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Can Civil Governments Function According to Christian Ethics?
Some elements of Christian ethics are not intended as as norms for governments, but nations can utilize much more of Christian ethics than they have so far. It would benefit everyone.

Part Three of a series of three webitorials on the relationship of believers with government.

There is a need for some parameters and boundaries.

We must exclude extremes: attempts by governments to suppress or even stamp out Christianity or some other faith, or attempts by governments, for example Christian or Muslim, to achieve total enforcement by government of a specific religion.

God has not promised any religious group that they will live in freedom.

The questions we ask apply not only to Christianity. Our responses to the questions must have global validity. God has not promised any religious group that they will live in freedom.

People have faced the basic challenge for centuries, in fact, millennia. The challenge will always be with us. Therefore thoughtful people, including politicians, cannot ignore it.

Human history provides at least eight options in church-state relations:

  • Total suppression of religion. e.g. the Soviet Union.
  • Total enforcement of a creed. e.g. Puritan England, 1649 to 1660; Iran, etc.
  • The church takes over the state. John Calvin’s Geneva (Those Calvinists had a separate City Council but it took orders from the church), The Vatican. Some Muslim states where the mullahs give orders to the government.
  • The state declares an official religion with very limited toleration of other faiths. Roman Empire after 383 AD (Theodosius I), Egypt, early Latin America.
  • Attempted transformation of the faith. e.g. Nazi Germany (Was Jesus a Jew?)
  • Unofficial nationalization of the religion. e.g. the US (read the quotes – governments and citizens.) Christian-Americanism: Senator Albert Beveridge (January 9, 1900) American Far Right, p.168; President McKinley (c. 1900) American Far Right, p.168; God’s Country (movie) Politics Under God, p. 194.
  • Official support of a state church combined with broad freedom for other faiths. e.g. much of Europe; the Anglican Church in the U.K.
  • Formal separation but selective support for the dominant faith. e.g. many Western democracies: Italy, Israel, the US, Canada, Australia, etc.

Some fundamental religious perspectives

Both church and the state, or government, which is the agent of the state, serve God. They operate in different spheres, have been given different mandates by God and utilize different sets of sanctions.

  • God’s Church:The Christian Church has the mandate, the Great Commission, to proclaim the Christian Gospel around the world, to cultivate Christian living, and to help believers to mature as Christians (see Matthew 28:19 – 20; Matthew 5:48; II Peter 3:18). The two “great commandments” Jesus gave to His followers can hardly serve as policy guidelines for a government. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37 – 38).
  • The political or governmental realm: God has established governments and given them a mandate (see Romans 13:1 – 6; I Peter 2:13 – 14). Note Jesus’ words to Pilate who was about to condemn Him to death: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:13). This gift, this grant of political authority is extended also to non-Christian governments. In Jeremiah 24:9 God Jehovah speaks of “my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.” Romans 13 refers to an anti-Christian government.

Not all of the ethical guidelines God gave to the church apply to governments or a political party. Some religious folk have difficulty in accepting this basic truth. (Refer to the chart on page 156 of Politics Under God.)

Further, in political life citizens and governments generally rely on a Charter of Rights to guide their behavior; in Christian behavior we have in Matthew chapters 5 to 7 not a Charter of Rights but a Charter for Righteous Living! That involves a huge difference! But political ethics must still meet some moral criteria. Note Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that “nothing can be politically right if it is morally wrong.”

Why should a lawmaker or a government not have as its goal the full implementation of Christian values? Because the God-given ethics for the two realms, despite considerable overlapping, are different.

  • A person has a moral right to sacrifice himself for a cause, to give away possessions, to acquiesce in the face of gross evil, governments not. For example, turning the other cheek, giving a second garment to one who has already taken one, going the second mile, even giving up one’s life!
  • Coercion, at least the possibility of coercion, undergirds all governments. The church, however, should never use physical coercion.
  • Governments have the obligation to resist evil physically and to uphold the security of the state. Cf. its mandate in Romans 13. The church also resists evil but by other means.
  • Governments act for citizens, especially in a democracy, and are accountable to the citizens. Individual believers ethically act for themselves.

