Religion in Politics—to What Does It Lead?
YOU have probably noticed that in recent years the churches have been placing a lot more emphasis on social and political issues. Many clergymen around the world are joining a rush to “get involved.”
Sincere persons wonder if this is the proper role of religion. They may note that, on the surface, participation in community affairs and political activities appears to be well motivated. News headlines tell of clerics who suffer imprisonment and even lose their lives in the fight for a social cause.
But what is really behind this growing political activity? Is it motivated by devotion to Christian ideals, faith in God and a desire to see his will done on earth? To what will it finally lead? A review of recent political trends in religion will help to bring the answers into focus.
Christendom’s Changing Stance
The booklet Church and Powers published by the French Protestant Federation makes this comment about the historical relationship of religion and politics:
“The undeniable fact is that in the political field, the organized church has more often than not been directed, willingly or unwillingly, toward two extremes: either it has claimed, sometimes by force, authority over the political powers, . . . [or] it has accepted to be the principal agent, accomplice or silent witness of an unjust social order.”
However, Catholic archbishop Marcos G. McGrath of Panama says this is no longer universally true: “The old concept of a church as a parallel structure to the secular power, and sometimes identified with it, is rapidly changing.”
Now, under the banner of “helping the poor,” “relevance” and “social justice,” an increasing number of the clergy are taking a new direction. Radical social and political criticism is replacing their traditional progovernment stance. They are urging the rank and file to take an active part in politics, even encouraging them to do so with the “leftist” socialist elements.
Church Leaders Promote Politics
In May of 1971, Pope Paul VI made public a seventy-page “apostolic letter” sent to Cardinal Roy, archbishop of Quebec. Regarding the Catholic view of politics, it says:
“It rests with Christian communities to analyze objectively . . . which choices and commitments should properly be made in order to bring about the social, political and economic changes that prove to be necessary and often urgent. . . . It is the Christian’s duty to take part in this research and in the organization and life of political society.”
What is the pope telling his subjects to do? In a front-page editorial headed “Paul VI, Christians and Politics,” the Paris daily Le Monde draws the conclusion: “There can be no mistaking; this is a true pontifical document, carefully prepared, that could have as its title: ‘Christians Brought into Social and Political Life.’”
How far might a sincere Catholic go to bring about ‘urgent political changes’? Can he participate in the previously condemned “left,” the socialist or Communist movements? These are often the ones most actively promoting “social, political and economic changes.” In answer, the letter continues:
“Today, some Christians are drawn to socialist trends. . . . [acute discernment] will enable Christians to see to what extent they can commit themselves to follow that road. . . . One is obliged to recognize that a variety of legitimate [political] choices are possible.”—Le Monde, May 15, 1971.
The left-wing Italian newspapers, Stampa and Avanti, noted from this that Pope Paul now allowed Catholics to cooperate with certain forms of socialism. Gabriel Matagrin, bishop of Grenoble, France, went still farther, stating: “Nowhere does the letter state that it is impossible for a Christian to be a communist or for a communist to be a Christian.”—Annecy Catholique, October 1971.
The 136 French bishops assembled at Lourdes in October of 1972 lent their voices to the growing chorus. A long report entitled “For a Christian Practice of Politics” emerged. Quoting from this, the Catholic journal America shows the extent of political participation recommended for the faithful by these bishops:
“Certain imperatives clearly emerge for one who takes the Word of God seriously: ‘respect for the poor, defense of the weak, . . . overthrow of totalitarian powers.’ The Gospel is not neutral about such matters, and those who are witnesses of the Gospel ‘may be led to interventions in political matters that will astonish some.’”—November 18, 1972.
Clergymen in many parts of the world have taken to this view of the “Gospel” with fervor. Does this report from United Press International “astonish” you?
“In Latin America the Roman Catholic Church is something unto itself. And in much of it, radical Catholicism and Castro-style Communism go hand in hand under the slogan: ‘Viva Christ. Viva Marx.’ . . . Theirs are not the plaster saints of traditional Catholic piety, but angry flesh and blood figures of the recent past—Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and the Rev. Camilo Torres, a Colombia guerrilla priest.”—The Jersey Journal, April 20, 1973.
