Can You Be a (True) Christian and Still be a (Successful) Politician?

Posted on February 17, 2021


Can you be both a true Christian and a successful and effective politician?

I am using Christians simply because we are still a Christian nation, at least statistically. If I were writing in Iran, well, I would probably be beheaded so let’s leave that option off the table.

At the core of the differences between politicians and Christians is one of values. There is a different way of measuring what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral, what is obedience to the rule of rationality and reality in this world, and what is obedience to God. They conflict.

Trying to reconcile them has occupied much historical space since Jesus Christ walked the earth. About three centuries after Jesus, the Roman emperor Constantine, a new Christian, faced a conundrum, a fancy word for being in a fix and trying to figure some way out of it: How to reconcile the need for strong authority as Emperor with the rule of love that runs like a bright and persistent thread through Christianity.

Some of you may be thinking: “I know of a lot of Christians, who throughout history have often behaved like monsters, persecution, intolerant, yada, yada, yada.” Think the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, etc.

There are always those who profess Christianity but behave in a different fashion. They are called hypocrites, and not thought of highly by either Christians or politicians, not mutually exclusive categories by any means.

The young Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, also faced a conundrum in 1521. Really, it was more of a dilemma: two equally unattractive choices.

He had summoned Martin Luther and also the Pope’s delegates from Rome to a meeting at Worms. The Pope’s delegates demanded that Luther recant his criticisms of the Church or face excommunication, or worse. Some of the more nationalistically-inclined German princes attending the Diet of Worms, on the other hand, had no love of Rome and they supported Luther.

Luther was given a chance to speak, and he did, with such power and persuasion that his words still ring in the hallways of Christian history.

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, … I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Luther, of course, helped launch the Protestant Reformation. Charles was stuck with what to do about this growing disruption in his empire that split much of it into warring Catholic and Protestant factions.

Charles had other distractions as well. Muslim armies and navies, for instance, were beating on the doors of a Christian Europe, now dissolving into warring Christian factions. Charles finally gave up and retired to a monastery in 1556, abdicating his duties of politician, emperor, and ruler over to his son Phillip. “Here, you take it and see if you can be a Christian and a ruler.”

Jimmy Carter, President 1977-1981, was still dealing with problem of reconciling moralities and political interests over 400 years after Charles. A born -again Christian who truly tried to govern by Christian principles, he lasted one term and is generally considered to have been ineffective as a president.

Early in the sixteenth century, an Italian thinker, Nicollo Machiavelli, wrote a primer for Christian monarchs entitled The Prince. He advised princes that to govern efficiently and successfully they must sometimes use deceit, brute force and even assassination to achieve the needed stability and security of the state. Ever since, the word “Machiavellian” has been applied to the naked use of power to maintain order and stability in the body politic. The Church banned the book.

So how is a ruler to rule and protect his nation and his people, and yet affirm and abide by his faith? If you are an Islamic Jihadist, you simply say “it’s my way or the highway.” Everyone converts to Islam, or is banished or killed.

When government is turned over to any one religion, theocracy has usually emerged, often accompanied by persecution and an ugly demand for strict orthodoxy.

The Founding Fathers provided for the separation of church and state but protected the right of all to worship freely. It was a good solution, but, even then, Christians attempting to govern split on seminal issues.

Southern Episcopalians generally defended slavery. Northern Quakers demanded emancipation, the sooner the better, for all the slaves. The result was the Civil War.

While that was a most uncivil way to settle our differences, it ultimately obeyed a Christian mandate best expressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

God bless all our politicians.

Or, as expressed more felicitously in Paul’s letter to Timothy, “I urge, then … that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people- for kings and all those in authority.”

They need it.

Published as “God’s blessing needed for all, especially our politicians,” in Sunday Feb. 7 2021 The Tuscaloosa News.