WACO—Religious Right notables from 30 years ago have passed from the scene, and the Religious Left largely has failed to command a wide audience. So, many American Christians find themselves without guidance to address social issues and public policy matters, the director of a Washington, D.C.-based Christian think-tank told a Baylor University audience.
“We are left with a situation where many Christians have no clear direction in terms of a helpful social and political witness for their faith,” Mark Tooley said. “Some, especially at this time in America, are very much tempted toward withdrawal, despair or cynicism about politics, about the culture and about the nation.”
As hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights divide the nation—and many churches—some Christians find it difficult to develop a public theology, said Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, in a lecture sponsored by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
The church should focus its energy on themes more central to the Bible than politics, he said.
“I think that historically, the institutional church teaches a broad principle politically. But its primary vocation is, of course, to proclaim the gospel, to evangelize and to disciple,” he said.
Churches support, encourage and guide believers, but Christians have a responsibility to form their own political ideologies, he asserted.
“The more specific vocations for the details of politics are primarily left up to the Christian lay people,” Tooley said. “Sometimes, we confuse those vocations, but I think it is an important distinction.”
Tooley does not see the benefit of the Christian church identifying with a specific political ideology and hopes the institutional church, its clergy and its offices will avoid the temptation to become partisan.
“I would make an argument in favor of people of faith to be partisan,” he said. “I think some people are called to be partisan, but I don’t think the church as a body should be partisan.”
Clear distinction in roles
A clear distinction on the roles of the church and the individual Christian when it comes to politics will go a long way in establishing a healthy Christian political witness, he insisted.
Tooley challenged Christians to place greater emphasis on an Augustinian understanding of the fall of humanity and its limitations by nature. The early Christian theologian rejected the idea a perfect society can be formed with the perfect people, Tooley maintained.
“Inevitably, those kinds of projects end up disastrously,” he said.
At the same time, Tooley encouraged Christians to exercise confidence in Providence and in the Holy Spirit’s power to redeem not just individuals but whole communities and nations. In the end, Christians do not have the ultimate power, and they must trust in God’s sovereignty as it pertains to politics, he insisted.
Nonetheless, Christians should use the Bible as their guide for personal convictions, ideology and partisanship—something Baptists teach well, said Tooley, a Methodist.
“That entails prioritizing issues the Scriptures give most directly and being more modest on the other issues where there isn’t as much scriptural guidance,” he said.
Bible doesn’t cover every issue
While the Bible provides a broad perspective of politics and speaks to some political matters, it most certainly does not cover them all, he said.
“We shouldn’t pretend the Bible gives us direct guidance on dozens and dozens, much less hundreds, of political issues,” he added.
Finally, he called for some level of emotional detachment in Christian political theology that recognizes the need for compromise on some issues and balance in how viewpoints on issues are expressed.
“Not every issue needs to be apocalyptic,” Tooley said, quoting Catholic theologian, author and philosopher Michael Novak.