Religion & politics: unequally yoked?

Bullocks in a yoke

It is sometimes said that religion and politics don’t mix.

Keep religion out of politics. It can lead to divisive and selfish decisions that benefit the religious tribe at the expense of others.

And certainly keep politics out of religion. It can cause sharp divides in churches and can lead to christians being “unequally yoked” with non-believers.

But there are reasons for christians to be involved in politics, provided we are careful.

Why politics matters

Some christians believe politics is dirty and christians shouldn’t soil themselves. This is a core value of classic Anabaptist belief, the only Anabaptist value I actually disagree with. But it isn’t only Anabaptists.

Other christians say this world isn’t our home, it will soon be destroyed by God, and our priority should be evangelism, saving souls.

I don’t believe either of these perspectives is true.

Inequality – a fact of life

It is obvious there is great inequality in our world, and within most countries. Worldwide, the average person in the top 10% owns nearly 3,000 times the wealth of the average person in the bottom 10%. Most who read this (i.e. who live in Australia or the US) will be in that top 10%.

And this inequality has health and even life or death outcomes. About 10% of the world goes hungry. Child mortality is higher in poorer countries.

Is an unequal world evil?

How much should governments try to reduce this inequality? This is a value judgment with no objective answer. Classic capitalism says each person should be responsible for their own life. Classic socialism says the state should reduce inequality. Neither really works if taken to extremes, and so most countries have a mixture of capitalism-lite and socialism-lite, in various combinations. In democracies, the people decide what mix of approaches they want.

There are many arguments for different ways to balance personal responsibility and care for the disadvantaged.

Some will say that too much socialism takes away incentive. But it is also true that people are born with unequal opportunity which thay have no control over, so we need to compensate for that inequality. Pragmatists will point out that more equal societies tend to have more healthy economies.

A christian approach to politics?

As christians, we are called to love our neighbours, and to care for them as God cares for us. We accept an additional responsibility to care for the poor and marginalised because Jesus requires it of us.

As an individual, I can only do so much to assist the poor. But as a voter, I can help our country to choose a more benign approach. Some will say that my charitable views may be a burden on other citizens, but governments generate wealth in many different ways (not just income tax) and can choose to use that wealth to achieve social and national outcomes – or not.

The “right” mix for Australia is a value judgment, and in democracies, each of us gets to vote for the values our government will apply to its policies and expenditure.

A christian approach to voting?

So I believe caring for the poor and marginalised must be one priority for a christian who wants to follow Jesus. In 21st century Australia, this will include the poor, the unemployed, refugees and immigrants, indigenous people, the diabled, victims of crime and those suffering due to natural disasters.

Exactly how much we do to reduce inequality is, of course, still a difficult judgment. But policies such as improved public housing, a universal basic income and fairer taxation that ensures wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share all need to be considered.

But there’s much more

I believe in the urgency of climate action and creation care (which will benefit us all, but especially the poorer countries) and in measures to ensure government integrity (because government corruption prevents money being spent where it will do the most good). These are surely values close to the heart of christianity.

On the other hand, many (more conservative) christians have concerns about abortion as taking human life. They have to decide how much they should impose this ethic on others, and how to balance this with the factors I’ve discussed. What seems clear to me is that christians shouldn’t be one issue candidates and remain blind to issues of inequality, creation care and integrity.

In all this, I fear many christians don’t vote for the common good, especially for those with less voice and power, but simply vote for their own interests.

Policy vs character

One tricky issue is the character of politicians. How should we assess well meaning and decent politicians with selfish or ineffective policies vs candidates whose policies we agree with but who behave badly or dishonestly?

This issue came to the fore for me in the recent election. The government seemed to me, and to many others, to be less than honest (sometimes outright dishonest) and profligate with public money (if not corrupt). Yet some christians seemed quite willing to overlook these enormous flaws.

Democratic?

In the campaign I was involved in, vandalism of political signs was highly organised and mostly directed against non-right candidates. I doubt the right wing candidates approved of this, but it is clear that some of their supporters were involved. It gave the impression that these supporters didn’t really believe in democracy and the free expression of political views, even though they publically espoused these values.

Polarisation

Also concerning is the degree of polarisation evident in recent elections. The politicians put themselves up for election and hence our judgment, but other voters don’t deserve similar judgment, and certainly not anger. As christians, we can hopefully live in the opposite spirit – analysing, critiquing and discussing the issues without rancour or intolerance.

The politics of fear

It seems that demonisation of opponents so voters are motivated by unreasonable fear is a tactic of choice these days, especially by some on the hard right. This is both dishonest and contrary to Biblical teaching that rejects fear. We christians need to recognise when we are being fed misinformation to arouse emotions that lead us to doubtful conclusions.

My concern

It concerns me that some christians can support candidates who use these anti-democratic tactics of dishonesty, demonisation, polarisation and fear. They often seem quite unaware of the ethical issues. Other times, it seems they don’t care. If a candidate presses the right buttons, they’ll vote for them regardless of their character and methods. How can this be right?

For what it’s worth

I have all these thoughts. I’m not sure if they’re at all beneficial to anyone else. But, hey, what’s a blog for except sharing ideas?

Your comments are welcome.

Photo: C Goodwin, Wikipedia

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