Wayne Grudem is upright and unafraid to sidestep nuance and preach a strong word about Christian involvement in politics or the public square, that issue amongst others. This stance was appropriate in the setting I saw him in. He was in a church, answering the ‘Why?’ of political engagement and not the ‘How?’, which is a question that is much harder to answer, perhaps because it requires more than a lexicological knowledge of the Bible and its languages and translations. Grudem certainly has a systematic theological knowledge of the Bible. But is that enough if you want to formulate a concept of ‘Politics –According to the Bible’?
A blog post or so ago, I gave an account of Wayne Grudems talk at St. Helens Bishopsgate earlier this month, were he was encouraging Christian political engagement and promoting the work of the Christian Institute. You can read the account here.
As I said then, I am going to offer some points of criticism that formed while I listened to him. Before I ‘go negative’, I would like to repeat that his talk was excellently structured and very well delivered and, perhaps more importantly, that I agreed with more of what he had to say than I disagree with. However, I do express hesitance for a couple of reasons:
First, I said that I was anxious about how he framed the boxes he proceeded to tick. Second, it was a motivational talk, or rather a sermon, and not an academic lecture, the ideas of which are likely elucidated in his book, for which the space was not available on that Thursday evening. Third, there where some significant points which he should have clarified, elucidated and been clearer on. These are what I intend to talk about below.
What is a nation?
Grudem repeatedly talked about the/a/our/your etc ‘Nation’. However, he did not define what a nation is, or how a nation relates to geography, history, land or political system (monarchy, democracy, tyranny or another derivative or model thereof). For him it seemed to be neutral term, which did not deserve criticism, or praise, other than if Christians had influence it, in which case it was praised to the Christian effect. To some, this might sound like a desire for Christendom which in short hand means something like, where the church is above or as powerful as the state in leading a geographic region that ‘is ruled’ by exercising force and not allowing a plural environment of faith. The term has historical significance (middle ages, crusades etc.) and is criticised (somewhat) by Grudem in the first of his five points. Hence I don’t think he is promoting a ‘Christendom model’ of church-state relation.
However, he did not criticise it absolutely. This is a problem since it assumes that an authority of the church can and should have significant ‘power’ which is on par with the state. By power, it is assumed that the church has ‘coercive’ power, such as the power of the police or more seriously the military, to ‘correct’ behaviour, and in the more dangerous situations sectarian insurrections, according to the ‘Law’.
Grudem was clear that the church should not, and does not, wield this sort of power these days, but he did say that Christians should inform what is good and what is evil, since without Christians this difference is obscured. Hence the state should enforce, through coercive means, that which Christians think is best for the ‘nation.’ However, he did not explain how that relationship functions.
The ‘problem’ of Pacifism
I am not a pacifist, but I did feel Grudem could have done better on that front. He did not have much time for pacifism, at least as articulated by Gregory Boyd in “The myth of a Christian Nation”. According to Grudem, Boyd uses a circular argument against the involvement of Christians in martial force used by the nation, which basic argument is that if force was not used, history would be different, and hence history would be different. Grudem correctly criticises this argument to the point of making a joke out of it, but I wish he would have argued with Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, or Dietrich Bonheoffer: harder pacifist ‘nutters’ to crack.
What is more irritating however, is that Grudem claims Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of ‘us,’ Christians who have engaged with the political. King fought against racial discrimination in a non-violent way against the state. Here Grudem is inconsistent since he does not acknowledge the debt that those actions have to the political theology of the Anabaptist/pacifist tradition, which pits the state against the church, and asks the church to participate in direct action in a non-violent way against the state in situations where the state is oppressive. This shows a lack of charity towards pacifists—those who represent a political theology which is more counter-cultural or, to set the vocabulary in our context, counter-national—than Grudem would allow. Yes he did say disagreement amongst Christians about political theology was allowed, but it seemed he was allowing disagreements about issues not necessarily the approach.
An idealistic view of history
Grudem illustrated an idealistic view of history. He was thankful for those lives given by the UK to fight off Nazi Germany, and presumably, though he did not mention it, the US involvement in that war as well. Another country and person he did not mention was Stalin and Soviet Russia, hardly a God fearing man, and not a country run by Christian values, yet they too lost men fighting the plight that was Nazism, and without them German would not be my second language. Furthermore, WW2 was arguable caused not only by Hitler, but also by the after effect of WW1, the greed of nations, many of which where led by Christians.
Grudem did not mention Christians in Germany, many of whom fought for Germany, not Hitler, having an affiliation and loyalty to the nation, not its leader. Grudem did not mention the Dresden bombing, the use of the atomic bomb, or how the allies cut up not only Europe, but Africa and the Middle East. These lines on the map, drawn without care or heed to the tribes or ‘nations’ of those that lived in these countries, but done in a self serving way. Grudem did not want to acknowledge mistakes made by Christians in their involvement in the political, martial and legal realms. Which leads us to the most contentious point.
On the knowledge of Good and Evil
You wouldn’t want to be operated on by a mediocre doctor would you? You want the best doctor, even if he is not a Christian. You wouldn’t go to a mediocre Christian doctor, just because he is a Christian? The comparison is slightly unfair but the principle holds. While it is true that appropriate biblical principles are good for a nation (what ever that is), badly understood or misapplied biblical principles, interpreted by ‘nutters’, are bad for the nation and can do damage not only to the nation but to the reputation of God.
This point can be made through history. If we are going to uphold that a nation should be significantly influenced by Christians and Christian values, then we must also say that the same nation hold the Christian responsibility of the deeds perpetrated by it which are evil. The acts of the conquistadors in South America, the acts of the slave trade (even if it was abolished because of Christian action), the eradication of native Indians, the covert operations in Banana republics and the list can go on. All these where perpetrated by nations and citizens more than happy to call themselves Christians. These acts where evil, done in the name of greed and hate against our neighbour. Grudem offered no apology, or did not articulate how Christians who see such evil should operate against their own leaders.
When he did argue for Christian involvement in politics I think he was largely eluding to traditional moral majority issues in the US, such as abortion, marriage support, and help for the family, though I seem to remember that he mentioned issues of poverty and debt as well. [edit:] But his thinking did not stretch further than assuming the liberal democratic state and its settlement with the church is in order.
Yes, Christians have special access to an understanding of true law, however, if you a priori allow for the goodness of a plurality of religions (or at least Christian sects), then you must also allow for a plurality of sources of understanding of what the good is and how civil society structures itself. This of course does not mean that Christians give up all their rights to speak in the public sphere, but it does mean we have to come to the discussion humbly and with a recognition that we might be wrong in out understanding. It doesn’t mean that we let others push us around, but it does mean our wisdom requires us to see where our own initiatives might be evil. It requires us to walk humbly with the Lord, which I am sure Grudem does.