Politics is a necessary part of life. God has much to say.
Simon Kennedy talks to Peter Hastie
Simon Kennedy is engaged in a PhD at the University of Queensland in the history of political thought in the early modern period, from the Reformation to about 1700. His focus is on the Reformed tradition of political thought and in particular such prominent thinkers as John Calvin, Johannes Althusius and Richard Hooker (an Anglican). He is also considering what such philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have to say about politics, society, and human nature, especially in the light of the fall.
Simon, his wife, Hayley, and four children attend North Geelong Presbyterian Church.
Simon, why should Christians be interested in politics and political ideas?
I think that Christians need to be interested in politics and political ideas, especially as understood by leading Reformed thinkers, because we are entering a time of uncertainty and possible trial in the West where the writings of those who have gone before us will prove to be very helpful. So tapping into the classical Protestant tradition, and the Reformed tradition in particular, is going to be helpful in equipping pastors and congregations in thinking more clearly about how we can better serve our nation, love our neighbours and work for the good of our local communities. If we are going to do this well, we need to think carefully about the role of the church in society, how we advance the welfare of communities and the relationship between the church and the state.
I think investigating thinkers from the Reformation period will help us to understand how they dealt with political issues in their own day and will suggest possible ways for us to approach problems in our modern context. I’m hoping my research will help with that.
Many people, both within and beyond the church, think that politics has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Do Christianity and politics represent two entirely separate realities?
There’s a lot of confusion, I think, between the relationship of Christianity and politics and the issue of church and state, so we have to clear that up immediately. The question of the separation of church and state is a legitimate one and I understand the call for such a separation, although it needs to be carefully defined.
However, that’s a completely different issue to the question of whether Christians should be involved in politics and whether Christianity should have any bearing on political issues. To suggest that Christians should have nothing to do with politics is a practical impossibility. For us to have nothing to do with politics would mean we would have to withdraw into our own perfectly isolated communities, which is impossible to do. All we’re really doing if we remain disengaged from politics is to invite the world to completely shape the agenda of our societies. However, if we are really concerned for our neighbours, we cannot do that.
How do you define politics?
Politics is not just what happens in parliament. Some people say that Christians have no place in parliament and have argued strongly for that position. The problem with this position is that politics is far broader than parliament. Politics is about people, and it’s about people living in community with one another, making decisions and working out how to do things well. Aristotle is helpful here. He says that politics is basically the art of living well together – that’s paraphrasing him, but that’s what he says. That’s a lot more interesting than what happens in parliament!
So in reality, Christians are interested in political things, because if we take the Bible seriously, we should be committed to loving our neighbours. And we want to love our non-Christian neighbours as well as the people in our church. I know it sounds clichéd, but we are to be salt and light in the world that we are in. And if we are to do that well it’s going to be difficult to avoid politics because it’s a very broad concept. Working out how to share a carpark, locate a supermarket, or working out whether a church should buy this land or not – that’s all political. Politics inevitably comes into it.
So you’re saying it’s totally unrealistic to think we can be Christians and not be concerned about politics?
Yes, I am, at least at a very basic level. However, I’d qualify that by saying that I can imagine a time where Christians might choose not to participate in public life. But that’s very different to not being interested in politics.
What’s the difference?
Participating in public life would mean running for political office or working in the public service. There have been times in history where Christians weren’t allowed to hold public office. For example, in the early church they weren’t allowed to do so because they didn’t profess the official religion. However, their Christian faith became a political issue because they were persecuted for not worshipping the Roman gods. So Christianity was unavoidably political because Christians refused to worship according to the official religion. Although the early Christians were excluded from public life, they still had an immediate interest in politics because the state was trying to interfere with their personal faith. So I’m separating the two issues because being in parliament is different to being involved in politics. I think the distinction helps to broaden the question and make it more optimistic as well.
Assuming that politics ought to be a concern to Christians, what place does politics have in the overall scheme of Christian thinking, with respect to, say, creation, the fall, and redemption?
Well, the first category we should begin with is the Christian doctrine of creation. The Bible tells us that God’s creation was good and that that He made us to be with other people. We’re social beings; we’re meant to be in society. Moreover, God gave us certain tasks to perform. So straight away we’re dealing with the question of living with other people, pursuing particular goals – and despite the fall – living together in relationship is God’s will and a good thing.
If you look at what God asked Adam to do, He told him to build a culture. Specifically, He wanted Adam to “fill the earth and subdue it”. As soon as you take that seriously, you’re creating lots of people and building towns and cities – “subduing” is taking what God gave us in creation and improving it for our use. As soon as you start doing that in community, you have to deal with political questions. You are asking questions like what is the best life for our society? How should we use our resources to achieve this outcome? As soon as you ask these questions within a community (whether large or small), you are engaged in politics because you are in the process of making decisions that will affect the whole society. And since Christians have an interest in these questions, it’s actually impossible to remain isolated from politics.
