The Religious Use of Politics


by Robin W. Lovin

Americans have never been quite sure what to think about politics, and religious Americans have been as confused about this as everybody else. Despite a heritage of religious reflection that is far older than the country itself, we do not know what to make of politics from the perspective of faith. Or, to put the matter more precisely, we do not agree about what to make of politics from the perspective of faith.

In North Carolina, a couple of years back, there was a Baptist pastor who confidently told his congregation that you can’t be a Christian if you don’t vote Republican. (I do not know what that did for the number of Republicans in the area, but I am reliably informed that it increased the number of United Methodists.) There are some people whose faith tells them exactly how to vote. Their numbers seem to be growing. Last month, the Alliance Defense Fund recruited pastors in 22 states to make partisan political statements from the pulpit, as a prelude to a legal challenge to IRS rules that forbid that kind of mixing of religion and politics. There are other people who believe their faith tells them not to vote at all. Their numbers are growing, too.

The religious ways of looking at politics are many, and they do not agree in their judgments. But fortunately for those of us who make our living trying to bring order to these arguments, the variety is not endless. The many religious ways of looking at politics tend to return to a few major themes, and as so often happens in American life, those themes tend to become polarized. So we have people who say that politics is a temptation, a distraction that people who care about the eternal truths ought to avoid. And we have people who say that politics is a tool, an instrument to advance the eternal truths that ought not to be passed up by the faithful.

Both of those positions have been well represented in American religious history, and the tension between them has been a healthy one. But I am afraid that political and religious polarization may now be making us vulnerable in a way we have not been before. Both sides, those who see politics as a temptation and those who see politics as a tool, are acquiring a zeal for their views that makes it more important than ever to recover a middle way in which religion puts politics in its place as a human task that cannot be evaded, and can never be completed.

It’s those three religious ways of thinking about politics–as temptation, tool, and task–that I want to explore, with an emphasis on the urgency of recovering politics as a task. I’m going to examine those three ways of thinking primarily in terms of the Christian tradition, because that’s what I know best, and because the various forms of Christianity have the largest and longest part in American religious history. But consider these three ways of thinking in light of the traditions you know and participate in, to see if you find resonances with what I’m describing. In some ways, we all share the problems that Christian history has created for American religious life, but there will be no solutions to those problems unless all of the communities that now make up our common life can participate in them in their own ways.


Political life is full of temptation. This is evident from the number of stories in the press about politicians who have yielded to it. But the greatest moral risks may not be the ones that come out in tabloid scandals. We send corrupt politicians to prison for betraying the public trust, but those who keep that trust are also tempted, and perhaps tempted most when they keep it best. The leader who charts a successful course in difficult times and protects the nation against dangerous enemies is always tempted to put the party, or the plan, or the nation in God’s place. In extreme cases, political leaders are tempted to put themselves in God’s place, or perhaps we are tempted to put them there.

Christians have always suspected that the greatest temptation in political life is not dishonesty or theft, but idolatry. The people who yield to dishonesty know what they have done, and they put the money in the freezer or run the evidence through the shredder to keep the rest of us from finding it. But when politics turns idolatrous, temptation goes public, and we are all tempted to join in. The corruption is worst just when everybody is openly engaged in it.

So people of faith are wary of politics because, as Stanley Hauerwas has reminded us, it is the idolatry of the nation that is the most convenient idolatry for us all. That is the idolatry that tempts leaders and people alike to convince one another that we alone are on God’s side, while those who disagree with us are wholly evil.

Emperor Constantine

Some theologians see the early years of Christianity as a time when Christians understood the dangers of politics better than we do today. When Christians were being persecuted by Roman power, they understood political idolatry, but when the church came to occupy a favored position and its bishops started to exercise political responsibility, Christians began to confuse political power with faithful witness. The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder argued that most Christians have made that mistake ever since. He calls it “Constantinianism,” after the first emperor who became a Christian and gave Christians a privileged place in the empire. I think Constantine may be getting a bad rap here, but of course it’s not Constantine’s empire that the anti-Constantinian theologians have in mind. Their main point is that America’s imperial role in the world tempts us to idolatry, too, so that the only way to approach politics is to be alert for the temptation, understand that it isn’t going to go away, and try to keep your distance from it.

For Hauerwas and others who teach in my field of Christian ethics, idolatry is a part of politics that powerful leaders and powerful nations rarely, if ever, escape. That is why Hauerwas has now joined with a number of other ethicists and political scientists in a new movement that urges that people of faith abstain from voting for conscientious reasons. This withdrawal from public, political life is an old Christian tradition, too. We see it in the sectarian Protestants of the Reformation era, who withdrew from the politics of their day and tried to form self-sufficient Christian communities. The appearance of a kind of neo-sectarianism in the life in modern Western democracies reminds us how sweeping the judgment on politics is in some parts of the Christian tradition. Corrupt politics is part of the human condition, and it’s not a problem we can solve. Political power is an addictive drug to be used very sparingly, if at all, and only under close spiritual supervision. Politics in the life of faith is primarily a temptation.


Others, however, stress the potential benefits of politics, rather than the risks. They see politics as a tool. Politics is an instrument people of faith can use to ensure that God’s will is done. It is this way of thinking about politics among evangelical Protestants that has generated much of the excitement in American political life over the last couple of decades.

