Trimming the Archbishop’s tongue: Should Christians stay out of politics?

In my last post I mentioned the Serious Debate over whether Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams should trim his eyebrows… since his remarks on the UK government in this week’s New Statesman some are now thinking he should trim his tongue instead. Well, when I say ‘some’, I really mean conservative politicians and media, who – would you have believed it? – seem largely to have misunderstood and misreported his actual remarks, which were characteristically balanced, thoughtful and intelligent. But perhaps that was the problem.

Of course, Rowan Williams – joined by former bishop of Durham Tom Wright – also caused a bit of a stir recently by speaking out about the killing of Osama bin Laden. But let’s not go there again… 😉

So should the Church get involved in politics, or should it stay the heck out – letting the government get on with running the country while itself getting on with pastoring the faithful flock?

Firstly, as always it depends on your terms – what you mean by ‘church’, ‘involved’, and ‘politics’. ‘Church’ meaning the Christian community in general, or (in the UK) the established Anglican church with the Queen as its head? ‘Involved’ in the sense of lobbying and trying to influence policy-making, or ‘involved’ by commenting on the moral implications of policies? ‘Politics’ as in Party Politics or as in general issues affecting the world, the country and its people? The answer to the question clearly depends very much on how you define those terms.

All life is political

Christianity is about the whole of life

To be honest, I don’t see how the church can realistically avoid getting involved in politics. At the most basic level, all adult church members have the vote; we are all personally affected by government policy decisions, and we’re all also concerned for others who are affected – for example political refugees. Furthermore, many Christians are active members of government organisations, political parties and even of the government itself, and there is no reason why this should not be so.

Christianity is about the whole of life, not just some private spiritual segment. Christians, whether politicians or not, do not leave their faith at home or hang it up at the office door with their coat. Christians simply can’t stay out of politics without staying out of life itself. One dimension of life is political, or if you prefer, all of life has a political aspect.

And of course politics  covers many, many issues that Christians can and should care passionately about – justice, poverty, peace, the planet, and a whole range of moral issues from treatment of prisoners and asylum seekers through to assisted dying.

Furthermore, I’d argue that the Bible and Christian ethics tacitly underpins the whole enterprise of modern western democracy and law-making. Though that does not of course mean that Christians now can expect prejudicial favours when it comes to the formulating of new laws and policies.

The World and the Kingdom

But don’t Christians belong to the Kingdom not the World?

The Kingdom of God is very much about what happens in the world here and now

When Jesus said to Pilate that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), he didn’t mean that it had nothing to do with this world – that Christians should steer clear of involvement in the business and government of this world. Rather he meant that the source and power of his Kingdom was divine not earthly, from above not below. He also meant that its ways and means were not those of human politics with all the sorry business of power-plays, factions, in-fighting, corruption and broken promises. Though sadly of course the church has fallen prey to those as much as any other human organisation.

Going back to Tom Wright and Surprised by Hope, the Kingdom of God is very much about what happens in the world and to its people here and now. It’s about justice and goodness here and now, not just in the world to come.

Likewise, when Paul wrote that we should ‘be subject to the authorities’ (Romans 13), he didn’t mean that Christians should stick to the spiritual business and let the authorities get on with the secular – Paul would never have acknowledged such a dualistic sacred/secular division. Neither did he mean we should kow-tow to the authorities – Paul got into trouble with the powers-that-be far more than his fair share of times, receiving beatings, imprisonment and ultimately execution at their hands. And nor did he mean that we shouldn’t protest or be involved in peaceful civil disobedience where our conscience dictates. He simply meant that we shouldn’t get involved in wrongdoing, in rioting and violent rebellion; and that if we do oppose the authorities, we must expect (like him) to pay the consequences.

Good and bad involvement

Of course, there are more and less helpful ways of engaging with politics and public debate. In the UK, the organisation Christian Voice is a prime example of a less good way; its voice is sadly a strident, ill-judged and ill-informed one, and the issues it chooses to get upset about are almost invariably way off the mark (usually alleged blasphemy).

In the US, the whole ‘religious right’ seems to me about as bad an example of ‘Christian’ political involvement as you can get, wielding far too much earthly power and lobbying with frighteningly partisan bias in areas like foreign policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. All this seems to me very dangerous and shaky ground. I confess that I know little of US church or US politics, but it strikes me as a little strange that in a country where the separation of church and state is embedded in the constitution, extreme elements of the church can wield so much political power. By contrast, in the UK we have an established church and broadly Christian acts of worship in schools, but the church has far less influence on government policy.

Christians need to engage in a Christlike way

When Christians engage with politics and political issues, they need to do so in a thoughtful, informed and above all a Christian – a Christlike – way. In other words, they need to do so in love and compassion, in kindness and humility; listening more than speaking; getting their hands dirty rather than sniping from the sidelines. They – we – need to engage not out of self-interest but for the good of the world and its people, particularly the poor and oppressed and marginalised, the outcasts and outsiders.

