How do Pietists vote?

by Tom Tredway

We live right on the Mississippi about twelve miles north of Moline, Illinois. Next to our home is a Rock Island County park, with plug-ins and outdoor grills for motor campers. The campground is right along the water’s edge, and there are hiking trails running through the wood-covered bluffs above the river. Late one evening this summer a big, slick $175,000 motor camping rig rolled into the park. It had a huge Stars and Stripes painted on its sleek aluminum side. I saw “Old Glory” from where I was walking up in the woods, but curiosity brought me down to see what was written on the side of the camper, right below that flag. There were three lines, painted in big blue letters: “I love my Lord and my Country! / I’ve fought for both! / It’s government I fear!”

“Well,” I thought, as I passed the camper with the owner who loved his Lord but was afraid of his government, “The Lord may have made the river and the woods, but it’s a government that built and maintains this park, and it’s governments that built and maintain the roads you drove on to get here.” (The rig had Minnesota plates on it, so it had been in at least three states.) I thought about talking the matter over with the owner, but he’d been in the army, maybe he was still armed. He was certainly tougher than I. So I continued down the river path to the little store in our town for a slice of pizza, the original reason for my July evening stroll.

Christians have a range of thought and feeling about government. Some, like the motor camper, fear it and regard it as the enemy; some take it for granted and live with it, like St. Paul did; and some want to get it under their influence and even control it. That range of opinion is prevalent right now in the United States. The differences are nothing new; the U.S. had hardly gotten free of the English king than the farmers of Western Pennsylvania began the Whiskey Rebellion to avoid government tax collection on their distilled product – taxes meant to pay the Revolutionary War debt. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” conflates the federal government’s cause in the Civil War with Christ’s work.

Plenty of contemporary Americans, ranging from our family doctor (“government regulations are choking my practice!”) to our transmission repair shop owner (“government regulations are killing my business!”), still want the government(s) out of their lives and businesses. Some are more likely to recall President Obama’s reminder that our schools and our towns and our well-being are protected and served by governments and the taxes they collect for those purposes. And others are determinedly trying to direct the government toward building an order of things more consistent with Christianity.

Christian people, especially in our country, need to decide, or at least to review, what they think about the proper role of government in their lives. There will certainly be the range of answers I suggested above. I do not presume anybody is going to change her or his political convictions by reading this essay. But I want to remind Pietisten readers of some facts in the history of the Church that may be relevant to the effort to think and rethink one’s position through.

One of the striking features of the current political landscape is the alliance between evangelical Protestants and the current administration of President Donald Trump. Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and Tony Perkins are among the evangelical leaders who have supported Trump as candidate and as president in spite of strong evidence that his own life and character do not match up with their values, their sense of Christian living. It is clear that the president’s stance on abortion, homosexual rights, and the Supreme Court are more important to them than his personal style and behavior. For these evangelicals, the effort to restore America’s greatness includes the hope that the country will again become the “Christian nation” they believe it once was.

It should be clear that as surely as evangelical leaders huddle often with leaders of our current government and urge the faithful to support it, there are folks on the other end of the political spectrum who are just as certain that they know how a Christian must think and act: “Given the needs of the poor, how can any person of faith support tax cuts?” one of my friends recently asked me. And: “Can any Christian not back gun control?”

Further, it is the case that it is one thing for a pastor, left or right, to decide for her or himself how to vote, but another to tell the congregation how a Christian should mark the ballot. The country is beset by political factionalism. Among the reasons that we are turning into a nation of what the news channel experts call “tribes” is that certain church leaders maintain that there is one course of action and voting that is in line with the Gospel, while others oppose these same ideas, often with alternatives that they believe to be the truly Christian ones.

The roots of these efforts unilaterally to connect political policy and action, whether “conservative” or “progressive,” with Christian faith can be traced to the strong role Calvinism has played in American history, both colonial and national. The Reformer John Calvin himself sought to turn the Swiss town of Geneva into a Christian society in the sixteenth century. His Puritan followers wanted to build such societies in New England, cities “set upon a hill,” as examples to the rest of the world. And in spite of clear evidence that it was rationalistic deism, not fideist orthodoxy, which characterized the religion of most of the men who wrote the Declaration and the Constitution, evangelicals have often insisted that the United States was founded by committed orthodox Christians.

