Washington for Jesus—really?

An increasingly influential segment within Christianity seeks to use political power to "turn the nation back to Jesus." Perhaps its members ought to ask themselves, "What would He do with it if He had it?

Roland R. Hegstad is editor of Liberty, a Magazine of Religious Freedom, in which this article is appearing in the September-October issue.

Let me tell you about Washington, D.C.

It's the one city in the country where your best friend will stab you in the back with your knife and then report you to the police for carrying a concealed weapon. That's politics!"

This description of political reality came from a friend on Capitol Hill. And he was quick to adapt it to other capitals—London, Moscow, Tokyo. In his mind politics was, well, politics.

"How better can one define a sewer than by calling it a sewer?" he asked. "So politics is politics. You remember Lord Acton's saying—'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' "

And it does. One has only to pick up the latest newspaper with its revelations of moral turpitude in high places: a governor and cronies sentenced to prison, allegations of influence peddling, an FBI scam implicating a number of the nation's top lawmakers in an allegedly illegal scheme—and who can forget the shame of Watergate, with the subsequent illusion-destroying revelations about the degree to which our laws were broken by agencies sworn to uphold them?

To put it simply: There aren't many little boys clutching their mother's apron strings and saying, "I know what I want to be when I grow up—a politician!"

In April a quarter million Christians gathered in the nation's capital to, in their words, "turn the nation around to Jesus." Others seek to "put God back o into the public schools," elect "the right kind of Christian to public office," and rate candidates by their commitment to Christian principles.

It is the removal of God from public life, we are told by evangelical Christian spokesmen, that has brought "a series of plagues" on the United States, including "the assassination of John F. Kennedy, racial conflict, the Vietnam war, Water gate, the increasing divorce rate, the rise in teen-age pregnancies, venereal dis ease, drug addiction, and the present economic crisis."

One recalls with mixed amusement and chagrin that other evangelicals had a sky-written cross traced over the head of Premier Khruschev during his 1963 visit, so that he would know he was in a Christian nation! With less amusement one must report the attempts of others who, convinced that threats to the national security can be met only by acknowledgement of the authority of Jesus Christ, are attempting to write the cross into the Constitution through a religious amendment.

In his latest book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Senator Mark Hatfield (R.-Oreg.) wrestles with the question of how a follower of Christ should serve his government and even whether he should serve at all. The Senator, an unapologetic Christian, doesn't spare himself. He admits his struggle to preserve convictions, admits to urges to vacate politics, with its "cosmetic pursuit of image," and writes frankly of "the corrupting lust for power that characterizes our entire political system."

The Senator has valid credentials for such criticism: at a national prayer breakfast held during the Nixon administration he criticized American civil religion and called for national repentance. Among the 3,000 present were President and Mrs. Nixon, Billy Graham, the mayor of Moscow, and top Congressional and judicial figures. Hatfield was not intimidated and he did not dispense bromides as the subsequent anger of Nixon, Haldeman, and Erlichman confirmed.

Hindsight tells us that the Nixon-initiated Sunday religious services at the White House should have emphasized the distinction between a religious fagade and that individual heart commitment that alone constitutes true worship. Religious leaders—Protestant, Jewish, Catholic—presided at the services, but, one must report, without the candor of Hatfield. Billy Graham, the nation's conscience, went there several times, took the pulse of the Presidency, and pronounced it good. And we all headed for the golf course or the tennis courts, after communing with the Infinite through the Sunday comic section (Charlie Brown seems to be America's favorite theologian), content that the nation (the favored nation) was in good shape. How comforting it was, in our Christian nation, to know that in our confrontation with atheistic, materialistic Communism, we were not being caught with our prayers down. Chosen men—God's chosen men—were at the helm. And surely God was on the side of truth and decency. Our side.

In retrospect, it seems no wonder that religion and morality figured prominently in the 1976 Presidential election. They became an issue not only because of Watergate and surrounding events but also because of the candidacy of James Earl Carter, Jr., Democratic aspirant for the Presidency and an enthusiastic Southern Baptist. Was he sincere? Too sincere? Too sincere for Realpolitik? Is anybody in politics sincerely religious?

Carter claimed to be. He was, he said, "twice born." In evangelical code that means totally committed. His administration, he said, would reflect Christian principles—compassion, brotherhood, love, truth, honesty, and decency, in its policies, both domestic and foreign.

