Politics and religion can and do mix. In fact, it’s not a question of if, but how, contends Paul Bickley of thinktank Theos, with whom CMS is partnering to host a new political theology module as part of our Pioneer Mission Training.
Somali-born Dutch-American activist and former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently wrote that she had become a Christian. This came after a de-conversion form politicised Islam to more than a decade as an atheist in the company of the New Atheists – people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.
Religion and civilisation
Reading her account of her conversion, it is clear that she understands her first, second, and third religions (Islam, atheism, and Christianity) as the spiritual foundation not just of an individual’s private beliefs but of different civilizations. She has become a Christian not because she is convinced that it is true but because she is convinced that Christianity is useful, important, and necessary.
Many – Christian and non-Christian – would be troubled by these thoughts. We have been taught to think that religion should be kept well away from politics. To mix them is divisive, even oppressive.
Unfortunately, a tidy separation between the two seems ever more hard to achieve. The United States is one of the most constitutionally secular states on earth, yet it is itself the home for a growing movement of Christian nationalism. What Ayaan Hirsi Ali sets up as the essential relationship between Christianity and western values, advocates for Christian nationalism argue for the relationship between Christianity and the USA.
Where are the boundary lines?
So as uneasy as we might be about Ali’s comments, or the very idea of Christian nationalism, it could be that they have a point. Religion and politics will mix. Understood as a universal human phenomena, religion is always and everywhere a social, collective and public thing, and therefore entwined with everything that is social.
“Should religion and politics mix?” is not the right question – they always will. A better question is “how should they mix?” Disciples of Jesus should try and answer in ways which carefully and authentically draw on our faith. The opposite danger of thinking that politics and religion can’t mix is thinking that they are the same thing. We need a theological map to find the boundary lines.
Politics begins at home
These kinds of debates can seem distant from ordinary Christian life, but they’re not. Many churches get involved in their communities, wanting to respond to an immediate and apparently simple need. They will start a community supermarket or winter warm hub, or encourage people to volunteer at a night shelter. Spending time with the people these projects help, they find themselves drawn into questions around why these people ended up in dire need, and others didn’t. They will begin to ask if there is anything that could be done to prevent others from ending up in similar situations. They can see that people often don’t get the help or support that they need when times get tough.
Some might never go further than that – feeling it is inappropriate to get into political debate. Others will still feel stirred by the Spirit to ‘do something’, but they are no longer certain what the right thing to do is. Like Desmond Tutu, they may say to themselves, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
They are becoming aware of their need of a theological map which covers both the sacred life of worship, prayer, teaching and evangelism and a ‘secular’ world of institutions, services, and political decision-making. In simple terms, they need a framework which holds together love of God and love of neighbour, in the context of the gospel which is consistently framed in what we would call ‘political’ language – king, kingdoms, citizenship, rulers and authorities.
If this post and at least some of these questions resonate with you, Theos and CMS have developed a new ‘Faith in Public’ course, running for the first time in Summer 2024.