Is it not amazing how men and women who profess the same Christian faith can end up coming to such different political conclusions when we vote? How is it that two people who confess Christ as Lord and the Bible as his infallible word end up in such anxious and even vitriolic disagreement? Of course, the causes are many: where they get their news, where they live, where they socialize… For all the new round of stories about “evangelical Christians vote this way,” zip code, it turns out, may be a better predictor of the vote in modern America. Evangelicals in Manhattan in New York City weren’t huge fans of Trump, and non-Christians in Montana weren’t loving Biden.
Something else is going on, too, though. We Christians also have, whether we recognize it or not, differing political theologies. A political theology is a system for envisioning, understanding, and navigating the public square in light of our faith. (People looking at the church from the outside often call these “Christian political ideologies.”) Such approaches go back as far as the New Testament itself. The gospel of Luke and especially the book of Acts, for instance, work to show the reader that Christians are good members of society, no threat whatsoever to the Roman Empire, and even good citizens of it.
Even though the biblical authors were considering these issues, they were hardly considering them in the same societal context as we do. The biblical authors never considered shared responsibility for government, and so the Bible does not lay out the appropriate relationship in a representative democracy between an individual believer’s vision and the mechanisms of the state. That does not mean that our approach to political power and governmental systems cannot be informed by our faith. Indeed, as people of the cross, we are called to take every thought captive for Christ, even the thoughts we have about public life, and even when public life is structured very differently for us than it was for any of the biblical authors. But it does mean we require a little more work to figure out our vision for the relationship between our faith and our government in the US today than Paul did under house arrest in the first century CE.
Once Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire, such thinking became more explicit, especially with church fathers such as Augustine. This thinking continued through the Reformation and continues still today. This is the third article in an occasional TWI series trying to bring these foundational theologies into the light, so they can be considered. Over the course of our history as a country, Christians have felt the influence of many specific political theologies, whether we know it or not, that inform the way we think about faith and civic life, and here we consider three: Dominionism, Kuyperianism, and Christian Realism.
I’m describing each of these traditions from the outside, and none of them comprehensively. They were each either developed or innovated by extremely accomplished thinkers who took the task of loving God with all their mind seriously, and an approach to political theology was only one of the fruits of each of their labors. Think of these descriptions as a rough sketch, helping give a sense of each tradition. Or think of these descriptions as a brief introduction, helping you find an entry point to understanding how to interact with it.
“Dominionism,” or “dominion theology,” has become a loaded term in political debate over the past few years. Some believe the phrase describes a conspiracy to infiltrate the US government and institute an oppressive theocracy. Others consider it an unfair attack their opponents use to assassinate their character. And still others think it a fringe belief system that gets more attention than it deserves. Ultimately, the phrase “dominionism” describes a narrow but diverse range of visions for how Christians should relate to government – visions unified in the idea of using the state to protect people from spiritually harming themselves.
The dispositions that get lumped together under dominionism place an emphasis on Genesis 1:28—God’s command that humanity fill the earth and exercise authority over it. If Christians are the people with the clearest view of how we are supposed to live, the thinking goes, and if we’re the people who will get to inherit the restored earth when it’s made new, then it makes sense that we should be the ones to exercise authority now. If we use the laws of the state to help the lost people around us avoid the self-destructive, sinful behaviors to which they are prone, we might be able to help them live lives that are more pleasing to Christ AND better for themselves, even if they do not know Jesus yet.
The broad strains of what we call dominionism today took form starting in the middle of the 20th century, in part as a reaction to the west transitioning away from a nominally Christianized society. Before the Cold War, the culture in most western countries incentivized personal conduct that could be considered at least broadly “Christian.” The church’s job in such a culture was not necessarily to teach Christians how to live counterculturally but rather to teach people the faith that made sense of their lifestyle and gave it meaning. In the wake of World War I and World War II, however, western social norms began to change, and an increasing portion of society no longer considered “Christianized” lifestyles necessary for a respectable or successful life.