This "platform" did not set well with the Washington veterans: the pundits of press, radio, and television. They'd heard it all before, they said. In New York City the cynics on the Times implied that if Carter did get into the White House and there did practice Christian principles, God help the nation! In other words, you can't be an effective President and turn the other cheek. When you're in a world where other nations play dirty, you've got to play dirty too, or pretty soon you won't have any yard left to play in.

Are the rules of the game such that there simply isn't any place in government anymore, anywhere, for the Christian? Can he serve the differing demands of two governments—one spiritual, one all too carnal? Should he confine his citizenship to voting only on such transcendentally moral issues as whether margarine can be colored (on ballots in two States recently)?

Politics and packaging

Politics, I've learned during 22 years in Washington, D.C., does not hover in the form of a dove over a scarlet-draped altar. It coughs its way through smoke-filled rooms, steps on toes, harangues, hurrahs, whimpers, whispers, seduces, and is seduced. It's parades up Constitution Avenue, Inauguration prayers and promises—and ghetto children munching lead-based paint chips. It's Uncle Sam in a top hat, wearing stars and stripes, and far-off sounds of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." It's disillusioned youth shouting obscenities and bearded radicals throwing bombs. It's the hippies and yippies and beatniks and rednecks . . . long hair and skinheads . . . pipe organs and guitars . . . ecology and eschatology . . . men on the moon and machines on Mars . . . women on the march and abortion on demand . . . bishops and bankers, campaign managers and candidates, ward-heelers and statesmen, OPEC and NATO, unenlightened management and Mafia-dominated unions, dream and disillusionment, victory and defeat.

Politics: "the science of government." A strange blending of the vision ry and the pragmatic, with voters who know little more than what they read in the papers. And here is the dilemma of the Christian citizen: How does he learn who the candidate really is? And what he is? Answers are not easy to come by. In his book The Selling of the President, Joe McGinniss reprints a memo of Raymond Price, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon in the 1968 election:

"We have to be very clear on this point that the response is to the image and not to the man. . . . It's not what's there that counts, it's what's projected—and carrying it one step further, it's not what he projects but rather what the voter receives. It's not the man we have to change, but rather the received impression. And this impression often depends more on the medium and its use than it does on the candidate himself." —Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970, p. 35.

And so, in politics, we often are con fronted not only with the blind leading the blind but with the "bland leading the bland" (John Kenneth Galbraith, in The Affluent Society). Images are tailored to our vote: homogenized for the city, pasteurized for the country; farm subsidies are backed in Paducah, Kentucky ("How y'all, neighbor. ... I was born a right smart piece up the holler myself"); "subsidized inefficiency" is bucked be fore the Daughters of the American Revolution meeting in Washington, D.C.'s, Constitution Hall (where the candidate's pronunciation sounds as Bostonian as baked beans).

Through the media (Theodore White has called it the "opinionated Mafia") the politician is transformed into a commodity to be marketed. The voter is left to ask, Isn't anything real? (Is reality an actor running for the White House? Or have we had actors there all along?) Isn't anything true? (A Supreme Court justice, addressing an audience in Rockville, Maryland, said: "Truth is a chameleon, changing colors to whoever views it.") The intrinsic hypocrisy of the "system" is a common theme in a growing number of analyses of society.

The result is widespread cynicism—of all modern society. Says R. D. Laing: "Unfortunately we are forced by the cynical lies, multifarious deceptions, and sincerely held delusions to which we are subjected through all media ... to a position of almost total social scepticism" (R. D. Laing, "The Obvious," The Dialectics of Liberation, ed. David Cooper, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968, p. 32).

Said Jimmy Carter, in an interview in Liberty magazine just before the 1976 presidential election:

"In the aftermath of Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Watergate, and revelations of CIA excesses, a lot of people feel that the stability that has always been in their lives—a deep sense that my government is great, my government is pure, my government is decent, and my government is honest—that assurance has been lost" (Liberty, September-October, 1976, p. 8).

Destroy the system?

How then shall the Christian relate to the system? There are three options:

1. To destroy the system. This is the way chosen by the radicals, the revolutionaries of our day. In the United States it was the way chosen by the New Left of the 1960's. Initially the youth talked of "participatory democracy." An early slogan was "Build, not burn!" But as Os Guinness has observed, "Pragmatism has an uncanny way of toying with the loftiest of principles."

