In this heightened political season, there are many, including some Christians, who believe the fate of the nation rises and falls on the outcome of November's presidential election. That is not to say that politics and elections are inconsequential—the nation prospers from good leaders and suffers from the inept—but are government and political leaders really the hope or ruin of a nation?
Regarding politicians and their influence upon the nation, consider two examples. Abraham Kuyper was a prominent Dutch theologian and journalist who served as prime minster of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. Kuyper was arguably one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. His dissertations on the application of Christian thought to the whole of life and culture are among the greatest expressions of the Christian worldview; yet despite being one of the most notable Christian political figures in history, his administration was unable to halt the spiritual and moral decline of the Netherlands.
The other example in our survey is Adolf Hitler, who was arguably the most evil political tyrant ever. In less than six years, Hitler would lead the German people into a vision that would force the whole world into an apocalyptic conflagration, killing more than 50 million human beings. Here again, politics are not inconsequential. However, despite such a wicked ruler, Germany survived and quickly returned to being a major economic power.
So what are we to make of these two comparisons, one godly, the other evil? Both seem to have had little long-term effect on the course of their respective nations. Perhaps politicians and political parties are not the saviors we perceive them to be. Driven by concerns over that which plagues our culture, I think we often live and think as if the right political arrangement will "heal" the nation. However, Jacques Ellul, the twentieth-century Christian philosopher and theologian—himself involved in French politics—rightly points out that politics can at most put "bandages on the wound; it cannot eradicate the source of man's affliction" (Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion, p. 234).
If you know anything about me, you know that I am an ardent advocate of cultural and social engagement. I am socially and fiscally conservative; I'm a veteran and patriot and I believe we have a civic duty to participate in the democratic process. So I am not calling for a withdrawal from politics. I am merely suggesting that we have come to rely almost exclusively on political means rather than spiritual means to reform the culture.
I think this is due, in large part, to the fact that politics provides a significant object of interest, able to occupy our thoughts and discussions while really requiring very little of us. We watch the news, read the blogs, listen to the various pundits, wring our hands and fret—but to what end? I know right now who I will vote for in November and I suspect most of you do as well.
That process will take me approximately 30 minutes of one day and yet it is possible to spend nearly every waking hour obsessing over the issues and the candidates. My inbox is filled daily with such fascinations. Unless we are actually working in the political realm, why should we spend any time lamenting the issues when doing so does not produce one iota of substantive effect? In this sense, politics can become a major distraction from the Christian's true purpose and calling.
Ironically, it is the liberal who believes in the primacy of politics as the instrument of cultural and social change. For the Christian, it is the gospel! Ellul reminds us that "an unbiased and unprejudiced reading of the Bible shows that converting men to their Lord is the work Christians are called to do" (Ellul, 234).
In Paul's letter to Timothy, he encourages the young preacher to "endure hardship … like a good soldier of Christ Jesus," pointing out that "no one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs…" (2 Tim. 2:3–4, NIV). Matthew Henry's commentary on this passage makes the point that all Christians are soldiers in the Lord's army and as such, we "must not entangle ourselves with those affairs, so as by them to be diverted and drawn aside from our duty to God and the great concerns of our Christianity."
Again, I am not saying that being a Christian and having political interest or activity is incompatible; I'm not saying that Christians have no place in politics. I think theologian Donald Bloesch correctly delineates the "great concern[s] of our Christianity" when he writes, "The apostolic mandate is to preach the Gospel, not a political program, but this Gospel has tremendous social and political repercussions" (Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 2, p. 167). Bloesch is stressing that the political implications of Christianity are indeed important; however, they follow the gospel and the conversion of lost souls. The church must always remain focused on the latter, teaching converts to be disciples, with one dimension of discipleship being social service, which includes politics.
It may be that we are attracted to and over-reliant on politics because it offers a means of cultural engagement without hardship. It's engagement in the world with ease and without personal cost. We can occupy ourselves so much so that we feel like we're doing something; we convince ourselves that through this activity we are defending God's honor and standing for truth. But it's often just a diversion. In reality, we are standing at a distance from the battle. We're not actually in it; we're merely observing while others wade into the muck that is the fallen world. I spend almost every Tuesday in prison where I disciple men whose lives have been nearly ruined by sin and neither politician nor any political scheme can heal their affliction. It is here that light conquers the darkness—in the mud and blood and suffering that sin has wrought—and it is there that we bear witness to God's amazing grace that transforms people and nations.
It is the Lord who determines the fate of the nations and it is in Him that we trust. Jesus is the Savior of the world, not any politician or political program. And our calling is to love the Lord, our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all nations. It is nothing less than the pursuit of that which Jacques Ellul says "seems impossible to us: the conversion of an entire population and its government" (Ellul, The Meaning of the City, p. 69).
So we will cast our votes this coming November. But in the meantime, let us not be diverted from our duty to God by an unholy reliance upon politics and politicians.