Toward a Christian Political Ethos

Editors Note

The Christian Action Foundation, in which the author has assumed an active part, made a beginning with implementing the ideals of a Christian political manifestation. (Since Feb. 1966.)

Study outlines have been drafted on the biblical principles governing public life and government. They arc designed for group study as well as individual reflection. Position papers have been drafted on matters which were dealt with by state legislatures and the U.S. Congress and numerous submissions were made. Some of the subjects thus covered include the following and are available to those who ask for them: Government, Marriage and Divorce; Abortion Legislation; The Place and Rights of Non-Public Schools; The Christian View of Work and Unionism; Crime, Punishment and Rehabilitation; Legislation governing the Lord’s Day; The Christian View of Government; etc. These have been given wide circulation among legislators, the press and other leaders. Scores of public meetings have been held in various parts of the nation. Members are now found in twenty states.

A national Christian Action convention, “The First Christian Social Congress,” will be held in Sioux Center at the beautiful Campus of Dordt College, this summer, July 8, 9, and 10. We hope that many families will be able to combine this with their summer vacation. More information can be found elsewhere in this periodical. For information concerning C.A.F. write; CAF, Box 185, Sioux Center, Iowa 51250.

The Charm of Established Patterns

We learn to live with existing situations. In fact, the way things have been done for years tends to become the way in which we think. Our philosophy of life is shaped to an amazing degree by the actualities which constitute our world. Thus the dominance of the two major political parties, both claiming religious objectivity, is accepted as normal and desirable by many. And, for that matter, the absence of a Christian political party is mourned by few. Tn discussing the mandate in politics someone is likely to remark that the two-party system is the only system which will work in the Anglo-American society. Sober reflection will reveal that such a judgment itself manifests a bias toward the utilitarian philosophy of life which underlies the two-party system. In fact this philosophy is so prejudicial in its effects that it blinds many to the observable reality that the two-party system in actuality does not work.

This approach to the whole problem of Christian involvement, however, is not easily dropped. Defenders of non-confessional politics, as conducted by the present two parties, will point out that the bulk of legislative proposals concerns the factual housekeeping needs of society for which the formation of a Christian political body is unrealistic. They will add that Christian believers can have their say in the disposal of such legislation if they will seek a place within the organizational framework of the existing political parties. They will, finally, produce factual evidence that such individual involvement is very effective and that it even produces some benefits for the cause of the Lord. From such evidence they conclude that a Christian socio-political movement is just not pertinent to the Anglo-American scene.

All such reasoning, however, is no more convincing than a bachelor’s claim that marriage is not an essential institution among mankind, since he has found solutions for his household chores which are quicker and more economical than those of his married contemporaries. For such reasoning will keep us for ever from detecting the deeper causes of the crisis which troubles North American life. We must recognize again that it is the philosophy of secularistic humanism which has brought Our civilization to near bankruptcy. It has severed society from the healing effects of the redemptive Kingdom of Christ. God-less ideologies always have a way of escaping the blame for their ruinous effects in society by hiding behind a facade of secondary problems. Discouragers of distinctive Christian political action will usually deny Christianity that margin of leavening operation, demanding immediate results as proof of its authenticity.

The Fraud of Familiar Phrases

The claim that we must be Christians always and everywhere has a fine biblical ring to it. We hold it to be an accurate description of the heart of Calvinism. But it is so obviously true that it has lost its compelling meaning. Any type of Christian, from Episcopalian to Pentecostal, will nod assent to it.

The plight of Christian education is a case in point. One could say: we must be a Christian always and everywhere also in education. Again, Christians of a wide variety would agree. They would probably mean with it that Christian parents must assert a Christian influence in the neighborhood community school and their children must be examples of Christian virtue in that school and a witness for Christ to their peers. But by this time their interpretation of the phrase “Christians always and everywhere” has fallen short of reaching the Calvinistic ideal. We would (should) be quick to point out that to serve Christ always and everywhere implies that we must claim the very area of education for the Master, that we must enter upon that area armed with the biblical vision of life, creation and redemption, and that, therefore, we establish Christian Schools. The Calvinistic world-and-life-view, then, is more than being a Christian always and everywhere in an individual sense. It involves taking a whole lump of human enterprise—as in education—and place it on a Christian basis, on a Christian root. That whole sector of life must be made to blossom in Christian fashion though many of its activities may seem to coincide with those of non-Christian schools. The same coincidence is found in the situation of a married lady scrubbing the walk as contrasted to the city’s sanitary truck scrubbing the street. The action of the latter does not render the activity of the former any less a part of her domestic life.