Although governments should never become the enforcement arm of a religion, governments generally benefit by enacting much of Judeo-Christian values; many governments legislate much less of the Judeo-Christian values than they should. For example, in the areas of human dignity, assistance to the marginalized, personal and institutional integrity.

Church-state challenges in establishing ethical guidelines for governments

Both orders tend to make absolute claims, even concerning the giving of one’s life for the cause. For instance, martyrdom and death in military service (conscription).

  • The state says that the maintenance and security of the state is the highest good. A state cannot sacrifice itself for the good of some other state.
  • The church says that proclamation of the religious creed and obedience to the religious creed are the highest goods. Self-sacrifice is a praiseworthy option. Obedience to the faith, not security, is the highest good.

Some key values are or should be common to both orders:

  • The establishment and preservation of freedom; respect for human choice.
  • The preservation of law and order.
  • Doing good deeds for the public in the country: providing assistance for the needy, the elderly, the ill, the poor, the disabled, the exploited, the abused, etc.
  • The development of people’s potential.
  • The pursuit and maintenance of peace domestically and abroad.
  • Giving assistance to needy people abroad.

Not many politicians make fun of the church but church people often make fun of politicians.

Both the church and the state need to respect the other agency. Not many politicians make fun of the church but church people often make fun of politicians. For example, What is the difference between a church bell and a politician?

The one peels from the steeple while the other steals from the people!

Some of the values are profoundly different:

  • The state has to deal with all the people living in its realm, within its borders; the church is responsible only for those who have voluntarily chosen to identify with it.
  • The state emphasizes obedience to its laws; the church emphasizes obedience to its religious teachings, ultimately to God.
  • The state focuses on external behavior; the church focuses beyond external behavior to a person’s beliefs, values, attitudes and character.
  • The state can, if need be, use coercion; the church cannot use coercion.
  • The goal of the state is to achieve security, economic progress, and social tranquility; the goal of the church is to grow in numbers and to achieve moral and spiritual growth of its members. In traditional biblical language one can say that Christians seek “to become more Christ-like”.
  • The state is exclusive, it deals with the people within its borders; the religious body is inclusive, it proselytizes and addresses the needs and interests of people beyond any political borders. The church is, by definition, trans-national.
  • The great British politician of the 19th century, Viscount Palmerstone, has observed that “countries don’t have friends, just interests.” Christians, on the other hand, have not only friends but unknown neighbors whom they are to befriend and treat kindly.

How do Christian citizens and Christian politicians deal with the different mandates and the partially different ethical values God has given to His two agents, the state and the church? (People of all faiths face this challenge.) 

Attempts to fuse the two ethical systems. The state officially adopts a religion and seeks to enforce its creed and ethical values. Examples include John Calvin’s Geneva, Puritan England, English Pilgrims in New England, the Spanish Inquisition, most Muslim states’ attempt to fuse governmental and religious ethics.

The classical Lutheran teaching – two ethics in one person: variations of this view are found throughout the world today. Quote Politics Under God pp. 47 – 48, 49.

Christians do not get involved in politics. For example, Hutterites, some Mennonites, some Quakers, etc. This option can never be fully successful. It also creates many problems. Attempted non-involvement itself becomes a major political issue for everyone.

Selective involvement. A religious person functions in two realms and participates in the political realm as much as one’s religious ethic permits.

For all options in attempted ethical reconciliation there will always be problems – for three reasons.

  • Personal beliefs change and the dominant societal values change. For example, concerning homosexual behavior, same-sex marriage, polygamy, lotteries, blood transfusions, inter-racial marriage, Sunday closing laws, religion instruction in schools, abortion.
  • There will always be dissenting minorities, and in a democracy these need somehow to be accommodated.
  • It is very difficult to discern where the overlapping should cease and to get consensus on that question but that fact does not invalidate the general stance.

Can laws and regulations change public behavior and attitudes? Can morality be legislated?

