Render to Democracy What Belongs to Democracy: Guarding Against Political Cynicism

Five years ago Jonathan Leeman was asked to address the problem of political cynicism and apathy among Christians. What he wrote was later published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology [11/4 (Winter 2007), 108–111]. I’ve copied his words into this blog post.

Leeman is the Director of Communications at 9Marks in Washington, DC, a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and of SBTS.

Here’s what he wrote:

SBJT: What should the Christian’s posture toward the state be?

Most people, whether Christian or not, assume a posture toward the state somewhere on a spectrum between an old man’s cynicism and a young man’s optimism (picture Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”).

Thoughtful Christians commonly warn fellow believers against the latter end of this spectrum—against over realizing their eschatologies and over equating the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Salvation will not come from the state, and a pastor’s job is to preach the gospel. Period. Whatever opinions he harbors over health care, minimum wage, or immigration, he has the authority to preach the Word and not one word more (2 Tim 4:2; also, John 7:18).

So cautionary tales are told about the leftward and rightward ventures of mainline Protestantism and the Moral Majority, respectively. (Of course, Emergent and New Perspective stump speeches make one think this tale should be rehearsed more often!)

Postmodern Cynicism

But in our postmodern and media-saturated era, I wonder if the more common sin among the saints is cynicism and apathy. Those are the sins of my post-Vietnam generation, anyhow. Where the modern man had ideological delusions of political grandeur, whether of the Marxist or liberal variety, his postmodern progeny is (ironically) the older cynical man on the spectrum (See Timothy Bewes, Cynicism and Postmodernism [London: Verso, 1997]). The Enlightenment ideologies that formerly claimed the faith of the nations were blown to smithereens when the real story was leaked: “It’s All About Power Says Postmodernism.”

For once, the Christian with his doctrine of original sin can embrace this bit of wisdom from the world. We know that every ideology, whether the West’s or the East’s, is a form of idolatry (See David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003], 15, 22–34). We know that every political hero is deeply fallen.

In the late nineties, the window of my office in Washington overlooked the entrance to Monica Lewinsky’s lawyers’ building. My colleagues and I probably lost several hours of work watching the DC paparazzi swarm as she came and went. In retrospect, what’s more remarkable to me than anything Clinton did through the entire affair was the fact that the Republican speaker of the house leading the impeachment charge against Clinton was simultaneously having an affair of his own, as he recently acknowledged.

Sure enough, patriotism is harder to find today than it was in my grandfather’s day. It feels clichéd to list off Watergate, Iran-Contra, “Read My Lips,” Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, and Abu Ghraib, but these clichés have transformed America’s political culture. Cynicism and apathy are in. Why waste your time with politics?

Biblical Response To Cynicism

In jarring contradistinction to such cynicism comes Paul’s admonition: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). His words strike our condescending ears for several reasons. First, praying typically involves a commitment of the heart that is anything but natural toward those in authority over us. Second, Paul urges Christians to pray with expectation: “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” In other words, pray to the end of effecting change in the political mechanisms responsible for yielding peaceful and quite lives. Prayerfully involve yourself, Christian, in the affairs of the state. Third, Paul surely had more reason to be cynical about government living under Caesar than anyone in the democratic West.

And Paul’s example is not the only one which commends a supportive posture toward the state. Joseph’s posture was loyal, diligent, and hard-working as he prepared Egypt for famine. Daniel’s posture before Darius the Mede was downright reverential, as evident in his exclamation, “O king, live forever!” (Dan 6:21), even if that was a common salute for a king (see Dan 2:4; 3:9; 5:10; 6:6). Even Jesus’ command to render to Caesar whatever belongs to him exemplified a certain kind of deference.

In short, Christians should not regard the state with disdain, contempt, or apathy, but with prayer, honor, and reverence. As Paul said speaking of the governing authority, “he is God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4).

