governor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon preached as the original Massachusetts Bay settlers neared their destination, entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and subsequently well known for applying to the colony itself Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14 about the church being a “city on a hill.”

The whole sermon is an exposition of the proposition that “God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.”[10] Not exactly a ringing endorsement of liberal equality. It is, however, an honest assessment of the natural differences that exist in the world.

But Winthrop doesn’t argue for a kind of libertarian acceptance of natural inequality. Instead, the entire rest of the sermon calls on his hearers to take it upon themselves to attend to the needs of others. For example, we read that the powerful in the world must learn to restrain themselves in their treatment of those less powerful, and that the less powerful must learn contentment with their station in life. His hearers are exhorted to show their mutual interdependence with one another, thus stirring up mutual affection. As Winthrop puts it:

Now the only way to avoid . . . shipwreck [of our colony], and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.

This is the legacy of Protestant political theology, specifically the legacy of a covenantal view of political order, one which carefully defines the responsibilities of citizens to one another, and the responsibilities of rulers both to God and to those they rule over.

Winthrop’s sermon presents a distinctly Protestant vision for society, whether one agrees with every point of his theology or not. It is a vision in which the governmental power of the colony is to be used for good, even though that power is divinely limited, and in which there must be a self-sacrificial orientation toward the welfare of the whole community (dare I say, the “common good”?). It is a vision that continues to bear fruit throughout America’s subsequent political development. It is a far cry from “statist collectivism” or “libertarian individualism.”

Now I’m not suggesting that a single sermon proves anything, but the mindset in Winthrop’s sermon is found across a wide spectrum of Protestant writings, where there is an emphasis on ordered liberty under law, law that binds sovereigns and citizens alike, and which orients them both to the general welfare of society. It’s a good example, too, because it’s not a theoretical treatise, but the words of a leader of a new colony preparing them for what he deemed necessary for them to live together harmoniously.

Conclusion

As I draw to a close I’ll register my agreement with Samuel Goldman in his recent book After Nationalism when he argues that “hopes that the New England covenant can be revived as the source of modern American identity are implausible.”[11] But I also agree with him when he writes that:

That is not to say that we cannot learn from the New English covenant. It was the most coherent attempt to develop American identity from within English history and Protestant political theology. At its best, it combined a generous hope for national flourishing with a sophisticated appreciation for the social and economic preconditions of self-government.[12]

This is the legacy of Protestant political thought in America, and it is one which has much to contribute to the challenges confronting us today.

Evangelical Protestants must recover this rich heritage and learn to apply it creatively today. Writing off politics as unspiritual simply won’t do. Nor will delegating all serious political reflection and engagement to non-Protestants, which has been the norm for evangelicals for some time.

Here we must stand. We can do no other.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/christians-politics-belief.html.

[2] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-know-if-made-an-idol-politics/.

[3] https://ewerickson.substack.com/p/how-the-f-am-i-the-sane-one.

[4] https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/rutherford/Letters%20of%20Samuel%20Rutherford%20-%20Samuel%20Rutherford.pdf.

[5] https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/rutherford/Lex,%20Rex%20-%20Samuel%20Rutherford.pdf.

[6] Frédéric de Rougemont, The Individualists in Church and State (Aaltek, The Netherlands: Wordbridge, 2018), 126-27.

[7] https://www.ncregister.com/interview/martin-luther-s-unintended-reformation-today

[8] https://isi.org/modern-age/the-post-protestant-moment/

[9] Edmund Burke, “The Speech of Edmund Burke, Esquire, on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies” (March 22, 1775) in The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate, Vol. 2: 1773–1776 (ed. Gordon Wood; New York: Library of America, 2015), 546.

[10] All Winthrop quotations are from https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/colliding-cultures/john-winthrop-dreams-of-a-city-on-a-hill-1630/.

[11] Samuel Goldman, After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), 37.

[12] Goldman, After Nationalism, 38-39.


*Image Credit: Wunderstock

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Ben Dunson Ben C. Dunson is the Editor-in-Chief of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.