What has faith to do with government and politics?

A version of this article by Dr. Timothy Sherratt, professor of political science, originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of STILLPOINT magazine.

It all began with Jimmy Carter. In 1976, I was between undergraduate and as-yet-unknown graduate studies. I had come to faith in my first year at university and that had de-railed most of my (admittedly) not very well formed plans for career and future. So I eagerly seized the opportunity offered by a friend who worked for the BBC World Service to write some short articles on American politics, which was already an abiding interest. Over the course of the next year, I would compose answers to listeners’ questions like: Why does the United States have a President and not a Prime Minister? Who will win the U.S. Presidential elections?

Little known nationally in early 1976, then-Governor Carter mounted an effective primary campaign, defeating one Establishment heavyweight after another on his path to the Democratic nomination, and he did so as a Christian who was unabashedly “born again.” To a still new believer, his response to abstract questions like “What has faith to do with government and politics?” was to embody that relationship: a fellow believer running for, and winning, the presidency!

Four years later, Carter bowed out, defeated. He had struggled with a familiar litany of practical challenges: high inflation and a stagnant economy, a rocky relationship with his own party in Congress, low approval ratings that encouraged a damaging primary challenge to his leadership, and to top it all off, the Iran hostage crisis.

President Carter’s stance on human rights, his commitment to racial reconciliation, and his call for Americans to make sacrifices in the interests of energy conservation have stood the test of time. But at the time these earned him scant credit. His moderation on difficult ethical issues, notably abortion, was discarded by large numbers of his fellow believers who were shortly to make their home in the emerging conservative movement that elected Ronald Reagan.

Politics is competitive and bruising, as Carter discovered, but this should neither surprise nor deter the would-be public servant. Government is not a necessary evil: it is vital as one of many ways humans exercise their obligation to care for God’s created order. Government is tasked to secure justice. Government should also foster conditions that help non-political institutions, like families, businesses and charities, make their unique contributions to human flourishing.

Although humans have had to endure governments disfigured almost beyond recognition, it remains no less true that government’s origin, and the standard against which all governments are judged, is God’s. Jesus Christ is the one to whom “all authority in heaven and earth is given,” and Jesus’s willingness to undergo execution is the truest exercise of kingly authority. By it, he disconnected governance from violence and self-interest and made it synonymous with Love.

Citizens, no less than those elected to legislative or executive positions, also hold divine office.

While Christians usually have “a responsibility to play a positive role in supporting the social order for the good of all,” writes Carter in his book Sources of Strength, he warns that when we confront unjust laws or worse, mere compliance with authority is not enough. “The essence of [Christ’s] teaching,” he writes, “is to enhance justice, truth, freedom, service, and love. This must be our guiding light when we are considering how best to fulfill our role as Christians in society.”