A (Religious) Alternative for American Politics

January 27, 2016

At the time I am writing this essay, the 2015 presidential primary candidates are taking part in a series of televised debates. Among the Democratic candidates, one is a socialist, another is a liberal progressive, and yet another a political moderate. Among the Republican candidates, there are moderate conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, and perhaps even a fascist. In the midst of this sort of diversity, what should be said about the path forward for American politics?

Democracy without Democratism

First, a word about democracy. Democracy is an appropriate form of government, though not the only one. It is a political arrangement governed by a Constitution, in which all citizens are encouraged to participate regularly. It provides freedoms of speech and press in order to enable citizens to participate in an informed and vocal manner, and freedom of religion in order to worship and practice a religion as they please. American democracy ensures its citizens the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The benefits of this sort of government are manifold. This is hardly surprising, as much of our democratic history was shaped by Christian influences. Yet, despite the good possibilities of democracy, the system cannot flourish on its own. Democracy must be “paired” with a religious and moral framework or it will become an ideology like all of the others.

Democracy becomes ideological—falsely and idolatrously religious—when it conflates the voice of the people with the voice of God, or, similarly, when it enact laws that subvert God’s basic norms for human life. Theologian David Wells sees this sort of idolatry operative in many Americans today. He writes, “For the conforming American, democracy is not simply a political system but an entire worldview, dictating, among many other things, that culture and truth belong to the people and in a sense are determined by the people.”[1] In this unfortunate situation, democracy (a healthy institutional arrangement) lapses into democratism (an idolatrous ideology).

When citizens of a democracy deify the voice of the people—by, for example, ignoring God’s creational design for shared life—any number of negative consequences abound. For example, democracy can become a functionally authoritarian regime. In fact, as David Koyzis argues, democratism tends toward a tyranny of the majority.[2] Those of us who treasure democracy are always at risk of acting as if morality and truth can be altered by democracy. As Lesslie Newbigin put it, “It is perhaps a contemporary manifestation of the general fact of sin that we have in our heart of hearts the good democratic conviction that God will ultimately bow to public opinion.”[3] To keep this tendency at bay, the United States employs a system of checks and balances by promising to ensure freedoms of press, speech, and religion. Further, it ensures private property ownership, personal security, and privacy.

Principled Pluralism

If modern political ideologies are idolatrous at the roots and detrimental in their fruits, and if even democracy itself can devolve into ideology, what is the path forward? To be more specific, what political principles can pair well with democracy in order to help our democratic republic be its better self? Thankfully, a number of Christian political scientists and social philosophers concur on some basic biblical principles for political engagement, and how those might apply in our American context.

These thinkers, such as Richard Mouw, Sanders Griffioen, James Skillen, and David Koyzis, argue that we should work toward a “principled pluralism” within our democratic republic.[4] In my own way, I made just such an argument in One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics, along with my co-author Chris Pappalardo.[5] The principled pluralist approach recognizes that we live in a plural society, and yet within that plural society, it is possible for diverse persons, associations, and institutions to operate from their own principles, their own viewpoints. Pluralism, in many of its manifestations, is a state of affairs that Christians can and should endorse, because it allows space for religion while preventing the government from becoming authoritarian.

Politics within the True Story of the Whole World

For Christians, our own viewpoint should be one informed by the Bible’s master narrative. In order to think well about politics and public life, we need to think well about God and his world as a whole. Richard John Neuhaus put it well when he wrote, “The first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.” Of course, party platforms and specific issues of public policy do matter. But policies should never be crafted, nor platforms constructed, in ways that are divorced from the bigger picture. In any and every topic at hand for the Christian, we must go back before we can go forward. We need to locate politics within the true story of the whole world.

That “location” unfolds in the four-act narrative of Scripture. In Act 1, God created the world, and he created it good. It was characterized by justice and universal peace, and was without sin or the consequences of sin. Had his world remained untainted by sin, it would have still been a world characterized by politics and public life, though the government would have no need to wield the sword.

Act 2 of the biblical narrative, however, soured the whole picture. After this beautiful moment of creation, the pinnacle of the created order—our first parents, Adam and Eve—sinned. Through their sin, the whole world was poisoned. The world remained structurally good, but became directionally corrupt, pointing toward idols instead of God. Human beings now twisted God’s creation toward wrong ends, introducing injustice and human violence into God’s good world.