By 1968 the call was for "discriminating intolerance" (Marcuse's concept). But as change was resisted by the system and frustration mounted, the slogans graduated to Mao's "power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Carl Oglesby, president of the Students for a Democratic Society, who had written, "We want to create a world in which love is more possible," took a more pragmatic—and violent—line: "Revolutions do not take place in velvet boxes. . . . Nuns will be raped and bureaucrats will be disemboweled" (in a speech at the Washington Peace March, November 27, 1965). But the revolution failed. The radicals were tranquilized, often by the same prescription that had corrupted the system—$$$$$. Royalties for radical memoirs and speeches added up to a tidy sum. Force was not the answer in America—though less stable, less constitutionally oriented, less adaptable governments have fallen; and on a world scale, terrorism is emerging as a fearful force for change. Unfortunately, the change is always toward repression: it seems quite impossible to create a political system through terrorism and then change it into a humanitarian government. Power does tend to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.

Few Christians have opted for the revolutionary approach. To the great majority it seems incompatible with the philosophy of One who said, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."

Avoid the system

2. The second option is to withdraw from the system. But that too seems in compatible with the philosophy of One who said, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." The Christian citizen has a responsibility to human government, even when government is oppressive, as Rome was.

Nevertheless, some Christians opt for this alternative. Many youth, disillusioned by the failure of the radicalism of the 1960's, have turned to it also. Thus we see the rapid growth of the escapist drug culture, the new psychic orientation, and Eastern mysticism, each a step away from reality.

The Christian who withdraws may point to Christ's relationship to government and social reform. He attempted no civil reforms, though He lived under a corrupt and oppressive government. Abuses abounded: extortion, intolerance, grinding cruelty, and poverty. Yet He who is our example attacked no national abuses, condemned no national enemies. There is no record of His leading a sit-in for civil rights at a Kosherburger stand, burning a Roman Army draft card, or picketing a factory producing catapults for Herod's troops. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. "I am the way," He said an affirmation that society can be changed only as men are changed individually.

The Christian who holds this position may choose not to bear arms as a soldier or serve as a police officer, judge, legislator, or executive. He may not even protect himself if assaulted.

Change the system

Many Christians opt for a third alter native:

3. To change the system. What did Jesus mean when He told His followers to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's"? At the least, to pay taxes, the question that brought His response. And there was not much more the Christian citizen in Rome could do. But in a democracy or a republic numerous avenues of "rendering" are negotiable. One may vote for politicians holding views most compatible with Christian concepts of justice and virtue—though we have noted the difficulty of penetrating the media cosmetic. And there are moral issues on which we may help shape the posture of the nation—abortion, religious amendments, nonestablishment of religion, equal rights—all more consequential than whether margarine can be colored! The Christian voter can make a difference.

But he cannot establish the kingdom of God on earth. And this limitation he must not forget. Senator Hatfield has said: "All efforts to turn an unregenerate and rebellious world into a Utopian to morrow are doomed. The Christian vision centers in a New Order proclaimed by Christ that involves allegiance and hope grounded in the Spirit and not in the efficacy of our world's systems and structures."

The promise of God's intervention in human affairs permeates all Scripture. An early prophetic book, Daniel, traces world history down to our day and concludes: " Tn the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure'" (Dan. 2:44, 45, R.S.V.).

Two conclusions relevant to a Christian political philosophy may be drawn from these verses. God is going to establish His kingdom in our day—in the day of the nations that came out of the breakup of the Roman Empire. And it will be done without the aid of human agents. The "stone," representing the kingdom of Christ, is cut out without the aid of human stone masons (or empire builders). Its foundation is not placed on the existing political or social order; rather, it smashes and supersedes all human governments. And on a remade planet the long-looked-for universal empire of peace and justice will become an eternal reality. The same theme of divine intervention in human affairs echoes throughout the New Testament:

2 Peter 3:10: "The day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. In that day the heavens will disappear in a tearing blast, the very elements will disintegrate in heat and the earth and all its works will disappear" (Phillips).*

Revelation 21:1-3: "I saw a new Heaven and a new earth, for the first Heaven and the first earth had disappeared and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending from God out of Heaven, prepared as a bride dressed in beauty for her husband. Then I heard a great voice from the throne crying, 'See! The home of God is with men, and he will live among them' " (Phillips).

