A couple of years ago, I was asked this question by a friend, and I thought it worth revisiting today, on the the day we honor Martin Luther King Jr. Especially so because many of his political ideals were shaped by his Christian faith. His democratic socialism and his advocacy for using government funds to close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged of society as a means of mitigating the effects of slavery and Jim Crow were influenced by the Christian commands to care for the least brothers and sisters of Christ.
His choice of nonviolent activism as a strategy for winning the campaign for civil rights was rooted in the Gospel message to turn the other cheek on someone who strikes you. Though the obvious influence of Christianity on his political ideals was undeniable, what is less obvious is whether or not it is inevitable that Christians will move to his particular political ideals. Is there some necessary connection between Christianity and politics, and if so what is it?
The answer really depends on what we mean by political. The New Testament does suggest that Christians should be good citizens and pay taxes, so it’s hard to come to the conclusion that the Christian is supposed to be apolitical in the sense that he must retreat from political concerns. And as many have pointed out, it’s very complicated to try to get policy prescriptions out of Christian morality.
That said, the New Testament does not provide us with a political philosophy or set of policy prescriptions, and the Old Testament provides a variety of models (i.e. patriarchy*, kritarchy**, monarchy) to choose from in light of Christian tradition. It would be really convenient if Jesus had left us enough for a political manifesto, of course, in the sense that it would be easy for Christians to answer policy questions. But he was quite certain that his Kingdom was not of this world and left us to form our own political associations.
And even in the early Christian Church, the relationship of Christianity to politics was not simple. They were not socialists as some have proposed, at least not by any meaningful definition of socialism. The political structures of the day by turns ignored them, tolerated them, persecuted them, and then later adopted their religion.
We see historically that Christianity has 3 rough models for dealing with political structures. The 1st model is that of an underground Church persecuted by the state. The 2nd model is that of Christianity as the official religion of an empire which tries to interfere with the Church. The 3rd model is that of Church which, though jurisdictionally separate, works with the state while trying to maintain moral authority over it.
These models from the Tanakh and the history of the Church are currently facing stiff competition from a new model in which Christianity is widespread and generally well-respected in a nation, but has no official endorsement from the state or power over it. It will be interesting to see which model becomes most common in the next few hundred years.
*I use patriarchy here in a purely political sense, not to be confused with the much broader meaning it has in feminist literature.
**I’ve included a link to an exposition of kritarchy for those not familiar with it.