The Christian Professor

John Angell James, 1837

The Christian and POLITICS

In attempting to settle the difficult question of the extent to which a Christian may carry his active concern in the affairs of civil government, or what are technically called 'politics', two things must be borne in mind—

First, that civil government and Christianity, though altogether distinct in their nature and design, are not opposed to each other. The latter acquaints us with our religious duties, or in other words, how we may serve God here, and obtain eternal salvation beyond the grave; while civil government, though sanctioned and enforced as to its general principle by the New Testament, is altogether, as to its specific arrangements, a provision of human skill, to secure tranquillity and freedom, during our continuance in the present life. "Between institutions," says Mr. Hall, "so different in their nature and object, it is plain no real opposition can subsist; and if they are ever represented in this light, or held to be inconsistent with each other, it must proceed from an ignorance of their respective genius and functions." It is manifest then, that there is nothing in politics as such, that is incompatible with the strictest profession of Christianity.

Secondly—It is of importance to recollect the peculiar nature of that system of civil government under which our lot is cast, and which is of a compound nature, including a very large admixture and influence of involvement by the people. The people, as well as the Monarch and the Peers, are the depositories of political power, and have a share in the government of the country. They, by their representatives in the Commons, assist in making the laws by which the realm is ruled. They have, therefore, a legal right to get involved, and a right, which is in fact in the view of the constitution, indefeasible. Their involvement, when constitutionally exerted, is no stepping out of their place, no usurpation, no invasion of the rights and prerogatives of the rulers.

Things were different when the epistles of Paul and Peter were written. There was but the shadow of popular influence left in the Roman Government—the power had passed away from the people, and they had little or no opportunity of intermeddling with the affairs of government, except in the way of insurrection and riot, which, of course, Christianity forbade, and enjoined upon those who had received the gospel, a submission to the powers that were. Its injunctions on this subject are strict and explicit, as may be seen by consulting Romans 13, and 1 Peter 2. But surely those passages can never be justly stretched, in a free country, and under a government admitting of popular involvement, to forbid the exercise of those rights with which the subject is invested by the constitution. Even allowing that passive obedience, and unresisting submission were the duty of the inhabitants of a country that is under a despotic government, it cannot be proved that those who are in legal possession of popular rights, should renounce them, and give up all active concern in civil affairs.

However difficult it may be to ascertain in what way and to what extent it would be lawful for the Christian inhabitants of Austria or Russia to exert themselves to obtain a free government, and thus make politics a matter of practical solicitude; there can be no such difficulty as to the lawful involvement, lawful both in the view of Christianity and the constitution, of the Christian inhabitants of Great Britain, for it belongs to them of right.

But perhaps it will be said, the question is not about the right of an Englishman's involvement, for this is allowed by all—but the expediency of a Christian's troubling himself about these matters. It appears to me, that to a certain extent, popular rights are popular duties. Every enfranchised person is, by his representative, not only the subject of law—but the maker of law; and it is not only his privilege—but his duty, to seek, constitutionally, the repeal of bad laws, the improvement of defective ones, and the making of good ones. As we are governed by laws, and not merely by men, it is of immense consequence what laws are enacted; and the country, that is, all present and future generations, have a claim upon every Englishman, for his influence in seeking that our legislative code, might be as conducive as can be to the welfare of the nation.

Is it nothing to a Christian—ought it to be nothing, what kind of laws are made? Legislation takes cognizance of every interest he has in the world, and unless he is to give up all that concerns his individual and social rights, his domestic comforts, and his trade, he ought to pay some attention to the affairs of civil government. He does not cease to be a citizen, when he becomes a Christian; nor does he go out of the world, when he enters the church. Religion, when it comes to his heart in power and authority, finds him a member of society, enjoying many civil privileges, and performing many duties, and for which he is not now disqualified, nor from which is he released by the new and more sacred obligation that he has undertaken to discharge.

If we could conceive that civil affairs generally, are too earthly for the spiritual nature that he has now assumed to attend to, there is at least one view of them of transcendent importance to him, even as a Christian; I mean their connection with the great subject of civil and religious freedom. Now, even allowing that civil liberty is a subject too earthly and too exciting, leading too often to the arena, and disfiguring our piety too much with the dust of political controversy; a subject which brings us too much into parties far removed from the influence of religion; what shall we say of religious freedom, a blessing so important to the comfortable discharge of the duties of our holy calling, and also to the leisure and opportunity necessary for promulgating religion? This is a blessing worth infinitely more to us than all our insular or continental colonies in the East or Western Indies, in Africa or in America. This precious deposit, bought by the martyr's blood, and worth even the price that millions have thus paid for it, is in our keeping under God, and ought we not to watch it well? We are trustees of this benefit for all future generations. But can we keep it in the absence of civil liberty? Is it to be abandoned, then by those very men who most need the blessing, and are most dependent upon it, for their enjoyment and safety?

