The short answer is “no,” or “neither,” but this answer demands elaboration if it’s not to mislead. Pastor Tim Keller argues that Christians don’t fit into the present U. S. political party system and marshals reason why. I disagree. Keller and I both embrace Protestantism, one of whose distinctives is the final authority of the Bible, so the test is whether his (or my) views conform to the Bible’s teaching.
To Be Apolitical Is to Be Political
Keller’s first point, that to be apolitical is to be political, is quite right. To be apolitical is to tacitly affirm the status quo. A minister who refuses publicly to address ( = oppose) abortion, same-sex “marriage,” socialism, judicial activism, and “affirmative action” is not merely avoiding the entire counsel (Ac. 20:27) of the Bible (since the Bible explicitly or implicitly addresses these and similar issues), but he also creates an atmosphere in which his listeners will passively drift toward the most popular cultural views of the day. The fact that Keller doesn’t invoke the issues I did in making this point, opting rather to mention slavery, public education, and racial segregation, hot-button Leftist issues, doesn’t negate his underlying point: Christians must consider and obey the entire Bible, even the so-called political parts, and not crawl into an apolitical cave.
Godliness Requires Godly Political Power
Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one. There are a number of reasons to insist on this.
This is a solution in search of a problem. I know of no one (I doubt you do either) who “identif[ies] the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.” There have been explicitly Christian third parties, but they have been minuscule. Both major parties include unbelievers and neither identifies as Christian, or, under the present circumstances, honestly could.
One [reason] is that it gives those considering the Christian faith the strong impression that to be converted, they need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the (fill in the blank) Party. It confirms what many skeptics want to believe about religion — that it is merely one more voting bloc aiming for power.
But aiming for power is by no means contra-biblical, and the criticism of skeptics is not a valid criterion for determining Christian action. Romans 13 makes clear that the state exercises God-given power. Not to exercise that power or not to support those who do exercise it would be to defy God and expose the weakest in a society to plunder and molestation. To vote for a political candidate or policy that will implement the moral law of God is to foster justice ( = righteousness), the godly exercise of power. To refuse to exercise the power to vote is to empower injustice. The Bible doesn’t depict pacifism as a virtue. In the face of evil, it is a vice (Prov. 24:11–12). Christian responsibility includes conflict with lawbreakers: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, [b]ut such as keep the law contend [strive or war] with them” (Prov. 8:24). Keller writes later that
The Gospel gives us the resources to love people who reject both our beliefs and us personally. Christians should think of how God rescued them. He did it not by taking power but by coming to earth, losing glory and power, serving and dying on a cross. How did Jesus save? Not with a sword but with nails in his hands.
This is correct as far as it goes, but to invoke the Cross without the resurrection is to offer half a Christ (Rom. 6:3–14). His earthly body was sown in weakness, but raised in power (1 Cor. 15:43). The crucifixion itself was an act of power, vanquishing Satan and the satanic principalities (Col. 2:12–15). The glorified, post-resurrection Christ presently reigns in blazing glory and power (Rev. 1:9–18). We know him not only in the fellowship of his sufferings but also in the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10). The Great Commission is possible because the power of the risen Christ is behind it (Mt. 28:18–20). To argue against power, including appropriate political power, is really to argue against the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all of life. The question is not whether Christians should exercise power, but how they should do it.
Biblical Command versus Practical Wisdom
Keller then notes:
Another reason not to align the Christian faith with one party is that most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom. This does not mean that the church can never speak on social, economic and political realities, because the Bible often does. Racism is a sin, violating the second of the two great commandments of Jesus, to “love your neighbor.” The biblical commands to lift up the poor and to defend the rights of the oppressed are moral imperatives for believers. For individual Christians to speak out against egregious violations of these moral requirements is not optional.
Keller offers racism and refusal to help the poor and defend the oppressed as two political acts that fall into the category of “biblical command” rather than “practical wisdom.” There can be no disagreement, no political flexibility on these issues. There can, however, be room for great disagreement on economics:
However, there are many possible ways to help the poor. Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between? The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.
I know of a man from Mississippi who was a conservative Republican and a traditional Presbyterian. He visited the Scottish Highlands and found the churches there as strict and as orthodox as he had hoped. No one so much as turned on a television on a Sunday. Everyone memorized catechisms and Scripture. But one day he discovered that the Scottish Christian friends he admired were (in his view) socialists. Their understanding of government economic policy and the state’s responsibilities was by his lights very left-wing, yet also grounded in their Christian convictions. He returned to the United States not more politically liberal but, in his words, “humbled and chastened.” He realized that thoughtful Christians, all trying to obey God’s call, could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum, with loyalties to different political strategies.
This is an odd juxtaposition of political issues. Racism, defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” is a grievous sin because it springs from pride, which God hates (Prov. 8:13). For this principal reason racism is abhorrent. But Keller suggests that racism is sinful on the grounds that it violates the second great commandment. I wonder how he’d respond to an antebellum Christian slaveholder who countered that it is precisely his love for his slaves that requires him to own them and provide for them. This scenario shows how vital it is not simply to know which acts are sins but why they are. Racism is a grievous sin because it is pride.
In arguing that God’s revelation on economics is not transcultural but may change with differing circumstances he faces a quandary. The Bible forbids theft. It declares that a government whose tax rate is as high as 10% is tyrannical (1 Sam. 8:10–18). It portrays Jesus as championing in the most graphic parables possible what we today term market economics (Mt. 20:1–16; 25:14–30). While the Bible doesn’t include anything approaching an advanced free-market system, obviously unknown at the time, neither does it support anything approaching state socialism. In fact, its commitment to the integrity of private (mostly family) property is compatible with free markets and not with socialism. Presumably, however, on the issue of racism, Keller believes “the Bible does . . . give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.” But if this is the case with racism, it is not clear why it isn’t the case with socialism, whose guiding principle (theft) is every bit as abhorrent and perhaps even more abhorrent to God than racism.
Keller then states:
Another reason Christians these days cannot allow the church to be fully identified with any particular party is the problem of what the British ethicist James Mumford calls “package-deal ethics.” Increasingly, political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.
If anything, this criticism is more suited to multi-party societies than the two-party system in the U.S. The very fact that there are only two parties means that parties must include people with whom they can work on some issues and not others. The recent internal battle among Republicans between conservatives (Paul Ryan) and populists (Donald Trump) and among the Democrats between progressives (Joe Biden) and socialists (Bernie Sanders), all four factions arguing for differing ethics in some cases, suggests that there are no “package-deal ethics” in modern American politics.
Social Justice Is Social Injustice
This emphasis on package deals puts pressure on Christians in politics. For example, following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.
Unfortunately, Keller doesn’t define “racial justice.” If he means that all races should be treated equally under the law, this is just what the Bible requires (Ex. 12:49). If he means that “underrepresented” races may validly be awarded enrollment or employment quotas on the basis of race alone (“affirmative action”), he is arguing for racism, a form of racial injustice. Indeed, social justice today equates to social injustice. Nor does he define marriage, which 20 years ago would have been unnecessary, but is not today. The Bible defines marriage in the way it has been defined in all societies everywhere until decades ago.
No Party Parity
More importantly: the fact is that a number of “historical Christian positions on social issues” do “fit into contemporary political alignments.” The GOP and the historical Christian position define marriage as between one man and one woman. The Democrats do not. The GOP and the historical Christian position see unborn children as persons entitled to legal protection from murder. The Democrats do not. The GOP and the historical Christian position recognize that economic liberty (free markets) is a moral imperative that, not coincidentally, erases poverty. The Democrats do not. The GOP and the historical Christian position embrace the rule of law as a cornerstone of the Founding philosophy of classical liberalism, itself shaped by Protestant Christianity. The Democrats do not. There is no moral equivalence between the parties. The GOP is far from perfect, but it is also usually not far from the “historical Christian positions on social issues.” The Democrats, on the other hand, aren’t even close. And don’t want to be.
So Christians are pushed toward two main options. One is to withdraw and try to be apolitical. The second is to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table. Neither of these options is valid. In the Good Samaritan parable told in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points us to a man risking his life to give material help to someone of a different race and religion. Jesus forbids us to withhold help from our neighbors, and this will inevitably require that we participate in political processes.
There is another, more comprehensive option: when possible, work within the party that most conforms to the Bible and the historical Christian position. And, above all, do not adopt political Leftism while cautioning about partisan affiliation, when one party is vocally and conspicuously on the side of Leftism. To do that would be erroneously apolitical.
The fact that God is not a Republican or Democrat doesn’t mean that the major moral views of both parties are equally unacceptable (or acceptable). One party more closely reflects, if not always consistently practices, God’s moral law. This means one party is comparatively more God-honoring than the other. I’ll let you figure out which is which.
For a biblical Christian in 2018 in the United States, there is no party parity. Not to choose is to be morally irresponsible.