I am reminded of a story I heard years ago in Germany when Walter Ulbricht, the German Communist leader, was head of the German Democratic Republic.  It was said that Ulbricht once had a conversation with Karl Barth about the new society that was being built in East Germany.  Ulbricht boasted to Barth that the Communists would be teaching the Ten Commandments in the schools and that the precepts of the decalogue would provide the moral foundation for the new society.  Barth listened politely and then said: ‘I have only one question, Herr Minister.  Will you also be teaching the First Commandment?” (Robert L. Wilken, “Remembering the Christian Past,” p. 62)

Christianity does not work without Jesus.  A trite truism, to be sure, but one that is binding not only upon the individual, but also within the more corporate spheres of human life: church, marriage and family, government.  As Barth points out in this anecdote, there is surely something sketchy about those political agendas which seek to keep the moralistic teaching (or, at least, some of it) of Christianity without requiring, you know, Christianity.

I do not feign to hold all of the answers concerning the notoriously complex relationship between the gospel and government, between church and state.  I find myself easily confused and overwhelmed when the discussion turns to religion and government.  I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming issue of The Harvard Ichthus which will center around Christian engagement in politics.  Yet at the very least, I think we must–whatever ideological stripe we originate from–concede Barth’s contention that the cart cannot be put before the horse.  We cannot use Christianity as a mere means to a better (idolatrous) end, as many have been so wont to do throughout American history (for a recent example of such idiocy, see here and here).

Personally, I tend to find my sympathies lying with Abraham Kuyper, who quipped that “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!’”  As fashionable as detached libertarianism has grown of late with many young Christians, and as much as I cringe at the ugly abuses of Christian imperialists throughout the ages, I find myself increasingly persuaded that the universal Lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus has as much relevance for recreation and economics and government as it does for individual sinners who want to go to heaven when they die.  My less-than-expert grasp of church history leads me to believe that the vast majority of Christians in the world have generally thought so, too.

T. S. Eliot, a Harvard grad who converted to Christianity as an adult, once wrote a fascinating essay called “The Idea of a Christian Society.”  In it, he argued that in politics and civilization at large, there can be no ultimate stance of neutrality or a “naked” public square, anymore than in the other facets of our existence.  We will, one way or another, conduct ourselves in light of a larger, overarching story of who we are, what is wrong with the world, what makes for genuine human flourishing, and where we are (hopefully) going.  The question is simply which story we will be allured into exalting into that transcendent place.  Mere natural law is not sufficient to keep pagans either sensible or moral, as even the briefest glance at Romans 1:18-31–not to mention both history and experience–will demonstrate.  Side by side with the radical claims of the gospel, these empirical observations moved Eliot to write this:

“The difference between the Idea of a Neutral Society (which is that of the society in which we live at present) and the Idea of a Pagan Society (such as the upholders of democracy abominate) is, in the long run, of minor importance…I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

One may, of course, heartily disagree with such sentiments.  A Christian may be convinced that faith has nothing to do with politics–or, at least, that the claim “Jesus is Lord over all” has not much to do with who to vote for or what kind of government we ought to seek.  Yet whatever our own personal convictions in these matters are, I see no reason why we cannot concede that vague moralism disconnected from its foundation in the gospel is nonsense.  The commandments of God cannot be kept by those who do not love Him with all their heart, soul, strength and mind, indeed above everything else He has made.  The harsh portrayal and stinging evaluation of the Pharisees in the Gospels ought to be proof enough of what God thinks of those who give lip service to His commandments while also prizing other political agendas with more delight than the coming of His kingdom.

I have to come to think that human government tends to be the fruit, not the root, of spiritual transformation throughout the world in God’s wise economy.  I think God cares very much about nations and governments–the coming of the kingdom of God is nothing else if not a political reality–yet I also think these entities are largely constituted and determined in their moral make-up and vision by the people who live within them.  If the root is bad, then the whole tree will be rotten.  This is why I concur with those Christians who argue that the most drastic political action we can engage in is the proclamation of the gospel and seeing, by God’s grace, more and more individuals gladly bow the knee to the risen Lord and incorporated into the humble, hopeful, countercultural community of the church.  Here’s how C. S. Lewis put the matter:

“I am going to venture a guess as to how this section has affected any who have read it.  My guess is that there are some Leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far.  If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society.  Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.  We are looking for an ally when we are offered either a Master or–a Judge…A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian.  I may repeat ‘Do as you would be done by’ till I am black in the face, but I cannot really learn to love my neighbor as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him.  And so, as I warned you, we are driven on to something more inward–driven on from social matters to religious matters.  For the longest way round is the shortest way home…We should never get a Christian society unless most of us became Christian individuals” (Mere Christianity, pp. 87-88)

If there is truth here, it would go a long way toward explaining why the New Testament–to the chagrin of would-be radicals on both the right and the left–is so stunningly indifferent about what sort of government existed in the Roman Empire of the day, or what Christians should do in hopes of transforming it.  Such agendas, of whatever political variety they may be, are simply not the main thing.  Nor can any government be changed directly, and surely not apart from a prior mass conversion of the moral imaginations of the populace at large.  When the narrative of the cross and resurrection grips a nation, then we can talk about a Christian government might look like.  Until then, vague moralism remains the weak hope of those who want a shortcut to the coming of the kingdom, one that does not require us to take up our cross and follow, but only to vote rightly.

It is tempting to respond to the slow withdrawal of God’s presence from the West by substituting political rhetoric and shouting for mourning and repentance over our faithlessness.  It distracts us from our dwindling numbers and our increasingly pathetic conformity to the godless society around us in everything except political persuasion.  But that doesn’t make it any less mistaken.  We must seek God for His own sake as a renewed, broken people again, remembering that judgment begins with us, not with the world.  We must keep the main thing the main thing, reflecting the shape of the gospel in our communal priorities, in where we give our money, in what we focus on in the public square, and in the things we allow ourselves to get visibly emotional about whenever the current state of affairs happens to exist in staunch opposition to the Christian ideal.  Let’s lead with the first commandment, and trust God for the rest to fall into place as Jesus is kept in his rightful place by his adoring people.  Even if it means that we have a long, unpleasant stretch of living as the disdained minority ahead of us.