Well, the political season is upon us again. And it’s time for all sorts of Christian stock phrases about politics to be used and reused. One of my favorite is the phrase, “Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.” This is one of those phrases that is used so frequently that no one really bothers to ask what it means; nor does anyone bother to ask whether it is really true. But, I want to take a moment to analyze this phrase as we head into this political season. What does it really mean? Here are some possibilities:
1. The phrase could simply mean that the Bible doesn’t speak to politics.
I suppose one possible interpretation of this phrase is that it means that the Bible doesn’t address political issues; it is simply silent on this matter. The Bible is only interested in redemptive issues and theological issues and should not be made to determine which political views are right. But, is that an accurate portrayal of the Bible? Sure, we can agree that the Bible doesn’t use the terms “Democrat” or “Republican,” nor does it make statements like “you should vote for the political party that….” But, that doesn’t mean the Bible provides no principles or guidance on how to evaluate a political party. Indeed, as Van Til once said, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication.”
Thus, there is no reason to think the Bible cannot address political issues. To suggest otherwise is tantamount to suggesting the Bible cannot address the question of evolution because “it is not a science book” (to use another cliché). The problem with such an argument is that it only allows the Bible to speak to so-called “religious” issues and not “secular” ones. However, the Bible itself does not honor this religious-secular distinction—all the world is God’s and he has a say over everything in it. Moreover, almost every political issue has an ethical dimension to it. And surely the Bible speaks to ethics. Thus, we cannot say that political issues are “off the table” when it comes to what the Bible teaches.
2. The phrase could simply mean that neither political party lines up entirely with what the Bible teaches.
Another interpretation of this phrase is that it is simply another way of saying that neither party is perfect; both have their problems. Ok. But surely no one would dispute this. No human institution is perfect this side of the Fall (including the church!). To state such a thing doesn’t really advance the discussion—it is simply stating a truism.
Even if both parties are flawed to some degree, the real question still remains, namely which political party is the closest to the principles and ethics laid out in Scripture? After all, at the end of the day, the Christian still has to go to the polls and vote for someone. And surely he wants to vote for the party that is closest to the teachings of Scripture.
My suspicion therefore, is that this phrase is not being used just to say that both parties are flawed; rather it is really being used to say that both parties are equally flawed. And if both parties are equally flawed then someone can claim that it doesn’t really matter how we vote. Everyone is off the hook and political debating (at least on a biblical basis) should just stop. But, if someone is going to make such a claim then they have to do the heavy exegetical lifting to prove their case. A cliché is not enough to demonstrate that both political parties are equally flawed.
Moreover, I think the claim that both parties are equally flawed is highly problematic when one considers that Democrats and Republicans have near opposite political platforms on almost every major issue. Is it really likely that there would be two parties with nearly opposite values and ethical positions and, at the same time, neither would be closer to the teachings of Scripture? I suppose it is possible. But, is also very unlikely.
3. The phrase could simply mean that there are good Christians who are both Democrats and Republicans.
I suppose one could interpret the phrase “Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican” as just another way of saying that there are Christians, good Christians, who are Democrats and Republicans. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no right or wrong way to vote. But, once again, I am not sure how this particular understanding constitutes a coherent position. The fact that there are Christians who have differing positions on an issue does not mean the Scripture supports both positions equally (which would be contradictory if you think about it), nor does it mean the Scriptures are necessarily unclear about the issue. After all, there are “good Christians” who are Arminians, and there are “good Christians” who are Calvinists. But, this does not constitute grounds for saying they are both right, or that it doesn’t matter, or that one cannot know such things. That type of attitude is more due to the influence of postmodernity—where there is no one right view—than it is due to historic and biblical Christianity.
The fact that there are Christians in a political party different from our own certainly means we should show them charity, love, and respect—after all they are brothers and sisters in Christ! But, it does not therefore mean we throw our hands up in the air and say that politics doesn’t matter or that the Bible has nothing to say about such things.
4. This phrase could simply mean that Jesus would never join a political party or that he would never have allegiance to a political party.
This particular understanding of the phrase is designed to do away with the notion that God is “for” one political party and “against” another. No political party can be regarded as God’s party. Thus, we can vote for whomever we want as Christians because God does not wear a lapel pin of a donkey or an elephant.
Now, some of this is certainly true. God does not align himself with man-made political parties in the sense that he endorses everything about them. And the reason he cannot endorse everything about a particular party is because no party is perfect. They are all flawed to one degree or another. But, this just brings us back to the issues we raised in #2 above. Just because both parties are flawed does not mean that both parties are equally flawed. Still remaining is the important task of determining which party is closest to the ethics, principles and values of Scripture.
So, just because God does not (and cannot) unequivocally endorse either party is not the same thing as saying that it doesn’t matter which party we vote for. Some parties are more pleasing to God than others.
So, where does this whole discussion leave us? We have been discussing what is possibly meant by the phrase “Jesus is neither Democrat nor Republican.” The four options above are not exhaustive—I suppose there are other options about what this phrase might mean. But, at least as it pertains to the options discussed here, I would argue that this phrase is highly problematic. Each of the possible meanings above suffers from the same fatal flaw: all of them are trying to find a way to make politics a neutral affair for Christians. Whether it’s the argument that the Bible doesn’t address politics (option #1), or that political parties are equally flawed (option #2), or that good Christians disagree (option #3), or that God cannot fully endorse a particular party (#4), all these arguments are trying to say it doesn’t matter what political views Christians support.
But, as I have argued above, this is a shockingly unchristian approach. It is almost suggesting there is a place in the world (even an ethical place!) where God has no concern about the direction we take. This stands in sharp contrast to the historical (and Reformed) Christian position outlined by Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”
One wonders how the “Jesus is neither a Democrat nor Republican” approach would have worked for Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he navigated the frightening political landscape of Germany in the 1930’s or 1940’s. Would he have been compelled by the idea that the Scripture was neutral about whether Christians should vote for Hitler’s socialist party? The sad truth is that many Christians and many churches in that day went along with Hitler’s politics and offered no protest. Bonhoeffer disagreed and argued that it was the Christian’s duty to oppose the National Socialist party. I doubt Bonhoeffer would have been persuaded by the argument that “good Christians are on both sides of this issue.”
So, if the “Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican” approach is flawed, where do we go from here? I would suggest a different course of action. Rather than spending our energies trying to keep the Bible out of politics, we should work to let it back in. What I mean by this is that we need to stop telling Christians that whatever voting choice they make is as equally valid as another, and instead we should encourage them to apply Scripture to these political questions just like we apply it to every other area of life (whether it be economics, art, or medicine).
No doubt this will create debate and disagreement about whether Democrats are closer to biblical principles or whether Republicans are closer to biblical principles (or whether another party is closer!). But that’s Ok. Christians debate Calvinism vs. Arminianism, Credo-Baptism vs. paedo-Baptism, home school vs. public school education, and beyond. A vigorous, deep, and thorough debate about what the Bible teaches about politics would be a refreshing change from the postmodern “no political position is better than any other” approach currently en vogue in the modern church. At least then the focus is in the right place: what the Bible teaches.
For more, see my recent video on this question for RTS’s “Wisdom Wednesdays“: