Going Public – How we think Biblically about politics elections and public life

During the General Election Campaign, we’re going to include a few articles to do with “Public Theology.”

Public Theology is about how we apply what we believe about God, Creation, Humanity and New Creation to public life. This includes questions about

–          Government: what is the role of The State and what are its limitations?

–          Economics: what should our attitudes be to business, wealth, taxation etc?

–          Social policy: What are our responsibilities as a society to the poor, sick, elderly, vulnerable etc.

–          Race and immigration:  How do we treat the foreigners in our midst? Should we seek to control our borders and limit immigration? Does patriotism have a rightful place in our society?

–          The Environment: How do we act as stewards over God’s Creation?

–          Public morality: What do we define as crime and how do we punish it?

These are big, complex and potentially controversial questions. It’s questions like these that make politics divisive. Once again, we will not be taking sides politically or telling readers how to vote. However, we do want to know if the Bible has anything to say about these sorts of things. After all, faithroots.net claims that what we believe should affect how we live. Public Theology emphasises that this means “all of life.”

This is important because there is a strong claim that these sorts of questions are off limits to theology just as theology is off limits to politicians. For example, when Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron was asked about his views on homosexuality, he frequently insisted that he did not want to get into a theological discussion, stating that it wasn’t the place of politicians to “pontificate on theological matters”[1] and that “he did not ‘want to get into a series of questions unpicking the theology of the Bible’.”[2]

This did not stop journalists and other politicians pursuing him about his views on homosexuality. Farron wanted to argue that it was possible to separate out his personal and private religious views from his public, political statements and actions. He was taking the position that there are two spheres of life, public and private, that the two have nothing to do with each other and that faith belongs firmly in the private sphere.

I think there are two problems with this:

  1. As we will see in a later article, the belief that there are two spheres of life is itself a theological position.  It requires a decision about how God acts in his Universe and what our responsibilities as human beings generally and Christians specifically are.
  2. We cannot avoid the relationship between belief and action.  The Christian has to reconcile the two one way or the other.  A Christian who goes into public life must either decide to act consistently with his beliefs about, for example, homosexuality, euthanasia, the disabled and asylum seekers based on what God’s Word says, or he must choose to act inconsistently with his beliefs and then justify that inconsistency.

At this stage, you will realise that there are some topics where there seems to be a more obvious Evangelical position and not surprisingly there are parachurch groups with local and national church support that campaign specifically on those issues. Organisations such as The Christian Institute, CARE and Christian Concern for Our Nation have campaigned tirelessly on matters such as marriage, abortion, the freedom to proclaim the Gospel etc. These are all matters that touch on public policy. We may also come to the conclusion that some matters are a little more complex than others and it isn’t quite so easy to identify a common position on.  This does not mean that the Bible has nothing to say on them; it does mean though that there may be different ways of applying what the Bible says, that our level of knowledge and understanding means we require further light and/or we may give differing priorities to them. Some of our articles will explore these questions. By the way, we may also recognise some complexities even in the subjects that on one level seem clear and obvious. For example, as Stephen Kneale has helpfully explained, there is a huge difference between saying that something is a sin and that it is a crime.

Public Theology is both an aspect of ethics as we seek to discover God’s view on big moral choices and of Pastoral Theology as we recognise that public decisions will have an impact on individuals’ lives and we seek to discover together how to live godly lives in the world as it is in all its messiness.

Of course, the contexts in which we will find ourselves will differ. This means that we may at times be asking different questions or finding slightly different answers depending on public life in our time and location. Public Theology will feel different a secular western democracy to  and Islamic Theocracy, Communist State or living under the tyranny of an individual dictator, just as it will feel different today to life in Christendom under an absolutist monarchy.

Public Theology will help us think about

–          The role we play in civic life whether as ordinary citizens or in some cases for Christians who run for office or take up roles as public servants (e.g. Judges).

–          The political choices we make and their implications

–          How the Gospel challenges the assumptions and presuppositions of our society and invites people to a better hope.

–          How we can pray for our communities, nation and the wider world.

Therefore, we hope that these articles will be helpful not just over the next few weeks as we consider or options in the General Election but also for the long term as we think about our roles and responsibilities in this world as believers in Christ and witnesses to the Gospel.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39703444

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39703444