Christianity and Politics: A Reformed Perspective on Politics

Rene de Visme Williamson, Independence and Involvement: A Christian Reorientation in Political Science. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UniverSity Press, 1964, $7.50

The 1964 Presidential Election divided the Christian community along partisan principles as never before. It was, therefore, significant that during the same year Rene de Visme Williamson should make a truly Christian contribution to an understanding of contemporary politics. In his latest book one finds the common responsibilities of Christians toward the world of politics.

Williamson is Professor of Government at Louisiana State University and a member of the Southern Presbyterian Church. He writes From within the “evangelical Calvinistic Reformed tradition.” It is rather surprising that his contribution has not yet gained the wide attention it deserves from protestants, especially since he says:

“I have therefore attempted to fe·think such basic concepts of political science as state, constitution, civil rights, law, liberty, citizenship, and representation in the light of the Christian faith and to develop a more Christian conception of the proper relations between church and state. In attempting this task of intellectual reconstruction, I am addressing myself primarily to the believer. I want to point out to fellow Christians what I believe to be some of the political consequences of the religious convictions we share” (p. viii).

Independence and Involvement is not a theology of politics by someone seeking to apply Christianity to the immediate given situation. It is not the work of an ethicist who reduces the fulness of political life to abstract principles of social ethics and the practice of power politics. It is a book written from a mature Scriptural reflection on polities as an integral part of God’s creation.

Content of Book

Williamson starts by sketching the crisis of our civilization. The permanent revolution threatens stability in world politics. The meaninglessness of life is all around. Meaninglessness is “a kind of spiritual leukemia” and “constitutes the clearest and most present danger of a substantive evil….” Science, natural and social, cannot save mankind. The answer to our predicament lies elsewhere, in the Christian faith. Christianity outpromises communism, conservatism, and liberalism (“…it outpromises every ideology, religion, and philosophy”) in matters of “life, liberty, happiness, Community, and forgiveness.” The performance of the Christian Church is defended, yet at the same time Williamson acknowledges its failures. But “where the Christian faith thrives, the promises of Christianity are fulfilled.” The world situation demand…nothing less than a new Reformation to reverse the process of increasing secularism in politics. Williamson writes prophetically:

“We need a systematic and sustained reinterpretation of political science in Christian terms; we need to provide a body of concepts as part of a guiding political philosophy which is Christian in spirit, conclusions, and techniques. The promises of the Christian faith cannot save the world unless the world is Christianized, and Christianization demands an intellectual effort to guide political effort. People have a right to ask how Christianization can be accomplished, and they will want to know in what specific ways it will make a difference” (p. 63).

The state is a basic concept of political science. The Christian faith has something relevant to say about the liberal, conservative, and totalitarian concept of the state. “Christianity,” according to the author, “cannot be identified with any one of the particular political ideologies or systems. It cannot, therefore, be a front for capitalism, democracy. the American way of life, or any of even the highest achievements of man” (p. 97).

In several chapters Williamson deals with such concepts as constitution, citizenship, and representation. There is the admirable chapter on the relationship between constitution, constitutionalism. and the Scriptural concept of law.

There is much significance, from a Christian point of view, in the fact that the constitution is law. For law is an important scriptural concept. Law, notably the Decalogue, is presented as the will of God for his own glory and for the good of man. It specifies the kind of conduct which God expects of man, and that conduct, in turn, is an expression of the kind of being which God intended man to be” (p. 124).

The nature of human and civil rights is discussed in terms of the nature of man as the image bearer of God. A detailed discussion follows on the church as a political society, Christian and secular citizenship, and theories of representation. These topics need careful study because Christians, committed to a certain type of political pluralism, too often participate as business and union men or as members of church and academic communities. Sometimes Christians in favor of reapportionment think in terms of the modern liberal principles of radical equalitarianism.

A similar radicalism manifests itself in the principles of separation of church and state. In this context Williamson deals at great length with the United Presbyterian Church’s Report on the Relations Between Church and State (1962). This Report may be considered as important as the report on the Church’s Confession of 1961. Williamson presents a detailed criticism of what he considers the Report’s adoption of the “radical separation ism of Madison and Jefferson.” For example, his comment on the principles of political neutrality defended in the Report is: “Scripture makes it very clear that no Christian, whether in or out of government, has any business being neutral. Government officials, like other men, must decide whether to serve God or Mammon” (p. 228). His observations on “the wall of separation” are thought provoking.

“In particular, all Christians should protest vigorously against the Supreme Court’s adoption of Jefferson’s phrase ‘wall of separation.’ The very phrase is odious, suggesting the monstrous evil of the Berlin Wall….If we Christians want a relevant symbol, we should remember what happened when Christ died on the Cross: the curtain in the Temple was ripped from top to bottom, thereby announcing to the world that no human authority, ecclesiastical or temporal, has the right to interpose any curtain or wall between God and man” (p. 239).

Anyone who is interested in the proper relations between church and state could profit immensely from Williamson’s critical evaluation of the UPUSA Report.



He completed his great book with a short chapter on the relationship between faith and future. As conclusion he sums up the world situation in the following words.

“The problem of our present-day world is the same as that which confronted the people of Israel many centuries ago. It is the problem of choice: ‘I have set before you life and death, bleSSing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.’ The problem is the same, only the number of people involved and the scope of the choice are different. Among the competing faiths which fight for the possession of the world, we must choose one and take the consequences. Our faith is our future” (p. 256).

