It may be the universal first cause for public service. Men and women at every level of government will tell you that they got into politics because they thought they could do things better, make things better, change things for the better.
Presidential power is awesome, but remarkably limited, despite the grandiose promises of the candidates. The President can’t help the Cubs win the World Series, but through his position as leader of the nation and his party, he can make a few changes, even when Congress opposes him.
There has been an unusual amount of faith talk in this campaign season. On the Democratic side, most are trying to show that they are not as tone-deaf on matters of faith as previous candidates have been. Some of the talk is genuine. I’ve written about Barack Obama’s faith journey before, and I’ve read enough about Hillary Clinton to believe she has the sort of mainline-Methodist Sunday School faith that many Americans practice.
On the Republican side, Romney and Huckabee have been outspoken about their beliefs (probably not by choice, in Romney’s case), while Giuliani and McCain seem to have Hillary’s more traditional view that faith is a very private matter.
In the online discussions I’ve read, some people are worried about how Christians will address the potential conflict between belief and the Constitution, God and the legal authority of Congress, and the courts. If the Constitution or the Congress says to go right, but God tells candidate X to go left, what would he (or she) do?
This isn’t a question of divine revelation but divided loyalties. It’s a question that cuts deep into our interpretations of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, more literally known as the “free exercise” and “establishment” clauses.
For Christians, the authority of Christ trumps the authority of the state. An example of a worst-case scenario would be German Christian and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s refusal to submit to Hitler’s Nazi government. Bonhoeffer’s civil disobedience got him imprisoned and executed.
Every President swears an oath to uphold the Constitution. To the extent that the law of the land does not conflict with the laws of God, a Christian President would have no difficulty with that oath. But what does he do when a conflict arises?
It’s possible that in this age, God’s authority over his church is not the same as his authority over governments.
You can find a sense of this in the words of Paul.
[Jesus Christ] is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else — not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made Him head over all things for the benefit of the church. — Ephesians 1:21-22, NLT (The Apostle Paul writing)
This passage begins talking about the supremacy of Christ as an authority over all things, but Paul goes on to say that the authority of Christ is a gift or benefit to the Church — we who are faithful to Christ.
It seems to me to contrast with an earlier verse:
And this is the plan: At the right time [God] will bring everything together under the authority of Christ — everything in heaven and on earth. — Ephesians 1:10, NLT
Paul may have in mind this statement by Jesus:
[In that day when Christ will return to rule the earth] everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. — Luke 21:27, NLT (Jesus speaking)
These passages suggest that the authority (and reign) of Christ is not the same today as it will be at some future time. It is as if Christ has restrained himself, and his authority, for now. His authority is binding on his church, but the time has not yet arrived when it will be enforced on those who don’t recognize him as the King of kings.
There is a paradox here. In an ultimate sense, God is and has always been King of kings, whether we recognize his authority or not. We will all be judged by him, and by his laws — such is the prerogative of the King.
And yet, we have been granted freedom for a time to govern according to our own wisdom, or lack thereof. Though it is a good thing for Christians to try to persuade secular governments to act justly, mercifully, fairly and rightly in their use of authority, it is not God’s intent that Christians should create a theocracy.
“At the right time,” Paul says, “God will bring everything together under the authority of Christ.” That time is not now.
Which creates a very powerful dilemma for Christians who seek political office. The authority of God is binding on them — on their conduct in office, their decisions, their actions, their words — but (if I’m right) the authority of God is not yet binding in the same way on the government they serve.
Therefore, Christians who work in politics need to restrain themselves, as Christ has. We cannot force Christianity’s laws and values on those who are not ready to accept them.
On the other hand, Christians may need to be willing to step down from politics rather than assent to policies and practices that are at odds with God’s goodness and justice.
The real worry is not that Christian politicians will create an American theocracy. It is that they will be tempted by the enticing powers of the secular state to compromise their allegiance to God.