"We don't work to see Christ in government; we work so that the government sees Christ"
-- from Nathan's '9 Lessons' piece --
Because one thing that always niggles me is that there is a genuinely unresolveable tension as to particular politics – that is, the specific policies Christians ought or ought not to support, the degree to which Christian morality may be imposed upon the nation. Nathan's piece tries to hold the tension in a particular way – emphasising, for instance, that Christians must see care for the poor as a chief political good, but must not see it as something we can fully resolve this side of the eschaton, because sin continues to exist, which must make us cautious in our political aspirations. The resultant conclusion of that approach is the quote above – Christians don't exist politically to have a “Kingdom government”, per se, which will somehow solve all problems, but rather work so that politicians (whether Christian or not) see something of Christ and His Kingdom, which (by God's grace) might influence their decision-making.
But what about when a Christian MP votes against abortion legislation or same-sex marriage legislation on the grounds of conscience? (Indeed, we might ask, what about when an MP votes FOR them, on the grounds of conscience?) Is that Christian politics (or liberal politics, or whatever)? Surely it is, at some level; the Christian politician, and by extension the Christian voter, is not making decisions in a morally neutral vacuum, or in some sort of generally-agreed set of moral parameters, such as C.S. Lewis' Tao (see The Abolition of Man for more). Every policy and every vote, or non-vote, is a profoundly moral act – it aims at particular ends, and is based upon a particular moral philosophy.
The moral opponents of Christianity will happily grant this. A Dawkins or Harris will speak of removing religion from the public sphere because it is a damaging influence, and bad for the sort of society we value and desire (a liberal secular society); a campaigner defending abortion privileges will say that the woman has rights which must be protected, and those rights are more valuable than the unborn child. Even when someone makes a more functionalist or even quite subjective argument – taxing non-doms might make them leave, or “I oppose this policy because it would inconvenience me even though it is morally impeccable” - it is still a value-laden statement, seeking a particular kind of society.
Nathan actually makes this side of the tension quite clear when the first item he places on his list makes it clear that the poor, and more widely the vulnerable, are a special concern of God and must be a special concern of ours. But let's probe a bit further. If our role as Christians in politics is to fight for that which pleases God – well, what might please God? I will (rather overambitiously) propose a few “theological politics” which we might use to inform our political decisions. I do not believe any of the current major 7 parties in Great Britain (Conservative, Liberal Democract, Labour, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru) fully represent this platform; in fact some of them nearly entirely oppose it. However, with some of the “policies of the Kingdom of Heaven” in mind, we may be able to decide on the best of a difficult bunch.
1st Plank: God desires a just economic & social settlement.
As I say, I do not think it is true. The Samaritan was praised for aiding a beat-up stranger in a rough neighbourhood. At the very least, Christians must practise “charity”. But can it stay private charity and not public action? Of course not; the division is fictive. Every decent society has recognized that a person's private actions are a matter of public interest in some measure. If you use your private means to buy a sandwich for a homeless person, you affect the public good in some way – either by giving them a step up the ladder towards recovery, or by aiding a potentially dangerous vagrant who might be seen as simply a drain on the public purse.
So let us accept that there is no neat division between private and public activity. Most Christians do accept this, of course – Christians of all political stripes participate in food banks. But simply addressing the immediate needs of the destitute is no true charity if we simply nod at the real causes of their destitution; when we use our time and money to give them a few cans of Heinz soup and a fresh apple, we simply prolong their destitution. To truly affirm the dignity of the vulnerable, we must aid them where possible to escape their destitution as full human agents, reflecting (however brokenly) the image and likeness of God. The Foodbank recipient may come in, embarrassed, humiliated by their desperation; they may appear unsavoury to the insulated middle-class Christian helping them, or they may simply seem unlucky and desperate. But they are immortal creatures of such importance to the God of the Universe that He choked to death on a Cross to allow them a relationship with Him. Indeed, in that choking God identifies far more closely with the poor than with the affluent.
Christians fighting for the vulnerable (and I naturally include when we fight against the abomination of elective abortions, a societal crime which Christian China will excoriate us for in 100 years) must not simply provide a plaster to their wants. We must both provide structural assistance that allows others to be as beautiful a creature as they can be; we must also fight for institutional economic and social reform of that institutional sin which smears and crushes the Image of God in people. For us, this is what the martyr Oscar Romero called “the violence of love, which beats swords into ploughshares”.
2nd Plank: God desires that governments limit sin.
Insomuch as that is the case, we must determine which issues of “private morality” must be limited in the public sphere. I have already mentioned abortion; government stances on the sale of alcohol or tobacco, the legality of casino gambling, the regulation of the sex trade, and so forth, would all need to be assessed in this light, as they are all public (that is, economic and social) expressions of private morality. Now, the conclusion needn't be universal prohibition – in fact, in some geographical and social contexts liberalization is more likely to be the appropriate response (as Evo Morales' response to coca farming in Bolivia has demonstrated). However, we cannot pretend that the privately held view that one ought to be able to treat sex as any other commodity has no actual effect (positive or negative) on society. The enormous burden placed on the British NHS by alcohol and tobacco abuse should prove beyond a doubt that, in a very functional way, these societal and personal decisions are matters of public interest.
So – without prescribing what exactly needs to be done in each of those cases, as with half I'm not sure myself – I can only say that we must seriously assess the nature of our public liberties. The Christian will desire that – where it is either absolutely ethically demanded or where it is situationally effective – the government enact policies to limit the effects of personal sin upon the polis.
3rd Plank: God desires that we adhere to the Golden Rule.
The Christian expects freedom of conscience, and to a degree freedom of practise as well; we desire to be left in peace, and even to be given the opportunity to invite others to know Christ (which is, of course, often illegal in Muslim countries even where “being a Christian” is legal). Now, part of our plea to such authorities is actually prophetic and evangelistic – leave us be, for the King of Heaven will avenge our blood. But part of it is really quite functional. We believe that the common good should not require a forcing of private conscience, and see in the experience of Jesus and St Paul that the citizen ought to be permitted some freedom in these matters (see particularly Acts 23.26-30 on the idea that religious beliefs are not worthy of punishment).
Of course, given what we have said above, there is some limit to this, and it's a hazy limit, too. But we can say that calling your followers to murder those of other creeds ought to be a crime, even if you do not participate and say it is simply your religious (or non-religious) belief. You may be right – but we Christians do not think so, and believe that such a serious and final impingement upon conscience is beyond – well – conscience. We can say that requiring church attendance (as many state churches have required over time) borders on the farcical – one cannot become a Christian by outward demonstration, only by inward regeneration. When Christians are societally dominant they ought (as the Israelites were told) to remember their “time as aliens in the land”. All creeds must be welcome in the state influenced by Christian beliefs, and creedal practises must be permitted where they do not break the Golden Rule and where they do not contribute to serious issues of public sin.
What do you think? I would value your response.