Faithful Politics

Being faithful with our politics, not political with our faith.

Sphere Sovereignty: Why Christians Can Vote For Non-Christians

Does anyone remember the ichthus?

While it’s most frequently found today on the back of mini-vans, the fish symbol used to grace the cards and billboards and of Christian businesses as an indication of the owner’s commitment to Christ. And though its use can be traced back to the early days of Christianity, the 20th-Century appropriation of the symbol carries rather strange implications. Does this electrician do better work because he is a Christian? Is this hotel quieter or more comfortable because the owner reads her Bible every night? Perhaps the ichthus could indicate honesty and a commitment to fair business dealings, but should we then conclude that a competitive business not owned by a Christian is crooked and untrustworthy?

For a variety of reasons, the ichthus as an advertising tool has gone out of style, but a similar sentiment still survives in the most curious of places: politics. For some, a candidate’s professed beliefs are a crucial element of their campaign. Think of Mitt Romney’s muffled affirmations of Mormonism or Barack Obama’s long experience in Jeremiah Wright’s church (to say nothing of the odd idea of Obama’s “secret Muslim-ness”), a candidate’s faith is often given a center role in political debates. Many Christians refuse to consider that a non-believer could function well in office and continue to wait for their pastor to declare his candidacy. This is clearly misplaced for several reasons:

1) Just because a candidate identifies with a religion does not mean he or she is a devout believer.

Modern American politics is clearly weighted with heavy promises during the campaign season that only occasionally come to full fruition after inauguration. For example, President Obama repeatedly guaranteed in 2008 that he would close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center on his first day in office; four years later the still-operational Gitmo just received a $750,000+ upgrade. And he is hardly the only candidate to break a campaign promise.

If politicians are so likely to throw words towards television cameras in exchange for votes, we should look beyond those words to their actions for evidence of their true intentions and beliefs. This applies equally to their religious identifications (Matt. 7:21).

2) Candidates are running for a political office, not a religious one.

More importantly, no political candidate is seeking election as a religious leader for our country. As Dr. Douglas Groothuis has pointed out, “the president is neither Theologian-in-Chief nor Pastor-in-Chief. He is Commander-in-Chief.” The role and responsibilities of a politician are categorically different than those of a minister, so why should we expect the former to act as the latter?

This touches on a political theory described by Abraham Kuyper as “sphere sovereignty.”  He pointed out that God is the undeniable king of all existence, but that different portions of human experience function in different ways. Kuyper saw human lives as centered at the intersection of the State, Society, and the Church; each field is equally crucial for human flourishing, but each has its own duties and methods for accomplishing unique goals. Just as it is wrong to expect a fish to climb Mount Everest, it is a categorical mistake to expect the State to perform a function dedicated for the Church.

Two lessons follow from this: one, a candidate is not necessarily the best option simply because he or she is a Christian. Just as how being a Christian does not automatically give you special knowledge of electrical engineering or hotel management, Christian faith is no substitute for real knowledge of political science and is not sufficient for being a strong and capable political leader. Christian politicians should work to be the best candidates by becoming the best political leaders that they can be.

Secondly, we should recognize that  a candidate is not necessarily the worst option simply because he or she is not a Christian. Though such a person is sadly mistaken about the things that matter most, he or she might still be a very gifted leader. We should judge a candidate based on their capability to function in the sphere of the State, not by the degree to which they affirm the doctrines of the Church.

So, candidates do not need ichthus symbols on their campaign ads and Christians should not be waiting to find them. We must vote for the best candidate from the available options because they are the most skilled at the job and will likely have the most beneficial impact on our nation, even if that person has yet to recognize Christ’s lordship (to paraphrase Kuyper) over every thumb’s width of Creation.

Indeed, in this next election, it seems like we will have no other choice.

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  1. Interesting piece…I appreciate the majority of your points, and I’ll readily admit that I adopt a similar view when it comes to elections. You’re right to say that the role of pastor is vastly different than the role of president. Even so, I think you have to take into consideration the relative influence that comes with this “sphere of sovereignty”–yes, in the eternal scheme of things, the role of president is largely inconsequential. But in the temporal realm, the president has the power to shape and mold policies that directly impact the ability of the church to effectively minister to the world. Just something to keep in mind.

    • Thanks for your comment, Hannah. I’ll certainly respond to what you’ve said here, but you reference some policies that the President could “shape and mold” and I’m not sure what you’re thinking about. Could you clarify where your head is at for me?

    • After more than four days, I suppose I’ll go ahead and respond all the same.

      Firstly, I never tried to imply that the role of a secular leader is “largely inconsequential.” True, Kuyper described the sphere of the State as only being necessary in the world between the Fall and Christ’s Return, but that hardly makes our actions in this life unimportant. For now, the point of sphere sovereignty is very much that each sphere is of equal importance, but of separate concern (consider the division of political powers between Congress, the President, and the Judiciary in the U.S. for a similar arrangement) because each sphere is focused on this-worldly matters. I would argue that the “Church” in this arrangement is an institutional one comparable to the government, but “ministering” as you’re using it is the responsibility of the individual members of the church, not the organization as a whole.

      Also, I’m not sure exactly what type of policies you have in mind that the President could impact. Unless he’s stretching his executive powers out of control, only Congress has the ability to enact policy and the Establishment Clause of Amendment One would prevent it from favoring one religion over another. I think that’s actually the ideal arrangement for two reasons: 1) to equate the government (or a government figure) with a religion muddles the public differentiation between politics and religion. Consider how many people were turned off to Christianity because they didn’t like George W. Bush. 2) This categorically prevents the implementation of special-favor actions that promote non-Christian religious groups (or, rather, it should).

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

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