Don't Give Up on the Public Square

Editor's Note: This article has been adapted from the preface of Biblical Patterns and Government.

Too many believers take a short-term view and become frustrated or retreat altogether from the public square when setbacks occur. Improvements in government may require generations. Along the way, however, regular means of growth—such as weekly worship—may bring steady, albeit slow, reform.

For example, what goes on every Sunday in houses of worship may be far more important in terms of eternal significance than what will happen on an election day Tuesday at the ballot box. In our country, more people will attend worship than will watch/attend NFL games; more people will attend worship than will vote on many election days. Internationally, far more people will worship than will vote. Our citizens vote once every other year; in that same span, the average committed Christian will worship 100 times.

What we do when we worship is to shape the lifestyles and values of citizens who participate, and through them, others. The Church of Jesus Christ is far larger, far more eternal, far more effective than any political party.

How many Whigs will vote in the United States next election? The Whig party was one of the top two parties from the 1780s–1850s in America. After the Revolutionary War, the Whigs vied with the Democratic Party in the earliest US Elections. They were gradually displaced in the mid-nineteenth century, as a new party formed (i.e. the Republican Party). Where are the Whigs today? They’ve faded from the scene; and over the next century, either or both of the Democratic or Republican Parties may fade. Candidates rise and fall, parties wax and wane, issues ascend and descend—but the Church of Jesus Christ will still stand. And as it stands, the Church will continue to provide a vital salt for the political sector. 

Notice a few important facts from our national history:

  1. Evangelicals were not always hamstrung from political involvement—think of abolition and suffrage movements.
  2. Evangelicals of the past have often focused on moral issues.
  3. Evangelicals led to a crucial re-alignment of the traditional two-party system.   

For too long, Christians have been sold a view of separation of church and state that is contrary to what the Bible teaches. We do believe in a separation of church and state, but not the way humanists think. Humanists act as though they want to keep Christian influence out of politics altogether. A wrong view of the separation of church and state must be put to rest.

It is neither constitutional, theological, nor practical to erect an iron curtain to separate faith and politics. Our views on large questions of the day are informed and influenced by our faith and religious world views. It has always been the case and always will. One will sooner have sports neutrality than we will have political neutrality. We don’t mind when people from Alabama support their team as long as we can support ours. Moreover, we would object to a decree from Washington that elevated the Crimson Tide over others as preferred. But there is nothing wrong with expressing our sincerely held loyalties.

Christians are committed to monogamous families, innocent life wherever it is, proper punishment for criminals, reasonable tax rates, and appropriate national defense. We are committed to these things as absolutes because they are revealed in Scripture. For us, they are religious questions as well. They cannot be divorced from one another. While we may not wish to impose our civic views on anyone, neither do we wish to be gagged simply because not every citizen is a Christian.

The separation of church and state is fine if we are talking about a division of labor and understand that each agency has a jurisdiction that should not be usurped by the other. We are also for the separation of church and bank; the separation of church and service station; the separation of church and Kroger. We don’t call for the church per se to control any of these. We do, however, call for Christians to apply their biblical convictions in each of these areas. The state should not engage in preaching and sacraments; and the church should not provide national defense. But that historic view of the separation of church and state is not the same as a modern view that seeks to gag the church anytime it ventures outside of the front door of the Sanctuary with biblical values.

Pulpits and politics evidently do mix—and have. In the mid-nineteenth century, James A. Lyon attempted to harmonize religion and politics:

“That religion and politics should be separated, the one wholly divorced from the other, is a popular fallacy so assiduously cultivated by a certain interested party, and so widely disseminated, that it may be justly termed one of Lord Bacon’s ‘idols’. . . Of the many popular fallacies that are generally afloat in society, there is perhaps none that is deeper rooted or more damaging in its effects than the one just stated. How it originated, and became so deeply implanted in the popular mind, it may be rather difficult to explain. It is, however, a modern notion.”[1]

He also noted that, “the separation of religion and politics, as a cardinal maxim in the foundation and superstructure of civil society, is of recent growth, the birth of modern infidelity.”[2] Thomas Peck, who held strongly to a limited mission for the church, affirmed:

“It is only in modern time, indeed, that the philosopher has undertaken to grapple with these relations, with a view to the practical separation of the spheres of the temporal and the spiritual, the civil and the ecclesiastical, the church and the state. In the ancient forms of civilization . . . we look in vain for any discrimination between these powers.”[3]

* * *

The Bible does not explicitly reveal a divine position on all political ideas, bills, and treaties—although biblical principles underpin or contradict most legislation. All legislative measures should have their presuppositions, prudence, and prospects measured by Scripture. As far as explicit counsel from God on some subjects, however, the divine rule has not been revealed for all matters of policy. At times, one has to be satisfied with general principles; all that one might like to know has not been revealed. Since the Bible does not pretend to issue opinions on every political issue, certain proposals must be evaluated with prudence.

For example, I often answer a practical question with a practical answer. Often Christians ask: Can I vote for an official who does not share my faith or most of my views? Is a vote, a covenant or a preference? I have a number of friends who conscientiously do not wish to vote for a candidate unless he satisfies a large number of their interests and beliefs. To vote for one who is less than orthodox on all theological and ethical variables, some think, is to make an oath or covenant with an ungodly politician. On the other hand, some will vote for a candidate, regardless of numerous ideological or moral failings, primarily because of friendships or benefits promised. One thing that helps is to remember that voting for a political candidate is not the same as voting for an elder or pastor. When we vote in civil elections, we express our preference—often from among flawed candidates—and instead of viewing this as a covenanting ceremony in a ballot booth, it may be more practical and helpful to view this as expressing a preference.

Our concern, however, is not with what God has not revealed, but to be faithful to what he has revealed. We should be enormously pleased if Christians merely acted on the amount of revealed information in civic affairs.

David Hall is the Senior Pastor of the historic Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Powder Springs, Georgia. He has authored and edited numerous works, including Calvin In The Public Square and On Reforming Worship.  

Related Links

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"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams

"Confessional Subscription and Political Discourse" by Carl Trueman

Secular Power, Authority, and Christian Obedience by James Boice

Twenty Messages to Consider Before Voting by David Hall


[1] James A. Lyon, “Religion and Politics,” The Southern Presbyterian Review, Vol. 15 (April, 1863), 569.

[2] Lyon, 570.

[3] Thomas Peck, “Church and State,” The Southern Presbyterian Review, Vol. 15 (April, 1863), 569.

[4] Some commentators describe self-government, or personal responsibility, as the first sphere of government. As crucial and essential as that doubtlessly is, we are speaking of corporate spheres of government.