Volume > Issue > Beyond the Mixing of Politics & Religion

Beyond the Mixing of Politics & Religion


By William H. Willimon | April 1986
The Rev. William H. Willimon is Minister to the University and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University in North Carolina. A United Methodist, he is the author or co-author of 20 books, and is an Editor-at-Large for both The Christian Century and the Wittenburg Door.

For some time now, most of us Christians have regarded it as axiomatic that Christians ought to “go public” with our moral agenda and vote, lobby, pressure, and march to change our society for the better. Today a wide array of Christian groups, from conservative and liberal Protestants to the Catholic bishops believe that the church must try to embody its ethical vision through legislation. Indeed, more and more Christians are “going pub­lic” with their moral agenda. The man who once left my congregation because he didn’t care for a preacher who “mixed politics with religion” is to­day a minority on both the Right and the Left.

In the 1960s, liberal Christians organized for civil rights and peace. Then, somewhat to the liber­als’ surprise, conservative Christians found that two could play the game. Into the political arena enter­ed the Moral Majority of the 1980s, fighting for prayer in public schools and against abortion. “Foul,” cried liberal Christians, “What are they do­ing here?” Yet Jerry Falwell and his New Right were only doing what the Left did so well earlier — pushing a political program upon the body politic in the name of Jesus. Now we have two competing views of a just society both claiming to be “Chris­tian.” I can understand a politician’s dismay in wondering just what the Christian political pro­gram is.

Yet in the attempt, right or left, to involve the church in politics to form a better society, we have forgotten the church’s more profound politi­cal task, which is to be a better society. I’m not bothered that Christians are in politics. My prob­lem is that Christians are not usually in politics on our own terms, from the unique standpoint of peo­ple who are trying to follow Jesus Christ.

We Americans are in a predicament that calls for more than minor tinkering with our political machinery. Plato said the function of politics is to help people be good. Public virtues such as kind­ness, mutual concern, and the common good are supposed to be fostered through politics. As George Will says, “Statecraft is soulcraft.”

Yet it is in this matter of public virtue that our own society has failed. We have produced a so­ciety renowned for productivity and consumption, a society that has given unprecedented freedom to its citizens. And yet, is our success our undoing?

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