The emphasis in this movement is on effectiveness, on winning rather than converting or persuading. Jerry Falwell perhaps launched this evangelical politics in 1979 with the creation of the Moral Majority, but Ralph Reed had the key political insight: In a democracy where most people do not bother to vote, you do not need a moral majority. A well-organized minority will do. It does not take 51 percent of the adult population to change the high school textbooks or elect a legislature that will vote for more restrictive laws on abortion and gay marriage. If only 30 percent of the people vote, 16 percent will be sufficient to accomplish your purpose.

For those with more liberal political convictions, this has seemed somehow like cheating, though on this point at least the new religious right is playing strictly by the rules. More to the point, while the candid emphasis on electoral strategy is perhaps new, there’s nothing unusual in American history about religious groups using politics in the hope of social transformation. The abolition of slavery, the temperance campaigns, the civil rights movement, and a variety of anti-war movements have had their roots in religion. Most often, these movements begin with a heavy emphasis on direct action and personal transformation. You want people in the streets as evidence that their own hearts and minds have been changed. But there is a limit on what direct action can accomplish, and most American reform movements have at some point decided it would be nice to have the coercive power of law available to fill in what moral transformation leaves undone.

Walter Rauschenbusch

It is a strategy religious activists have turned to since the days of abolitionism, for both liberal and conservative causes and for all sorts of goals. It was not Ralph Reed who said most clearly what politics as a tool is all about. It was Walter Rauschenbusch, the great theologian of the Social Gospel. What we have, said Rauschenbusch, is a society that makes good people do bad things. Poverty and lack of education lead to crime, abuse, and addiction. What we need is a society that will make bad people do good things, a society where laws will compel selfish people to think about the common good and ensure that greedy people can only get rich by meeting genuine human needs. The idea that politics is a tool thus does not belong exclusively to liberals or conservatives, and it’s certainly older than the Christian Coalition and the other organizations that have enjoyed such prominence in recent presidential election cycles. It is in some ways a peculiarly American idea, with a characteristically American confidence that good intentions and good organization inevitably lead to good results.


What we’ve seen so far, then, are two different but interconnected ways of thinking about politics in religious perspective. Politics as tool and politics as temptation both have long histories, and both are present in American life today. But there is a third way that speaks more directly to the lessons of twentieth-century politics and to the new realities of our present situation. I call it politics as a task, and it gives a new shape to the public role of religion in response to a new kind of politics.

This new kind of politics was largely a product of the twentieth century, beginning as early as the Russian Revolution of 1917. It is a politics that seems itself to make claims that are religious in their scope and power. This politics proclaims a special moment of history in which particular political decisions taken now can seal human destiny for the indefinite future. The point of politics, then, is not the ambiguity of the choices, but the certainty of the commitment. The point of politics is to compel people to push every political choice until it becomes an ultimate decision from which, once it is made, there can be no turning back. This politics to end politics may seem to be an extreme idea, associated chiefly with Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and the totalitarian movements that threatened the Western democracies during the last century. It may not seem that this has much to do with us, or much to do with now. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, there was a tendency in the Western world to breathe a long sigh of relief–to proclaim the end of ideology and look forward to a long future of moderate, secular, pragmatic politics.

But it is now apparent that the twentieth century has not faded so completely from the horizon, and we are just beginning to understand how deeply the legacy of ultimate, apocalyptic politics has become embedded in the emerging global consciousness. What people expect from politics and what they want from their political leaders now bear the marks of this belief in a defining political moment. This is true not only in those parts of the world where political experience is short and the legacy of colonialism remains strong. It is also true of politics in the oldest democracies, including our own. Political choice and religious hope are no longer easily distinguished.

What theologians discovered early on, as the Confessing Church in Germany struggled to define itself in opposition to Hitler’s German Christian movement, was that the old tradition of politics as a temptation was not quite strong enough to resist the demands of a politics that had itself become a kind of religion. You cannot withdraw from the Nazi state, or the Soviet state, or the Islamist state, in the way Mennonite and Anabaptist movements could withdraw from the governments of European princes in the seventeenth century. Nor could you use this kind of politics as a tool. Most notably, religious and political conservatives who thought Hitler might give them a political tool they could use against the Communists discovered that apocalyptic politics is a particularly dangerous tool. It is the kind of tool that ends up using those who try to use it.

Under those circumstances, the theological task is not to choose between political ideologies as though we were looking for the best tool to accomplish some religious purpose. The theological task is to return all forms of politics to the distinctive place they occupy among human activities. The theological separation between faith and politics is drawn not because politics is a temptation to be avoided, but precisely because it is a responsible human activity that people of faith are called to undertake. Politics is neither a temptation nor a tool, then, but a task, a vocation, a calling.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who finally lost his life in a Nazi prison shortly before the end of the Second World War, formulated a perspective on politics that was deliberately the opposite of the ultimate political choices that Hitler offered. Bonhoeffer identified the sphere of politics as “the penultimate.” The term comes from a Greek word which means “the thing just before the last thing.” Penultimate questions are important, but they are not final. They are our choices, and they cannot be less serious, or more final, than we are.

“The hungry person needs bread,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “The homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom . . . It makes a difference before God whether, in the midst of a fallen, lost world, people