I have always loved this quote. My years in politics have reinforced Bismark's wise observation. Since politics pays the bills, however, I kind of have no choice but to watch and be part of the sausage-making process. The good thing about sausages is that in the end you get to cook them into a beautiful pasta rustica. Laws, on the other hand, do not allow for such immediate gratification - and no amount of Parmesan cheese make the bad ones go down any easier.
On November 4, 2008, we as Americans will have an opportunity to elect our next commander-in-chief. The presidential election season is already upon us and the blitz of adds and campaigning will only get worse over the next year. The last presidential election caused me to pause and think about how my faith influences my politics. As this election season approaches, the same thoughts are beginning to percolate again. Specifically, how should Christians interact with the culture in general and our government specifically? Where should we draw the line in advocating for Biblical principles in the public square, or is there even a line?
H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the classic book called "Christ and Culture" in the early 1950's, based on a series of lectures. In the book, he touched on ways Christians, since the early church, interacted with the surrounding culture in general (not politics specifically). He noted that some have shied away from culture and government (to establish monasteries or small communities). On the other end of the spectrum, some have tried to transform the culture and create a "present renewal." Some of his types are a bit dated, as our world and our culture have changed dramatically since World War II, but the book is a useful tool to begin to look at the subject.
C.S. Lewis also wrote on the subject. His writings were more direct and warned Christians (see Meditation of the Third Commandment, in God in the Dock) attempting to become a part of the political process. He noted that a political party that advocated for strictly Christian principles would not be politically feasible in any culture. As such, Christians would have to become part of other political parties and compromise certain principles. The Lewis essay inspired the book by Stephen J. Carter called "God's Name In Vain: The Rights and Wrongs of Religion in Politics." I have yet to read the book, but have added it to my list.
From a practical perspective, individuals such as William Wilberforce (and many other Christians over the years) have used their influence to change the world around him. Wilberforce was instrumental in ending the slave trade in England.
With all of this in mind, I still did not have any clarity or answer to my initial question and my head hurt after all of the reading. So, I opened my Bible and began to seek direction there. Faith in God provides a moral foundation for governments to draw when determining human rights. Without God, I do not see any objective way of determining human rights, or right and wrong in general. So the question I then asked was, how do we balance the free will God has shown to be so important and God given human rights/laws.
One passage that I returned to is 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. "I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outside. Remove the evil person from among you."
In light of this verse, I have a hard time with requiring (especially via legislation) a non-believer to live by the Bible's complete set of moral standards. If America were a Christian theocracy, this would not be an issue. But we are in a Republic that prides itself on free will - a concept taught throughout the Bible. Legislation presupposes Government coercion to force and/or punish those in violation of such laws. God does not coerce us to do good or to choose Him. He wants us to freely make these choices. However, when a person's free will begins to impede upon mine, Government has a role to protect my liberties (as our founding father so eloquently noted in the Declaration of Independence). On the flip side (as opposed to government laws prohibiting certain behaviour) Proverbs 31:8-9 tells us that another important role of government is to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, afflicted and needy.
Jesus changed society from within, despite having an opportunity to become an Earthly king (John 6:15). Jesus' kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36-37). He did not come to forcibly change humanity, but to "testify to the truth." Nor did Jesus support Jewish leaders that advocated rebellion against the Roman occupation.
Now I began to have a little clearer picture in my head as to where I thought the Bible is calling Christians to interact with the culture and government. We should change ourselves and our fellow believers first and stand up/protect those who cannot stand up for themselves.
I have heard some say that since we are called to be salt and light to the world, that this means we should change laws so that it can act as a "moral preservative" to the world around us (just like salt is a preservative to food). The problem with this concept is that sometimes we can add too much salt to our food and light that is too bright can blind us.
A wise friend of mine once asked me, "What does legislating 'scriptural' behavior accomplish. I mean really accomplish? Is more time spent in the New Testament describing, imploring, a 'heart' of Christ, fruit of the spirit, etc. or only overt external behavior?" He was right. Romans 12:2 says, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is -his good, pleasing and perfect will."
Often times we seek to change the world around us by reacting in an overt and forcible manner. We can prohibit someone from acting a certain way, but is their heart really changed? When I was a kid and would get in trouble for doing something -- like standing on the couch -- while I was being made to sit, in my mind I was I was still standing up. This is what forcing scriptural behaviour from non-Christians will accomplish -- outward compliance, but inward rebellion. As such, Legislating against the effects of sin will only have limited success.
Along similar lines, Ezekiel 16: 49-50 says, "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it." The outward sin of Sodom was the effect, not the cause.
Where, then, does this leave us? We should be careful in forcing someone to live a way that they do not desire. There are moral absolutes which governments must base their laws (as we saw in the Nuremberg Trials where Nazis where tried and convicted for crimes against humanity, while their acts were legal under German law). But when it comes to passing laws to address certain behaviours we find offensive, based on the teachings of the Bible, we should first take the plank out of our own eye and then out of the eyes of our Christian brothers and sisters. But that is just my opinion, and it is worth as much as it cost for me to give it to you.