Church and state

But should the leaders of the established Church ever get involved in matters of state? There are tricky issues at stake, and from the Emperor Constantine onwards the Church has not done particularly well in its involvement in politics at this level. (Some might ask, should we have an established state-tied church at all? Disestablishment is really another discussion for another day; I’m broadly in favour but there are some good arguments on both sides.)

Some things we can say straight off. The Church should never use its influence to gain favours or special treatment. It should not seek to form political alliances; it should not seek earthly power and influence. It should not collude with earthly powers-that-be in evil such as the arms trade, slavery and state-sponsored oppression. Finally, it should not try to impose its own specific morality on the secular world through state legislation.

But the Church, its leaders and its members should – no, must – be involved in working to make the world and our own part of it a better place, working for justice, peace, truth and goodness. We must speak out and protest against unfair trade, against policies that hurt the poor and weak, against unjust or unjustified wars and laws. We must also speak out, campaign and work for what we believe to be good and true and right, while never seeking to use power and law to impose our moral or religious views and practices on others. I believe that it’s this kind of positive engagement and speaking out on important issues that the Archbishop is currently modelling.

Rowan Williams is a deeply intelligent, wise and compassionate man of God and I for one welcome his thoughtful engagement with politics. I hope that he and Tom Wright both feel able to continue speaking out – and indeed acting – whenever they deem it necessary. We don’t of course always have to agree with them.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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9 Responses to Trimming the Archbishop’s tongue: Should Christians stay out of politics?

  1. johnm55 says:

    All life is political and everyone needs to be involved in life and therefore with politics. Some people’s opinions, like say those of an Archbishop, are more likely to reach and possibly influence a wider audience than say those of a couple of bloggers for example TheEvangelicalLiberal or johnm55. Because of that an Archbishop probably needs to be slightly more careful about what he (or hopefully in the near future she) says. That having been said nothing should be put in the way of an Archbishop speaking his or her mind on anything secular or sacred. Also nothing should be put in the way of anyone criticising what has been said.
    In the case of the Rowan Williams article in the New Statesman, it seems to me that the criticism has two aspects:

    he is being criticised not as much for what he said as saying anything at all
    the Tories are shocked, yet again, to find that the CofE is no longer the Conservative Party at prayer


  2. JimPruitt says:

    It’s hard to know how to begin when someone utters a false modesty, (“I confess that I know little of US church or US politics…”) and then goes forward to attack another group that is unpopular – in this case right-wing Christians in the US.

    As always, it is best to summarize. In the US many conservative Christians are indeed involved in politics, But, as earlier posts have pointed out, there is an emergent church here too, sometimes called Red-letter Christians which represents the liberal side of the political spectrum. There is also the Catholic tradition here in the US.

    President Obama is an outspoken Christian. Here he is in 2009 receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:

    “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

    “I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naive — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
    “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

    This is far more honest thinking than Mr. Rowan or Mr. Wright have shown to date. And why should they bother to think deeper? They know they can say and write anything and America will continue to protect them. (How is your adventure in Libya going, by the way? We hear you’re running out of bombs and may need our help.)

    Summary: Of course Christians can be involved in politics. But it is complex beyond your stereotypes of American conservative Christians or your misunderstanding of the American Constitution.


    • Well, you might perhaps start by according me the courtesy of assuming that when I say I know little, I’m not speaking falsely. I’m not an American, I’ve never been to America, and my knowledge of the political and church situation there all comes second-hand and with an unavoidable degree of filtering and bias. Our countries may have a ‘special relationship’, but we also have mutual suspicion based on an almost-but-not-quite-shared language and almost-but-not-quite-shared values.

      However, knowing little is not the same as knowing nothing, and we can all make reasonable provisional assessments based on what knowledge we do currently have. Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood; feel free to explain your constitution to me.

      I’m not going to re-hash the debate over US foreign policy, violence and warfare and whether the UK ‘needs’ the US – I meant it when I said ‘Let’s not go there again’. You and I disagree quite strongly on these subjects; that’s fine. You have your reasons and your perspective; doubtless we both have good reasons for what we think, though neither of us should be sure that we are completely right.

      Nonetheless, I stand by what I said regarding the so-called ‘religious right’. From what I’ve seen, it does seem to me that the extreme conservative evangelical wing in the US has had way too much earthly influence in the halls of power, and to have used that in ways that are neither good nor biblical. For example, the idea prevalent among the Tim LaHayes and Pat Robertsons of the world that to support the political state of Israel is to support God and to earn his blessing. Thank goodness Obama doesn’t think like that.

      I do have a huge amount of respect for President Obama and his stance on a wide range of issues, including pushing through unpopular healthcare reform. I also have a lot of respect for both Rowan Williams and Tom Wright. Whether I or you agree with them on everything is not at issue here.