While, therefore, a professor is under solemn obligations to be a loyal subject, or to submit to the king, and honor him as the executive branch of the constitution; he is also bound to be a patriotic member of the social body, by giving his practical support to the legislative branch. He is to be obedient to the laws that are made—but he is also to give his assistance in making them. It is his duty to give his conscientious vote for the election of his representatives in his own branch of the legislature; he may join his fellow subjects to petition for the redress of civil, or ecclesiastical grievances; and, to the extent of his influence, mildly and properly exerted, without injuring his own piety and charity, or unnecessarily wounding the feelings and exciting the passions of others, he may endeavor to direct public opinion in favor of what is just and beneficial.

The calm, dispassionate, charitable, and conscientious exercise of your political rights, without sectarian bitterness, and party animosity, in such measure as does not interfere with your own personal religion, and in such manner as does not wantonly injure the feelings of those who are opposed to you; which does not take you too much from your closet, your family, and your shop; if indeed you can thus exercise your rights, is quite lawful for you as professors. These rules and restrictions, however, must be imposed; for, without them, the subject will be sure to do you harm. A Christian must carry his religion into everything, and sanctify everything he does by it. "Whatever he does, he must do all to the glory of God." Everything must be done religiously, done in such a manner that no one shall say justly, "this is contrary to his profession." His politics must form no exception to this. Even in these he must be guided by conscience, and his conscience by the word of God. He must look well to his motives, and be able to appeal to the Searcher of hearts for their purity. If his attention to these matters, be such as to flatten his own devotional spirit, take him off from his religious duties, or diminish seriously the power of godliness and the vigor of faith; if it fills his imagination, make him restless, uneasy and anxious, disturbing the calmness of his religious peace and comfort—if it interferes more with his business than is good for his worldly prosperity, or with his family more than is consistent with his obligations to instruct and benefit them, if it injures his charity, and fills his bosom with ill-will and hatred to those who differ from him; if it leads him into political associations, and places him upon committees; if it make him looked up to as a leader and champion of a party; if it causes his pious friends to shake their heads and say, "I wish he were not quite so political," we may be very sure, and he may be sure too, that although it is not easy to fix with precision the boundary that separates right from wrong on this subject—he has passed the line, and is on dangerous and unlawful ground.

It is our duty and interest, at all times, to observe the signs of the times, and the characteristics of the age, in order to learn the particular errors to which, in consequence of these things, we are more peculiarly exposed. Now it cannot be doubted, that the dangers of professors in the present age, is not to be too little involved in politics—but too much involved in politics. Party spirit scarcely ever ran so high, and the contention of opposing factions was scarcely ever more fierce, except in times of internal commotion, than it is now. At such a period, Christians of all denominations in religion, and all parties in politics, are in danger of being too much absorbed by the engrossing questions, which are the subjects of national agitation. At such a time, and amidst such circumstances, we are all in danger of being drawn into the whirlpool, or swept away by the torrent of party questions, and having our passions far too much engaged in the collision of opposing factions.

These political subjects, next to trade, are likely to become the great business of life, the theme of all circles, and all places. Not a few people have been so far engrossed by them, as to neglect their business, and to be ruined for life, and still more have lost their religion in their political fervor, and in the misery of a backsliding or apostate state have cursed the hour in which they neglected the concerns of eternity—for the political struggles of the times.

Their thoughts and affections were so filled with these things, that they could neither talk nor think of anything else; they became members of political clubs; plunged into the conflict of a contested election; became members of the committee of one of the competitors; went all lengths in the means usually resorted to on such occasions for securing the return of their favorite candidate; were found at every political dinner or meeting, and among the most forward and most zealous—in short, politics were the element in which they lived, moved, and had their being.

Who can wonder at the result? Who is astonished at being informed that such men have become bankrupt, and that their creditors had to pay for the time they devoted to this profitless subject. What religion can live in such a state of mind as this? The newspaper supplants the Bible; the speeches and writings of politicians have far more interest for such people than the sermons of the preacher; and the attractions of the political meeting far overpower those of the devotional service; spiritual conversation is neither relished nor encouraged, and nothing permitted, or, at least, welcomed—but the all-engrossing politics! Even the Sabbath day is not exempted from the desecration of such topics; if they do not read the newspapers themselves, they inquire of those who do, or talk with those who are as deeply engrossed as themselves by the topic. Nothing of piety remains but the name, and even that has been in some cases abandoned. Such are the rocks among which many of all parties, Churchmen and Dissenters, for I apply the remarks to all, have split.

