Christianity and politics

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The relationship between Christianity and politics is a historically complex subject and a frequent source of disagreement throughout the history of Christianity, as well as in modern politics between the Christian right and Christian left. There have been a wide variety of ways in which thinkers have conceived of the relationship between Christianity and politics, with many arguing that Christianity directly supports a particular political ideology or philosophy. Along these lines, various thinkers have argued for Christian communism, Christian socialism, Christian anarchism, Christian libertarianism, or Christian democracy. Others believe that Christians should have little interest or participation in politics or government.


The Hebrew Bible contains a complex chronicle of the Kings of Israel and Judah, written over the course of many generations by authors whose relationships and intimacy with the rulers of the several kingdoms fluctuated widely in both intimacy and respect. Some historical passages of the Hebrew Bible contain intimate portrayals of the inner workings of the royal households of Saul, David, and Solomon; the accounts of subsequent monarchs are frequently more distanced and less detailed, and frequently begin with the judgment that the monarch "did evil in the sight of the Lord."

The Christian New Testament, instead, begins with the story of Jesus, crucified as a criminal who had offended both the Jewish priesthood and the Roman imperial authorities. At least to outward appearances, Jesus was at the periphery of political life and power in the Roman province of Judea. Nevertheless, a number of political currents appear in New Testament writings.

Early Christians were described by Celsus as those who refused military service and would not accept public office, nor assume any responsibility for the governing of cities.[1] Origen confirms this description and adds that Christians do more for the good of the empire by forming an "army of piety" that prays for the well-being of the emperor and the safety of the empire. [2]



The Christian right within evangelical Christianity have formed many of their political views on social issues such as abortion, homosexuality and public education from passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.[3]

Romans 13

In the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13:1-7, Paul instructs Roman Christians to submit to government. See also 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Titus 3:1 for parallels. Mainstream theologians and the Christian right have interpreted Romans 13:1–7 to mean Christians should support the state and wield the sword when requested, as God has sanctified the state to be his main tool to preserve social order.[4]



The Christian left have interpreted various passages in Acts of the Apostles to mean that an ideal society would be based on Christian socialism or Christian communism.

The first Jewish Christian communities, as described in Acts, were organized along a principle of communal ownership of goods. This is first mentioned in Acts 2:44-45, then reiterated in Acts 4:32-37.

Acts 2: 44 And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (King James Version)

Acts 4: 32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, 37 Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.

(King James Version)


An emerging tradition of political thought, Christian libertarians maintain that state intervention to promote piety or generosity can be unethical and counterproductive. Coercion by threat of violence robs otherwise moral acts of their virtue, inspires resentment and disrespect even for just laws on the part of the coerced, and has a spiritually deleterious effect upon the coercers. While Christian libertarians disagree over whether and to what extent agents of the state possess the moral authority to intervene in the lives of citizens, government involvement is generally viewed with skepticism and suspicion. As with the Christian left, war and nation-building are common targets of ethical scrutiny from Christians espousing the libertarian philosophy.

The governing maxim for many natural-rights libertarians, including those of faith, is the non-aggression principle, which forbids the initiation of force but does not preclude the restrained, proportional use of defensive or disciplinary violence against the iniatiator. It has been compared to the Golden Rule and its converse, the Silver Rule.

According to Christian libertarianism, to seize the life, liberty, or legitimately owned property of an individual by coercion, even for that person's well-being or for the benefit of others, constitutes a violation of his or her human dignity as an image-bearer of God. Thus, most forms of taxation and all laws that prevent or distort free and nonviolent exchange are unacceptable. The classical doctrine of original or ancestral sin furthermore suggests to Christian libertarians that political (and for some left-libertarians, economic) power ought to be democratically distributed and decentralized to guard against government oppression and the natural human tendency to corruption.

While one of the Church's societal roles may be to promote righteousness in service and humble obedience to God, equal liberty is the highest or only political value. The state's raison d'être is to prevent rights violations, to quarantine or punish justly, and ideally to restore offenders so they can again peaceably dwell and participate in civil society.


Sermon on the Mount

More than any other Bible source, the Sermon on the Mount is used as the basis for Christian anarchism.[5] The foundation of Christian anarchism is a rejection of violence, with Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You regarded as a key text.[6][7] Tolstoy takes the viewpoint that all governments who wage war, and churches who in turn support those governments, are an affront to the Christian principles of nonviolence and nonresistance.

