The Nature of Political Compromise
We have been told that politics by its very nature requires compromise. If those on the opposite sides of a political issue are to avoid endless stalemate, make headway in drafting necessary legislation, and generally get on with the business of governing the nation, it seems as though compromise is not only useful, but essential to the political process. J. I. Packer says, "Give-and-take is the heart of political compromise, as compromise is the heart of politics in a democracy."1 Since evangelicals have been very diligent in seeking political compromises with those on the other side, one might think that we ought to praise evangelicals for their prowess in the art of political compromise and for the good that this has brought to our society. Praise would be due if compromise in politics is always a virtue. However, Clarence Carson gives a penetrating analysis of how political compromise often works:
Politics, we are told by what is now the "conventional wisdom" of political science, is the art of compromise. This is a most plausible idea. If men differ from one another about what to do, how are these differences to be resolved? The most obvious alternatives are compromise or a resort to force. Surely it would not be good for people to resort continually to armed combat to settle their differences. It would appear, then, that compromise is the great imperative — even virtue — of statecraft.
But this doctrine of compromise is more complex than the above reasoning would suggest. Compromise suggests that both sides yield ground, that they "split the difference," as it were. In fact, however, this has seldom been the case in political matters. Let us take an example. Suppose that the country is divided into two parties over an issue — the tariff, say. One party favors free trade, and the other wants a protective tariff. The protectionists introduce a bill into Congress which provides for protective duties on certain imports. A "compromise" is worked out between the free traders and protectionists. It would involve lower rates than those originally proposed, and perhaps fewer items on the protected list. This would appear to meet the qualifications for a "compromise," but it is far from a splitting of the differences. The party of free trade has agreed not only to a quantitative compromise, but it has yielded up its principle as well. The protectionist party has begun the establishment of its principle and has, presumably, yielded ground temporarily on the amount and degree of the tariff.
In brief, compromise can be made to work entirely to the advantage of one side. It is my contention that it has usually done so in the United States in the twentieth century.2
As Carson points out, political compromise is rarely an even split, but usually involves the surrender of principle by at least one side in the debate. It is our contention that the compromises of evangelicals in the political sphere have consistently been the surrender of Christian principles. In so doing, evangelicals have actually helped the enemies of Christ establish their ungodly principles in society. The political compromises of evangelicals, therefore, do not deserve praise, but, rather, condemnation; for their compromises have worked to undermine the kingdom of God and have contributed substantially to the ongoing advance of the kingdom of darkness in the politics of our nation.
The Nature of Evangelical Political Compromise
The particular instances of evangelical political compromise can be summed up and explained by their surrender of two essential Biblical doctrines in the political sphere: 1) the Lordship of Jesus Christ — the doctrine of Christ's mediatorial reign over all things in heaven and earth; and, 2) the authority of Biblical law. This compromise of Biblical truth did not take place overnight. Evangelicals today are living out the compromised political philosophy of previous generations of Christians who, for the sake of pluralism discarded the authority of Christ in the political sphere, and traded Biblical law for natural law.3 The fundamental political viewpoint of modern evangelicals is based on the surrender of God's authority (i.e., the authority of his Son and the authority of his law-word) over the sphere of politics. Of course, if you were to read or hear what contemporary evangelicals are saying in regard to politics, you would be confronted with many appeals to "Biblical justice" and statements about the lordship of Christ in politics. But in spite of honoring Christ and the Bible with their lips, their political philosophy and practice are often far from both Christ and the Bible.
Pluralism, in the epistemological sense of the term, "maintains that there is no single meaning or truth; meaning varies as the consequences vary for the individual, and truth is the expedient way of thinking."4 All evangelicals would take strong issue with epistemological pluralism and affirm that truth is based on God and his revelation. However, when it comes to the theory of political pluralism, evangelicals are fully supportive. Political pluralism "is a concept that describes the heterogeneity of groups that share power in public policy making. The theory of democratic pluralism asserts that the public interest emerges from the democratic competition of diverse and changing elite groups, none of which are able to become dominant."5
Evangelicals are champions of this democratic pluralism. J. I. Packer argues that pluralistic representative democracy is "fitter and wiser" than any other form of civil government. He says that Christians ought to recommend democracy because it is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people and best expresses the God-given dignity of every individual because it allows full participation in the political process for all. Packer believes that democracies like the U. S. that are philosophically and religiously pluralist are healthy because societal balance comes out of political conflict as compromise is reached by the various parties in the debate.6 Kantzer explains that democratic pluralism is a vital part of the American tradition and evangelicals strongly support that tradition:
Strong evangelical affirmation of democracy and especially of the American principle of separation of church and state ought not to be surprising. The original framers of our Constitution in 1787 went out of their way to insure that our government would not be a Christian government, and not even a religious government. This is in spite of the fact that, almost without exception, the framers of the American Constitution considered themselves religious persons. The vast majority identified themselves as Christian.... From its very inception, therefore, the United States has been a pluralistic democracy committed to the separation of church and state.... [T]he basic reason for the strong evangelical commitment to separation is rooted in Biblical teaching about the role of civil government....7
For evangelicals, the ideal political economy in this fallen world is that which allows all views, religious or secular, theistic or atheistic, Christian or anti-Christian, an equal voice in the political debate and equal access to the political process and political offices of the nation. They abhor the thought of any one group's seeking to dominate politics, particularly the thought of Christians striving for dominion in the politics of the nation.
