On Mixing Faith and Politics

For several years now, I’ve heard evangelicals denounce the “mixing of faith and politics.” This juxtaposition has always frustrated me because it fails to make important distinctions and it offers a useful rhetorical device for secularist opponents to undermine Christian political action. In this article, I hope to provide concise and precise clarity on how faith and grace might relate to and “mix” with politics.

Faith and Reason

Theologians often discuss faith and reason together because both are modes of knowledge. That is, they are means by which one comes to know something. Knowledge by faith is knowledge of some truth acquired not through an operation of reason or reflection upon a thing but simply on the authority of another. You place trust in another to speak the truth about things. All of Scripture is an object of faith, for it is a deposit of truth from God himself. Upon the perfect credibility of God, one can affirm the content of Scripture. Knowledge by reason, however, is knowledge acquired through reflection on the book of nature. As Reformed theologians have said, the objects of reason are the “storehouse” of truths found in nature.[1]

Scripture, however, contains two categories of knowledge: natural knowledge (or what is already contained in the book of nature) and supernatural knowledge. The Decalogue is an example of the former, since it is inscripturated natural knowledge of the universal and immutable standard of righteousness for man, which in principle is discoverable through nature. As Reformed theologian Hermann Witsius said, “This law of nature is the same in substance with the decalogue.” The latter type of knowledge refers to what is above nature and so is entirely inaccessible to even sound reason. The Trinity, for example, is supernatural knowledge; it is not an object of reason. Hence, while supernatural knowledge is an object only of faith, natural knowledge is an object of both reason and faith.[2] This means that, for example, the Fifth Commandment, “honor your father and mother,” is something one can know (at least in principle) by faith and reason, for this natural truth itself is communicated via scripture and nature.

Now, the political realm is fundamentally a realm of nature. After all, it concerns human society and this society is constituted on and directed by universal principles of human nature.[3] Since Scripture contains truths concerning human nature, one can appeal to Scripture to support some contention about a political matter (e.g., a proposed law). Appealing to Scripture for such things relies on faith as a mode of knowledge, but the truth asserted is fundamentally natural. For example, when citing Scripture to denounce abortion, one relies on faith but only as a mode to assert a universal moral truth about human life. The truth he asserts is not distinctively or exclusively Christian, only the mode of asserting it is Christian. Again, this is possible because Scripture in part contains truths that can also be known through nature. 

It follows then that if Christians were to appeal to Scripture to, say, codify the biblical definition of marriage in civil law and exclude all others, the justification offered is of faith (and so exclusive to Christianity), but that mode of knowledge is simply a means to a natural truth—something that would be known by all, if all had soundness of mind. Hence, in this case, non-Christians are not being subjected to Christian morality, but rather to human morality.

All natural truths knowable by faith are, in principle, demonstrable by reason, for all natural truths are objects of reason; and so we can assume a priori that any natural truth asserted by faith is also something that sound reason will discover. It follows then that if Christians conform civil law to principles of human nature by appeal to Scripture, they conform civil law and thereby the people (both Christians and non-Christians) to right reason, even if Christians rely on a mode of knowledge exclusive to them and even if non-Christians are unwilling to apply sound reason to see the rightness of the law.

Grace and Nature

Another important distinction is between what one might call duties of nature and duties of grace. Natural duties are obligations common to all humanity and, in principle, all can know these duties and can perform them. Civil law in forbidding and punishing murder directs those under the law in right reason; reason dictates that one ought not to kill another unjustly. But duties of grace are duties that are above reason; they are not discoverable by reason. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it,” God commanded Adam (Gen. 2:17). This command obligates man simply because God commands it, not because of something inherent to the action itself. In the absence of all such commands, however, man is bound only to natural duties.

This distinction is important because it calls into question some attempts to mix faith and politics. We often hear, especially from left-leaning or “social justice” Christians, that the Gospel ought to inform our politics. Now, the Gospel is itself of grace, for the natural order contains no means of salvation and salvation must be a divine act coming from outside of nature. If the Gospel contains new duties, then those duties are of grace and so not of nature. If the Gospel critiques “systems of oppression,” then those systems do not in themselves violate natural justice. If Gospel duties are required to end slavery, then slavery in itself does not violate natural justice. God certainly can forbid some systems of human organization that nature itself does not forbid, but this would obligate man only because God says so, not because of something inherently unjust in the system.

Furthermore, if we were to shape civil law in accordance with these Gospel duties, then we rely on faith not to assert a truth of nature, but to assert something above nature. We are obligating, by coercion of civil government, that all people follow the dictates of grace—things that reason itself cannot reach. We are not, therefore, directing people into sound reason. Perhaps we see ourselves as conforming all people to the natural principle “obey God in all things natural and of grace”. But this makes the civil government a de facto Christian civil government, for it then enforces duties known only by Christian faith. And if these duties of grace obligate Christians only, then civil law is obligating non-Christians to perform Christian duties. And since these duties are of grace, presumably only Christians, the people of grace, can perform them properly. Civil government is therefore obligating people to do what they cannot properly do. It is evident that we run into several problems when we talk of “Gospel politics”.

One might rightly say that the Gospel “clarifies” or “reveals”  or “renews” what was lost at the fall. This is, in my view, the proper way to understand the Gospel’s relationship with natural duty. But then  those who call for a “radical” Christian civil life must address a central claim of classical Protestantism, namely, that fallen man retains “considerably more knowledge of [Second Table precepts]”, as Calvin said, and that the “universal agreement of men is the best kind of proofs that we can offer [to recognize principles of natural law],” says Richard Hooker.[4] Postlapsarian civil life, in other words, is not foundationally corrupt. The radical effects of the fall did not land on political life.[5] Hence, the Christian natural law tradition denies that the renewing effects of the Gospel are subversive, world-overturning, and “radical” with regard to civil life.

Conclusion

With these distinctions, we see some of the ways that faith should and shouldn’t mix with politics and we see how faith relates to reason in political life. There is more to say, of course. As one who affirms the goodness of Christian commonwealths, I could give other ways that faith shapes political life. I will save these issues for another time. For now, Christians should strive for clarity and precision on how faith, reason, grace, and nature relate to political life.


[1] See Benedict Pictet (1655-1724), Christian Theology, trans. Frederick Reyroux (London, 1834), 59. 

[2] To be more precise, we can say that the proper objects of faith are adventitious truths only, even though faith can be used to know what is natural. Only the book of nature is a proper object of reason.

[3] This does not, in my view, preclude Christian commonwealths and civil protection and support of the Christian religion and the instituted church.

[4] See John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.II.24. and Richard Hooker, Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization, 35.

[5] The principal effect was on spiritual things, especially concerning heavenly life. Calvin says, for example: “That men are naturally careful and provident in worldly matters, but altogether blind in the worship of God, proceeds from no other cause than that they are abundantly attentive to their individual interest, but are not moved by any anxiety about the heavenly kingdom.”  See his Commentary on Isaiah (44:19).

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Stephen Wolfe

Stephen Wolfe Stephen Wolfe is a postdoctoral fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.