In Act 3, God responded by sending his Son, who was crucified and resurrected to extend his salvation

“far as the curse is found.” Through his sacrificial death and resurrection, we may be saved from our sins,

set free to live the sort of lives that please God and contribute to the public good.

Act 4 closes out the narrative by pointing forward to a day when the Son will return to inherit his rightful place as King of the Universe. When he does, he will institute a new political community, centered in a new city—the New Jerusalem—once again characterized by justice and shalom.

As Christians, we live between Act 3 and Act 4, a unique time “between the times.” Christ has already inaugurated his kingdom but has not yet consummated it. As such, we cannot ignore his kingdom (as if he had not already inaugurated it), but neither can we ourselves usher in his kingdom (as if he were not going to return to consummate it himself). Instead, we are called to live as a preview of his coming kingdom. We want our engagement in politics to help redirect our society toward a God-inspired and God-directed vision of public justice and societal flourishing. When we recognize God’s ultimacy in politics and public life, we not only avoid deifying any created good—such as liberty, tradition, equality, progress, or the nation—but we also avoid the deleterious political consequences of such false worship.

Politics with the Gospel as Public Truth

The United States is now in the midst of a turbulent period in which its people, its politicians, and its courts are wrestling to define what is meant by the First Amendment’s statement that we Americans have a right to the “free exercise of religion.” Some Americans wish to minimize the right. They believe that religion is something inherently private, restricted to the inner recesses of one’s personal life and perhaps to the four walls of a church building. Under this view, we are free to believe something privately, but not necessarily free to apply it to public matters. Other Americans, myself included, agree that religion is heartfelt and personal. But because it is heartfelt, we also recognize that it should radiate outward into all that we do, including political engagement. It remains deeply personal, but is not therefore merely private.

And yet, the religious nature of people’s public lives does not necessitate a confusion of “church and state.” God does in fact sovereignly rule over the United States (as he does every nation), but he does not mediate that rule through the institutional church. A church-controlled government (an ecclesiastical theocracy) is bad for the church, bad for government, and bad for society. Instead, God has created a plurality of socio-cultural institutions, and each has its own sphere of responsibility and authority. Each sphere, whether it is art, science, education, commerce, or government, has a unique set of responsibilities and should not seek responsibility or authority that overextends its own boundaries. The church should not seek to control commerce or government, for example, nor the government to control church or art.

Christians must learn the charitable art of influencing without controlling. Just because the church ought not to rule over society does not mean that Christians ought not to influence politics and public life for the better. Indeed, Christians should leave the church gathering prepared to better serve society in every sphere of culture, including politics. Because we are citizens of a democratic republic, it is incumbent upon us to contribute to the common good, to do so in a way that discourages both church and state from overstepping their boundaries, and by using reason and persuasion rather than coercion. In other words, the political “hammer” should not be the only tool we wield.

Politics as a Prophetic Minority in a Plural Society

Many evangelicals are pessimistic about their ability to influence what appears to be an increasingly post-Christian society. An increasing number of Americans consider traditional Christian teaching antiquated at best and reprehensible at worst. This is especially true of Christian sexual ethics, as “many of the political divisions we have come down to this: competing visions of sexuality as they relate to morality and the common good.”[6] But it is also true about traditional doctrines, such as sin and judgment.

Fortunately for Christians, our faith has never required that we hold positions of power or cultural privilege. Christianity, more than any other faith, is uniquely fitted to navigate the complex challenges of being a minority view in a plural society. In fact, Christianity has never been more itself, more consistent with its roots in Jesus himself, than when it stands as a prophetic minority in a culture of pluralism.

As a prophetic minority, we are free to promote our vision of the good life, and to do so with clear lines and bright colors. We need not flatten out our vision into some sort of civil religion or system of values. Russell Moore is worth quoting in full:

The church now has the opportunity to bear witness in a culture that often does not even pretend to share our ‘values.’ That is not a tragedy since we were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgment, of Christ and his kingdom. We will now have to articulate concepts we previously assumed—concepts such as ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ and ‘faith’ and ‘religion.’ So much the better, since Jesus and the apostles do the same thing, defining these categories in terms of creation and of the gospel. We should have been doing such all along.[7]

Indeed, Christians now have the opportunity to promote a vision of the good life that is based on creation order and on the gospel. We have the opportunity to introduce society to God’s vision for human life—a vision of marriage, of family, of sex, of money, of power, of justice, peace, and unity-in-diversity—that stands in sharp contrast to the zeitgeist. The darker our society becomes, the brighter the gospel light may shine.