Christians have interpreted Romans 13:1–7 to mean they should support the state and wield the sword when requested, as God has sanctified the state to be his main tool to preserve social order.[4] Christian anarchists do not share this interpretation of Romans 13 but given Paul's declaration to submit to authorities they do not attempt to overthrow the state.[8] However anarchists still describe the state as an evil power executing wrath and vengeance.[9] As wrath and vengeance are opposite to the Christian values of returning good for evil, Christian anarchists neither support, nor participate in, the state.[8][10]

Book of Revelation

Christian eschatology and various Christian anarchists, such as Jacques Ellul, have identified the State and political power as the Beast in the Book of Revelation.[11]

Apocalyptic texts frequently coach radical criticism of existing regimes under the form of allegory; this, at least, is a frequently mentioned interpretation of the Book of Daniel, frequently interpreted by secular scholars as a second-century diatribe against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jews and provoked the revolt of the Maccabees. The Book of Revelation contains even more vehement imagery, which many secular scholars believe was directed against the Roman empire. The empire, or the city of Rome itself, are identified by these scholars as the Whore of Babylon, and the Roman emperor becomes the Beast or Antichrist. Both divine punishment and economic and military catastrophe are prophesied against "Babylon", which most scholars agree is John's code name for Rome.

No call to arms is contained within the Christian apocalypse. Instead, the calamities that doom the oppressive regime represented by these allegorical figures are expected from divine intervention alone. Nevertheless, if the books are properly read in this way, they seem to evidence deep hostility to the Roman government, no doubt a reaction to the persecution of Christians by the Roman state.


Anabaptism adheres to a two kingdom concept. This is the belief that the kingdom of heaven or of Christ (the Church) is different and distinct from the kingdoms of this world. It essentially means the separation of Church and State but differs from Protestantism in their belief that the Church has no right to interfere in the affairs of the State any more than the State in the Church. This viewpoint is still held by groups like the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Conservative Mennonites, and Old Order River Brethren. It is a strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and the view that the state requires our obedience in all matters except in conscience where the higher authority of the Scripture prevails. This translates in a refusal to join the armed forces in any capacity, the refusal to hold any political office (or to vote in any election), refusal of Jury duty or to be officers of the law. It however does not represent a refusal to serve their respective countries in peaceful alternative service capacity.

The Christian empire

When the Roman persecution of Christianity came to an end under Constantine I with the Edict of Milan, and the Orthodox Catholic Christian faith became the favoured religion of the Roman Empire, Christians were presented with issues they never before had to confront. Could a Christian ruler legitimately wage war? If Christians were discouraged in Scripture from entering litigation against one another, how were they supposed to function as officers within a judicial system? What civil rights were to be afforded to non-Christians or to heterodox Christians in a civil commonwealth governed by the orthodox faithful?

The City of God

Saint Augustine of Hippo was one religious figure who confronted these issues in The City of God; in this work, he sought to defend Christians against pagan charges that the abandonment of official sponsorship of pagan worship had brought civil and military calamities upon the Roman Empire by the abandoned pagan deities. (Pecknold, 2010) Augustine sought to reaffirm that the City of God was a heavenly and spiritual matter, as opposed to an earthly and political affair. The City of God is contrasted with, and in conflict with, the city of men; but the City of God's eventual triumph is assured by divine prophecy.

Roman Catholics, war, and peace

Roman Catholics historically have had a wide variety of positions on issues of war and peace. The historical peace churches are now the chief exponents of Christian pacifism, but this was an issue that first came to light during the Roman Empire.

Soldiers in the Roman military who converted to Roman Catholicism were among the first who had to face these issues. The Roman Catholics in the Roman military had to confront a number of issues, that go beyond the obvious one about whether the institutionalized homicide of war could be reconciled with Christian faith. Paganism saturated Roman military institutions; idols of the Greco-Roman gods appeared on the legionary standards, and soldiers were expected to revere these idols. Military service, then as now, involved oaths of loyalty that may contradict Roman Catholic teachings even if they did not invoke pagan gods. The duties of Roman military personnel included law enforcement as well as defense, and as such Roman soldiers were sometimes obliged to participate in the persecution of Christians themselves. Sexual licentiousness was considered to be a moral hazard to which military personnel were exposed. See Imperial cult (ancient Rome).

