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Evangelical Politics: A Review of Wayne Grudem, Politics – According to the Bible

By Roger Schultz
January 02, 2011

Wayne Grudem's Politics - According to the Bible (Zondervan, 2010) is a 600-page tome, covering sixty specific issues, and purports to be a "comprehensive resource for understanding modern political issues in light of scripture." The book is relevant and engaging; the perspective is conservative and Biblical. "I wrote this book," Grudem says, "because I was convinced that God intended the Bible to give guidance to every area of life-including how governments should function!" (p. 13).

Grudem's Politics has weaknesses-in methodology, research, and conclusions. Sometimes it says more about conservative evangelicalism than it does about Biblical ethics. But the book is worth reading, and it should be a platform for engaging Christians who want a more consistent Biblical perspective on government, politics, and law.

Grudem is a professor of theology and Biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary. A graduate of Harvard, Westminster, and Cambridge, he has impeccable academic credentials. He taught for many years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where nearly thirty years ago my wife was one of his admiring students. Politics is not written by a political activist, but by a highly respected theologian and leading evangelical academic.

Grudem is pleasant and nonthreatening, and his book has a polite and gracious style. He is no thundering demagogue like the cranky leaders of the Old Christian Right. I asked my wife why she liked him so much. "Well," she said thoughtfully, "he was so nice!" And Mr. Nice hopes to promote an irenic evangelical engagement on political issues. Grudem writes: "‘[S]ignificant influence' does not mean angry, belligerent, intolerant, judgmental, red-faced, and hate-filled influence, but rather winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, persuasive influence that is suitable to each circumstance and protects the other person's right to disagree, but that is also uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God's Word" (p. 55). In short, Grudem longs for kinder, gentler Christian apologists and activists, ones who are fully committed to Biblical standards but who are also ... nicer.

Grudem appears connected to conservative politics and groups. He was motivated to write by friends at two conservative organizations, the Alliance Defense Fund and the Center for Arizona Policy. His perspective is consistently and admittedly conservative. While he does not intend to be partisan, he notes that his conclusions and positions are largely those of the Republican Party. Grudem explains that Republicans tend to favor "smaller government, lower taxes, strong defense, traditional moral standards regarding abortion and marriage, the promotion of democracy and the promotion of free market economics." And these principles are consistent with Biblical ethics, Biblical teachings on government, and an overarching Biblical worldview (pp. 6, 13, 573).

Politics is organized by different themes or clusters of issues: protection of life, marriage, family, economics, environment, national defense, foreign policy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Though hampered by methodological weaknesses, it provides a basic Biblical worldview approach to contemporary political issues.

Grudem's methodological and analytical framework is clearly stated. Some of his analysis rests upon the straightforward teaching of Scripture, where it is "clear, direct and decisive." Other portions rest upon "broader biblical principles." Still other arguments depend upon "an appeal to facts in the world" (pp. 18-19). This pragmatic and eclectic approach is problematic. Liberals have long touted the "broader principles" of Scripture to justify multiple humanistic initiatives. Appeals to the "relevant facts in the world today" (emphasis his) can lead almost anywhere. These "actual facts in the world" presumably allow the Christian apologist to make common cause with non-Christians on the basis of natural law or neutral data. As Grudem explains, "It would be impossible to write about political issues today without appealing to a large number of facts in the world" (p. 19). Grudem's repeated references to these "facts," "relevant facts," and "actual facts" sound silly. I'd feel more comfortable with a simple, steadfast commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture.

Grudem argues that there are six basic Christian attitudes toward government. (The categories are somewhat reminiscent of H. Richard Niebuhr's classic work, Christ and Culture.1) Five approaches to government are misguided-that government should compel religion; that government should exclude religion; that all government is evil and demonic; that the church should do evangelism, not politics; and that the church should do politics, not evangelism. But for Grudem, a sixth option is best-that there should be a significant Christian influence on government. There is much to like in his thesis statement: "Christians should seek to influence civil government according to God's moral standards and God's purposes for government as revealed in the Bible (when rightly understood)." His foundational statement on scriptural authority is also clear-cut and commendable: "[T]he whole Bible comes with the authority of God and the authority of Jesus Christ, and our position on government should be based on the teaching of the whole Bible" (pp. 55, 38).

