How evangelical Anabaptist Christians think about politics—and why
Christians do not have a corner on good and beneficial activities when it comes to politics. Christians and non-Christians think about political matters in similar ways because all modern societies hold some common values. But should Mennonite Brethren, as evangelical Anabaptists, think differently than other Christians do about politics and the upcoming election? Yes!
Historically, Anabaptists separated from society and regarded government as evil. In part this position developed from their interpretation of Scripture and the coercive nature of government at that time. But today American Mennonites live in a democracy. So except for some groups such as the Amish and Hutterites, this position is no longer relevant.
Rather, most modern progressive Mennonites have adopted what John H. Redekop calls “realistic Anabaptism.” This position encourages Mennonites to become selectively involved in the political arena—but from a different perspective. I see five areas to consider when approaching the differences and similarities between Mennonites and other Christian positions.
1. Selective involvement
What is the nature of government? Is government ordained of God? Most modern Mennonites believe government is ordained of God and do not regard it as evil. Still, government is sub-Christian and as Redekop says, it is “God’s plan B.” Sin entered the world and human behavior had to be controlled. This task fell to human government. And the protection of people is still the foremost function of government. Scripture condemns anarchy and requires a government to maintain order and protect its citizens.
The church is “God’s plan A” and should have the Christian’s primary allegiance. Moreover, while they have some overlapping functions, Christians should not confuse the church and state. Enlightened secular ethics and Christian discipleship are not the same, despite some common characteristics. The church’s primary function is redemptive. The state, on the other hand, must perform a wide range of social, political and economic duties.
God has a concern for how all people live and the state fulfills many functions that enable humanity to survive and even thrive. Evangelical Anabaptists should become selectively involved in these areas. They should exercise their citizen rights and responsibilities. The Bible requires all Christians to pray for good government. Voting in a modern democracy is the minimum level of participation.
While the modern state still must protect its people from internal and external threats, it has many other functions—education, social services, health care, agriculture, roads and bridges, disaster relief, environmental management, care for the poor, etc. Mennonites should consider avoiding the more violent duties of government. But they should participate in the other functions of the state.
2. Say “no” to Christian nationalism
Many American evangelicals regard America as a Christian nation, perhaps as even the “New Israel.” Or at minimum they believe the U.S. was founded on Christian principles. Some evangelicals have even raised this issue to an article of faith.
We need to be grateful for the blessings America offers—religious freedom, political democracy, economic prosperity, personal liberties and many more. But we do not need to baptize America’s political and economic systems. While they may be very good, they are not necessarily ordained of God. They are not the 11th commandment. To Christianize our government’s various activities is at best a mistake. At worst, it borders on idolatry.
America was founded on a combination of Christian and enlightenment values. Enlightenment principles developed in 18th century Europe and challenged historic Christianity while emphasizing the values of reason, liberty, freedom and tolerance. These two ethical systems flow together and it is difficult to separate the two.
We began as a republic and evolved into a liberal-democracy, and in such a development Christian and enlightenment principles naturally merged. Democracy reflects majority rule but liberalism ensures certain rights for all people, even if they are in the minority. Having said this, many religious groups, especially the Puritans, have impacted our history and made religion a very important component in American public life.
But remember that the leading figures who influenced our development were what we now call deists. At the time deism was regarded as a form of Christianity, but it would not be seen as such today. Included on a short list would be Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison. These were men of the enlightenment, and they stood for freedom, liberty, tolerance and public morality.
But they did not necessarily embrace the historic Christian faith. And no, the great documents of America’s founding—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—are not Christian writings but products of the enlightenment.
Evangelical Anabaptists should be staunch advocates of the First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom and has been interpreted as separating church and state. The early Anabaptists were the first to advocate separation of church and state. This value became part of the American religious landscape. Unfortunately, in recent years some have questioned this interpretation of the Constitution and have advocated a more theocratic approach to church-state matters.
When entering the voting booth, all Christians must consider values as an important factor in how they vote. Still, while sharing much with mainline evangelicals, Mennonites should have a broader perspective. This viewpoint should be distinctively more inclusive than the one evidenced by many Christians on what is called the “religious right.” Most important, evangelical Anabaptists must consider a wide range of issues, not a narrow litmus list.
