A Presbyterian Perspective on Faith & Politics

Sometimes you hear people say that faith and politics don’t mix. I want to argue that they do. And I want to begin with the Bible. Most of the Bible has to do, not with people’s private lives, but with their public lives. The Bible traces the national life of the people of Israel, it includes the pronouncements of prophets who challenged the public authorities of their day, it records the public ministry of Jesus, and it preserves the letters of Paul to early church communities. 

Most of what happens in the Bible happens in the context of empire. The Hebrew people were enslaved by the Egyptian Empire, and the book of Exodus tells the story of their liberation. After the nation of Israel was established, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. Later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire. Eventually, the Israelites living in exile in Babylon were allowed to return to Jerusalem as a result of the expansion of the Persian Empire. And the entire New Testament takes place in the context of the Roman Empire. So the Bible tells us about God and God’s people living under systems of political, economic, and military domination that involved the economic exploitation of the poor and vulnerable by the rich and powerful.

Now, Christians are followers of Jesus, who came on the scene at the beginning of the first century A.D. during Roman occupation. He was a prophet who confronted the civil and religious authorities of his day and challenged the status quo. He was also a positive, constructive force, offering healing and hope to a broken world. 

For Christians, Jesus was not just any prophet. He was, and is, the ultimate prophet, the ultimate mediator between the human and the divine. Not only does he speak on behalf of God. For Christians, he is the embodiment of God, the one through whom we see God most clearly. 

Jesus’ public ministry was about liberation – freeing people from spiritual, physical, social, and economic forms of bondage. Jesus offered good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, the landless, and the enslaved – all people marginalized or excluded by the culture. 

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God. He spoke of the Kingdom of God (or God’s Empire) as an alternative social order to that of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was a system of domination. God’s Empire, on the other hand, was a domination-free order. The Roman Empire was based on economic exploitation. God’s Empire was based on economic justice. The Roman Empire was based on violence. God’s Empire on nonviolence. The Roman Empire involved oppression. God’s Empire involved liberation. The Roman Empire involved brutality. God’s Empire involved healing.

Jesus was killed by the Roman Empire, because he challenged the status quo. He threatened the established order. But he began a movement for personal transformation and social change that lived on in his disciples. 

The early Church stood in opposition to the Roman Empire. Early Christians said: “Christ is our King,” which meant Caesar was not their king! They said, “Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior,” which meant Caesar was not their Lord and Savior! These basic statements of the Christian faith were politically subversive.

Consequently, the early Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire. Some were even martyred for their faith. But the Empire was not able to destroy the Church. So, instead, it co-opted the Church. Christianity was made the official, established religion of the Roman Empire. Some say it was the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity, because the Church became a tool of empire, blessing imperial ambitions. As European empires expanded, they did so with the blessing of the Church. Explorers and conquistadors conquered lands and peoples with Christian missionaries at their side. (Not one of our best moments!)

The Presbyterian Church came out of the 16th-century Protestant Reformations in Europe. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, had a strong belief in the importance of civic involvement. He believed that it was important for Christians to live out their faith in the public square. So, in his adopted city of Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin was an advocate for free public education, full employment, regular garbage collection, and better medical and social services, among other things. 

That Calvinist tradition of public engagement is part of the historic self-understanding of Presbyterians. From a Presbyterian perspective, our faith demands that we take our responsibility as citizens seriously and involve ourselves in the public affairs of our community, our nation, and the world.

Presbyterians in the United States have been involved in civic affairs from the time our country was founded. Indeed, Presbyterians were so involved in the American Revolution that many members of the British Parliament, and even King George himself, referred to the Revolution as “the Presbyterian Rebellion.” Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, at least 14 of them, or 25%, were Presbyterians. And the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian -- the Rev. John Witherspoon. Presbyterian leaders of the American Revolution were distinguished by their “restless and turbulent antimonarchical spirit.” And the Presbyterian form of government, which offered a living example of an alternative to monarchy, became the model upon which American democracy was based.

What about the separation of church and state? Presbyterians have long supported that principle as well. It is the basis of our freedom of religion. But to say that people of faith should not be involved in politics or in public affairs because of the separation of church and state is a gross misrepresentation of the Constitutional principle. The relevant Constitutional clause says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” Our founding fathers did not want our country to have an official state religion. So they included that language in the Constitution to preserve and protect religious liberty in the United States. The principle was never meant to prevent people of faith from exercising their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Presbyterians believe that faith leads directly to action. It has become a Presbyterian axiom: “To believe is to do.” We are a church that is socially engaged. We put our faith into action in the public arena. That means we exercise our right to vote at election time. And it means we participate in the democratic process between elections as well, communicating with our elected officials, engaging in public policy advocacy. 

Remarks given by the Rev. Roger Scott Powers, pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, at the Albuquerque Forum on Faith and Politics on February 5, 2017. Sunday’s interfaith panel was the first in a series of public conversations being organized this year by St. Andrew Presbyterian Church on critical issues at the intersection of faith and politics. Future forums will look at immigration policy, global climate change, health care, and public education.