And if it be unfit even for a Christian to be thus deeply immersed in party politics, how much more so for a minister of religion—and it is impossible to deny that too many of all denominations have been drawn from their sacred occupations, far more than was fitting, by this ensnaring topic. I am quite aware that there are seasons when the nation seems to be in the very crisis of its destiny, and when, therefore, even the servant of the Lord, may feel that his country appeals to his patriotism, and asks him for his help, and when he may scarcely think he is at liberty to remain quiet and inactive—but such seasons rarely occur in reality, though they do more frequently in men's own imaginations. It is indeed but seldom that the pulpit and politics are compatible with each other, and that the minister of the gospel adds anything to his dignity or usefulness, by the dust which he gathers up from the arena of political strife. The harangue of the public meeting gives but little emphasis to the sermon, or but ill prepares those who heard it, to listen to much more solemn themes from the same lips in the sanctuary.

The minister of the gospel should excite no needless prejudices in any mind, which he is sure to do by becoming an aggressive political partisan. Most men of all parties have good sense enough to see, that the clergy are far more in their place by the bed of the dying, in the scenes of ignorance, wretchedness, and vice, for the purpose of dispensing knowledge, holiness, and bliss—than in the crowd and clamor, the passions and revilings of a political meeting. The time that is consumed and thus taken away from the souls committed to their care, is, perhaps, the least evil resulting from such pursuits; the more serious mischief is the influence of their example upon others, and the diminution of public respect both for the office and the object of the ministerial character.

It cannot be inferred or imagined, I hope, from anything I have said, that I wish to detach the great body of Christians from all attention to the affairs of the nation, or cooperation with those who are endeavoring to give them a right direction. My object, in these remarks, is not to neutralize patriotic feeling into absolute indifference, nor to paralyze healthful and well-directed efforts for the country's good; but simply to prevent the former from becoming malignant, or excessive—and the latter from degenerating into the violent action of political partisanship. The conquest of the world which faith is called upon to achieve, is not to tear up patriotism, that fine flower of humanity, by the roots—but to prevent its attaining such a wild luxuriance as would draw away all the vigor of the soil from other and still more important plants, or would wither them by the chilling influence of its too ample shadow.

I do not ask, I do not wish, Christians to give up the world into the hands of the wicked—but only to let their involvement be that of pious men, a calm, serene, patriotism—the more effectual, because of its moderation and firmness, its conscientiousness and sanctity. Every man's opinion should be made up, firmly held, publicly known, and consistently acted upon, without concealment or trimming. Neutrality is no man's glory, when great interests are in jeopardy, and great questions concerning them, are in discussion. Christianity, the dearest interest to the heart of every child of God, is, in one sense, independent of all the questions of party politics, and yet, in another, is, in some measure, as to its progress at least, affected by them—and therefore demands such attention from its subjects to the affairs of nations, and only such, as is compatible with supreme regard to its own pure laws, benign spirit, and heavenly object. As politics, therefore, are not sinful in themselves—but only in that excess of attention to them which takes a man's time too much from his business, embitters his heart towards his neighbor who differs from him in political sentiment, or diminishes his religious feeling; everyone must be careful to observe that moderation which Christianity prescribes in this as well as in all other matters that appeal to our appetites and our passions. That is evil to us, which, either in kind or degree, is evil to our religion.

Professors then should be aware of their danger, and watch and pray lest they enter into temptation. Let them never forget that they belong to a kingdom which is not of this world; that their citizenship is in heaven, and that therefore they should live as strangers upon the earth. As pilgrims, abiding for a short season in a strange city, they should be willing to promote its welfare during their temporary sojourn—but still with their eye, and hope, and heart, upon the land of their inheritance. A deep sense of the infinite importance of eternal salvation and invisible realities; a due impression of the shortness of time, and the uncertainty of life; together with an intelligent consideration of the great end of God in sending us into this world; would repress all undue political fervor, and teach us how to act the part of a patriot, without neglecting that of a Christian; and make us feel that we were not only the inhabitants of a country, or citizens of the world—but subjects of the universe, and that every inferior interest should be pursued with a proper regard to true religion.

This we ought ever to be intent upon as our daily work, as that alone which can prepare us for heaven; so that if we were asked at any time, what we were aiming at, or what we were doing, we might be able to give this true answer, "We are preparing ourselves for eternity." No pretext, however specious, whether relating to our family or our country, can be a legitimate excuse for neglecting this preparatory process for immortality.

Nothing can be conceived of more opposite to the temper of heaven, the disposition of the blessed above, which is unmingled holy love, than the political spirit, which when seen as it is now too often seen, in its most virulent form, is the gall of bitterness, and the essence of malignity. If charity is the crowning excellence of piety, how contrary to this divine virtue is the present spirit of parties, which, like a burning volcano is perpetually pouring from its crater, the fiery eruptions of envy, malice, and all uncharitableness. Better, far better, professing Christians, never to see a newspaper, nor know a single political fact, nor utter a syllable of politics—than enter into the subject if it must produce in you such a temper as this! But it need not produce it. There may be moderation in this as well as in anything else. A man may be a pious patriot, without degenerating into a malignant partisan.