He is especially interested in confronting those on the evangelical left, such as Jim Wallis. (Long associated with Sojourners, Wallis has become a darling of religious progressives and Democratic operatives who hope to erode evangelical support for the Republican Party. Wallis has received major funding from George Soros, the spooky billionaire globalist.) Grudem does a good job pointing out the worldview flaws and inconsistencies of pacifists, socialists, and statists on the left wing of evangelicalism.

They say it is easier to smell a bad egg than to lay a good one. While Grudem knows where the statists are wrong, he has more trouble articulating a Christian alternative. He struggles, for instance, to explain his support for Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary campaign of 2007. Christians are not required to support fellow Christians alone for public office, Grudem insists, it's a candidate's Biblical and moral positions that are of paramount importance. That may be true, but Grudem's scriptural support is bewildering. "[N]othing in the Bible says that people have to be born-again Christians before they can be governmental authorities who are used by God to advance his purposes. God used Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to raise Joseph to a position of authority over the whole country" (p. 67). Grudem apparently doesn't recognize the difference between the prerogatives of a Sovereign God and the prescribed and normative conduct for Christians. (Even if God used tyrants and pagans to accomplish His purposes in the past, it doesn't mean Christians should start voting for tyrants and pagans.)

The more Grudem explains himself, the worse it gets. He supported candidate Romney, a Mormon, because he preferred Romney's policies in 2007 to those of Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist candidate. But after further reflection, Grudem concluded that a Mormon would never carry the evangelical vote, particularly in the South, and therefore Romney had little chance of winning the Republican nomination. Grudem, therefore, demonstrates that his real criterion for candidate selection is not a Biblically principled stance on the issues, but political expediency-the ability to win. Grudem then admits that he was overly optimistic about Romney and probably didn't do his homework before giving the endorsement. "The health care system that Romney successfully advocated in Massachusetts costs far more than was predicted and has lost much of its initial appeal. Therefore, I do not know if I would support Romney or some other candidate in the future."

Everyone makes mistakes, but we might expect more from evangelicalism's expert on politics and the Bible. Nonetheless, Grudem concludes, "[T]he principle remains: I think that Christians should support the candidate who best represents moral and political values consistent with biblical teaching, no matter what his or her religious background or convictions" (p. 68). This assumes, of course, that there is no divergence between religious principle, on the one hand, and political or moral principle, on the other.

And too much religious principle would be a bad thing. Grudem disagrees with the position that "government should compel religion." He identifies a "small, fringe movement called Christian Reconstructionism that advocates government enforcement of Old Testament laws today."2 But Grudem has little to say about this position. He is far more interested in confronting the Left and has scant time for opponents on the Right-except for Ron Paul.

Since Grudem advocates a vigorous application of the whole Bible to the political issues of the day, this matter is worth exploration. Grudem knows that the civil magistrate must enforce some Old Testament laws, and he has no argument with laws against murder ("Thou shalt not kill"), theft ("Thou shalt not steal"), and perjury ("Thou shalt not bear false witness") (p. 56). While he discusses Biblical law and the Ten Commandments, he is squeamish about applying them too far. Grudem is far more comfortable with "general principles" of the Bible or generic discussions about the need for absolutes.3 He concludes the consideration of Old Testament law by saying, "If these distinctions are kept in mind, the laws that God gave to Israel can still provide useful information for understanding the purposes of government and the nature of good and bad government."4 The Bible, in short, provides useful information-but not foundational law.

Presbyterians can better sort through these matters because of the wealth of theological information in Reformed confessional standards. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19, has a classic differentiation of Biblical law. The moral law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments, represents a basic standard of justice and everywhere binds the nations. The ceremonial law-including sacrifices, ritual provisions, dietary laws-pointed to Christ and His perfect sacrifice and has been abrogated. The judicial law of the Old Testament, reflected in the case laws for Israel, is no longer binding (apart from what "the general equity thereof may require"). The Westminster Larger Catechism has extensive treatment of the Ten Commandments, and the scriptural proof texts draw heavily on the case laws.5 However one handles the Westminster standards, it is clear that they provide a more succinct and coherent framework for understanding Biblical law.

Of greater concern is Grudem's shaky historical scholarship. Discussing the U.S. Constitution, he says that the First Amendment reads "Government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The First Amendment actually says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" (emphasis added). There is a major difference in these readings, and I'm not sure Grudem understands the difference.6 He does reference Daniel Dreisbach, an outstanding constitutional historian, whose work Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State has been highly influential. But Grudem lists the title as Thomas Jefferson and the Myth of Separation, perhaps confusing it with a book by David Barton.7 In any event, Grudem doesn't appear conversant with historical scholarship on this vital topic.