Virtually all. New Testament writers echo the apocalyptic theme. And in doing so they point up the ultimate impossibility of man's changing the system enough to warrant its continuance. Is it, then, futile for the Christian to choose option three?

Three convictions

Behind the choice of involvement generally are three convictions:

1. Though earthly governments are transitory, they are, nevertheless, established by God. "Everyone ought to obey the civil authorities, for all legitimate authority is derived from God's authority, and the existing authority is appointed under God" (Rom. 13:1, Phil lips).

2. Earth's governments therefore have legitimate functions (Rom. 13:1-8). One is to preserve order: "The officer is God's servant for your protection" (verse 4, Phillips). Civil government is empowered to use the "sword," or, in modern terms, a .38 Magnum, to achieve that outward conformity with law that the gospel of Jesus Christ alone can produce through internal change.

A second function is to preserve a climate of tolerance in which the gospel can be freely preached. As no other nation, America has captured this concept, becoming a refuge for those of all faiths fleeing religious intolerance. Here religious liberty was no longer to be a "diabolical doctrine," as Beze called it, but the glory of the nation—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Here was national recognition of a truth most eloquently stated by Thomas Jefferson: "Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing. I may grow rich by art I am compelled to fol low, I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment; but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve and abhor." Notes on Religion, 1776.

3. The third conviction grows logically from the first two. Since government is ordained by God to preserve order and religious liberty, the Christian citizen may—indeed, has the obligation to—work within the system to advance these legitimate functions. By vote, by participation in the processes of government, or by advocacy from outside of government the Christian may advance justice and mercy and the freedoms that have permitted the church to fulfill its God-given mandate to preach the gospel. To work through the democratic system to improve the system, without abandoning the priorities of men commissioned to herald the imminent establishment of God's kingdom, is consistent with the instructions of Christ.

It is unfortunate, however, that an influential segment within evangelical Christian ranks seeks to equate "turning the nation around to Jesus" with votes against giving the Panama Canal to the Panamanians, busing, social welfare programs, and First Amendment protections against legislated religion. At least two evangelical organizations have published an index, in which the "right kind" of Christian politician is deter mined by his vote on such issues. The same organizations have committed themselves to making America "a Christian republic," with all that would imply about Americans of other—and no—religious faiths. At the least such an approach to politics is divisive within Christian ranks; at the most it is a threat to treasured American—and, I believe, Biblical—concepts of church-state separation.

Writes Stan Mooneyham of World Vision International:

"I am as scared of an evangelical power bloc as I am of any other. Worldly power in religious hands—Islamic or Christian—has hardened into more than one inquisition. That God has delivered us from the hands of zealous but misguided saints is all that has saved us at times."

More Christians should share the sentiments of Ezra. Returning to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon, he said: "For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way" (Ezra 8:22). A tinge of shame should touch the cheeks of clerics and lay Christians alike who trot to the local legislature for "soldiers and horsemen" and money to sup port their institutions or fill their pews. Significant it is that the Lord did not instruct His disciples to tarry in Jerusalem until they got power from the Sanhedrin; rather, He instructed them to "tarry ... in ... Jerusalem, until . . . [they received] power from on high" (Luke 24:49). Jesus did not tell them that without the laws of the state they could do nothing; but rather "Without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5). Christians need not so much to pull legislative wires for the cause of God as to clear the channels to the throne of grace. Legislated religious conformity is legislated religious hypocrisy.

Not one government can set one soul free from the bondage of sin or plant renewing grace in one sinful heart. All the church organizations of the world, allied with all the kingdoms of this world, can never force faith into any man's heart. It is when men forget the nature of Christ's kingdom and lose their hold on the power of the living God that they turn to carnal weapons and seek to advance the cause of religion by human legislation.


Bible verses marked Phillips are from J. B. Phillips: The New Testament in Modern English, Revised Edition. J. B. Phillips 1958, 1960, 1972. Used by permission of The Macmillan Company.

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Roland R. Hegstad is editor of Liberty, a Magazine of Religious Freedom, in which this article is appearing in the September-October issue.

September 1980

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