Private or Public Christianity: Does Your Faith Affect Your Politics?
January 30, 2012 3 Comments
I sat down next to a tall, bright, 17-year-old guy named Max on an airplane in December. When he asked what I do, I said, “I’m training to be a pastor.” Now, Max described himself as “secular, or atheist…agnostic…whatever.” He didn’t know quite what to call himself, but he grew up in the Catholic church and knew that religion wasn’t for him. Nevertheless, he was thoroughly interested to meet a real live Protestant Christian. Once he had sorted out just what religion I was seeking to work in, he started peppering me with questions.
Among those questions was this pointed (and no doubt loaded) query: “Does your religion affect your politics?”
I think Max wanted to know if I was one of those nice Christians who espouse their views in the safety of their own mind or maybe their household, or if I was one of those “crazies” who try to force my religious convictions on others through politics. For many people like Max, a Christian who is a Christian in public is out of place. As long as you keep your views to yourself, believe whatever you want. But faith and public life are supposed to be completely separate: like church and state.
During my recent trip to Turkey and Greece, I learned that in the ancient world just about everything anyone did was religious. Going to the theater? There’s a god for that. Having a dinner party? There’s a god for that. Meeting to discuss city ordinances? There’s a god for that. The Greco-Roman world was the iPhone of religion and Apollo, Athena, and Augustus were the apps.
It seems like our culture is just the opposite. Religious life is supposed to be private, not public, right? The scholar N.T. Wright describes our contemporary ‘Western’ culture this way:
“…we will arrange for ‘religion’ to become a small sub department of ordinary life; it will be quite safe — harmless, in fact — with church life carefully separated off from everything else in the world, whether politics, art, sex, economics, or whatever. Those who want it can have enough to keep them going. Those who don’t want their life, and their way of life, disrupted by anything “religious” can …. Live as if the rumor of God had never existed! We are, after all, in charge of our own fate! We are the captains of our own souls (whatever they may be)! That is the philosophy which has dominated our culture. From this point of view, spirituality is a private hobby, an up-market version of daydreaming for those who like that kind of thing.” (Simply Christian, 19)
The only problem is that Christianity prohibits Christians from living out their faith only in private. When Jesus sends out his disciples into the world in Matthew 28 he says, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” and in Acts chapter 1 he says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The rest of the book of Acts is the story of the early church being witnesses (witnesses=people who tell other people what they have experienced) all over the ancient world.
Now, this prohibition of private Christianity is not some pointless rule of a sadistic Dictator. It is a reflection of how God and this world are related. Christians believe that God is the God of the whole world. He is not like Asclepius, whose realm is limited to healing the body and mind. He is not like Poseidon, whose realm is limited to the sea. The Christian God is the King of the Universe, and so those of us who trust in him believe we cannot separate one iota of our life from him.
In their book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner say it clearly:
All human activity–from the mundane to the profound, from personal lives to professional careers–falls under God’s domain, so authentic Christian faith should be relevant to the whole of life; it ought not to be segregated from worldly affairs. (p. 29)
And the reality is that this is a huge blessing for us. How many of us have compartmentalized our lives? How many of us feel broken-up into bits, like we have a work-self, a family-self, a sports-self, and maybe even a church-self? When our culture asks us to privatize our faith, it asks us to make for our faith life a small compartment in an otherwise ‘normal’ life, so that it won’t bother anyone besides us. But the Bible casts a vision of a fully integrated person, a person who does not break her life into segments but is restored into one holistic self by the God who governs her whole life.
So that, more or less, is what I told Max.
Do we live out our faith in public or in private? Hopefully, the answer is….Yes.
For more on being a wholly integrated person, see my post How Can I Be Whole?: What It Means to Have Integrity.