  3. JimPruitt says:

    Three points:

    1. You cannot understand the religious right in this country without understanding what gave it impetus. It wasn’t Israel. It was Roe v Wade. I am pro-choice myself but I understand that abortion more than any other issue is what holds the religious right together and that its views are values-based – a conviction that an abortion is the taking of a human life. The Evangelical Liberal’s rant against the American religious right raises the issue of which part of your title is more important (or fashionable) to you.
    2. You admire “pushing through unpopular healthcare reform.” Why? Do you admire the exercise of power politics? Do you appreciate the details of the 2500 page law? Are you glad Americans are catching up to your standard of social justice? Is there something you want to correct about the US health care system? Do you favor tax increases or budget deficits? Do you know what you are talking about?
    3. The American Constitution ensures freedom of religion. George Washington and early American presidents recognized that that freedom extended to Catholics, Jews, Mormons and Muslims and nonbelievers. It by no means excludes religious people from public life. Take a field trip to Westminster Abbey and you will see the image of Dr. Martin Luther King and while there ponder the meaning of Christians in politics.

    If you were an American you would fit easily into the liberal camp. If you were on the continent your views would be typical of (non-Muslim) Europeans. There is nothing particularly unorthodox or wrong about such views. But your religious views would be irrelevant except as an advertisement that evangelicals include political liberals, an unexceptional claim. Here is my advice: learn to build up your church and your civilization without attacking conservatives. It is both too easy and too distracting.


    • Jim, I don’t think that it will be helpful to either of us (or edifying to anyone else) to prolong this particular discussion. It seems to me that you’re receiving my remarks (or ‘rant’) about American politics as a personal affront to you; while my comments may quite possibly have been ill-informed and even prejudiced, they certainly weren’t intended to insult you personally.

      For my own part, I’m finding myself getting upset and angry at your responses which, to me, feel both disproportionate and rude. This suggests to me that we’re both rather too emotionally involved for whatever reason to have a productive conversation on this subject at the moment.

      Thanks for your explanation of the American constitution as regards religion. I think we’ve probably slightly misunderstood each other over this too, but no matter.

      My gripe with the ‘religious right’ as I see it – and I may be wrong – is not over particular policy issues. It’s just that – to me, and I may be wrong – it seems a little worrying that a rather fundamentalist brand of Christianity should be able to wield such a lot of political influence within the world’s most powerful nation. That’s all. You clearly disagree; that’s fine. Let’s accept that we have different perspectives on this.

      I am indeed politically liberal/centre-left, though without any particular party allegiance. It might also surprise you that I’m generally pro-life – for reasons that can wait for another day. But in religious terms, I’m neither strongly conservative nor liberal, seeing good and bad in both ends of the spectrum and feeling that the two need to be brought creatively together. Politics is a side issue for me – but it’s still an issue, and one that I will raise from time to time when it seems relevant.

      As a human being, I – like you – am subject to all sorts of imperfection, prejudice, and to disproportionate and irrational emotional reactions. That’s the human condition. I apologise if I’ve offended you with my remarks; I’d like to think that you have also not set out to offend. Perhaps we can leave it there for now.


  4. JimPruitt says:

    Well put. We can leave it here and I’ll keep reading and enjoying the Evangelical Liberal. One minor point: I meant rant as I am coming to hear it here lateley – not in its normal meaning but more like “post.”


  5. Eric M. McGrady says:

    As a Bible following America Christian first, a Reagan conservative second, and a Republican third, it is very easy for me to understand why these arguments exist. This debate centers around “christian” liberals re-defining the liberties St. Paul defines SO vividly.

    A liberty we have the physical ability to use, does not give us permission to use. (Hence God’s gift of free choice)

    “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient…. ” I Cor 6:12.
    ” For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” Gal 5:13

    American “christian” Liberals define “christianity” as the ability to do WHATSOEVER they want to do, WHEN they choose to do it. This is absolutely NOT Biblical. It would never cross St. Paul’s mind to allow a Homosexual pastor to “lead” a church!

    Re-defining the “church” around a man’s agenda, is NOT the church the New Testament in the book of Acts!

    I am aligned with a particular political party, because the Republican bylaws and behavior are closest to the Biblical principles I choose to align myself with daily. (Protecting unborn babies; Not cheating on wife; Lex Rex; etc.

    I am a conservative, BECAUSE I am a Bible behaving Christian; I am a Republican BECAUSE I am conservative. The decisions I make, each and every day, MUST be prayed about, no matter HOW small.

    Example: Does God smile on me helping a little old lady across the street, Of course. Does God smile on me having relations with a sodomite? Of course not!! Jesus came and fulfilled the law, NOT do away with it!


    • Hello Eric – thanks for your comment. As you can guess, I don’t agree with your perspective, but I’m glad to hear it. I actually think that if Paul the apostle were around today, he would very probably allow a homosexual pastor to lead a church. I may be wrong about that, but I read the underlying ‘biblical principles’ very differently from you.

      For what it’s worth, I think that both conservatives and liberals read and interpret the Bible in particular ways, neither of which can do full justice to the complexity and depth of the texts. Unfortunately we all come to the Bible with our own agendas and assumptions, and we see what we want to see in it. What I see above all is that God is love, God is good, and God looks like Jesus who used outcasts, failures and sinners to be his disciples and ministers and ambassadors.

      In my view, if we focus primarily on issues like homosexuality we’re in severe danger of missing the whole point of Jesus and his kingdom, and instead becoming more like the Pharisees.


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