Behavior can be changed; some behavior can be changed immediately, some takes more time. For example, the slave trade, slavery, school integration (Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas, 1954.), smoking in public areas, spitting on the streets, driving a vehicle while using a cell phone, using a seatbelt while driving, wearing a helmet while using a motor cycle.

To a considerable extent...morality can be legislated.

Over time attitudes can also be changed. That’s the key truth. Over time, governmental policies and practices do change public opinion. For example, equal pay for women, racial equality, smoking in restaurants or in buses and planes. To a considerable extent, thus, morality can be legislated.

What can and should governments do in adopting Christian values in the realms of legislation, regulation and administration?

  • Uphold and promote freedom, broadly defined. To promote and protect freedom is the greatest contribution governments can make to human wellbeing.
  • Resist, reduce and control evil even though it cannot be eliminated.
  • Enact and administer enlightened and progressive policies in broad societal matters such as the environment, transportation, traffic safety, and prison reform. Regulate segments in society, as needed, to try to achieve quality controls, food safety, honest weights and measures.
  • Enact, administer and maintain a fair judiciary. Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr: “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” That’s no easy task.
  • Facilitate the development of every individual’s potential; offer extensive education.
  • Look after the needy and the marginalized; operate according to the belief that all people are important, that every individual is made in the image of God.
  • Practice the highest form of ethics in personal and collective activity: emphasize honesty, consistency, and fair-mindedness. Governments must avoid corruption and bribery. Let it never be said of us that Canada has the best politicians that money can buy! One wit has said that in Ottawa it is so cold that politicians have their hands in their own pockets! I’m also reminded of Count Bismarck’s witty observation that “The greatest lies are told before marriage, after the hunt, and during an election.”
  • Emphasize and nurture human dignity, which is good for everyone.
  • Nurture and to a considerable extent, adopt the Judeo-Christian code of ethics, widely acknowledged to be the best in the world. The genius of the Judeo-Christian ethic is that it upholds equal treatment for all of God’s children. No other religion, no other religious worldview or ideology, holds to such a value. Note the observations of several experts: Reinhold Niebuhr: “Democracy is that child of which Christianity need never be ashamed.”
    John Warwick Montgomery: “Only Christianity can make a stand on human rights that is more than an extension of a particular prejudice. Outside of the Judeo-Christian ethic it is difficult to find a catalogue of rights which human beings should uphold on behalf of each other. In this connection we do well to remember that international human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, were built on this ethic.” (Note: this expert has eight earned degrees and is an internationally renowned expert in the field of human rights.) Montgomery adds that a Christian “will…condemn without partiality violations of human rights whenever they occur and without regard to the politics of the violators; and he will strive to promote and protect the dignity of every man without fear or favor.”

Conclusion

In 1972 the political commentator Walfred Peterson observed that “Like it or not, modern man is a child of government.” The most recent phenomenal growth of the nanny state in the Western world has underscored his assertion. In many lands even long-standing conservatives have now embraced big government. Apparently we will all increasingly function as “children of government.”

The state, acting through the government of the day, can utilize, practice, and legislate much of Christian ethics. Western democracies generally, and other countries also, can utilize much more of Christian ethics than has been utilized thus far. And if they move in this direction, it will be for the benefit of all.

Some elements of Christian ethics are intended specifically for Christians functioning in their private lives and are not appropriate as norms for governments. Citizens and also governments should not attempt to use the arm of the law to implement those elements of religious ethics.

The political order has brought us much of our excellent quality of life. Our governments, in their own right and as enablers for the private sector, have achieved much, but there is more that can be done.

John H. Redekop Ph.D., D. Hum. (hon.) originally spoke on this topic at the Ottawa, Parliamentary MPs Prayer Breakfast Group in March, 2009.

This webitorial is based on Dr. John Redekop’s book Politics Under God, Herald Press, 2007.

Politics Under God
“Dr. John Redekop provides a timely and passionate primer on politics, citizenship, and the relationship between church and state from a Christian perspective.”— Bruce Clemenger, President, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

John H. Redekop Ph.D., is D. Hum. (hon.) Ottawa, Laurentian Leadership Centre.

Related articles

What Does God Expect of Citizens?
What Does God Expect of Governments? 

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