A report in the magazine Latin America also notes high-level political activity. It says that three archbishops and ten bishops in Brazil’s northeast with “a reputation for being ‘left-wing’” recently issued a “blistering attack on the government and all its works.” The report continues:
“Such a development could hardly have occurred, in the view of many observers, without the green light from the Vatican . . . Furthermore, the declaration of 6 May appears to show that, in contrast with its previous policy, the Church is no longer afraid of stepping into the political arena.”—May 25, 1973.
Do you find it difficult to relate such activity to the “Gospel”? Many do. Yet many Protestant leaders have also taken a similar stance toward politics.
Shortly after the Catholic bishops met at Lourdes, the French Protestant Federation held its triennial assembly. Le Monde headlined its long report on the meeting: “Politics the Crux of the Discussions.” The previously quoted booklet, Church and Powers, was used as a basis. Concerning a Christian’s political outlook, the booklet says:
“A number of theological trends generally known among the French Protestant public, particularly the young, point out that in the face of recognized social injustice, love of neighbor requires definite commitment in the world, . . . and personal ‘involvement in politics.’”
This “personal ‘involvement in politics’” could go to the point of “revolutionary rebellion,” say the Protestant leaders.
In the same vein, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Philip Potter, told Berkeley, California, seminarians and faculty:
“The role of theology is to be an agent of change—with a refusal to be caught by what is! . . . Revolution and violence is admittedly dangerous. But didn’t Easter bring the promise of revolution?”—San Francisco Examiner, June 11, 1973.
The World Council and other Protestant bodies have recently been strongly criticized for making large financial contributions to revolutionaries and “being obsessed with political and social issues.”—New York Times, August 29, 1973.
Of course, not all clergy and laity are in agreement with the foregoing activities. But the fact is that there is a growing trend of religion in radical politics, and that fact is worthy of note.
Why the Change?
As we have noted, throughout history political leaders could usually count on full support from clergymen. Now, after all these hundreds of years, why is their position changing?
Notice what the Catholic publication America suggests as a reason. One recent article refers to a “‘gathering storm’ in the Protestant Churches as the ministers who have serious doubts about basic theological doctrines try to engage their parishioners in social action programs.” (September 1, 1973; italics ours.) A similar reason is given for Catholic political activity: “Many priests and nuns have abandoned their role as preachers of a meaning-system (called ‘the gospel’), and are seeking ‘relevance’ . . . in radical political activity, which may (or may not) be a consequence of faith, but is certainly no substitute for it.”—October 28, 1972.
That is the crux of the matter, is it not? “Serious doubts” and lack of faith in the gospel’s “relevance” are driving many clergymen to look for “meaning” elsewhere. Without faith in the “gospel” or “good news” of God’s Kingdom for the blessing of mankind, they believe that reform has to come by human political means. As Richard J. Mouw, writing in The Christian Century magazine, put it:
“God has chosen to call apart a people as his instrument for bringing in his Kingdom . . . the redemption of the world is, among other things, a political redemption. . . . The political sphere is not merely an area in which a Christian can be a witness; it is one in which we are called to proclaim the liberating power of the gospel.”—December 27, 1972.
Yet the “gospel” referred to in the Bible is about God’s heavenly kingdom that will rule the earth, not an earthly, political one set up by men. (Matt. 9:35; 10:7) That is why Jesus said, “Mine is not a kingdom of this world,” and of those truly serving him, “My choice withdrew you from the world.” (John 18:36; 15:19, Catholic Jerusalem Bible) Jesus’ words agree with what the prophet Daniel had said long before. Not men, but “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin.” As for humans being the ones to run it, Daniel’s inspired prophecy says it “will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms.”—Dan. 2:44.