What evangelicals want is "a place at the table" so that they can provide the all-important religious perspective to the process of democracy; a place at the table, nothing more, nothing less. Ralph Reed states this succinctly:
If we are to reaffirm the role of religion in public life, we must also encourage those with strong spiritual values to re-enter politics after too many years of self-imposed retreat. Religious believers must become full citizens, with a place at the table we call democracy.... Their participation is not a threat to democracy but is essential to it.8
Evangelical commitment to democratic pluralism also means that they believe that the state must be religiously neutral, i.e., should not favor, protect, or promote any one religion over another. Kantzer believes that the founding fathers "went out of their way to insure that our government would not be a Christian government, and not even a religious government,"9 and he and other evangelicals are committed to keeping it that way. Monsma advocates what he calls the "politics of justice" because it is both liberating and pluralistic. For Monsma, true liberty requires the state to be religiously neutral and to enforce a pluralistic order that allows for "mosques as well as churches, nudist camps as well as Bible camps, hateful, racist literature as well as the writings of a C. S. Lewis or a Martin Luther King, Jr."10
Complete religious liberty for all sects, isms, and religions must be the creed of the state. Of course, if the state is to uphold religious pluralism, then the state itself must be officially neutral in regard to religion. How else can the state avoid giving special status to any one religion? Thus, the evangelical, in being true to his pluralistic creed for civil society, rejects all attempts to establish Christianity as the religion of the state — no religious test for political office, no national covenant with God, and no official recognition of the Bible as the law-book of the nation.
Evangelicals are passionate defenders of democratic pluralism because it allows equal access for all views in the public policy debates of the democratic process, but reject epistemological pluralism because it says there is no ultimate standard of truth or justice. How do they reconcile the acceptance of one and the rejection of the other? It seems that an acceptance of democratic pluralism would naturally entail the acceptance of epistemological pluralism as well. The evangelical answer to this seeming contradiction is natural law: natural law provides the social glue that enables a pluralistic society to unite in pursuit of the common good; natural law provides pluralism with a transcendent standard of right and wrong, and of civil justice.11 Geisler states:
A society cannot function without some kind of common moral code that binds people together in a social unit — a kind of moral cohesive. Without this ethical cohesive, there would be no unity in a society. But it is obvious that not every society accepts a divine law, such as the Bible or the Koran. This being the case there is evident need for some kind of naturally available moral code to bind people together.12
For Geisler and his fellow evangelicals, natural law is the common moral code. Following Aquinas, Geisler defines natural law as "the rational creature's participation in the eternal law," and the "eternal law is the divine reason by which God governs the universe."13 Evangelicals make a distinction between Biblical law which is only for the church and natural law which is for all men. Therefore, according to evangelicals, it is wrong for Christians to espouse the standards of Biblical law for civil society — society's only standard of moral principles is natural law, and these principles are discerned through man's reason. As Packer says, "The Christian citizen must accept that in politics no black-and-white answers are available, but God wills simply that all be led by the highest ideals and the ripest wisdom that they can discover."14 In other words, "Christians, put your Bibles away when you enter into the political realm."
The Antidote to Evangelical Political Compromise
In their advocacy of democratic pluralism and natural law, evangelicals have deeply compromised the Christian message in the political sphere. Instead of the lordship of Christ in the politics of the nation, they preach the virtues of democratic pluralism, which is nothing less than the virtue of a religiously neutral state15 that grants every false religion and cult, and every anti-Christian philosophy, full participation in the political process.16 Instead of the authority of Biblical law to determine justice in civil affairs, they proclaim the authority of human reason to discern eternally valid principles of justice. There is nothing explicitly Christian about their fundamental political philosophy at all; it is the surrender of Biblical truth and God's covenant in history for a mess of pluralistic pottage. The fruit of the evangelical compromise17 has been bitter — a nation that was founded in the seventeenth century by God-fearing men and women (e.g., the Puritans in New England) who were intent on establishing a civil covenant with God to honor him and be governed by his Bible-revealed laws is now a nation at war with God and his word, rapidly descending into moral and social chaos. The antidote to the evangelical political compromise is repentance and a return to the Biblical truth of the lordship of Jesus Christ over all nations — his mediatorial reign,18 and the authority of Biblical law — theonomy.19
Instead of democratic pluralism and natural law, Christians must advocate the crown rights of Jesus Christ in the political sphere.20 By virtue of his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God the Father, Jesus Christ is now Lord of all in heaven and earth (Ps. 110:1-2; Dan. 7:13-14; Acts 2:33-36; Phil. 2:9; Rev. 2:27;12:5). The risen Christ has been granted dominion over all the nations; they are his inheritance, and he has been commissioned by his Father to bring these rebellious nations into submission to his reign (Ps. 2:4-9). He is King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14; 19:16), the Prince of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5), and all kings and rulers are commanded to bow before him and confess him as their Sovereign and serve him and promote his kingdom in their capacity as civil rulers (Ps. 2:10-12; Phil. 2:9-11). As Sovereign, his law-word must be the basis for civil law (Mt. 5:17-19; 28:20).
