“One Nation Under God”?

I’m re-posting this article I wrote back in May 2007.

In view of the May 14 midterm elections in the Philippines, and of the current presidential campaign in the United States, I have been pondering the age-old question of how a Christian should relate to the culture around him.

What must the Christian’s response be to ungodliness, unrighteousness, injustice, and corruption of both government and individuals in his own nation? In a country like the Philippines – full of despair, poverty, corruption, and hopelessness – must a Christian participate in a seemingly useless, rigged exercise? Who to vote for in an election – the lesser evil – when all the candidates are perceived to be utterly evil? Is there warrant for a Christian to be a church pastor and at the same time a senator or a congressman?

More than fifty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr, one of America’s most well-known theological-ethicists, offered his answers in his famous work, Christ and Culture. Gene Edward Veith, World magazine’s Culture Editor, analyzes Niebuhr’s book in “Christianity and Culture: God’s Double Sovereignty.” Here’s a summary of Niebuhr’s five different Christian responses to culture:

1. Christ Against Culture. This view gives up on the sinfulness of culture and encourages Christians to separate from the world, either individually or collectively, as the monks, Anabaptists, and Amish do.

2. Christ of Culture. The church, for the sake of relevancy, should be defined by the culture. In successive eras, Christianity was revised according to humanist Enlightenment, emotionalist Romanticism, and finally, liberal theology. Today, liberalism in the church takes many forms – social action, political correctness, gay rights, feminism, contextualization, relativism, pluralism, and contemporary worship – in the name of relevancy and acceptability to the culture. “In the world” has given way to “of the world” (John 17:15, 16).

3. Christ Above Culture. God is sovereign over all, whether eternal or temporal, earthly or heavenly. Thus, the “best of both worlds” of Christianity and culture, of church and state, can be synthesized for the betterment of society. This is the experiment of the medieval age (Thomas Aquinas being one of its major advocates), when King and Pope struggled for power in the state. However, because of man’s sinful nature, this view often led to forcing the Christian faith on others, compromising Christian truths, and hypocrisy in the church.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. Martin Luther calls this the doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms”: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Both kingdoms are ruled by Christ. He rules over the church through His gospel; He rules over the world through His law. The Christian is a citizen of both kingdoms, and as such, is to be subject to both. Only in case of conflict with obedience to God may the Christian disobey the earthly kingdom. The Christian must be diligent in his vocation because that is his portion in serving both God and man. In his work, he is “rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Ephesians 6:5-8). To be sure, every aspect of a believer’s life, including the “secular,” is under the kingship of Christ.

The church’s function is the spiritual and diaconal care of its citizens, not meddling in the affairs of the state. The state’s function is the civil governance of its citizens, not meddling in the affairs of the church. As American theologian Charles Hodge explained back in the 19th century, “the state has no authority in matters purely spiritual and that the church [has] no authority in matters purely secular or civil.” More recently, Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger wrote that neither the Republican or Democratic political agenda “belongs in the pulpit, in the liturgy, or in any statements that claim to have the authority of the Gospel.” This is the view of most Reformed believers, and is sometimes referred to as “the spirituality of the Church.”

5. Christ Transforming Culture. Niebuhr implicitly supports this view, and various popular Christian movements such as Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, Christian Reconstructionists, Purpose Driven Life, etc., exemplify it. As well, it is embodied in such slogans as “Take America Back for God,” “One Nation Under God,” and “God Bless America.” The Christian must work, and is able, to better the culture by being “salt and light” to the world, working within cultural institutions, ushering in “heaven on earth.” However, because of sin, whole cultures or nations can never be completely transformed. Individual hearts, not nations, are transformed. This view is the most predominant in evangelicalism today.

It is obvious that I favor the paradoxical view of the Two Kingdoms (View 4). This view avoids the excesses of separatism (1), liberalism (2), legalism (3), and triumphalism (5). To be sure, there are biblical truths in each of these views, and biblical principles must address how we are to determine which aspects of culture should be received and which ones should be rejected. However, in our decisions, we are to take care not to go down the path of “situational ethics,” wherein actions are taken according to what pleases the majority, instead of what pleases God.

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