The Gospel or the Government?

 

In this week’s episode of the political soap opera, the star seems to be Anthony Kennedy.  The famously middle-of-the-road Supreme Court justice announced his retirement, provoking giddy speculation among evangelical Republicans that his Trump-appointed replacement would be the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.  My ears also detect an undertone of, “See???  This is why we’re putting up with the guy!”  Democrats, on the other hand, are rallying the troops to do whatever they can to keep the court from going conservative.

Last week, the momentum was flip-flopped, with progressives using the spectacle of parents separated from children to argue for immigration reform.  The week before that, another political crisis seized the imagination of the nation.  Next week, it will be something else still.

I’ve seen Christians arguing that both issues have a clear moral dimension that requires disciples of Jesus to take a political stand.  I see where they’re coming from.  I don’t like breaking up families.  Still less do I like abortion.

However, I believe that preoccupation with the moral dimensions of political issues can obscure a key question.  Where are we putting our hope?  Where do we look for transformation of our fallen world?  Is it to the government, and governmental change?  Or is it to the gospel of Christ, and its power to change hearts?  We all know the right answer, but our posting on Facebook may tell a different story.

There are several problems with looking to politics for our salvation.  The first is that it inevitably lessens our focus on the Lord.  Yes, in theory we could both-and, but in practice, we have only a limited amount of time and energy.  Every breath we spend on political advocacy is a breath we aren’t spending talking about Jesus.

Second, politics is at best an uncertain tool for making the world a better place.  Conservatives, let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to 1990, when Republican George H. W. Bush was president and arch-liberal William Brennan stepped down from the Court.  Evangelicals were So Excited because they believed that the Bush appointee would. . . lead the charge to overturn Roe.

Bush appointed David Souter.  Two years later, abortion came before the Court again with Planned Parenthood v. Casey.  Eight of the nine justices on the Court were Republican appointees.  Five of them voted to uphold Roe, and Souter cast the deciding vote.

Is there any guarantee in the world that Trump won’t appoint a David Souter, or a Sandra Day O’Connor or Anthony Kennedy, for that matter?  The outcome of any other political movement is equally doubtful.

Third, let’s pretend that Trump actually does appoint that golden fifth vote.  Roe is overturned!  Hooray!

But wait.  Never mind that big-population states like California and New York would immediately enact laws permitting abortion.  Let’s exclude them from the analysis.  Let’s look at the states that would, in fact, make abortion illegal.  They would reduce the number of dead babies somewhat (in addition to back-alley abortion, I think you’d start seeing state-line abortion clinics right next to the state-line casinos and state-line fireworks stands), but they wouldn’t change a single heart.  Is a woman who wants to kill her child but is frustrated any better in the eyes of God than the woman who carries out the deed?

The government can coerce, all right, but it can’t make people want to obey, and forced obedience is not the same thing as righteousness.  As Christians, we are fundamentally not in the forced-obedience business.  We can drag people beneath the waters of the baptistery (kicking and screaming and spluttering all the way), but we cannot make them call upon the name of the Lord.  Only the gospel can do that.

Admittedly, the abortion epidemic is a serious problem, but it pales in comparison to the sin epidemic.  If we devote ourselves to solving the first rather than the second, the devil still wins.

Finally, the more we advocate for politics, the less opportunity we will have to advocate for the gospel.  I’ve seen brethren claiming online that they have to take X political stand before their neighbors will listen to what they say about Christ, but I think that’s exactly backwards.  I think that the more we take X political stand, and Y political stand, and Z political stand, the less our neighbors will listen to us.  For that matter, I think we end up damaging our relationships with our brethren too.

The problem is that there are many people in the world with strong political views who will not hear anything from anyone with the opposite political views.  Sure, if I’m a zealous Republicrat, other Republicrats will take me seriously, but the Democans won’t.  I have diminished the pool of prospects for the gospel by half, not because of the message of the gospel, but because of my own selfishness.

You know what people all across the political spectrum like?  Goodness.  Integrity.  Decency.  Compassion.  No political post can reveal these things (at least not to the 50 percent of people who disagree with us), but our lives can.  The more we imitate the character of Christ, the more the people who would be drawn to Him will be drawn to us.  If we send out any other kind of signal, it won’t be the message He wants.

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