The parallel between the sphere of politics and that of education and marriage is a legitimate one. Together with others these are independent spheres of life. They have their own God-given place and their own internal norms and goals according to which they must function.

It may give some of us some reassurance that a number of fellow believers have entered the non-confessional political parties and have said Christian things there, but that does not at all mean that we have made a beginning with Christian politics. The best that can be said about these gallant efforts is that some candles were lit at the back of a truck trailer going into a dark night without headlights. The startlingly simple observation remains that our existing political parties were not built on a Christian foundation and that they were not intended to be guided by Christian principles. The basis and the super-structure of organized political life are manifestly neutralistic. The very fact that Christians are invited by avowed humanists to speak their piece in the party-setting ought to make us wonder about the validity of equating this individual Christian involvement with a responsible discharge of our mandate for Christ in politics. The fact is that we, as Christians of the Reformation, as much as other Christians, have failed to do in politics what we did in education, namely, form an organized Christian movement. Instead we have vacillated between a spiritualistic world-escapism leaving the created order to the unbeliever, and individualistic do-good social gospel type of involvement content to patch up the faltering superstructure of secularistic humanism. These may appear to be extreme opposites, but deep down they are borne by the same root. They deny the rule of Christ over all of life. The redemptive power of the Kingdom is then not brought to bear upon societal institutions from their inception to their full functioning.

All this does not imply the notion that God has abandoned Anglo-American political life. Thank the Lord for his restraining hand whereby he enables the political parties to function with a measure of benefit. Without this restraining grace political life and statesmanship would have degenerated to complete chaos. We do contend, however, that the Christian Kingdom community would miss the boat if the Lord’s graciousness in public life should become an occasion for us to ignore His positive claims on politics. By that same token we might then as well not insist on Christian family life, since so many non-christian families in the land function in decency thanks to God’s restraining grace. God’s “common grace” may never keep us from engaging in Kingdom action in public life and society. The opposite ought to be true. God’s “common grace” makes room for us to do the Lord’s will in all sectors of human endeavor. The day will come when “common grace” will be withdrawn. Tn that day of tribulation there will be no organized Christian action anymore, not in the area of education, not in the area of mercy, not in the area of labor, and least of all in the area of politics.

The Struggle of Spirits

There is by no means unanimity in Reformed circles about the nature of politics. Many feel that politics, though by no means unaffected by the world of ideas, is primarily the arena of factual problems and day to day needs. They echo what the Frenchman Felix Rocquain propounded in 1878 as the cause of the French Revolution. He maintained that what really drove the French people to revolt against their constitutional authorities was not ideas about their rights, about justice, about equality, not the ideas which philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Locke had spread around, hut, rather what drove the French to revolution was the actual fleshly grievances, bitter deprivation and suffering. Frenchmen revolted, Rocquain said, because they were pinched in belly and pocketbook, because they suffered famines and murderous taxation. And all these are solid grievances which got under the skin of the French.

Evaluating Rocquain’s views, Harvard’s professor Crane Brinton in The Shaping of the Modem Mind endorsed the reply given to these materialistic views by another Frenchman Marius Roustan who wrote in 1906 that it was the ideM of the philosophers operative in a society indeed beset by material grievances that rallied Frenchmen to action on al national scale. Roustan showed that the great uprising of 1789 in France sprang from the revolutionary fervor of the thinkers which had penetrated the minds and hearts of the ordinary Frenchmen. Dr. Brinton remarks, correctly, that the whole controversy as to whether ideas cause men to act or whether material conditions cause men to act is at bottom pointless and unprofitable (p. 9). But he goes on to say, “… since ideas arc thus part of human living, all history is in a sense a history of ideas…” To be provocative, I shall say that all normal people are metaphysicians; all have some desire to locate themselves in a “system,” a “universe,” a “process” transcending at least the immediate give-and-take between the individual and his environment; for all normal people the conscious lack or frustration of some such understanding will result in a kind of metaphysical pain” (pages 11 and 12).