Do religious leaders believe in the separateness of God’s heavenly kingdom? No! The booklet Church and Powers counters the Bible’s plain position on this matter by saying that “these relations [between Church and State] have been based on a narrow-minded reading of the Scriptures that separate the two realms.” What do they offer sincere persons to replace this so-called “narrow-minded reading of the Scriptures”?
Is it not just another brand of politics and revolution engineered by men? Though they realize the futility of their former faithless course as the “principal agent, accomplice or silent witness of an unjust social order,” are they now turning in faith to God? More important, are they instilling in sincere churchgoers faith in the gospel about God’s kingdom, which is their greatest responsibility? The record plainly answers, No.
To What Does Meddling Lead?
How do you think the political leaders are viewing religion’s militant ventures into their domain? Can religious leaders expect immunity from harm merely because they claim to represent God? Increasingly they are finding themselves viewed as political meddlers and treated as such. The Catholic periodical Maryknoll complains:
“Committed Christians are facing increasing persecution in Latin America . . . They are lumped along with guerrillas and communists as subversive threats to the power of rightwing governments. The persecution is for political rather than spiritual reasons.”—February 1973, p. 47 (italics ours).
A number have even lost their lives and those of their followers. One, Nestor Paz, “finally took to the hills with an armed band of 70 students” in Bolivia. They “were hunted down and killed by government militia.”—San Francisco Examiner, January 11, 1973.
Do you think this kind of suffering brings God’s approval? Notice the principle stated by the apostle Peter: “If you are being reproached for the name of Christ, you are happy . . . However, let none of you suffer as a . . . busybody in other people’s matters.”— 1 Pet. 4:14, 15, NW; Rotherham, Berkeley.
With this in mind, note the following report given by the New York Times about the recent French atom bomb testing controversy:
“The military men are telling the clergy to keep out of the business of state, to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to get on with dispensing charity and preaching the faith. . . . The soldiers are rebuking the churchmen for not following Jesus’s reminder that ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ The churchmen are chastising the soldiers because they have failed to recognize the clergy’s changing role.”—July 18, 1973.
To what will the clergy’s course of political meddling finally lead?
What Future for Religion in Politics?
The Bible graphically illustrates how God views relationships between religion and politics. They are likened to illicit sex relations and called “adulterous.” (Jas. 4:4, Jerusalem Bible) So, fittingly, worldly religion’s role in history is represented in the Revelation as being like that of a “famous prostitute . . . with whom all the kings of the earth have committed fornication.”—Rev. 17:2, JB.
But the Bible shows that things are going to change for this prostitute. All the political rulers who have put their powers at the disposal of the worldwide political organization, the U.N. (pictured by a “beast”), are portrayed as “ten horns” that “are ten kings . . . all of one mind in putting their strength and their powers at the beast’s disposal.” Soon, now, the Revelation goes on to say, “the time will come when the ten horns and the beast will turn against the prostitute, and strip off her clothes and leave her naked; then they will eat her flesh and burn the remains in the fire.” Those who formerly enjoyed this prostitute will see reason to “turn against” her, laying her open for all to see what she really is, and then destroying her.—Rev. 17:12, 13, 16, JB.
Now worldly religion feels safe behind her cloak of piety. As the Bible notes, she says: “I am the queen on my throne, . . . and I am no widow and shall never be in mourning.” Yet the Bible also foretells: “For that, within a single day, the plagues will fall on her . . . The Lord God has condemned her, and he has great power.”—Rev. 18:7, 8, JB.
So religious meddling in politics leads to God’s condemnation and unexpected destruction from the political rulers themselves. And the foretold destruction will come with startling suddenness.
What can sincere Christians do to avoid the same end? The Revelation does not leave us in doubt: “Come out, my people, away from her, so that you do not share in her crimes and have the same plagues to bear.”—Rev. 18:4, JB.
If you sincerely desire to please God in your worship, then you will certainly “come out” of religion that has become impure with the world’s politics. Instead, you will associate with the “pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father,” where true Christians are “keeping [themselves] uncontaminated by the world.” Jehovah’s witnesses will be pleased to assist you to this end.—Jas. 1:27, JB.