The Political Role of Churches

by Matthew Raley

The religious right asserts that America must be turned back to biblical values through legislation and judicial decisions. It assumes that correcting the laws will free a godly citizenry to restore American culture. Thus, today’s social conservatism tends to be defined by what politicians will do.

Over a series of posts (starting here), I have rejected all three points.

Start with the assumption that evangelical Americans are godly, and therefore have the capacity to restore the nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evangelicals have shown little capacity even to restore their own churches, much less America.

If the assumption about a godly citizenry is mistaken, then the religious right’s whole strategy is flawed. Without citizens who actually follow Christ, the legislative and judicial changes sought by the religious right will not restore our culture.

Even further, what the religious right proposes is not conservatism.

Anglo-American traditionalism of the Burkean variety does not put up with abstract principles. Genuine social conservatism says, “The state must deal with the culture it actually governs, not the theoretical culture it desires.” The ethics and ways of the people rule the nation. This is not only the view of conservatives from Burke to Eliot, it is the basic view of the state taught in the Bible.

Conservatives know that healthy cultures change through strong mediatorial institutions, especially families and churches. Conservatives call them mediatorial because they stand between the individual and the government. These institutions pass on and enforce ethics. They nurture relationships that mold people through influence rather than punishment. If the state tries to change a culture by force — and the law is force — it will only twist people’s ways.

In this analysis, the ruinous effect of political liberalism has not been to impose sinful patterns on a citizenry that would never otherwise choose them, but to weaken the mediatorial institutions that, for evangelicals, pass on the Gospel. The pastor has been replaced by the therapist, the church by the welfare agency, and the family by the social worker.

I agree that our nation needs to return to the biblical worldview. But it will never do so until those who profess the name of Christ actually follow him, and follow him institutionally. If evangelicals want a political impact, they need to do what the founders of America envisioned: they need to govern themselves.

Therefore, I see two political goals for churches in American society.

1. Churches and families must campaign and vote for the preservation of their liberties. Aggressively, they should make the case that freedom of association is foundational to a healthy, peaceful society. No faction should be allowed to impose its principles on the consciences of others. The approach has complications. But if we base our arguments about specific issues on this principle, we will find broader agreement, and we will preserve our local spheres of influence.

2. Churches must not only grow, they must govern themselves with the Gospel. They should stop trying to be malls, and return to their natural mandate, both from the New Testament and from Western culture at large, of being strong mediatorial institutions. If churches return to the calling Christ has given them, a cultural and political impact will follow.

The religious right’s populist tactic of blaming elites for our cultural problems is tempting, but it is not conservatism. Conservative Christians must come to grips with the fact that the departure of the nation from a biblical worldview is not a failure of the federal government, but of self-government. If we govern ourselves once again, there can be a return of our culture to Christianity.

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