The political implications of Christ's current mediatorial reign are enormous. William Symington summarizes these:
1. It is the duty of nations and their rulers to have respect to the glory of Christ in all their institutions and transactions.
2. It is the duty of nations, as subjects of Christ, to take his law as their rule.
3. It is a duty which nations owe to Messiah the Prince, to have respect to the moral and religious qualifications in those whom they appoint over them.
4. The nations ought to have respect to Christ, in their subjection to those who rule over them.
5. Nations, as the moral subjects of Messiah the Prince, are under obligation to recognize his rightful authority over them by swearing allegiance to him.
6. It is the duty of nations, as such, to have respect to [the Christian] religion.21
All nations belong to Christ and he is the only rightful Sovereign of every nation. Therefore, Christians should labor for an explicitly Christian civil government that stands in covenant with God through Christ.22 Christians must bring the politics of their nation under the dominion of Christ, the Lord. The evangelical political compromise of democratic pluralism and natural law is a repudiation of the Biblical doctrines of Christ's present reign over the nations and of the authority of the word of Christ; it is an offense to King Jesus.
1. J. I. Packer, "How to Recognize a Christian Citizen," Christianity Today Institute, in Christianity Today, vol. 29, no. 7 (April 19, 1985), 7.
2. Clarence B. Carson, The Fateful Turn: From Individualism to Collectivism 1880-1960 (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY, 1963), 148-149, emphasis added.
3. For a summary of the history of this compromise see John A. Fielding III, "The Emperor's New Clothes: The Failure of Retreatist Strategies," in Explicitly Christian Politics, ed. William O. Einwechter (Pittsburgh, 1997), 17-46. For a more extended treatment see Gary North, Political Polytheism (Tyler, TX, 1989).
4. Donald Gotterbarn, The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
6. Packer, op cit., 6-7.
7. Kenneth Kantzer, "Summing Up: An Evangelical View of Church and State," Christianity Today Institute in Christianity Today, idem., 28-29.
8. Ralph Reed, "Religion and Democracy," Imprimis, vol. 25, no. 4 (April 1996), 6.
9. Kantzer, loc. cit.
10. Stephen Monsma, "The Moral Limits of Government," in Piety and Politics, eds., Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Cromartie (Washington, D. C., 1987), 227.
11. The evangelical answer of natural law does not solve the logical contradiction of accepting democratic pluralism while rejecting epistemological pluralism. Epistemology is foundational to practice. The acceptance of the political system of democratic pluralism will eventually lead to the acceptance of epistemological pluralism. This is exactly what is happening in the United States today; and evangelicals, in spite of their natural law doctrine, are helping to speed the process. The tragedy of evangelicalism is that, though it wants to retain a place for God's authority in politics through natural law, it is actually surrendering God's authority and any concept of higher law for political theory, and aiding in the triumph of complete relativism in politics by support of democratic pluralism.
12. Norman Geisler, "Human Life," in In Search of a National Morality, ed., William Bently Ball (Grand Rapids, 1992), 117.
13. Ibid., 116.
14. Packer, op. cit., 7.
15. But there is no neutrality. Civil government is either for Christ or against Christ; it either gathers for Christ and his kingdom in the civil sphere or scatters abroad (Mt. 12:30).
16. In Biblical law, all who resided within the boundaries of Israel were to be given equal protection and justice, including foreigners and those who did not confess faith in the God of Israel (Dt. 1:16-17; 24:17-18). However, only the people in covenant with God were able to participate in the political processes of the nation (Ex. 18:21-22; Dt. 1:13; Dt. 17:15). Therefore, Christians must not be content with a place at the table, but remember that Christ owns the table and invites only those who acknowledge him as Lord to sit at the table; all others are usurpers.
17. A compromise that stretches back to the latter part of the eighteenth century and extends down to today.
18. For the most comprehensive treatment of this important doctrine, see William Symington, Messiah the Prince (Edmonton, 1990 ).
19. See R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1973); Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1977), and By This Standard (Tyler, TX, 1985).
20. See Andrew Sandlin, "The Crown Rights of Jesus Christ: The Comprehensive Character of the Faith," in Explicitly Christian Politics, 47-59.
21. Symington, op. cit., 231, 234, 241, 249, 256, 262.
22. This labor is part of the church's duty to bring all men and nations under the authority of Christ and his word as commanded in the Great Commission. An explicitly Christian civil order is founded on the regeneration of the populace, strong Christian families, and strong Christian churches; it is not based on a few seizing power and imposing a Christian order on the masses by means of the civil sword.
- William O. Einwechter
William O. Einwechter serves as a teaching elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is also the vice president of the National Reform Association and the editor of The Christian Statesman. He can be contacted at [email protected].