The dominionist framework appeals easily to a cultural majority which has felt itself slide into being a cultural minority, and many of us are, to some degree, influenced by a dominionist framework, even if we explicitly reject it. We have absorbed dominionist thinking because it has been a major way political campaigns in the US have messaged themselves to Christian voters for the past 50 years. We live in an individualistic culture, so when it looks like other people are trying to make decisions for us, it is easy to assume the worst about those people. Maybe we are progressives and do not like the decisions they are trying to make for us. Or maybe we are libertarians and we do not like the fact that they are making decisions for us at all. And if we are operating out of the Reformed tradition, it is easy to dismiss dominionism outright as a failure to understand leadership in light of Christ or as a misunderstanding of where we are in the biblical story compared to Genesis 1.
But it is important for us to remember that many people who operate in the dominionist tradition are doing so because they genuinely want to reduce the obstacles between their neighbors and Christ. The person most associated with developing dominionism is theologian Francis Schaeffer, most well-known for his work on Christian apologetics (I owe my own faith in part to someone who was profoundly influenced by Schaeffer.) and for founding the L’Abri community in Switzerland that has spawned life-changing retreat centers around the world. Not everyone who is a dominionist approaches politics out of Schaeffer’s degree of sympathy for other people, but not every dominionist approaches politics because he or she lusts for power, either.
For a lot of evangelicals in the US, the phrase Kuyperiansim is synonymous with the European Christian Democratic political tradition. More specifically, Kuyperianism and the Christian Democratic traditions are two different movements, both associated with the same person: Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was both a theologian and a statesman who lived from 1837 to 1920 and served as prime minister of the Netherlands for four years at the very beginning of the 20th century. Kuyperianism is the tradition of political and social theology that descends from his theological work, while the Christian Democratic parties in many parliaments around the world are relatives of or descendants of the Christian Democratic party that he belonged to in his own political service.
Kuyper is most famous in the US for his concept of “sphere sovereignty.” This was the idea that human activity occurs in different realms (or “spheres”). Examples of spheres of activity include commerce, industry, the arts, government, and the organized institutions of our faith, among many others. According to Kuyper, expertise or authority in one sphere does not necessarily give someone the standing to direct activity in one of the other spheres. The sculptor will be accountable to Christ for his actions and the ends to which he dedicated his work, but the sculptor knows the actual work of sculpting better than his pastor knows the work of sculpting.
Sphere sovereignty has been incredibly influential on many of the faith-and-work ministries that have popped up in the U.S. over the last few decades. Kuyper’s writing was extremely helpful to many in the church because it broke down the idea of the sacred/secular divide—the belief that ministry work was inherently more important than all other kinds of work, and if you were not in ministry, you were doing something less important and less respectable.
This idea of sphere sovereignty was heavily influenced by the fact that Kuyper himself had two very different careers at the same time, and he had to make sense of how those two careers related to one another—and did not relate to one another—as he moved between them. Taken out of context, the language of sphere sovereignty can lead people today to think of our own hearts, minds and lives as being compartmentalized, but Kuyper’s vision for sphere sovereignty was not for us to be a really devout Christian in some places, a struggling or nominal Christian in other places, and maybe leave some aspects of our lives entirely separate from our discipleship. Instead, the goal was to reach a point where, in Kuyper’s words, “no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Meanwhile, the Christian Democrat tradition (which Kuyper was part of) is a collection of political parties in Latin America and in most European countries. The Christian Democratic tradition in government centers on advancing policies that are consistent with Christian values. If we envision the government as a moral actor, then the Christian Democratic tradition encourages that government to take morally acceptable actions. Because it exists mostly in multi-party parliamentary systems, the Christian Democratic approach to statecraft focuses on compromise, collaboration, and coalition-building.
Because the U.S. developed a two-party political culture after George Washington retired, we never developed a sustainable Christian Democratic party. Instead, the Christian Democratic tradition is carried out in the U.S. by independent advocacy groups that operate at the state and federal level. Most people in the U.S. who call themselves Christian Democrats identify more closely with European Christian Democratic parties. Those parties pursue a platform that is, in Europe, considered center-right to right-leaning. In the U.S., those same positions would probably be characterized as a center-left approach to government activity, guided by a moderate or center-right vision for the common good, along with an emphasis on a robust, autonomous, and socially active sacred sector. But even that network of advocacy and policy-development groups dispersed around the country is a more centralized set of institutions than the third movement, Christian Realism.
