In the book To Change The World, James Davidson Hunter rightly critiques the attempt by some evangelicals to fight for a form of American Christian nationalism but Hunter gives extremely unfortunate and unhelpful prescriptions in the end on Christian life in the public square--namely, "the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this account, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try to again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better" (italics his, 281). As a reactionary response to Christian nationalism, one has to wonder what Hunter might have written if the Reformed political theory tradition was any part of his conceptual background for thinking about how Christians should live as exiles in the sphere of political governance in a pluralistic society. It seems that Hunter is unfamiliar with the Westminster Confession of Faith, Johannes Althusius, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Francis Schaeffer, Daniel Elazar, David Koyzis, and many others in the Reformed political theory tradition, that would have been a great help and might have saved him from making a profoundly unhelpful suggestion in the end.

Presbyterians, because of their emphasis on redemptive history and covenant theology, should be encouraged to pursue public virtue in "law, policy, and political mobilization" because politics is an aspect of God's good creation. Law and politics belong to Christ. Politics is a sphere of creation that is being reconciled to Him. Asking God's people to "be silent" for a season from public political life is like asking them to remain silent for a season in the arts, in starting families, in the marketplace, and the like. 

Granted, the use of law, public policy, and political mobilization for the sake of transforming America into a Christian nation is fundamentally wrongheaded as David Koyzis points out in his book Political Visions and Illusions. I do believe admirably that this is what Hunter means to address in his book. However, remaining "silent" in those spheres of creation is modeled no where in the Bible nor in the Reformed and Presbyterian political tradition. It is, however, something one might expect from the Anabaptists or maybe even in Lutheranism's "Two Kingdom" approach.

God's people should be heavily involved in law and public policy because, as Abraham Kuyper observes, "the highest duty of the government remains therefore unchangeably that of justice, and in the second place it has to care for the people as a unit, partly at home, in order that its unity may grow ever deeper and many not be disturbed, and partly abroad, let the national existence suffer harm" (italics his).  Why would you want people to remain silent about that? Government, then, is fundamentally good because of its role in facilitating human flourishing within a nation. Besides, we are not at war against the "liberals" for American society.

The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks about the goodness of government involvement this way: 

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion (23.2). 

In the American experience, Presbyterianism's federal (covenant) theology was used a model for the formation of America's constitutional republic, as we learn in Daniel Elazar's four volumes on the "Covenant Tradition In Politics." The Presbyterian understanding of the creational goodness of politics also resulted in Presbyterians holding office as Vice-President of the United States more than any other denomination in American history. Presbyterians are second only to Episcopalians in holding the office of President of the United States and serving on the Supreme Court. Presbyterian "silence" in politics would be a new occurrence in American history (even if, at times, Presbyterians have been on the wrong side of that history). 

Christian silence in politics and law can be detrimental to the proliferation of justice. Here's an example: in New York City evangelical Christians are not encouraged to work openly and publicly against issues like abortion. In New York City, about 60% of all pregnancies by African American women end in abortion. (Hunter also issues a harsh critique of those Christian who are publicly fighting against abortion throughout his book.) Here's a question: if Christians remain silent on abortion in New York City, who is going to speak prophetically to New York City in the public square, in multiple spheres, about the racial disparity of black women's abortions, marriage and family, the virtue of chastity, the joy of adoption, and so on? How are people of moral virtue going to be seated at the table in the various places across New York City where decisions about being made about healthcare programs for teens and single-moms regarding pregnancy? 


Here's the point: Christians should never be silent about any aspect of God's good creation. What matters, then, is how Christians are involved in law, public policy, and political mobilization. Political participation is a matter of prudential judgement. The church needs to encourage God's people to enter the political sphere as exiles modeled after Daniel and his friends in Babylon, for example. Christians are not called to usher in the kingdom of God in America through government coercion nor should Christian involvement in politics be a veiled attempt to coerce a community into adopting Christian values. Alternatively, God's people should seek to be agents of virtue in government, or any sector of society, for the purpose of fostering and facilitating human flourishing and the flourishing of creation. 

It is my hope that Presbyterian pastors (and other denominations as well) and their church communities are encouraging friends to run for local city council seats, positions on local school boards, for seats in state legislatures, seats as judges on local and statewide benches, and even for positions in the three branches of our national government. God's people have much to bring to the public discourse about the structural conditions for human flourishing and they need to be encouraged to do so locally, broadly, and even nationally--and often. There would be nothing more wonderful in American politics than if there were more people who were devoted to fostering a free and virtuous society and serving the public in law and politics because they recognize that all of life matters to God.

Resources: click the links above.

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AuthorAnthony Bradley