Politics with Wisdom and Virtue

In a pluralistic context such as ours, the Christian vision of the good life will continue to compete with many other visions. In the midst of this plurality, we must cultivate wisdom and public virtue. It would be ironic—and sadly all too common—if we were to set forth Christian proposals but to do so in an unchristian manner.[8] In other words, it is not enough to merely hold Christian convictions; we must practice Christian virtue, too.

I propose six principles toward this end:

First, we must engage in politics and public life not out of mere self-interest, but with a genuine desire to help our fellow citizens flourish. As Jeremiah puts it, we want to “seek the peace of the city,” not merely the peace of “our tribe.” Second, we need to be wise in how we articulate our viewpoints. As a prophetic minority in a plural society, we will need to be discerning in how to make our argument in any given situation. Often, we will argue for our views in specifically Christian language, though in other situations, we may make our point using language that is not explicitly Christian.

Third, we want to build churches that are, as Richard Mouw puts it, formation centers for public righteousness.[9] Our churches should be places where we learn to love those with whom we disagree, and to display grace and kindness in our public interactions. Christians should, in this way, learn the lost art of disagreeing passionately and loving deeply at the same time. And yet, fourth, the church should be very careful about the way in which it is political from the pulpit. On the one hand, Christianity is a deeply and inescapably political religion, confessing, as it does, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. On the other hand, it is not a public policy think tank or a voter’s guide pamphlet. Before a preacher would speak to an issue of public policy from the pulpit, he must be as certain as possible that his words are God’s words. Such occasions will be rare.

Fifth, we need to be realistic in what we expect from politics in this time before Christ’s return. If we view politics as a savior, we will only be disappointed. On the other hand, if we view politics as unworthy of our interest, we will lose opportunities to be ambassadors of Christ and a good citizens. In light of this reality, sixth, we want to take the long view and the broad view. By the “long view,” I mean that, instead of putting all of our hopes in short term political activism, we commit to consistent political engagement for the long haul. By the “broad view,” we mean that, instead of putting all of our hopes in politics, we as God’s people also invest time and resources into every significant sphere of culture—art, science, education, business, and the family.[10]


Without being ecclesiastical theocrats, without confusing church and state, and without promoting any thesis about a “Christian America,” we can say with confidence that the United States, with all of its flaws, is “one nation, under God.” Richard John Neuhaus put it well:

To say that ours is a nation under God is both a statement of theological fact and of moral aspiration. As a theological fact, it is true of all nations. As a moral aspiration, it is markedly—although perhaps not singularly—true of the United States of America. To say that we are a nation under God means, first of all, that we are under Divine judgment. It is also a prayer that we may be under Providential care. It is not a statement of patriotic pride, although many may think it is, but of patriotic humility.[11]

Indeed, we seek the good of our nation when we recognize God’s sovereignty over our nation and at the same time we recognize the plurality of our society. With that twin recognition, we can pray that God will give us wisdom and discernment as we enter into the public square of our democratic republic in order to promote the common good. We do our best to point out the deleterious social and political effects of idolatrous political ideologies, to break up self-deceptions and point out false worship. We remind ourselves that we Christian citizens are not only finite but flawed—deeply and profoundly sinful—having neither the wisdom nor power to “fix” the situation. Yet we may, in our own finite and flawed ways, work for the public good and do so as a witness for Christ and a preview of God’s kingdom, however temporary and imperfect. And we trust that the God we serve, who majors in resurrection, will take even these flawed efforts and give them life.

[Editor’s note: this is the seventh installment of a seven-part series exposing the idolatrous nature of modern political ideologies. For a constructive alternative to modern political ideologies, see the author’s recently released One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (co-authored with Chris Pappalardo).]

[1] David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 56. Emphasis added.

[2] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2003), 136.

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, A Faith for This One World? (SCM Press, Ltd.: London, 1961), 69.

[4] Richard Mouw and Sanders Griffioen, Pluralisms & Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); James Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014); and Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions.

[5] Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015).

[6] Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 4.

[7] Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 9.

[8] This concern is addressed in greater detail throughout Richard Mouw’s fine book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, rev. and exp. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).

[9] Mouw, Uncommon Decency, 32-38.

[10] For a concise treatment of such a long and broad view, see Bruce Riley Ashford, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2015).

[11] Richard John Neuhaus, “Political Blasphemy,” in First Things (October 2002), 92.

Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.