The conversion of Constantine I transformed the relationship of the Christian churches with the Roman military even as it transformed the relationship of the churches with the Roman state. A strongly contrary idea, sometimes called "caesaropapism", identified the now Roman Catholic Empire with the Church militant. The Latin word Christianitas originally meant the body of all Christians conceived as a political body, or the territory of the globe occupied by Christians, something akin to the English word Christendom. Apocalyptic texts were reinterpreted; the Roman Catholic empire was no longer the "Whore of Babylon," but was the armed force of saints, depicted in Revelation as participating in the triumph of God and Christ. The idea of a Christian empire continued to play a powerful role in Western Europe even after the collapse of Roman rule there; the name of the Holy Roman Empire bears witness to its claims to sanctity as well as to universal rule. An apocryphal apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, written during the seventh century, depicts a saintly Last Roman Emperor who holds his earthly kingdom in anticipation of Christ's return. According to Pseudo-Methodius, the Last Emperor will wage war in the last days against God's enemies, including Gog and Magog and the Antichrist. He will surrender his imperial dignities to Christ at the Second Coming.

In Western Europe, after the collapse of Roman rule, yet more issues arose. The Roman Catholic Church expressed periodic unease with the fact that, in the absence of central imperial rule, Christian princes made war against each other. An attempt to limit the volume and permitted times of warfare was proclaimed in the Truce of God, which sought to set limits upon the times and places where warfare could be conducted, and to protect Christian non-combatants from the hazards of war. Because the Truce actually provided a military incentive to gain the element of surprise by breaking it, the Truce was not successful.

On the other hand, greater success attended the proclamation of various Crusades, which were at least in theory the declaration of war by the entire armed body of Christendom against an enemy that was implicitly labelled an enemy of God and his church. Most Crusades were proclaimed to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims; other Crusades were proclaimed against the Cathari, and by the Teutonic Knights against non-Roman Catholics in the Baltic Sea area. In Spain, the Crusader mindset continued for several centuries after the last crusade in the Middle East, in the form of the Reconquista, a series of wars fought to recover the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim Moors. These latter wars were local affairs, and the participation of the entire armed body of Roman Catholics was only theoretical.

See also


  1. Wilken, Robert (1984). The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. Yale University Press. p. 125. ISBN 0-300-03066-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Wilken, Robert (1984). The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. Yale University Press. p. 117. ISBN 0-300-03066-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Shields, Jon A. (2009). The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. Princeton University Press. pp. 46–67. Christian Radicalism<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (2010). Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Exeter: Imprint Academic. pp. 181–182. Paul's letter to Roman Christians, chapter 13<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (2010). Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Exeter: Imprint Academic. pp. 43–80. The Sermon on the Mount: A manifesto for Christian anarchism<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (March 2010). "A Christian Anarchist Critique of Violence: From Turning the Other Cheek to a Rejection of the State" (PDF). Political Studies Association.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (2010). Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Exeter: Imprint Academic. pp. 19 and 208. Leo Tolstoy<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ellul, Jacques (1988). Anarchy and Christianity. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. pp. 86–87. The Interpretation of Romans 13:1-2<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Lipscomb, David (1866-7). On Civil Government. Doulos Christou Press. p. 72. Human government, the embodied effort of man to rule the world without God, ruled over by 'the prince of this world,' the devil. Its mission is to execute wrath and vengeance here on earth. Human government bears the same relation to hell as the church bears to heaven Check date values in: |year= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Lipscomb, David (1866-7). On Civil Government. Doulos Christou Press. p. 69. This higher power is a revenger to execute wrath on him that doeth evil. The Christian has been clearly forbidden to take vengeance or execute wrath, but he is to live peaceably with all men, to do good for evil. Then a Christian cannot be an officer or executor of this higher power Check date values in: |year= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (2010). Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Exeter: Imprint Academic. pp. 123–126. Revelation<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (1972)
  • "Politics", entry in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, editors. (Oxford, 2000) ISBN 0-19-860024-0
  • McKendry R. Langley, The Politics of Political Spirituality: Episodes from the Public Career of Abraham Kuyper, 1879-1918 (Jordan Station, Ont.: Paideia Press, 1984) ISBN 0-88815-070-9
  • Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (2006)
  • C.C. Pecknold, Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade, 2010)

External links