The personal morals of our political leaders are important. If they cannot be trusted in their personal lives, can they keep their word on national issues? But the issue is more complicated than this. Perhaps more important is the issue of public morality. Personal and public morality do not always go together.
Some rather pious presidents have not been personally corrupt but their administrations have been. Moreover, personal morality and competence do not always go together. Some very moral presidents have not had successful administrations. Conversely, some presidents who have not been virtuous in their personal lives have been our most competent leaders and have run the country well.
Evangelical Anabaptists should consider a wide range of values. The “religious right” has made a litmus test out of sexual issues—especially abortion, homosexuality and same sex marriage. These issues dominate their thinking, and one cannot be soft or compromising on these matters and be on God’s side. In focusing on these issues, many evangelicals ignore social justice, poverty, racism, peace issues and the environment.
Mennonites should not ignore or legitimize homosexuality, same sex marriage and abortion as a form of contraception. But they should think outside the traditional evangelical box.
In thinking politically, they should consider a wide range of value issues: Where does a candidate stand on the matter of social justice? Does he want tax breaks primarily for wealthy? What is her position on the environment? Does the candidate value all of God’s people regardless of their race or gender? Does she or he want all people to have adequate health care?
Coming out of the peace tradition, evangelical Anabaptists should not ignore the issue of peace. Yes, a government must protect its people from both internal and external dangers. It must fulfill its police and military functions. The early Anabaptists did not believe the state should be pacifist in its nature. And neither should contemporary Mennonites.
Rather, modern evangelical Anabaptists should encourage governments to exercise restraint and minimize violence whenever possible. They must be voices of restraint, advocating peace and justice whenever feasible. Diplomacy and alternatives to violent measures must be advocated. No, complete peace will never be achieved. But Mennonites should consider this question: Can a candidate protect America and preserve order while minimizing war and other violent measures?
4. Persuasion rather than coercion
While evangelical Anabaptists share many values with other Christians, they differ on how these morals can be achieved. On one hand, evangelical Anabaptists do not believe Christian ethics are the norm for the secular state. On the other, Christian values are not irrelevant. Whenever possible they should penetrate society.
But how? Mennonites place more emphasis on persuasion and providing alternatives than passing laws to enforce Christian behavior.
In America two lines of thinking dealing with religion and politics go back to the colonial period. The Puritans desired to legislate morality and criminalize behavior contrary to Christian values. An example of this tradition became evident in the spring primary elections. One candidate said that the Constitution should be amended to reflect God’s law.
A second tradition goes back to at least Roger Williams, a Baptist minister who founded Rhode Island. This line of thinking recognizes that even then America had deep religious and cultural divisions. So with respect to public life, once some basic standards designed to allow civilization to survive were established, explicit religion should be separate from politics. Such a tradition, while not ignoring values in public life, does allow for more choice and emphasizes persuasion rather than coercion. In most matters, Mennonites have stressed voluntarism and providing alternatives.
5. Expectations from government
For the most part, evangelical Anabaptist expectations for government are similar to what other Christians and even non-Christians value. In the Old Testament, what pleased God about rulers? They should be just, honest, competent, God-fearing and refrain from idolatry.
On the whole, Scripture indicates that governments can be expected to exhibit certain characteristics. They have a responsibility to rule in a competent manner—restraining evil, protecting people, maintaining law and order and upholding the general good. God expects governments to practice honesty and integrity and to be committed to the pursuit of justice.
Governments must work to promote freedom and human rights. It pleases God when governments assist the weak, marginalized, poor and elderly in society. Governments should also practice fiscal integrity and pay their bills as their citizens are expected to do. The rich should not receive preferential tax breaks either. Wherever possible, the state should seek nonviolent solutions to problems. And, governments need to promote public morality and root out corruption.
Last but not least: Please remember that God’s agenda does not coincide with that of either the Republican or Democratic parties. God is not spelled GOP. Moreover, GOP does not stand for “God’s only party.” Conversely, Jesus is not a Democrat just because he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Richard Kyle is professor of history and religion at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren liberal arts college headquartered in Hillsboro, Kan. He is the author of seven books. The most recent is Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity published in 2006 by Transaction Publications of Rutgers University. He has twice been awarded a Fulbright Scholar and the Tabor College faculty lecture series was recently named in his honor. He is a member of Hillsboro MB Church.
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