New Great Awakening: Should Pastors and Churches Be Involved in Politics?
Alexis de Tocqueville on the role of churches in American politics.
June 22, 2013 - 2:00 pm
I recently wrote about a movement calling Americans to pray, hoping for a revival in the land — a New Great Awakening — because it is becoming clear that our political systems alone cannot fix what ails our country.
Visiting the United States in the early 19th century, French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed the Second Great Awakening. In his classic work, Democracy in America, Tocqueville examined the influence that religious beliefs exerted on political life.
Tocqueville said that Americans from many different sects (predominantly Protestant) worshiped the same Creator and preached a common morality. He discovered that religion had a profound influence on American life:
America is…the place in the world where the Christian religion has most persevered genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.
Tocqueville went on to describe the audacious, innovative spirits and logical minds of Americans, bound only by religion’s accepted moral boundaries:
So, therefore, at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”
There was no need for a massive federal or state bureaucracy; government was limited because Christian piety was the prevailing, unwritten law of the land. Americans were largely able to self-govern without the jackboot of government on their necks.
But Tocqueville also found that the clergy entangled very little with politics and government. He said that they took a sort of professional pride in distancing themselves from political power.
I heard them anathematize ambition and bad faith, whatever might be the political opinions with which these took care to cover themselves…I saw them separate themselves carefully from all parties, and avoid contact with them with all the ardor of personal interest.
Tocqueville pondered the wisdom of the separation and concluded that the American clergy were acting in the best interest of their republican government to avoid pledging allegiances to parties or individuals, saying that:
American [clergy]…saw that they had to renounce religious influence if they wanted to acquire political power, and they preferred to lose the support of power rather than to share in its vicissitudes.
Tocqueville’s observations are something we ought to thoughtfully consider in 2013.
Despite years of churches and pastors supporting (or appearing to support) the Republican Party and its candidates — with a long list of disappointments — both the country and the Republican Party seem to be getting worse. We continue to lurch headlong toward financial, moral, and spiritual destruction, some of it perpetrated by those claiming to be our political allies. And it’s not a Republican problem alone. The Democrats have let down the churches they claim to serve as well.
What if churches left politics to individuals (including church members who want to be involved in politics) and American Christianity ceased to be associated with the Republican and Democratic parties? (Be honest: have the associations been good for the reputations of anyone involved?)
While I believe pastors and churches absolutely have the right to speak out on political issues, I’m not convinced it’s wise to do so.
What if the church focused on the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Timothy? Paul wrote while imprisoned in Rome, likely knowing that his death was imminent. Paul exhorted his friend to be faithful in the way he led the church:
[P]reach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:2-5).
What if the church just did that? It’s surely a full-time calling and if the church did only that, just like in Tocqueville’s time, there would be no need for the clergy or churches to involve themselves in politics. We would see men and women repenting of their sins, accepting God’s free gift of salvation through Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, and striving to live according to biblical truth and principals in their daily lives.
Churches like this would have a transformative effect on the culture. We would see, as Tocqueville did, that religion would “direct mores” and the church’s real political power would come by influencing the family, the most basic form of government: “[I]t is in regulating the family that it works to regulate the state.” Churches focusing on teaching the whole counsel of God, including the moral issues of the day, would lead many to faith and as a result, would lead to electing good leaders. Then we would see our nation once again returning to the Founders’ vision of self-government.