American Lutheran theologians, like the Augustana Synod leader Conrad Bergendoff, spoke in the past century of “the Reformed.” They were referring to Calvinist Protestants, often Presbyterians or Congregationalists, who believed that by legislation and regulation it would be possible to strengthen America as a Christian land. So, for example, while “the Reformed” crusaded for Prohibition, many Lutherans, even the ones like Bergendoff who did not drink anyway, were skeptical about such an effort. These folk in the Calvinist tradition might think to legislate Christian society into being, Bergendoff wrote; Lutherans knew better than to think such attempts proper or to expect success from them.

Lutheran doubts were rooted in Martin Luther’s, Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. The German Reformer held that God had ordained two realms: one spiritual, the other secular. The Spiritual Kingdom was directly derived from God. But so was the Secular Kingdom of the world, which included government, and which was not dependent upon the Spiritual Kingdom or the Church for legitimacy. Christians were to be obedient to the rulers of the temporal realm, but should not expect to control them or that realm itself. In this way of thinking, the effort to create a “Christian” society was at best misguided. It’s why many Lutherans were so leery of the Social Gospel.

Pietism, in Germany and in Scandinavia, was rooted in Lutheranism, and, if anything, Pietists were even more convinced than Luther himself that the Church could never control government or secular society. Indeed, one of their favorite Scriptural commands was, “‘Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate,’ saith the Lord.” True Christians were a people apart, and while they might minister to society in many ways, they would and should never fully be a part of it, accepting all its ideas and behaviors. While the world lasted, human society would always remain part of the Secular Kingdom.

The “mission” in Mission Friends meant the founding of orphanages, schools, hospitals, and elderly homes, as much as it meant personal evangelism. But classical Pietists would probably have joined us Covenant teenagers seven decades ago when at Mission Meadows on Lake Chautauqua we sang: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” “Be in, but not of the world,” our camp preachers told us as they got us ready to go back to our high schools to resist the worldly ways of our fellow students.

Now, whether Christian people living in the world should in the name of Christ support secular and government programs of welfare and charity or whether they should endorse political leaders who seek to regulate human birth practices or sexual behavior is a tricky question. We know where many contemporary evangelical Americans stand on these questions. The Calvinist streak in American Protestantism has led many of them to believe that strong influence over legislation and, in some cases, even control of government, are in fact what Christians are after in their efforts to make society more moral and more Christian.

My contention is that for persons rooted in historic Pietism, the matter has not been settled in this way. The reason is, as I’ve suggested, that Pietists never expected to be more than a remnant in the wider society, a small, committed group who did not share many of the prevailing values of the culture in which they were living. Both Augustana Lutherans like Conrad Bergendoff, whose Synod was strongly influenced by Pietism, and Swedish-American Pietists in the (then) Mission Covenant Church did not think they could control society or even exercise strong influence over its government. Nor did they want to. They regarded the efforts of fellow Christians who did as misconceived.

That is not to say that Pietists do not have an interest in what governments do. I learned by visiting Scandinavia that in the Nordic lands religiously conservative free-church people often support socialist political and economic policies that are regarded as left-leaning here in America. As one of my Swedish friends told me, they are surprised when they visit with their American cousins to discuss such matters. “It’s best not to get into politics and economics with my American Covenant relatives; they’re really quite conservative,” one Swedish Mission Friend remarked.

That suggests that contemporary Pietists have a range of options. Like the motor camper in the county park along the Mississippi, they may see the government as an adversary. Or with St. Paul they may accept it as a given and submit to it, knowing (as did Luther, who thought he understood St. Paul quite well) that it is part of an order that is passing away. Or maybe they will join with other well-intended citizens to work for what they conceive to be the betterment of society.

These latter efforts may be informed by a wide range of political and social philosophies, progressive or conservative. What the Pietistic heritage does not indicate is that there is only one necessary “Christian” position, nor that through the political process, persons of faith can or should gain control – or wield strong influence – over the government and then go about rebuilding their society so that it is truly “Christian.”