political success in a postmodern world
Since the early 1980s, record numbers of Christians have answered the call to be involved in the political process. This participation has been welcomed at times and resented at others. For the past fifteen years, the Republican Party has enjoyed the support of the “Christian Right” in order to win elections, especially on the national level. But when it comes to social policies that are important to Christians, such as parental rights and agenda-free textbooks, the Christians’ agenda is described as too rigid and narrow.
Welcome to the postmodern world, where in politics the principled person is called an extremist, and those unwilling to compromise are “obstructionists.” According to the postmodern view, absolute truth does not exist, so the old order must be rejected to allow man the freedom to seek solutions in any manner he pleases. Thus, the virtuous modern man tolerates any and every idea and lifestyle, seeks understanding, and always respects the alternate perspective. The respectable politician or activist is the one who has learned to get along.
For the Christian, the postmodern view offers new challenges. According to Don Closson, “As a result of postmodernist thinking, anyone who claims to know something that is universally true, true for everyone, everywhere, anytime, is accused of marginalizing those who disagree…. Christianity claims to be true for everyone, everywhere.”[i] Conflict is inevitable.
In his book Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, Gene Veith summarizes the political consequences of the postmodern view:
Postmodernism minimizes the individual in favor of the group. This can only result in a collectivist mentality in which the claims of the individual are lost in the demands of the group. An ideology that believes that personal liberty is an illusion can hardly be expected to uphold or allow individual freedom. Moreover, excluding transcendent values places societies beyond the constraint of moral limits. Society is not subject to the moral law; it makes the moral law. If there are no absolutes, the society can presumably construct any values that it pleases and is itself subject to none.[ii]
Christians who believe in personal responsibility, personal liberty, and absolute truth find it difficult “selling” a public policy agenda in this new environment.
It is no longer sufficient to attempt to understand the dynamics of the political process by looking at party affiliation alone. For the Christian to be effective, he must recognize that the problem is not a Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal dilemma—it is much more fundamental. It is a clash between worldviews; specifically, a clash between the Christian worldview and postmodernism.
Everyone has a worldview.
Although many may not acknowledge it, everyone has a worldview. A worldview is a person’s framework for understanding reality; that is, it is the glasses through which one views the world. When the same set of facts is presented to different people, they each can arrive at different conclusions. For example: a man wearing the wrong prescription, when confronted with a tree, might conclude that he is touching a giraffe. Another man, confronted with the same tree, might have the proper prescription and thus see reality clearly.
This fact explains why something like the adoption of public school textbooks is so controversial. While one book seems entirely appropriate from one point of view, that same book can be offensive to people with a different worldview.
Francis Schaeffer, in his classic book A Christian Manifesto, reminds us that problems in society can be traced to a change in the way people view the world:
The basic problem of the Christians in this country in the last eighty years or so, in regard to government, is that they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals. They have gradually become disturbed over permissiveness, pornography, the public schools, the breakdown of the family, and finally abortion. But they have not seen this as a totality—each thing being a part, a symptom, of a much larger problem. They have failed to see that all of this has come about due to a shift in world view—that is, through a fundamental change in the overall way people think and view the world and life as a whole.[iii]
Schaeffer explains that when the worldview of a society changes from one influenced by Christianity to something non-Christian, the result will be seen in politics, law, and society in general.
The Christian worldview is based on the belief that God is sovereign (supreme and self governing) and man is sinful (we violate God’s standards). God’s sovereignty implies that God can rightfully rule over His creation. In His sovereignty, God has prescribed roles for three specific institutions: the family, the church, and civil government. The idea of right and wrong are defined by God, and to properly understand the world around us, a person must look through the corrective lenses of God’s Word, the Bible. The notion of a sovereign God influences the Christian’s perspective on public policy.
Biblical government understands and adheres to God’s prescribed roles and functions for the family, church, and civil government. The family is the central economic and spiritual unit in society (Gen. 1:26-28). The family has the duty to nurture and train children (Deut. 6). In the home, children learn spiritual things and godly character. The church is the “foundation of truth” (I Timothy 3:15) and has the redemptive function in the society. The church preaches the gospel—reconciliation between God and man.The civil government has the duty to maintain order in society by punishing law-breakers (Romans 13:4).
The Christian worldview expects that each of these three institutions is separately responsible to God. The institutions are separate functionally and one does not rule over another—each institution has a different jurisdiction. In today’s environment, it is radical to believe that the civil government does not have jurisdiction over the family and the church. This is called the principle of limited government.
This concept of jurisdiction provides the framework when Christians examine public policy issues. It explains why Christians are opposed to civil government redefining the family to include two men or two women. The right to define the family does not fall within the jurisdiction of the civil government. Using this same reasoning, the Christian worldview opposes policy initiatives such as regulation of private or home schools, special rights based on race or sexual preferences, and taxation of the church. Each of these violates the biblical principle of jurisdiction.
While the church has jurisdiction over sins, the civil government has authority over crimes. This is an important distinction. Crimes always involve actions. As a society we do not want the civil government to have jurisdiction over matters of the heart or thoughts. In many states, a person can be charged with a hate crime if the offense was against a homosexual or some other protected group. We should oppose legislation that allows for stiffer penalties based on the attitude of someone’s heart.
What can I do?
Is it possible to stay true to the Christian worldview in the political process when so many others adhere to postmodernism? Absolutely! Just keep a few simple principles in mind.
- Be obedient. It is the duty of the Christian to work for righteous government on the local, state, and national levels. Even though we are each called to different levels of involvement, we do have responsibilities. Be faithful to what God has called you to do.
- Do not run from conflict. Recognize that influencing public policy will never be easy. There is never room at the top for competing worldviews; hence, conflict in the political process is inevitable.
- Develop coalitions to win. Find like-minded groups and individuals who agree with your stand on an issue and band together to accomplish your policy goals. Sometimes a particular policy can bring together diverse groups. For example, some years back social conservatives (the American Family Association, churches, etc.) worked with fiscal conservatives (Republicans and Democrats) to pass Proposition 22 in Austin, a proposition that eliminated partner benefits for unmarried pairs. While some opposed partner benefits for moral reasons, others simply thought it was too expensive.
- Be principled, not pragmatic. Some public policy must be opposed because it is wrong, not because it will not work. Christians must not only be concerned with good vs. bad policy, but also the rightness or wrongness of policy. In the eyes of China’s communist government, forced abortion policy may be good policy in that it achieves its aim of reducing population growth, but it is morally wrong and must be opposed. In the same way, trying to reduce the number of teenage mothers by allowing abortions is wrong.
- Work for change from the bottom up. Developing and educating politically active Christians on the local level should be the primary focus of your efforts. Lasting change will only occur from the bottom up. Christ teaches His followers not to lead by garnering power but, instead, to lead by serving. The White House may be more glamorous, but everybody wants to do that. Try serving by doing the things no one wants to do—like yawning your way through zoning disputes at your city council meeting.
- Don Closson, “How Do You Spell Truth?” Probe Ministries, 1996.
- Gene Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 159.
- Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1981), pp. 17-18.
[i] Don Closson, “How Do You Spell Truth?” Probe Ministries, 1996.
[ii] Gene Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 159.
[iii] Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1981), pp. 17-18.