By Rev. William M. Cwirla
Do religion and politics mix? Or are they like oil and water—two things that will always be separate no matter how hard you shake them up? There’s no doubt that religion and politics are two of the most sensitive topics we can talk about. Bring up either one in a crowded room, and there is sure to be an argument. Bring up both together, and there will likely be a brawl!
The reason for this is that these are two of the most important topics in our lives—much more important than sports and even the weather. Religion has to do with what we believe about God, life, morals, and eternity. The big picture stuff. Politics is the art of government, order, society, and community.
Religion deals primarily with eternal things, things “not of this world,” or at least things hidden “in, with, and under” the things of this world. Politics deals with temporal matters: roads, taxes, welfare, marriage, safety, protection. So on the surface, at least, they don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. But let’s delve into this a bit more deeply.
The church is in the world. It may not be “of the world” but it is definitely in this world. We occupy land, use electricity, water, and gas, and flush our toilets. And when the church is on fire, we call the fire department. We are very much in this world, and this world is a political world. Christians are both religious and political people. We believe, teach and confess things about God from the Scriptures. And we participate in the world of government and politics, believing that this, too, is a gift from God.
Our Lutheran Confessions teach that the political realm is a good gift of God’s fatherly goodness and mercy (Romans 13:1ff). “It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc.” (Augsburg Confession XVI).
There are some who would like to sweep the public square clean of all religion and create a kind of “naked, public square” where no religious ideas are expressed. Of course, this would favor the religious views of atheists, agnostics, and skeptics who believe that religion has no place in a rational society.
As Christians, and especially as Lutherans, we think that what we believe shapes our view of the world and of society and therefore it can’t be left out of our public life. We would rather have an open public square where everyone is free to speak one’s mind based on one’s beliefs even if we disagree (yes, even atheists!) than have a “naked public square” stripped bare of all religion. We believe this makes for a much better political discussion and a better representation of all the various people who live in our country.
I’ve been talking here about the individual believer as a citizen, not the institutions of “church” and “state.” Church and state are two of the three “estates” or “orders” of the temporal kingdom, i.e. this life. The third order is the home. (See the catechism article about the Table of Duties on page 28.) Church and state are distinct orders established by God for two distinct purposes. The church’s work is to proclaim the kingdom of Christ through Word and sacrament. The state’s work is to restrain evil, reward good, and maintain order through the sword—that is, the use of coercive power.
The church’s job is not to govern or redeem society; the state’s job is not to preach the Gospel. That’s why it doesn’t matter if the president or other heads of state are Christians. It’s also why Christians should not try to establish a “Christian government” or a “Christian nation.” The rule of law is not uniquely Christian, but is shared by every organized society. We would identify this with the work of the law hardwired in our hearts (Romans 2:14-15), which is known even without any written law.
The church should not tell people how to vote. Nor should the state tell people how to pray or worship. Each needs to be busy with its own vocation. The church needs to proclaim the kingdom of Christ, baptize, preach, teach, administer the Body and Blood, forgive and retain sin. The state needs to protect its citizens and enforce the rule of law. But the individual Christian, who lives in church, state, and home, is always mixing religion and politics. Martin Luther was well known for bending the ear of his elector regarding taxation, war, social welfare, the church, marriage, and education. Luther’s faith and knowledge of the Word shaped his political views and thinking.
The mix of politics and religion is really a one-way mixture, however. Our faith shapes our political thinking, but our politics should never influence our faith. Faith relies solely on the Word of God, while politics involves the use of reason. Reason is always a minister to the Word, never its master.
It’s very important to keep in mind one last thing: Politics is temporal; faith in Christ is eternal. The kingdoms of this world, including our own, will all pass away and are destined for destruction. But the kingdom of Christ will never pass away. As a baptized believer in Christ, that is your citizenship and your destiny, even as you live, move, and have your being in this political world.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, and President of Higher Things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.