Both the young man’s tour-bus naivety and the old man’s back-room cynicism result from the same failure to trust Christ. What is cynicism, after all, but the fruit of placing one’s hope in the wrong place to begin with.

Like Non-Christian Family Members

The appropriate posture of a Christian toward the state can be analogized, I believe, to a Christian’s posture toward non-Christian family members. We Christians desire for our family members to know Christ. But even if they never do, we still hope they will live morally, act justly, work legally, and show compassion. And we act in their lives toward this end, as when we teach our children to be law-abiding citizens, whether they embrace the gospel or not.

We may not be called to love and care for the nation to the same extent we are called to care for our family members, but the command to love our neighbors as ourselves obligates us to seek the nation’s good, including, as occasion permits, through the mechanisms of the state.

I’d even propose that this analogy can be rooted in the structures of redemptive history. In ancient Israel, the mechanisms of the state and of the family were subsumed within covenantal structures. One might say that the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants assigned jobs to the nation-state and to the family. A Jew’s religion operated through the state and through the family. The three spheres overlapped. The IRS and the church offering plate worked together.

Not so under the new covenant. The people of God are no longer defined by political and familial-ethnic boundaries. Jesus’ distinction between what’s rendered to Caesar and what’s rendered to God presumed that the nation state of Israel was no longer sovereign, and the context of Jesus’ remarks in all three Synoptic Gospels demonstrates the divine intentionality behind this dramatic shift. Before and after the passage containing Caesar’s coin are parables and inquisitions indicating that the Jews’ time was up. God was bringing in a new administration. The old office holders were only tenants (e.g., Mark 12:1–12).

Paul’s willingness to appeal to Caesar over and against the Jews on a capital matter indicates this same bifurcation of political and spiritual authority (Acts 25:11ff). Indeed, it’s at first odd that the latter chapters of Acts would be so consumed with this appeal to Caesar and the movement toward Rome. Yet Luke’s movement from Jerusalem in the early chapters of Acts to Rome in the latter chapters clearly has not just missiological implications, but covenantal and political ones (See David W. Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000]). From the Israelite’s perspective, church and state were now divided.

Henceforth, no earthly emperor could legitimately claim the name “holy” or the ability to rule by “divine right.” Instead, God’s people would live in permanent geographic exile, even as they dwell permanently with God. (How deeply ironic and tragic that one significant segment of the church would identify its authority and name with Rome and, for many centuries, alternatively collaborate and compete with the emperor for secular rule.)

Did that mean Paul could blow off the old political, familial, and religious alliances with the wave of a cynical hand? Hardly. Instead, he said, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Rom 9:3–4). His heart yearned for them.

Are a Christian’s family obligations moot? Hardly. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).

Just as a Christian should continue to care for his family’s welfare, even though the economy of redemption has now placed church and family in different spheres, so a Christian should pray for the nation and seek its good through the mechanisms of the state, even through church and state belong in different spheres.

Render To Democracy

What specifically are we obligated to render to Caesar in a democratic nation? Pay our taxes, stop at red lights, and generally stay out of trouble?

In fact, I believe we are obligated to render to a democratic Caesar everything the command to love our neighbors requires us to render. You might say we’re to render to democracy what belongs to democracy.

Like love’s requirements generally, different opportunities and resources will require different levels of engagement from individual to individual, whether voting, lobbying, nominating, candidating, adjudicating, or even participating in civil disobedience. A failure to vote, if one is capable, is arguably a failure to love one’s neighbor and, therefore, God. Quite simply, God has placed this and other institutional mechanisms into the Western Christian’s hands for securing peace, justice, and mercy.

This means there’s no room for cynicism or apathy in a Christian’s posture toward the state. As the general public becomes more apathetic, Christians should remain civically informed and engaged. Yet we do so remembering the lines between church and state and between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.

In the final analysis, it’s a deepening understanding of this new covenant gospel that simultaneously compels and constrains the Christian’s regard for the state, keeping us from veering toward either cynical indifference or false messianic hopes.

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