The late Chuck Colson who was the only member of the Nixon Administration to go to prison in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal turned his life over to Christ while in prison and later founded Prison Fellowship. He offers a unique perspective of the dangers the Church faces as it engages in politics.
In his book God & Government: An Insider’s View on the Boundaries between Faith and Politics, which I encourage every Christian to read, in the chapter entitled “The Perils of Politics,” Colson shares three pitfalls in the political realm for the Church and individual believers if they are not wary.
1. The church will become just another special-interest group.
Colson notes that was a mistake that President Reagan made when he was challenged by the press regarding his attendance at a “religious right” function during his 1980 campaign was “mixing religion and politics.” Reagan responded that “the church was like any other special interest group, after all – like a union, for example.”
Colson also writes:
“Reagan was refreshingly candid, but dead wrong….. We should always remember that our allegiance is to the kingdom of God. To behave as if the Church is just another special-interest group demeans the Church and the Lord of the Church…. Representatives of the kingdom of God must never forget that the transcendence of God’s justice must come before any political entanglement that marries Christianity to a political movement.”
This, unfortunately, has come to pass in the minds of many in our culture. “Evangelical” has become synonymous with “Republican.”
J.D. Greear, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, offered this exhortation to the “messengers” (delegates) at their 2021 convention last week in Nashville.
“Anytime the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant, and the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven,” he said.
“We are great commission Baptists. We have political leanings. But we are not the party of the elephant or the donkey. We are the people of the lamb,” Greear added
2. Christian leaders who are courted by political forces may soon begin to overestimate their own importance.
It is easy to get caught up in the power and allure of politics. Christian leaders should never forget that their influence is because of what they represent, not who they are.
It is easy to compromise their independence rather than lose access to political influence when they need to confront a specific issue. Colson states that the result of that is that “they keep their place but lose their voice and thus any possibility of holding government to moral account.”
Unfortunately, we’ve seen several evangelical leaders who were beholden to the trappings of power and lost their way.
3. The Gospel becomes hostage to the political fortunes of a particular movement.
This is likely the most dangerous snare and you have seen this mistake made by both liberals and conservatives when they have aligned their spiritual goals with a particular political agenda.
You see this when we receive letters from Christian political advocacy group that have a “sky is falling tone” making it sound like the Church is doomed. Colson notes that one Christian leader when asked what would happen if the Democrats won the 1988 presidential election said, “I don’t know what will happen to us.” I guess he forgot that not even the gates of hell will prevail against the Church, (Matthew 16:18) so the Democratic Party shouldn’t be of any concern regarding the future of the Church.
On the left Colson gives the example of a Methodist bishop who wrote after Reagan won the 1980 election, “The blame out not to be placed on all the vigor of the Right, but maybe on the weakness of the saints… If the people of faith will be strengthened by defeat and address themselves to the new agenda which is upon us.”
If you agreed with the Bishop you were a person of faith, if you didn’t you evidently were not. Colson writes of a prominent figure with the evangelical left:
Nor are you (a person of faith) if you support any of President Bush’s policies, according to Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, who has attacked religious conservatives for being obsessed with abortion and gay “marriage,” and for being indifferent to the plight of the poor. Unfortunately anyone who disagrees with Wallis’s ideas on how we should go about fighting poverty – if they think, for instance, that faith-based initiatives do more to help those in need than simply throwing money at them – is dismissed as not caring for the poor.
Colson states that only way the Church can be the conscience of society is when it is free of any outside domination and avoid these dangerous pitfalls.
I’m not saying Christians need to withdraw completely from the political realm. No, we should be salt and light there as we are in other avenues of life. We must ensure that we are salt and light, however, and not lose our prophetic voice. Christians need to vote their consciences and vote for the common good. We need to speak out against injustice in the policies of either party and not be beholden to any.
Our approach to politics has to change.