The political philosophy known as “Christian Realism” is often attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century pastor, theologian, and public intellectual in the U.S. Niebuhr was originally part of the social gospel movement. The Enlightenment had prompted a drastic privatization of how Christians envisioned and practiced their faith, and the social gospel movement reemphasized many of the outward-facing implications of the Christian faith that had been neglected by that privatization. But living through major global atrocities and domestic injustices left Niebuhr concerned that most people in the social gospel movement were not adequately accounting for the depth and persistence of sin in individuals and in institutions. His vision for Christian Realism was a corrective to that, a call to account for the persistence and prevalence of sin, even in things that are meant to be instruments of good.
In our efforts to give the world foretastes of the healing and restoration Jesus has promised to bring, Niebuhr said that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the better, but that we must also never forget that better might have a downside. He therefore criticized the social gospel movement from which he had sprung, but not because it was concerned about the striking auto workers in Detroit. Instead, he criticized it because he thought the social gospel was not articulating a full enough grasp of the problems that afflicted those people and because he thought it was promising more than it could deliver.
Christian Realism mostly centers on Niebuhr’s own writing. While a fair number of people working in politics say they are inspired by Niebuhr, it is hard to trace any kind of coherent policy framework that binds his modern followers. For instance, President Obama talked about how much he was influenced by Niebuhr, as did a lot of the appointed officials who directed the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, as did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Niebuhr was a very accomplished and nuanced thinker. Personally, when I’m reckoning with his work, I try to remember that Christian Realism was not necessarily meant to be a self-contained platform or even a framework for developing policy. Christian Realism is what happened when a brilliant, devout man turned his powerful theological mind toward the tasks of mourning the things going wrong around him and searching for any opportunity to move forward in faith rather than in despair.
A Christian Approach to “Christian Politics”
Of course, we ought not assume that most individuals with whom we speak, argue, vote, or advocate hold a pure version of any of these three philosophies. Most American Christians today have instead absorbed a mishmash of all three, even unawares of the areas of tension between them. So, how do we reconcile a political ideology with a faith that calls us to test everything, to lean not on our own understanding, and to actively seek out the correction and training in righteousness of people very unlike ourselves? I think we find a good starting point in Niebuhr’s reminder about the Fall in Genesis 3.
In book after book, the Bible lays out the far-ranging effects of the Fall. It says that sin has ruined our legal standing with God, broken our relationships with one another, degraded the cultures we create together, subjected our bodies to entropy, death and decay, and ruined the way we think and reason. (This is what theologians call “the noetic effects of the fall,” or the effects the fall had on the life of our mind. Paul calls it, “seeing the world through a dim piece of glass.”)
If the Fall has noetic effects, then until we are made perfect, there is always a good chance we are wrong about something, even something to which we are deeply committed. This chance that we are wrong is why Scripture calls us not to be judges, not to be jurors, not to be prosecutors, not even to be defendants, but to be witnesses. Our job in this world is not to rule, because our rule would not be perfect. Jesus’ job will be to rule. Our job as witnesses is to testify, to tell the story of our God.
The way we testify is by living lives worthy of the gospel. This means living and acting differently from the people around us—especially when the only thing separating us from those people is our faith.
Our political ideologies are the product of people who simultaneously reflect and distort God’s glory—and no creation is greater than the people who created it. Our goal in the public square therefore should not be merely to champion our political tribes, because that would mean working to empower their sin as much as it would mean empowering their glory. Instead, we should seek to witness to our political tribes, even critiquing our own groups when necessary, and we often must do that by contrasting ourselves against them.
In the end, Christians are not called to conform to our traditions—even the traditions created by other Christians. We are called to redeem them, wherever and however we can, even if we can never make them perfect.