Further, since God has created us to live in community and to pursue certain goals that will glorify Him, I think Christians have some something quite compelling to say about politics. Whether people listen or not is another matter, but we do have lots of helpful things to say about living a “good” life and pursuing worthwhile goals together.
If we take “the fall” as the next category – what light does it shine on how we go about politics?
“The fall” reminds us that human beings are inherently flawed by sin, and the picture of sin in the first few chapters of the Bible reminds us that sinners are capable of great evil. This means that although we have been created as social beings, we have strong anti-social tendencies. Obviously, believing in the reality of the fall has serious political implications. For instance, we shouldn’t give too much power to one person or institution; nor should we place too much trust in one individual, party or group of leaders.
Does this mean that Christians should think carefully about different forms of government?
Yes, I think it does. The Reformers
and their successors reflected on this question at length. They realised that some systems of government allowed great evil to flourish with little opportunity for redress.
It’s interesting to see how a Christian worldview helped to shape the American republic. The federation in America contained some broad Christian ideals that took the reality of sin and human corruption seriously. The American federal system was devised with these realities in mind – especially that no one individual should be trusted with too much power. These might be simplistic applications, but I think they demonstrate the point.
Is this perhaps why Calvin addressed a lot of his correspondence to rulers?
Exactly. He believed that rulers play a vital role in the development of society and what they do matters to the church. Calvin says in the Institutes Book 4:20 that the civil magistrate is the highest calling, higher even than the pastoral one. I think that’s because he believed that rulers had the power to help or hinder the spread of the Gospel, not in the sense that they can preach it but because they can open doors for that to happen. In that sense they can further the work of redemption. This explains why Calvin wrote to the King of France and Edward VI, the king of England. That’s just a very quick overview of how the categories of creation, fall and redemption can interact with politics, and how Christians need to consider the political impact of the Christian faith and Christian theology.
How is the Christian understanding of the world different from the modern, secular understanding of it in a political sense?
Secularists engage in politics by trying to create the good life without God. Their politics seems to be conducted on the assumption that the best thing we can have is more money and possessions. Their vision of life is essentially materialistic. After all, if this world is all there is, then we need to get as much of pleasure and power as we can.
Also, when you take God out of the picture the vision of the good life becomes far more fluid. For instance, take the place of marriage in society. When God’s purpose for marriage is ignored, marriage becomes a very fluid concept, which is what we are seeing at the moment. It is no longer between a man and woman for life but some now suggest that it can be between two people of the same sex.
I also think that if you remove God from any political discourse, He must be replaced ultimately by something else. Our hearts are idol factories so we’ll put something else in there instead. So, whether it’s power, or the state, or a particular political party, it will make a huge difference in our society. Conversely, if God is over the state, politics never becomes ultimate and is merely an activity in which people choose one from many different options as the preferred way to do good.
So having God in the picture is society’s ultimate safeguard, because everybody is under the sanction of God?
Yes, and they are thinking about His judgment. God is clearly interested in rulers. He spends a lot of time talking about them in the Bible – in the Psalms, the prophets, and other places – and they are going to be held to account. But if they don’t believe that, then of course they are going to do things that are not particularly sound. There’s not a direct correlation between godlessness and unrighteous rulers, but there are going to be more unrighteous rulers if they are godless.
If Christians choose to be involved in public life how should that affect their discourse?
I think it partly depends on context. There are some contexts where it is acceptable to talk about the Bible when you’re in parliament, if there is a common assumption that the Bible is a legitimate source of political wisdom. I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to do that today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.
Do you think it’s time for a distinctively Christian party in Australia?
Frankly, I think it’s problematic to have a Christian political party in our context. I don’t even think a Christian political party can ever speak for every Christian, let alone non-Christians. So it seems like it’s too bold to be a “Christian” political party.
I don’t think it’s a problem to be part of public life today, and I think it’s important that Christian people do it. There are quite a few Christians who are involved in parliament and public life. I think we can still be godly and be a good influence, even if we can’t speak explicitly about the Bible or our faith – and if we can, we should go for it. But it’s a strategic question.
Have you any thoughts of how we should engage in politics in a post-Christian society?
Yes. There are a number of ways of approaching this.
For example, Christians can have a very effective public witness by raising as many children as they can who go to church and live a faithful Christian life. Strong families are the backbone of healthy societies. I don’t necessarily think people have to create petitions, and lobby parliamentarians, and so on. I think, especially in a world that’s hostile to Christianity, we should focus on the pre-political stuff. So focus on your local church, and your families, and loving your neighbours – and that will be a counter-cultural and political thing to do. It always has been this way, but in the future it will be more so, because how Christians raise their families will be very different to how a lot of other people do it. It’s already starting to become like that. I think if we’re faithful Christians in pre-political institutions, we will have a political impact. Johannes Althusius says that. He says that the family is the seed-bed of political life, of political community. So we learn how to be political in the family. When Christians take an active role in pre-political institutions they have become involved in significant political action already.
Peter Hastie is the principal of the Presbyterian Theological College, Victoria.