by the Rev. Dn. Michael D. Harmon
“The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men” — Plato
Christians are often told that we live in a “secular society” governed by the “separation of church and state.” Yet the headlines in our newspapers and the snippets on radio and television news broadcasts are full of issues of moral import. To list just a few examples:
—“Husband wants to put wife to death in Florida: Terri Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state for years, but her mother and father want to assume responsibility for her care. Congressional efforts to delay her death are overturned by the courts.”
—“Mother of slain solider protests war in Iraq outside Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas: Anti-war movement sends her money, promotes her cause.”
—“Members of Congress work to overturn Bush administration policy limiting use of federal funds for experiments on stem cells taken from embryos. The senate majority leader, a physician who has been a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, parts company with the administration on the issue.”
—“Conservative groups push Congress and President Bush to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. While the president speaks in support of the measure, active backing is scant and the amendment is given little chance of passage.”
These stories are all familiar ones, and the list could be made much longer, with abortion, welfare, minority rights, religious liberties and dozens of other issues competing for our attention daily. There is no denying that many issues of public life are also issues that concern Christians as well as devout members of other religions.
There are certainly devout people who say with fervor that these are worldly matters, and that Christians should not be concerned with them. Not only are they impositions on a life devoted strictly to God, but they have the potential to drag believers down in the mud, where such battles inevitably are fought, and could well lead to compromise on essential matters of faith. That position is one of principle, and it has its strong defenders, but it has not been the position of most church bodies over most of the history of Christianity.
It is true that throughout the history of the Church there are examples of Christians withdrawing from the world and becoming concerned only about the welfare of their own fellowship. Such groups as the house churches of Roman Catholics loyal to Rome in China, Copts in Egypt, Protestants in Indonesia and Baptists in Russia can suffer for their faith in various ways from government and private persecution and harassment. Such churches, concerned for the safety of their members and clergy, still manage to survive and even grow, but they are not at the moment engaged in culture-transforming actions.
However, where Christians have been numerous — such as in America — the influence of the Church upon society has been substantial, even transformational. In such nations, the church has done a great deal of good — and also some harm. The danger of harm has historically been greatest where the Church and civil society have overlapped, often to the point of near-identity. Where, for example, the Roman Catholic Church has been most influential in picking secular rulers, the lines of authority have been so blurred that secular rulers have also picked bishops and even popes. In the East, the identification of Orthodox churches with the rulers of various nation-states produced the divisions into “national churches” that prevent unity among Orthodox believers to this day. Christians with identical theologies will not unify because their churches grew up in nations often at war with each other.
What are Christians to do, however, with Jesus’ statements that they should “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17), and, speaking to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:37)?
Yet, Paul tells us that “Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God…. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Romans 13:1-3).
How is it possible to square that plain, simple command with both the examples from our own time of rulers who abuse their people and others — Nazis, Communists, slaveholders, judges and politicians who approve of abortion and euthanasia, and more — and the rulers of Paul’s time, who severely persecuted Christians, bringing terror upon those who did nothing wrong?
The deepest Christian thought, expressed by early Fathers of the Church, confronted this question directly.
St. John Chrysostom wrote that Paul “does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself.”
St. Augustine elaborated: “…it is fitting that as far as this life is concerned, we be subjected to the authorities…. But as far as the spiritual side is concerned, in which we believe in God and are called into His kingdom, it is not right for us tobe subject to any man who seeks to overturn in us the very thing which God has been pleased to grant us so that we might obtain eternal life…. But the balance which the Lord himself prescribed is to be maintained: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but unto God the things which are God’s.’”
And Theodoret of Cyr says plainly, “If the rulers demand something that is ungodly, then on no account are they (Christians) allowed to do it.”
What does this mean for us as 21st century Christians? It would seem that the key word is Augustine’s: balance. Where a politician or a political party is doing what the Church, Scripture and Holy Tradition tell us is God’s will — for example, to protect innocent human life at all stages of development — then that person or party deserves the support of all true Christians. Likewise, when a person or party in public life acts against the clear import of the faith, they should be opposed.
That means that the person or party is judged by the Faith, not that the Faith becomes the property of a person or party. Other nations have parties labeled “Christian Democrat” or “Christian Socialist,” yet many of their members work long and hard to overturn Christian values. The Christian must beware of becoming too closely tied to any party or individual, to the point where the interests of that party or person overwhelm the demands of the faith.
And yet, it is also true that very little, if anything, gets done in public life by a solitary individual. People in politics must join together in groups to accomplish anything, all the while recognizing the temptation to compromise on not only unimportant things, but on things that are critically important. The urge to create a so-called “big tent” can result in moral compromise to the point where all sense of worthiness is lost.
In order of progression, most Christians should cast ballots, many should join parties, some should run for office, some should advise politicians, but none should cast ultimate hope upon politics even for “secular salvation,” let alone an eternal one.
Yet, without the involvement of Christians in political life, the field is yielded, as even a pagan like Plato knew, to the lowest common denominator. As someone once said, “The default position of the human race is Auschwitz.” That is, sin will rule us and our actions if God does not, and the depths of depravity will sooner or later be imposed upon society as a whole if Christians do not interpose themselves and their Lord’s values between the rulers and the people.
Individuals among us are called to different tasks, each of which influences society — Mother Teresa who showed God’s love to the poor and inspired others to aid; Billy Graham who preaches the word and transforms souls whom will then transform a culture; Randall Terry who takes pro-life activism to the street to confront injustice face to face; and Congressmen like Henry Hyde and Chris Cox who vote the culture of life on the floor of Congress. Some of us are called to be just like them. Each of us is called by Jesus to be salt and light and to intercede before God. Which path is He calling you to follow now? +
Deacon Michael D. Harmon is a parishioner of the Church of the Prince of Peace (of the Charismatic Episcopal Church), Sanford, Maine. He is an editorial writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram, the state’s largest newspaper, where he has worked as a reporter and editor for 35 years. He has a B.A. in English Literature from Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, and was a seminarian in St. Michael’s Seminary (Canon Mark Pearson is one of his professors). He retired from the U.S. Army Reserve in 1994 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is married to Margaret.