These guarded statements of Dr. Brinton, who does not appear to write from a Christian view-point, point out the underlying struggle of the spirits which ultimately determines the direction of the political enterprise today. Christian believers who feel that the Christian community can best discharge its Christian responsibility in politics by joining the neutralistic parties seem to do that on the justification that the parties, as concrete historical entities, are themselves not the outcome of the world of living ideas and philosophies. Hence they accept them as legitimate vehicles for Christian political aims.

By that same token the secularistic humanists in the existing parties, eager to welcome the cooperation of Christians of a variety of backgrounds in their political venture, studiously maintain a semblance of neutrality and objectivity, disclaiming any loyalty to a deeper life commitment.

Thus a fragile unity is maintained in the two political camps. This unity can only be preserved when both humanists and Christians avoid giving consistent embodiment to their underlying life-commitments. This, ironically, suits the humanist “just fine” since it is after all part of his philosophy to act rootlessly.

This arrangement of outward political unity attained by the willingness of Christian believers to forego a full-orbed Christian life manifestation in politics was bought at an appalling price.

It, first of all, produced a pathetic poverty of ideas in the actual political arena. The forceful propagation of ideas in politics is instinctively shunned for fear of showing up the underlying conflicts of spirits.

It, secondly, has produced the seething unrest on our continent. Politics destitute of the fructifying clash of full-orbed philosophies has gradually impoverished the area of public affairs as a whole to the extent that a younger generation has lost all respect for authority and government, though, admittedly, there are other reasons too for this development. Even the secularistic humanist finds it increasingly difficult to breathe in the present two-party framework, witness the rise of such organizations as A.D.A.—Americans for Democratic Action—which lustily dip in the humanistic leftist ideology, applying it exuberantly to an astonishing range of societal problems, in spite of the resulting conflicts that trouble their ranks. And, for that matter, the campus radicals defy understanding on the part of the powers that be because they don’t go from fact to established fact, but from ideals to established facts, and, hence, don’t seem to run out of steam.

Thirdly, the idol of political unity at all cost, has led to frightening loss of freedom. The humanistic leveling of conviction within the neutralistic parties is directly responsible for the lack of freedom in the areas of organized labor and education. The present parties have created a legislative situation whereby no more than one union may represent a group of workers within one place of employment, which is a direct expression of the humanistic philosophy that work and wages have nothing to do with the individual worker’s religion. The same is found in the monopolistic position of the public school system based on the philosophy that learning and morality can quite well be transmitted apart from the religious convictions of the home.

The very constitution of man and life will sooner or later break this artificial unity-held-together-by-neutralism, Christians who will have caught a glimpse of the grandeur of the early Reformation and the Calvinistic revival of the Kuyperian era will urgently strive for the formation of a Christian political fellowship which will apply the healing power of the Word of God to the whole of national life. Guided by the Word of God such a community of Christians will reflect upon the meaning of history, the nature of man, the redemption of Christ for broader life, the Christian concepts of justice, freedom, responsibility, stewardship, governmental authority and its limits, and the relationship of the various life spheres such as church, home, school, work, politics and government. Only an independent Christian political movement can restore this authentic Christian political ideal or ethos among us. Only thus will the whole of the Christian community be involved in thought and action.

God’s people may never walk the path of revolution. The allegation that it is preposterous to think in terms of an actual Christian political party (“it will never work”) is itself preposterous. God does not ask of us to embark upon a program which is out of step with our resources. He simply asks of us to go ahead with the means at hand. That means that we band together under the banner of Christ as a Christian political community. Study, prayer and action are essentially one. The Master will give the increase in each instance. And he has a way of surprising the faithful. Nothing less than such Christian political ethos deserves the name Christian politics.

Rev. Louis M. Tamminga is the minister of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa, and the president of the Christian Action Foundation.