Saturday, 4 December 2010

Christianity and Politics

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Also, ‘tis the season to complain about the loss of Christian values and traditions in the UK. I’m thinking in particular about some local councils having ‘winter lights’ rather than ‘Christmas lights’, and how you often hear about the ‘festive season’ instead of the ‘Christmas season’. This is a Christian country, people say, so we should be free to celebrate Christmas in public without worrying about offending minority faith, ethnic or nation groups.

This got me thinking about the wider issue of how Christianity is intertwined with the social fabric and indeed the governmental structures of the UK. We still have an established church, with several of its bishops sitting in the House of Lords. This means that Christianity (or rather, one part of Christianity) has a presence right at the heart of our law-making system. Isn’t this a marvellous thing, though; what am I moaning about? Well, it feels to me like a special privilege for (one part of) Christianity and I don’t think Christians should rejoice in special privileges. I think it’s really important that the state treats all faiths equally as much as it possibly can, without any particular faith being specially favoured or squashed. There are limits to this – for example around things like equal rights whatever your age, gender, sexual orientation etc. – but I think the government should be religion-blind unless there’s a powerful counter-argument.

Let’s go all the way back to when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and gave the Christians power and resources. It often seems people think this was a great moment in the history of Christianity. Suddenly the Christians could meet together freely and even start to influence the policies of Rome. But at what cost? The Christian faith went from a radical, releasing, dangerous way of life to (for many people) an avenue for the exercise of political power, or simply an automatic, taken-for-granted part of your identity as a Roman citizen. Grand, ornate church buildings sprung up everywhere, the church had much greater resources than before but maybe the life-changing energy started to go. Here’s a short introduction to the view that political power wasn’t such a wonderful thing for the early Christian church:

I love the illustration in that talk about how hard it is for us to see our own assumptions, like fish being blissfully ignorant of what the water they are swimming in is like. The culture we live in can have such a powerful impact on us and we must watch out for how it affects us. What if we’ve got the whole power thing all wrong? What if Christians in political power are not supposed to pass laws reflecting Christian values and limiting people’s sinning? What if Christians are not supposed to seek political power at all?


  1. Ah, great post Kevin, you know this is close to my heart! I agree with everything you've said. The one thing I find hardest about this idea though is when the poor are being oppressed and governments would have power to do something about it such as by releasing debts. Do we become politically active, writing to MPs or signing petitions? Other than this I think there would be so much more good in the church taking the 'power under' approach rather than the 'power over' (good ol' Greg Boyd!) Thanks!

  2. Thanks for commenting, sanfchorn. Personally, I don't see a problem with political activism in terms of lobbying MPs, signing petitions and so on. And my final question about Christians seeking political power was speculative - I'm very much thinking through the issue.

    What does cause me to wince is Christians trying to use their political power to urge or force everyone to follow what they themselves consider to be a morally good lifestyle. That is Caesar's approach, not Jesus'.