Religion and Politics: An Unholy Mix

October 4, 2021 by

What is the role of the Christian in politics? And more specifically, what is the responsibility of a follower of Jesus in the public square in an age when it is no longer a forum for civil debate, but more often an arena for mudslinging and gladiatorial fights?

As Eberhard Arnold struggled to clear a spiritual pathway through the chaos that defined public life in his native Germany in the aftermath of World War I – a period marked by the birth pangs of the Weimar Republic, but also by widespread factionalism, extremism, and political assassinations – he repeatedly spoke out in favor of the “supra-political” way of Jesus.

CMZEmbed All Saints Day II. Artwork by Wassily Kandinsky, 1911.

As Arnold saw it, this way eschews power politics for the politics of the kingdom of God – for a spiritual revolution whose adherents humbly acknowledge their own share of common guilt for everything that is wrong with the world, and who take on themselves the burden of building up a new society based on compassion and on what he called the “true justice of brotherly love” – that is, on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.

Despite the clarity of this position, Arnold never turned his back on the political fights being fought in his day. On the contrary, he engaged with proponents of every stripe imaginable. Not surprisingly (for someone who never tired of pointing out the flagrant discrepancy between the teachings of the established churches and the original teachings of Jesus) Arnold had little tolerance for religious hypocrisy; nor did he shy from openly questioning and chastising the arrogance of those who had the gall to imply that they spoke for good Christians as a whole, or to claim that their own party was the most “Christian.”

Writing in 1921 in Das neue Werk (“the new venture”) – the periodical of the fledgling community that would become the Bruderhof – he entered a partisan fray not unlike several going on now, a hundred years later: namely, a debate over the role of the Press Alliance, a Christian group, in promoting a party that shares more than a few similarities with today’s Evangelical Right.

Arnold’s article, which critiques and refutes the arguments of the Press Alliance point by point, addresses everything from patriotism to the question of religious instruction in public schools, and the old ploy of attacking one’s opponent by questioning his personal morals. It can be read here in full.

In one surprisingly timely passage, he attacks “class privilege,” “patriotic narrowness,” and the “adulterous combining of Christianity, militarism, and mammonism”; in another, he defends the social-democratic struggle for justice and equal rights – for Jews, communists, trade unionists, blue-collar workers, and women, who had recently won the right to vote – against the criticism that it is “anti-Christian.” In fact, he maintains that any political movement which fights “misery, degradation, exploitation, and oppression, whether it be directed against a class, party, sex, or race,” is “doubtless” rooted in a consciousness “given by God.”

The excerpt below, from the opening pages of the article, sets out the basic premises of his arguments and offers a taste of his impassioned but even-handed tone.

We agree completely that all serious Christians are duty-bound before God to concern themselves with the public tasks of the nation, to feel just as responsible for the economic, political, and religious situation of public life as they do for questions of personal salvation. It is a serious sin of omission of many Christian circles to feel that they belong to the body of Christ, and yet never have the same interest in people’s physical needs, in the political and economic future, and in public justice, as Christ did.

It is surprising that so often, in the name of Christianity, we hear only about our own nation. Of course, we also see our first duty as being to our own nation. But we also need to consider: Who is my neighbor?

If distancing oneself from the world entails a lack of interest and indifference toward injustice, untruthfulness, impurity, and enmity among people, it can only be called lack of conscience – as is worldliness, which also accepts the present conditions as they are. The Christian is called to fight in the world, to speak words of salt and do loving deeds of light everywhere.

Certainly the individual Christian is only a tiny cell in the great organism of the church. Therefore it is so important that living Christians stand together as one front in all areas of life. But this front is never that of one particular political party. Party politics and Christianity can never be identical with one another. So we dare not exhort all Christians to back one party or political wing, or we will be guilty of the serious sin of violating consciences and putting a human yoke on the necks of the others. Rather, the front goes right through the various parties and through the center of public life. This front is God’s ranks of those who, whatever they call themselves, struggle against the antigod – the devil that Christ calls mammon. And this is the serious accusation we have against ourselves, against the weak Christianity of today: that Jesus’ fight against mammon, against the murderer from the beginning, is not grasped as the first duty of a Christian. Today’s Christian leaders are not standing on one front with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, with the risen King of the future kingdom of justice. Therefore they have also not recognized the worldly dealings that they should steer clear of in their business and professional life. Show me even one who has truly taken up the war against capitalistic egotism and the privilege of violence of state and military careers!

Evangelists of a faithful witness to conversion have often proven to have dull consciences towards the simplest demands of society, science, or politics.

A true Christianity means that the word of the Gospels will agree more and more closely with deeds in private, economic, and public life, that is, the building up of a life in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, with the friends of peace, and with the working people who want community. What we miss in so many political ventures that are justified as “Christian” is a thorough application of the Lord’s words: “By their fruits you shall know them.”


About the author

Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris and his wife, Bea, live at The Mount, a Bruderhof in Esopus, New York.

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