How Should Christians Think About Politics? 11 Insights from Reinhold Neibuhr
It’s hard to find the right metaphor for our current political moment. Are we in an echo chamber with megaphones? Are we, like a nuclear reaction, splitting atoms and roasting all our opponents? Or perhaps we’re more like vikings on social media: we land ashore, pillage and plunder all who oppose us, and then sail off once again to hang out with our village people.
Whatever the metaphor, we’re in an election season, and the weight of pandemic-soaked culture is turning up the dial on every debate. How should people of Christian faith think about and respond to the politics of our day?
There are as many answers to that question as there are people, yet few have more insight than Reinhold Neibuhr. His book, Christian Realism and Political Problems, first penned in 1953, is a hidden gem. In his chapter on “The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order,” he masterfully diagnoses our situation, turns a critical eye toward secular society and then the church, before landing the plane with a beautiful, yet uncomfortable, answer to the question of Christians in politics.
Here are 11 insights from Reinhold Neibuhr on the question of how Christians should respond to politics.
11. Don’t blame those “godless” people for all our problems. That’s too easy.
“The natural inclination of the convinced Christian, when viewing the tragic realities of our contemporary world, is to bear witness to the truth in Christ against the secular substitutes for the Christian faith which failed to anticipate, and which may have helped to create, the tragic world in which we now live.”
Neibuhr starts by saying that it’s just too easy to blame the “secular substitutes,” like many of the ideologies prevalent in Neibuhr’s day and the idolatries present in our own, for our current political mess. He starts at a better position: have we brought “the word of God to bear upon the secular roots of our present predicament?” Rather than simply blaming, have we actually done the hard work of thinking through how Christian faith challenges the broader secular culture that we live in?
10. The real problem is that our culture thinks “sin” is an outdated notion.
“The liberal part of our culture thought that the Christian idea of the sinfulness of all men was outmoded. In its place it put the idea of a harmless egotism, rendered innocuous by a prudent self-interest or by a balance of all social forces which would transmute the selfishness of all into a higher social harmony.”
First, we traded the idea of sin for mere selfishness, which we thought was more of an inconvenience than a fundamental human condition. Others thought that we could overlook sin and simply call people to be socially conscious and virtuous through their own good will. The problem: our will actually is the problem.
Niebuhr doesn’t hold much hope that capitalism can save us, but he doesn’t think much of Marxism, either. Marxists believed “in the revolutionary destruction of property” and promised “redemption through the death of an old order and the rise of a new one.” But this idea was not the promise of life through death in the Christian gospel; it was the promise of “new life for us through the death of our foes.” Sound familiar?
Secular visions of the fall have fallen short, and so have secular versions of redemption. Both are rampant in politics today.
9. Both Right and Left have grains of truth, yet when they are the only frame of reference for our politics, they plunge us into a never-ending battle that cannot be won.
“Perhaps it is because there is a little truth and so much error in both secular alternatives to the Christian faith that they have involved the world in such a hopeless civil war in which each side had enough truth to preserve its sense of high mission and enough error to frighten the other side with the possible consequences of its victory.”
One side, represented by a totally unregulated capitalism, minimizes the state in hopes that the free market will save us, only to find grueling injustices spread throughout our country; the other side, exemplified by a totally planned economy (such as in Marxism), minimizes individual liberty and the free market with the hope that the right technological or policy solution will bring about a just republic. Both contain hints of truth, yet neither system can save us because there are sinful people inside of both systems. So we live in fear that “the other side” will finally take control and we might one day live under “their authority.”
Progressive and conservative visions of political life may be inevitable, but they both incomplete and need a larger frame.
8. But Christians shouldn’t be too quick to throw darts at secular culture: the Church is far too implicated in this current mess to wash our hands of politics.
“Society in both its liberal and Marxist variety came into being partly because of the deep involvement of Christianity in the social sins of our day and in the stubbornness of the social injustices.”
You say Christians in America actually helped to create this mess? How so? Read on…
7. Christians have often “sanctified” the social evils of our day, making them even harder to change.
“There is no social evil, no form of injustice…which has not been sanctified in some way of other by religious sentiment, and thereby rendered more impervious to change.”
How can that be? Wasn’t it Christians who abolished slavery? Yes. But it was others who used Christianity to tighten the stranglehold of slavery. Wasn’t it Christians who led the civil rights movement? Yes again. But it was other Christians who resisted desegregation in the name of “order.”
Christians have been reformers, but if we’re honest, we must recognize that others clung to the unjust, broken status quo to protect themselves and their own interests rather than to seek biblical justice.
6. Other times Christians have declared politics irrelevant to religious life, deepening secular ideologies and helping them to grow.
“A part of the Church, fearing involvement in the ambiguities of politics, has declared the problems of politics to be irrelevant to the Christian life.”
When the Church is “neutral,” it more often than not is “an ally of the established social forces,” like the ones we are so apt to criticize.
If we say that faith has nothing to do with politics or with our culture, how can Christians complain about what’s happening to politics or to our culture?
5. “Just be nice” isn’t very helpful.
“A part of the Church, facing the complexities of the political order, has been content with an insufferable sentimentality…It has insisted that the law of love is a simple possibility when every experience proves that the real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love each other, but do not.”