The bulk of Grudem's big book deals with current political issues. I found Grudem's treatment of issues to be interesting and informative, although sometimes disappointing. The use of Biblical material was sometimes good, sometimes weak, and sometimes overshadowed by all those "actual facts in the world."

A good example is Grudem's treatment of guns, part of a lengthy section on "self-defense and ownership of guns" in a chapter on "The Protection of Life." Grudem argues that the Bible establishes the right of self-defense based on Luke 22:36, where Jesus directs His disciples to purchase and carry swords. This is an excellent Biblical passage, and Grudem's discussion is superb. He says "merely carrying a sword would deter a criminal" and "would also enable a person to defend someone else such as a woman or child or elderly person who might be attacked from someone stronger." Likewise, "a gun is a great equalizer that offsets huge deficiencies in physical strength." There are also reasonable qualifications, that the use of force should be commensurate with the level of threat, which Grudem bases on the Golden Rule: "The requirement to act in love toward our neighbor, including even the intruder, implies that the least amount of force required to stop the attack should be used, resulting in the least amount of harm to the intruder himself" (p. 213f).

From there, Grudem moves to a discussion of crime statistics, the Second Amendment (which he likes), and gun control legislation (which he does not). He argues that the issue of gun rights is important for four reasons: the original intention of the Second Amendment, the basic human right of self-defense, the need for protection against tyranny, and the deterrence of violent crime. Grudem's reasoning and conclusions are solid.

But the lack of scriptural references is disappointing. Apart from Luke 22:36, other Biblical references are vague, primarily examples of people avoiding violence: David dodging Saul's spear, Paul sneaking over the wall in a basket, and Jesus evading the mob in Nazareth. Grudem spends some time explaining that "turning the other cheek" (Matt. 5:38-39) doesn't negate the right of self-defense. Overall, there is limited Biblical justification for his position.

Why not use Exodus 22 as a support for armed self-defense? (Maybe an Old Testament law is too threatening?) Exodus 22:2 says, "If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him." In short, under Old Testament provisions for self-defense, a man would not be subject to prosecution if he killed someone who was breaking into his house. (Lest the homeowner be prone to vigilantism, however, the following verse says that the homeowner may not track down and kill the bad guy the next day.)

I remember Jerry Falwell commenting on this passage once during a chapel service at Liberty University. "If a crook breaks into your home ... shoot him!" The whole student body cheered, delighted with their chancellor's direct, no-nonsense Biblical approach. An older generation of conservative evangelicals knew how to deal with thorny questions: Frame the issue. Identify a Biblical principle. Find your gun. Solve the problem!8

The Foreign Policy section also illustrates Grudem's approach. His internationalist and interventionist commitments have neocon tones, and there is little Scripture. Because of the emphasis on rights in the Declaration of Independence, "it is in our best interest and also consistent with our foundational convictions as a nation to promote the protection of life and human freedom in various nations around the world. Therefore such alliances for the purpose of defending other countries are based on the convictions that are at the very basis of our existence as a nation." (He "strongly disagrees" with Ron Paul's noninterventionist positions.) Grudem's internationalist appeal is largely pragmatic-in that the United States has "made the world a much better and more peaceable place" and "genuine peace in the world comes through the strength of the United States and other democratic, peace-loving nations." The Golden Rule, Grudem further explains, "gives warrant for thinking that nations should seek to do good for other nations so far as they have an opportunity to do so" (pp. 399f, 439).

I am all for neighborliness, and I like to see people do good. American conservatives, however, believe that the Constitution must define and limit the scope of governmental engagement. Grudem's passion for international interventionism appears limited only by the "broad principles" of the Bible and his own good intentions. As he puts it, "My conclusion, therefore, is that biblical moral standards, our Declaration of Independence, our own national self-interest as a nation, and the promotion of world peace all argue that the United States should promote freedom and democracy wherever it is able to do so around the world" (p. 441).

Sometimes Grudem's positions are bewildering, as on the United Nations. He knows that the UN is anti-American, is "hostile to freedom," and opposes "biblical standards of moral conduct." He knows that it is "corrupt," "harmful," "destructive," and unlikely ever to be reformed. But he says that the United States has "no choice but to stay actively involved with it [the UN]" (p. 448). But he offers little reason for this (and none from Scripture), apart from maintaining a place at the international table.

