The Peril and Promise of Christians in Politics

John G. West, Jr.

August 1, 1996

With another presidential election fast approaching, secularists are once again fanning the flames of fear against politically conservative Christians. “I can’t remember a time when the danger to civil liberties and fundamental constitutional rights was more extreme or more pervasive than it is today,” writes Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Glasser goes on to accuse the Christian Coalition of seeking “to amend the Constitution to put religious indoctrination back into the public schools.” Other secularists routinely condemn Christians for seeking to legislate their religious beliefs into law.

There is a valid point lurking somewhere in this undeniably overblown rhetoric. Like most religions, Christianity has been employed on occasion as an engine of intolerance as some have sought to propagate its doctrines by law. However, Christianity also has been one of the most powerful defenders of freedom in the history of the world. Between these paradoxical extremes lie the peril and the promise of Christians in politics today.

Nathaniel Hawthorne aptly captured this peril and promise in his stories about the American Puritans. Repelled by the Puritans’ religious intolerance, Hawthorne admired their realism and their unswerving devotion to principle. The latter trait he lucidly depicted in his short story “The Gray Champion” (1835), where a first-generation Puritan mysteriously returns to Boston in 1689 to thwart the subjugation of the colonies by King James II. Like a fiery Old Testament prophet, the old Puritan — the “Gray Champion” of the story’s title– denounces the usurpations of Royal Governor Sir Edmund Andros and urges the people to resistance.

In this story Hawthorne showed how the same rigid idealism that spawned the Puritans’ religious bigotry also produced a powerful commitment to moral principle that made them resist political tyranny. Hence the paradox of Christianity: Its religious intolerance may subvert republican government, but its rigorous attachment to moral principle may be necessary to defend it.

One of the greatest achievements of American constitutionalism was the manner in which it resolved this paradox by harnessing the moral idealism of Christianity while restraining its potential for bigotry. America’s Founders harnessed Christianity’s moral idealism by stressing the importance of morality in civic life and by acknowledging the crucial role churches played in fostering that morality. Indeed, several Founders argued that ministers had the responsibility to speak up about moral problems pressing society. In the words of John Adams, “It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted.” At the same time, the Founders sought to temper Christianity’s intolerance by removing theological questions from the political arena, which greatly reduced the consequences of religious intolerance by ensuring that state power would never be used to resolve t
heological controversies.

The Founders’ arrangement produced an institutional separation between church and state even while forging a practical tie between religion and politics on the basis of morality. Christians were discouraged by the nature of the regime from using the government to promote their theological beliefs; but the door was left open for them to enter the political arena as citizens in order to promote government policies in accord with both the principles of the Constitution and the “laws of nature and nature’s God” on which those principles are premised.

The political activities of Christians in the new nation reflected the Founders’ understanding of the role of religion in society. Many Protestant evangelicals opposed state funding of churches because they thought it corrupted religion, and gradually even the congregationalists who supported establishments of religion changed their minds. When Christians did become involved in politics in the early nation, they generally sought to do so on the basis of principles of civic morality that were held in common by both reason and revelation. In the years before the Civil War they entered the political arena by the thousands to spearhead crusades against duelling, lotteries, war, poverty, prostitution, alcoholism, and slavery. These political activities on behalf of secular concerns proved that evangelicals could fulfill a vital political function by serving as the political conscience of the nation.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the controversy over Cherokee removal from Georgia. Federal treaties had guaranteed the Cherokees their lands upon the condition that they become both peaceful and “civilized.” The Cherokees kept their part of the bargain. They embraced agriculture, became educated, adopted Christianity, and pursued republican self-government. The Georgians, however, had no intention of respecting Cherokee treaty rights, and in 1828 and 1829 the Georgia legislature tried to legislate the Cherokee Nation out of existence, extending its laws over Cherokee lands and demanding that the federal government remove the recalcitrant Indians.

The evangelical missionaries who had been working among the Indians rose to the Cherokees’ defense, led by the corresponding secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Jeremiah Evarts. Evarts, a lawyer, helped turn the removal issue into a major national controversy. Under the nom de plume “William Penn,” he wrote twenty-six essays defending the Cherokees for the National Intelligencer. The essays were a tour de force of logic, morality, and law. Evarts and other evangelicals based their arguments against removal not simply on Biblical morality, but on the natural right of property, the inviolability of contracts, and the God-given equality of all men proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, which they argued applied to Indians as well as white men.

Unfortunately, both Congress and the President rebuffed evangelicals’ efforts on behalf of the Cherokees, and the government eventually relocated the Indians further west in a scandalous episode of American history known as the “Trail of Tears.” The controversy nevertheless demonstrated that Christians could fulfill the role that the Founders had created for them: they could put their idealism to constructive use by intervening in politics on the basis of principles of natural justice rather than doctrines of sectarian theology.

In responding to the modern secularists who attack them, Christians today ought to learn from their predecessors in the early nineteenth century. Contrary to the rhetoric of Patrick Buchanan, the battle over public morality need not be a “religious war.” Public policy ought to be based on public principles, and modern Christians can make this clear by appealing to the same “laws of nature and nature’s God” that their forebears invoked in the public arena more than a century ago. By articulating anew the moral common ground shared by all human beings, contemporary Christians can silence the claim that legislating morality is the same as legislating theology and assure their place as equal participants in the public debate.

John West teaches political science at Seattle Pacific University and is a Senior Fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. His book The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation has just been published by University Press of Kansas.