Just be nice. Love each other. Do random acts of kindness.
The Church has often succumbed, both in Neibuhr’s day and our own, to a “sentimentality” in our praise songs, our bullet-pointed sermons, and our attitude toward politics that calls people to “be nice” but often overlooks the harsh truth that our wills are depraved. We should be nice, but we can’t; we are in bondage.
And though Neibuhr points the finger at the Church here, I’d also say this is even more prevalent in the slogans, hashtags and bumper-sticker wisdom of our consumeristic, secular society than in churches. In most churches you’ll get hints, at least, of a divine drama that involves good, evil, and the fallenness of our own hearts. You get very few of those hints in the never ending newsfeed of our society today. Many articles or tweets are bubbling with a respectable disdain for “the other side” that just doesn’t get it. Our culture would still have us believe the problem is in others, not me.
Efforts at communal and political reform without acknowledging the devastating sinfulness of humanity will always fall short.
4. Still other parts of the Church have turned faith and politics into a never-ending scheme to legislate righteousness into every part of our society.
“A part of the Church, conscious of these perplexities, has been ready to elaborate detailed schemes of justice and of law for the regulation of the political and social life of mankind, below the level of love and of grace. But it has involved itself in a graceless and inflexible legalism. It does not know that all law can easily be the instrument of sin; that inflexible propositions of justice, particularly in the rapidly shifting circumstances of modern technical development, may hinder rather than help the achievement of true justice.”
Neibuhr says that because this is true, we need to put laws in their place, “recognizing that none of them is sacrosanct as some supposedly Christian or secular system of law has made them.”
Galatians warns that when our freedom devolves into legalism, the law itself becomes a “power and principality” that sets itself up against the ultimate authority of the living Christ. We must not absolutize passing the right laws as the only goal to which Chrisitans in politics are completely committed. Laws are good servants, but bad masters.
So, what hope does the Gospel offer politics?
3. Christians must first recognize that the promise of new life is both for individuals as well as nations, and that if sin affects systems, so can grace.
“Positively our task is to present the Gospel of redemption in Christ to nations as well as individuals…It is possible to live truly if we die to self, if the vainglory of man is broken by divine judgement that life may be truly reformed by divine grace. This promise of new life is for individuals; yet who can deny its relevance for nations and empires, for civilizations and cultures?”
Without faith there is only sorrow. Without faith, says Neibuhr, there is only despair and meaninglessness and confusion. Yet with faith, grace makes possible both a new life individually, but also collectively—but only after we acknowledge our individual and collective sinfulness We are all subject to judgment, but, as James says, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
The biblical notion of shalom – commonly translated as peace – carries broad connotations of inner peace, peace with God, and peace between others, even in the complex relations of nations, states, classes and culture.
Christians cannot be so pessimistic about politics that we block the flow of divine grace through us as his Body into the cities, states, and nations that we call home.
2. A faithful Christian engagement of politics cuts against both parties and our personal interests in a way that is often offensive because God’s kingdom is the aim, not this present political order or our personal comfort.
“Must we not warn powerful and secure nations and classes that they have an idolatrous idea of their own importance…and must we not remind those who are weak and defrauded and despised that God will avenge the cruelties from which they suffer but will also not bear the cruel resentment which corrupts their hearts?”
“Must we we not say to the rich and secure classes of society that their vaunted devotion to the laws and structures of society which guarantee their privileges is tainted with self-interest; and must we not say to the poor that their dream of a propertyless society of perfect justice turns into a nightmare of new injustice because it is based only upon the recognition of the sin which the other commits and knows nothing of the sin which the poor man commits when he is no longer poor but has become the commissar?”
How these two statements from Neibuhr offend us!
When the gospel confronts our political life, we all have reason to be uncomfortable because it confronts us. How easy is it to criticize and condemn the other party and wish for real reform, and not recognize that if we were the ones in power, the world may indeed be worse off than it is now!
We err when we too closely align with one ideology, and we also err when we too closely identify our personal identity with a political party. The Christian is forever a citizen of another heavenly country, and this gives her the freedom to look squarely at injustices in the world that mirror the injustices within.
Humility is the key.
So what is left? Is there anything that can be done?
1. Christians must make their peace with “proximate justice” and do our small part in taking the next step toward the health of our communities through our vocations and through the political process.
“There is the promise of a new life for men and nations in the Gospel; but there is no guarantee of historic success. There is no way of transmuting the Christian Gospel into a system of historical optimism. The final victory over man’s disorder is God’s not ours; but we do have responsibility for proximate victories. Christian life without a high sense of responsibility for the health of our communities, our nations and our cultures degenerates into an intolerable other-worldliness….Only a small leaven is needed, only a little center of health can become the convalescence for a whole community. That fact measures the awful responsibility of the people of God in the world’s cities of destruction.”
In short: the way forward is clouded, difficult, and riddled with potholes. And our hope is ultimately not in this world, but in the next. And yet, because of the love of neighbor and the call of God to be His Body in the world, we must do what we can. We must take small steps in the right direction and do what we can to bring healing to our communities and our countries.
It would be nice if we could say that God condemned the world and washed his hands of it all, but instead, we must listen once again to the apostle who wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave…”