There are certainly Scripture passages that Grudem could have explored in discussing the United Nations. He could look at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11), the rebellion of the nations (Ps. 2, Acts 4:27), the dominion of Christ (Ps. 72:8-11), and the gathering of the nations (Isa. 2:2, Micah 4:2). The UN has used secularized language from Isaiah 2:4 (turning swords to plowshares). The Christian should emphasize Isaiah's promise of global peace, but only by tying it to the gathering of nations at Zion, the teaching of the law of God, and the submission of the nations to the rule of God.

Portions of the book are disappointing. The commentary on issues frequently lacks scriptural analysis, strange for a work with this title. His proposals have a predictable conservative (and Republican) tone. Though the book is full of facts and statistics, it needs further editorial work to eliminate redundancies, sharpen its focus, and reduce its overall size.

But Grudem's book will be useful to the evangelical community, and I recommend it for four reasons:

It is Biblical. Grudem is committed to God's Word. While not always consistent, Grudem advocates a full application of Scripture to every area of life.

It is comprehensive. It covers multiple issues and is an excellent resource. Despite its weaknesses, Politics attempts to operate from a coherent Biblical worldview.

It is accessible. The lay person will have no trouble understanding Politics. The study originated as a Sunday school series (p. 14). It would still serve this function well, with the teacher providing additional Biblical and worldview depth and political application.

It is evangelical. Grudem knows that government is not the final answer. Our confidence is not in politicians; our hope is not in political victory. Ultimately, there is no hope for man apart from Jesus Christ, salvation through His redeeming work, and submission to His Word.

Grudem finishes with reminders of God's sovereignty and the prospects of national revival. Though fully aware of the challenges of the day, he is encouraged by a new Christian purpose, Christian schooling movements, and God's providence. "Therefore, no matter what happens, no matter whether we win or lose individual elections and individual battles, we should never despair, for our God is on the throne, and he will certainly accomplish his good purposes in all of history, his good purpose for his church, and his good purpose for each of us" (p. 595).

 


1. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (1951). Niebuhr outlines five categories: Christ Against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture. For a recent reassessment of Niebuhr's work, see D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).
2. Grudem, Politics, 23n. Grudem later notes (pp. 65-66) that there are advocates of theonomy, like Rousas Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen, but says that their views have been critiqued by Vern Poythress and John Frame. For the most part, Grudem is content to dismiss straw men, and there is little engagement with theonomic authors (or critics).
3. Ibid., 36. In arguing against the "exclude religion" viewpoint, he says, "Moreover, since all absolute moral standards are in some way based on religious convictions and a sense of moral accountability to God, this view would tend to remove from the entire nation any sense of absolute moral standards or any sense that there is any clear way of knowing right from wrong. Therefore, the ultimate goal of this viewpoint is not only the destruction of all belief in God, but also the complete moral disintegration of a society."
4. Ibid, 84. Grudem follows this with a discussion of the Sabbath, which he believes is a part of the "ceremonial law." As such, he doesn't believe that the government should enforce Sunday blue laws (p. 85). The implication, however, in terms of Westminster categories, is that the civil magistrate has some obligation to enforce the remainder of the moral law.
5. See Westminster Confession of Faith 19:4 and the Westminster Larger Catechism, 103-148. The best historical study of the "general equity clause" is by Marc Clauson, A History of the Idea of God's Law (Theonomy): Its Origins, Development and Place in Political and Legal Thought (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006).
6. Grudem, Politics, 28. Grudem accurately quotes the First Amendment on page 33, so this may primarily be an editing problem. Grudem's discussion, however, does not show a nuanced understanding of the issue. The best recent study is by James Hutson, Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
7. Grudem, Politics, 33n. See Daniel Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002).
8. This was not an abstract issue for Jerry Falwell. His father, Carey Falwell, killed his own brother, Garland Falwell, in self-defense in 1931. Garland was an ex-con with drinking, drug, and anger issues. For the rest of his life, Carey Falwell was tormented by the fratricide and increasingly turned to drink. A lifelong agnostic and long-time bootlegger, Carey Falwell was converted on his deathbed in 1948 by the local Presbyterian minister. The story is found in Jerry Falwell, Falwell: An Autobiography (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty House, 1997), 29-93.


Topics: Biography, Constitution, The, Government, Biblical Law

Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.


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