Critical Evaluation

Anyone reading this book will immediately sense, and hopefully share. the Scriptural direction of the author’s thought. One can only hope that Professor Williamson will continue the important work begun and expand it to other particular concepts, such as party government and partisan politics. He succeeds well in formulating political concepts in Christian terms, but basic problems remain.

The discussion on the Christian conception of the state is short and does not do justice to the problem. By approaching the question as the author does it is doubtful if one can arrive at a renewal of the problematics concerning the idea of the Christian State. Christians must realize that an inner reformation of the structure and purpose of the state is necessary. In this connection it is unfortunate that Williamson did not know about the reformational work of Dr. H. Dooyeweerd, Professor of Law at the Free Reformed University of Amsterdam. Especially relevant is chapter three, “The Structural Principle of the State” in his New Critique of Theoretical Thought ( Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1957) Vol. III, pp. 379–508.

Churches’ political pronouncements follow logically from a view of the church as’ a political society. On the whole, evangelical and reformed people will disagree with Williamson’s point of view. Most of them believe organized churches must not get involved in politics. Reliance upon church councils, national and world, for political guidance is certainly no substitute for the Christian citizens’ own responsibilities. The distinction between the church as an organized institution and the Church as the Kingdom of God would have been very helpful here. Even though Williamson says that the “medieval distinction between secular and sacred was a false distinction” he himself distinguishes between Christian citizenship in the church and secular citizenship in the state. Such a distinction is also false. A consistent theory of Christian citizenship has yet to be worked out.

Williamson challenges others “to contribute to the great task of re-thinking their professional fields and occupational problems in terms of the Christian faith” (p. ix). Hence Christian professors are implicitly invited not only to re-think basic political concepts, but also to reformulate basic scientific concepts, such as fact, value, and theory in Christian terms; in short, what the requirements of scientific method ought to be. Christian teachers may not uncritically accept social science as it is defined and practiced in our public universities. They must also define the competence of social science in terms of a Christian perspective.

It is of interest, therefore, to read Professor Dr. H.E. Runner’s Unionville lectures on “Scriptural Religion and Political Task” in Christian Perspectives 1962 (Hamilton, Canada, Guardian Publishing Co.) pp. 135–257. 1n Professor Runner’s lectures there is the similar emphasis on Scripture, on living out of faith, on politics as an aspect of our religion, politics as witness, and the urgency to transcend the conservative liberal dilemma in American politics. The Unionville lectures are important in that they emphasize the reformation of scientific concepts.

In Williamson’s study there is the promise of a Christian formulation of scientific concepts. He starts, for example, with the comment that “many professors who are Christians lead a dual existence—one in the university and another in church” (p. vii ). He could have added that not inFrequently professors live a dual existence within the academic world—a commitment to both the Christian faith and to one of the -isms. Such an academic situation could exist when a Christian professor, for instance, helps to formulate Christian social and economic concepts, and yet believes in the (false) promises of positivism or attempts to build on behavioralism. The author would want Christian social scientists to break radically with such a dual existence—living out of two faiths.

“It is to be hoped,” he writes, “that other political scientists who are Christians will be challenged to push further and deeper the work of intellectual reconstruction in their field” (p. 246). It is to be hoped that together with other social scientists they will form a community of Christian scholars. Many Christians are engaged in new scholarship on the Reformation. Yet it is urgent that they engage in new reformational scholarship. By doing so they will contribute to the distinctiveness of the orthodox church colleges.

Torch and Trumpet

In his Inaugural Address, the late President J. F. Kennedy said: “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…” In the contemporary situation, when even churches in the world also proclaim the gospel of revolutionary change, we dare not forget that we are the heirs of that first reformation. Let the Word go forth from every church (and) college to politicians and scientists alike. The torch has been passed to a new-born generation of Americans.

In the same Address, President Kennedy said: “Now the trumpet summons us again…a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” But these enemies are only the outward manifestations of sin and unrighteousness, of man’s rebellion against God. The trumpet summons us, as Williamson points out, to daily struggle for the realization of the Kingdom of God against the godless kingdoms of this world.

Christian citizens should not ask what the American way of life can mean for them, but together ask themselves what the Christian way of life could mean for America. They could come out with a program of action for a Christian society as an alternative to a man-centered creative or great society. The above cannot be achieved without great emphasis on political education in the widest sense of the word. Perhaps Harry Blamires’ experience, as he describes it in The Christian Mind, (London, S.P.C.K., 1963), is similar to yours when he says:

“Take some topic of current political importance. Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in total detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by thinking christianly. Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the thinking Christian will descend upon you. It is not that people disagree with you. (Some do and some don’t.) In a sense that does not matter. But they will not think christianly. They will think pragmatically, politically, but not christianly” ( p. 14).

Professor Williamson’s book is a guide to help us in the correct direction. It is one of the most significant Christian publications on politics since World War II. We recommend it to all. in particular, to ministers and social science teachers. It could very well be placed on the lists of recommended reading for our students in college.

Philip C. Bom, graduate of Calvin College, presently pursuing further studies at the Free University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, introduces the reader to a recent publication which deserves the careful scrutiny of all Americans and Canadians concerned with a positive Christian witness in the confused political arena of our times.